The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 31st, 2011

Phonology Circle, 10/31 - Michael Kenstowicz

Speaker: Michael Kenstowicz
Title: Accent Classes and Lexical Drift in Kyungsang Korean
Location: 32D-831
Time: Monday, Oct 31, 5:00pm

In the Kyungsang dialects nouns fall into several lexically contrasting tonal patterns: three for monosyllables and four for di- and tri-syllabic stems. In this presentation (based on collaborative research with Youngah Do and Chiyuki Ito) we report some of the results of a survey of five native speakers with respect to c. 1,900 native lexical items. The following questions are addressed. How regular are the correspondences between the contemporary accent classes and their attested Middle Korean sources? Which classes have expanded and which have contracted? Have any segmental factors biased the observed changes? What role does lexical frequency play in the correspondences? How do the accentual changes align with the much-discussed segmental analogies in coronal codas? Finally, can the statistical profiles in the lexicon account for the default accent that is assigned to loanwords?

Syntax Square 11/1 - Yusuke Imanishi

Speaker: Yusuke Imanishi
Title: How to Merge a Possessor WH in Kaqchikel (Mayan): Null Resumption and Non-Uniform Merge
Time/Date: Tuesday, Nov 1, 1-2p
Location: 32-D461

This is a practice talk for NELS 42.

In this talk I will claim that a possessor WH in Kaqchikel undergoes non-uniform Merge: One type of the possessor WH is External-Merged into Spec-CP, while the other type undergoes movement to Spec-CP via Internal-Merge. If this claim is correct, it can be argued that a possessor WH in Kaqchikel takes on different forms, depending on how it is merged: it is sensitive to the manner of Merge in a similar manner to the complementizer system in Modern Irish (McCloskey 1979, 1990, 2002, 2006, 2009).

Step 1: I will support this proposal by looking at extraction out of PP.

Step 2: It will be shown that the proposed non-uniform Merge of the possessor WH can make correct predictions about independent syntactic properties of the two wh phrases. It will be also demonstrated that Kaqchikel provides further evidence that the chain formation including movement and resumptive chains must be successive-cyclic and that UG allows for mixed chains of movement and resumption in a single non-local dependency.

Step 3: To explain why the resumptive strategy is only possible in a possessor position in the language, I will argue that extractability obeys the Agreement Hierarchy (Bobaljik 2008).

Joseph Aoun receives Muh Award

Joseph Aoun, 1982 Linguistics PhD, eminent syntactician, and President of Northeastern University, received the 2011 Robert A. Muh Alumni Award last Wednesday. The award (created by Robert Muh (SB ‘59) to honor the 50th anniversary of the the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) is presented every two years to an MIT alumnus who has made “made extraordinary contributions during a career in the arts, humanities, or social sciences”.

The award was presented by Deborah Fitzgerald, Dean of the School, who praised Aoun for his “outstanding contributions to the field of linguistics as well as educational leadership”. Introducing Joseph, David Pesetsky noted the ways in which his research had repeatedly uncovered “a deep unity between subsystems of grammar thought to be distinct”, and read a letter of congratulations from Noam Chomsky, who described the award as a “well-deserved honor for your remarkable contributions, not only to our own field but to the general intellectual and academic community”. David also noted that Joseph was an outstandingly distinguished member of an outstandingly distinguished PhD class that entered in 1978, three members of which (Prof. Carol Neidle of Boston University, James Huang of Harvard and our own Donca Steriade) were present in the hall. Joseph’s Muh Alumni Award Lecture, which followed the presentation of the award, had the rather non-linguistic title “The Future of American Higher Education in the Global Knowledge Marketplace” — but in fact began with a very personal intellectual autobiography that described some of the links between Joseph’s career in linguistics and his decision to enter university administration. It was interesting, engaging and at times moving event (video here). Congratulations Joseph Aoun!

(photographs by Richard Howard)

LFRG 11/4 - Lisa Bylinina

Speaker: Lisa Bylinina
Title: Low degrees, comparatives, and how they are related
Location: 32D-831
Time: Friday, Nov 4, 1:00PM-2:30PM


Very little is known about the diachronic sources of comparative morphemes. Even in cases when the origin of a comparative morpheme is clear, the development is quite often hard to make sense of.

The case I will discuss is hypothesized in (Dixon 2008): “It is possible that a diminutive affix could develop into an Index of comparison. No examples of such a path of development are currently known.”

Tatar and Bashkir are examples of precisely this pattern, modulo terminology: morpheme “-rak” performing low degree modification in both of them also marks gradable predicates in comparative constructions. However, while in Bashkir “-rak”-comparative has replaced the common Turkic unmarked comparative, in Tatar the two strategies co-exist in free variation.

Another pair of languages to consider is Russian and Bulgarian. Bulgarian comparative morpheme “po” is a relative of Russian low degree modifier “po-” that appears on comparative forms of adjectives.

Interestingly, there are certain comparative contexts in which Tatar “-rak” and Russian “po-” are obligatory — all of these are contexts without (overt) standard of comparison. Exploring the landscape of these “incomplete comparatives”, I suggest that the relevant ones are so-called “superlative comparatives”, as in “the taller building in the picture” (Gawron 1995). I will try to push the idea that the meaning of superlative comparatives makes them particularly useful for reasoning about small differences within a domain in a way that neither positives nor superlatives are; this is where low degrees and comparatives meet.