The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, February 25th, 2013

Phonology Circle 2/25 - Suyeon Yun  

Speaker: Suyeon Yun
Title: To Metathesize or Not to Metathesize: Phonological and Morphological Constraints on Tunisian Arabic Nouns
Date/Time: Monday, Feb 25, 5pm
Location: 32-D831

In Tunisian Arabic spoken in Tunis some monosyllabic nouns with underlying /CVCC/ undergo metathesis of the vowel and the following consonant, e.g., /tamr/ -> [tmar] ‘dates’, while others maintain the underlying order, e.g., /xubz/ -> [xubz] `bread’. In this talk I report distributions of CVCC and CCVC nouns in Tunisian Arabic obtained from my recent fieldwork and investigate the phonological and morphological principles and their interactions that affect the metathesis patterns.


No Syntax Square This Week  

Syntax Square will not meet this week.

The following time slots are still available for the semester: 3/12, 3/19, 4/2, 4/9, 4/30, 5/7, 5/14. Please contact Ruth or T.C. if you’d like to give a talk.


Ling-Lunch 2/28 - Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine  

Speaker: Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine
Title: Ergativity without ergative Case
Date/Time: Thursday, Feb 28, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

Mayan languages exhibit an ergative-absolutive pattern in their verbal agreement morphology but do not show morphological case alternations on nominals. Furthermore, a subset of Mayan languages show an extraction asymmetry whereby the A-bar extraction of subjects of transitives (aka “ergative arguments”) requires special verbal morphology, known as Agent Focus. Kaqchikel, spoken in Guatemala and recently also in Cambridge, is one such Mayan language with Agent Focus.

In this talk I will argue that Kaqchikel’s morphologically ergative agreement pattern and syntactically ergative extraction asymmetries are both epiphenomenal, and do not reflect an underlying ergative-absolutive system of Case assignment (contra Coon, Mateo Pedro, & Preminger, 2011 ms; Assmann et al, 2012 ms). Agreement in Kaqchikel is the result of a process of phi-agreement which is independent of nominal licensing (abstract Case). The extraction asymmetry is the result of a particular anti-locality constraint which bans movement which is too close. Support for these claims comes from new data on the distribution of Agent Focus in Kaqchikel, as well as from the pattern of agreement in Agent Focus, as discussed in Preminger (2011).


ESSL Meeting, 2/28 - Turk Workshop  

What: Turk workshop, part 1
When: Thursday, Feb 28, 5:30-7
Where: 32-D461 (note the unusual location!)

This week will be the first part of the Turk workshop. We have three goals for this week’s meeting: we will (1) discuss crowd sourcing as an experimental tool in linguistics, (2) introduce basic experimental designs for Turk-based studies, and (3) get familiarized with the Turk interface.


Miyagawa, Berwick and Okanoya paper in Frontiers of Psychology  

A paper by Shigeru Miyagawa, Bob Berwick and Kazuo Okanoya on the evolution of syntax has just appeared in the journal Frontiers of Psychology. The paper, entitled “The emergence of hierarchical structure in human language”, was featured in a write-up by the MIT News office, and can be found on-line on the Frontiers of Psychology website.

We propose a novel account for the emergence of human language syntax. Like many evolutionary innovations, language arose from the adventitious combination of two pre-existing, simpler systems that had been evolved for other functional tasks. The first system, Type E(xpression), is found in birdsong, where the same song marks territory, mating availability, and similar “expressive” functions. The second system, Type L(exical), has been suggestively found in non-human primate calls and in honeybee waggle dances, where it demarcates predicates with one or more “arguments,” such as combinations of calls in monkeys or compass headings set to sun position in honeybees. We show that human language syntax is composed of two layers that parallel these two independently evolved systems: an “E” layer resembling the Type E system of birdsong and an “L” layer providing words. The existence of the “E” and “L” layers can be confirmed using standard linguistic methodology. Each layer, E and L, when considered separately, is characterizable as a finite state system, as observed in several non-human species. When the two systems are put together they interact, yielding the unbounded, non-finite state, hierarchical structure that serves as the hallmark of full-fledged human language syntax. In this way, we account for the appearance of a novel function, language, within a conventional Darwinian framework, along with its apparently unique emergence in a single species.