The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Phonology Circle 10/22 - Miwako Hisagi

Speaker: Miwako Hisagi (MIT RLE Speech Communication Group)
Title: Perception of Japanese vowel duration contrasts by L1 and L2 learners of Japanese: An EEG/MEG study.
Date/Time: Monday, Oct 22, 5:00p
Location: 32-D831

(Joint work with Shigeru Miyagawa, Valerie Shafer, Hadas Kotek, Ayaka Sugawara, Dimitrios Pantazis)

One challenge of second language (L2) acquisition research is to evaluate to what extent experience with an L2 leads to changes in automaticity of L2 speech perception. It is important to address whether L2 perception becomes more automatic with increasing experience. The present study investigated the MMN/MMF component. 12 native speakers of Japanese (JP), 12 naïve American English (AE) listeners (i.e., no knowledge of JP) and 12 L2 learners of JP who have acquired some knowledge of JP (i.e., one semester of Japanese) were tested on a vowel duration contrast (tado-taado) to determine whether experience with JP in a classroom leads to sufficiently robust selective perception routines (SPRs) to indicate automatization of speech perception at least for some learners. We used a visual attention task in which attention was directed away from the auditory stimuli. In result, the native JP listeners showed the largest MMN and the naïve AE listeners showed the smallest MMN, with the AE learners of JP showing an intermediate MMN. This study suggests that experience with the L2 (JP) leads to increasing robustness of discrimination of L2 phonemic contrasts, but that these representations (or SPRs) are still less robust than for L1 listeners and that attention modulates these findings.

No Syntax Square This Week

There is no Syntax Square meeting this week.

There are still open slots for this semester (10/23, 10/30, 11/6, 11/20, 12/3, 12/11). Contact the organizers, TC Chen or Junya Nomura, if you would like to present your work or discuss a paper.

Ling-Lunch 10/25 - Roberta D’Alessandro

Speaker: Roberta D’Alessandro (Leiden University)
Title: Merging Probes and the locus of syntactic variation. A case study.
Date/Time: Thursday, Oct 25, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32D-461

The so-called Borer-Chomsky conjecture as formulated by Mark Baker (2008) states that all parameters of syntacticvariation are attributable to differences in features of particular items (e.g. the functional heads) in the lexicon. In this talk it will be shown that this statement is substantiated in a group of languages that show heavy microvariation: Italian dialects. It is traditionally believed that Northern and Southern dialects belong to different groups, the main differences between them being the presence vs absence of subject clitics, and the presence vs absence of person-driven auxiliary selection. The hypothesis will be explored that subject clitics and person-driven auxiliary selection are instead essentially the same phenomenon: subject doubling. Upper Southern dialects differ from Northern dialects just in the locus of an extra functional head, encoding person features. The almost perfect complementary distribution between dialects with subject clitics and languages with person-driven auxiliary selection is not accidental, but is the logical result the presence of an extra φ-probe doubling the features of the subject in different parts of the syntactic spine. Italian dialects are hence not so different from each other as they might seem.

Furthermore, the macrogroup of Italian dialects also differs minimally from some split-ergative languages because of the valued/unvalued nature of the features found on this extra head. Typological microvariation can be shown to follow from features on functional heads, just as expected.

ESSL Meeting 10/25 - Aron Hirsch

Speaker: Aron Hirsch
Date/Time: Thursday, Oct 25, 5:30-7p
Location: 32-D831

Aron will continue his presentation on topicality in sentence prosody from last week.

Linguistics Colloquium 10/26 - Sun-Ah Jun

Speaker: Sun-Ah Jun (UCLA)
Date/Time: Friday 10/26, 3:30 - 5pm
Location: 32-141
Title: Prosodic Priming in Relative Clause Attachment


In a sentence such as “Someone shot the servant of the actress who was on the balcony”, the relative clause (RC) can modify NP1 the servant (i.e., high attachment) or NP2 the actress (low attachment). Although the details of attachment preference are language-specific (Fodor 1998, Fernández 2003) it is known that, cross-linguistically, attachment decisions are sensitive to the length of the RC. This fact has been used to support the Implicit Prosody Hypothesis (IPH; Fodor 1998, 2002), which claims that the implicit prosody associated with a syntactic structure influences attachment. It predicts that speakers and listeners favor low attachment when the RC forms a single prosodic phrase with NP2, but that they favor high attachment when there is a prosodic break before the RC. However, studies testing this prediction based on an out-of-the-blue reading (e.g., Jun 2010) suggest that examining overt prosody may not be a suitable way to evaluate implicit prosody.

In this talk, I will provide new evidence supporting the role of prosody in the resolution of RC attachment by showing that prosodic priming, varied in the location of prosodic boundary and played auditorily, influences attachment decisions in the silent reading of a target sentence. That is, auditory primes with late boundary, (NP1 NP2)//(RC), triggered more high attachment and auditory primes with early boundary triggered more low attachment compared to the those with no boundary (control). However, this pattern was found only for subjects with prominent “autistic”-like traits, in particular, those with poorer communication skills. This result is rather surprising given the prosodic deficits usually associated with autism spectrum conditions (e.g. Diehl & Berkovits 2010). I will explore the hypothesis that this finding is related to individual differences in prosodic strategies for disambiguating the relevant syntactic structures. The results of the study broadly support the IPH, but suggest a more complex picture of the relevant prosodic representations of the target structure and individual differences in interpreting their salience.

Shigeru Miyagawa in Belgium

Shigeru Miyagawa gave an invited talk at the Complementizer Agreement Workshop at Ghent University, “Surprising Agreements at C and T.” Other MIT affiliates giving invited talks were Ur Shlonsky, Dominique Sportiche, and Tim Stowell (the latter two at the Subjects Workshop that followed), October 17-19.


Our students, alums and faculty were represented in force at the 43rd meeting of the North East Linguistic Society, NELS 43, last weekend at the CUNY Graduate Center.   Five current and two faculty members presented talks and posters:

Two of last summer’s PhDs also presented talks at NELS.

— as did several recent grads:

The group of MIT alums presenting talks and posters also included Philippe Schlenker, Julliette Blevins, Hyon Sook Choe and Susi Wurmbrand — and many other former visitors, visiting faculty and other friends!  As always, a great conference, and a bit of a reunion at the same time.