The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Welcome to the Fall 2013 semester!  

Today, Tuesday September 3, is Registration Day. Whamit!, the MIT Linguistics Department Newsletter, appears every Monday during the semester (Tuesdays if Monday is a public holiday). The editorial staff consists of Adam Albright, Kai von Fintel, Michelle Fullwood, Ryo Masuda, and David Pesetsky.

To submit items for inclusion in Whamit! please send an email to whamit@mit.edu by Sunday 6 pm. At the beginning of the semester, we’re particularly interested in news about what members of the department did during the summer break.

Hope to see you all at the departmental barbecue, 12 noon at the Stata amphitheater (rain location: 8th floor departmental lounge)!


Introducing our new lab manager, Erin Olson  

Over the summer, our new linguistics lab manager, Erin Olson, started work.  She will be helping with experimental research throughout the linguistics side of the department, including the Phonetics lab and the Experimental Syntax and Semantics lab.

Erin is originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She got her BA in Linguistics from McGill University in Montréal, Québec in 2012, and worked at McGill as a research assistant in the Prosody Lab and Fieldwork Lab there until June 2013. She tells us that he’s primarily interested in phonology (especially stress systems), but is also interested in other kinds of experimental research, including sentence processing and first language acquisition. When not concentrating on linguistics, she enjoys “fencing, swimming, drawing, watching hockey, exploring the city, and finding new and interesting places to get a good meal or drink”.   Welcome, Erin!


Course Announcements, Fall 2013  

24.956 Topics in Syntax: Movement - what is it and how does it work?

Instructors: Norvin Richards & David Pesetsky

Monday 2:30-5:30pm, 32-D461

The existence and ubiquity of syntactic movement is one of the signature discoveries of the last half-century of research on syntax. With the realization that syntactic constituents may occupy multiple positions in phrase structure has come a cascade of findings, questions, and new conundrums that could not have been imagined before the discovery of movement. Why does movement exist? Why are there locality limitations on movement, what are they, and where do they come from? What determines the size of moved constituents? Why do types of movements seem to sort into A vs. A-bar varieties, and how do they interact? What types of dependencies instantiate movement — for example, is control a variety of movement?

This seminar will have a broad focus, covering many topics related to movement, in an attempt to learn the state of the art on some of these questions, and (if we are lucky) to push the state of the art forward a bit. If we succeed, the class will provide you with “news you can use” in your own syntactic research, by offering both a big picture and serious discussion of an array of exciting open problems.

24.964 More Advanced Phonology

Instructor: Edward Flemming

Friday 11am-2pm, 32-D461

24.964 this semester is ‘More Advanced Phonology’ or Phonology III rather than a seminar on a single research topic. Candidate topics are listed below. We will start with stochastic phonology, then cover additional topics depending on time and interest.

(1) Stochastic phonology

We will read key papers on the analysis of probabilistic phonological patterns, e.g. patterns where there is some free variation or exceptionality and the probability of a particular variant (or an exception) depends on phonological properties. We will focus on three interrelated questions:

(i) What is the relationship between categorical and stochastic phonology? Is the former just a limiting case of the latter, or are they distinct in some way?

(ii) What is the mechanism of constraint interaction in stochastic phonology? Frameworks differ substantially on this point, e.g. Stochastic OT is based on strict constraint domination, whereas MaxEnt grammars sum constraint violations.

(iii) Are all types of probabilistic phonological patterns amenable to a single form of analysis?

(2) Laryngeal neutralization and assimilation in obstruents

The typology of patterns of neutralization of voicing and aspiration contrasts, focusing on phenomena that motivate extensions and modifications to existing analyses. These include asymmetrical voicing assimilation (e.g. Hebrew, Arabic dialects, Ukrainian), consonants that undergo, but do not trigger, voicing assimilation (e.g. Hungarian, Russian, Czech), voicing of obstruents before sonorants (e.g. Krakow Polish, Slovak), morphological effects on voicing neutralization (e.g. German). The goal is to review the theoretic background, then investigate some of these phenomena based on data we collect during the course.

(3) Phonetic grammars

It has long been known that the grammars of languages must regulate relatively fine details of phonetic realization, but relatively little is known about the form of the relevant component of grammar. We will study a model based on weighted constraints (Flemming 2001) and investigate interactions between phonetics and phonology in light of this model.

(4) Do speakers’ grammars contain phonetically-based constraints?

Phonological typology has been shown to reflect a variety of phonetically-based constraints, but it remains controversial whether these constraints play a role in individual grammars, or whether they are external to grammar, applying only through processes of sound change (e.g. Blevins 2004). We will try to clarify the empirical claims that are at issue here and examine experimental evidence that bears on those claims.

24.979 Models of Information Structure Meaning and Expression

Instructor: Noah Constant

Tuesday 10am-1pm, 32-D461

This course explores how information structure is conveyed across languages, with the goals of: (i) gaining familiarity with different conceptions of information-structural distinctions like topic/focus, given/new, and contrastive/non-contrastive, (ii) gaining familiarity with the facts of how these distinctions are signaled (or not signaled) in different languages, and (iii) comparing recent formalisms of information-structural categories and realizations, with attention to their ability to extend to the range of observed cross-linguistic phenomena.

On the semantic/pragmatic side, topics to be covered include different sub-types of topic and focus, thetic vs. categorical judgments, theories of the interpretation of focus and givenness, and formalizations of discourse structure.

As for how information structure is conveyed, we will look at reflexes in word order effects, in discourse particles, and in prosody. For syntactic reflexes, we’ll look at topicalization, left-dislocation, right-dislocation, focus movement and scrambling, and discuss to what degree cartographic approaches to the left periphery can handle these effects. For particles, we’ll look at a range of topic- and focus-marking particles and discuss the potential for treating these in a unified way. For prosodic reflexes, we’ll look at theories of pitch accenting based on givenness and/or contrast, and at the effects of information structure on phrasing and on pitch movements correlating to topic and focus marking (e.g. English “A and B” accents).

Participants will give in-class presentations of one or more assigned readings, and will write a short final paper. The course presupposes basic familiarity with the frameworks covered in the first-year graduate syntax and semantics sequence. We’ll connect with some issues in intonational phonology, but no prior experience with prosody is assumed.

24.S95 Computational Linguistics for Linguists

Instructor: Martin Rohrmeier

Monday and Wednesday 11-12:30, 56-180

This course provides an introduction to the foundations of formal language theory, computational linguistics and related topics in cognitive language research. It is particularly intended for linguistics graduate students with little background in computational and cognitive research. The class will cover various types of formal languages and related theorems, the Chomsky hierarchy, automata theory, types of parsers, formal models of minimalist grammars, corpus analysis, principles of probabilistic modeling, and probabilistic models of language and language processing. Throughout the class these theoretical topics will be discussed in perspective with current cognitive research trends. In addition to the theoretical foundations, another main goal of the class is to provide a hands-on introduction to programming and its specific applications in language processing and modeling. The class will provide you with foundations to follow computational and cognitive linguistics papers.

The class is intended as an introductory class. It does not presuppose prior programming or modeling experience; core skills will be acquired throughout the class.

Participants will be required to attend regularly and to participate actively in class discussion, to submit homework exercises, to do in-class presentations (of their research projects) and to hand in a final term paper on a topic related to the class.


BCS Talk - 9/3 - Noah Goodman  

Title: Language, reasoning, and commonsense knowledge

Speaker: Noah Goodman (Stanford University)

Date: Tues 9-3-2013

Time: 4:00 PM

Location: Singleton Auditorium, MIT 46-3002

Host: Prof. Joshua B. Tenenbaum; Tim O’Donnell

Human reasoning is a beautiful puzzle: it is productive, extending to new situations without bound, and it is uncertain, dealing gracefully with noisy evidence and shades of belief. Reasoning is also a key window on cognition, providing some of our best evidence about the structures that underly everyday, commonsense thought. I will argue that the core representations that support reasoning can be understood as a ‘probabilistic language of thought’, and that reasoning is an approximation to probabilistic inference. I will illustrate this claim with examples of reasoning about games and property induction. However, I will suggest that the bridge between the probabilistic language of thought and empirical data is a firm understanding of natural language. I will sketch a model of natural language pragmatics and semantics, and describe experimental evidence from communication games and quantity implicature. I will then describe how we can extend this framework to encompass vague language, focussing on scalar adjectives (like “tall”). I will conclude by coming back to reasoning, explaining two puzzling patterns: the sorites paradox and the effect of additional premises when reasoning general-to-specific. Time permitting, I will discuss possible process-level implementations in a short coda.

Linguistics colloquia for the academic year  

The MIT Linguistics Colloquium schedule for this academic year is below. All talks are on Fridays, 3:30-5:00 p.m. in room 32-141. For further information, please contact the organizers for this year, Sam Steddy and Wataru Uegaki. This schedule is subject to change, especially for Spring 2014 — please visit the Colloquium webpage for updates.

Fall 2013:

October 4: Michael Wagner, McGill
October 18: Jennifer Smith, UNC Chapel Hill
October 25: Barbara Partee, UMass Amherst
November 1: Eric Reuland, Utrecht
December 6: Gillian Ramchand, CASTL

Spring 2014:

February 7: Raj Singh, Carleton
February 14: Elena Anagnostopoulou, University of Crete
March 14: Marcel den Dikken, CUNY
April 4: Adamantios Gafos, Yale, Potsdam
April 25: Richard Kayne, NYU
May 2: Matthew Gordon, UCSB
May 9: Julie Legate, UPenn


New Visiting Scholars and Visiting Students for Fall 2013  

Visiting Scholars

  • Gaja Jarosz (Yale University) studies language learning from a computational perspective. Her research employs computational and statistical methods to develop models of phonological acquisition and to examine the primary learning data and its properties. One major focus of her recent work is the development of more robust computational models of phonological learning that make fewer simplifying assumptions about the nature of the input, with a particular emphasis on statistical models that can effectively cope with hidden structure, noise, and other sources of ambiguity.
  • Masashi Nomura (Chukyo University) works on case and agreement, clausal architecture, locality, cyclicity and optionality.
  • Dennis Ott (University of Groningen) works on theoretical and experimental syntax, in particular Ā movement, locality, ellipsis and morphosyntax. He also works on the formal foundations of linguistic theory and the philosophy of language and linguistics.
  • Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (University of Arizona) works on cognitive science, language and mind, biological foundations of language, language evolution, judgment and decision-making.
  • Gwang Rak Son (Kyungpook National University) works on the interaction between syntactic structure and prosodic structure (focus, topic, wh–questions, intervention effects, quantifiers, etc.); syntactic theory within generative grammar, including, but not being limited to, minimalism; interpretational mechanisms related to specificity in English, Asian, and Slavic languages; scrambling phenomena of East Asian, Germanic, and Slavic languages; neuroimaging of syntax and syntactic processing (ERP/EEG effects of syntactic processing); comparative syntax and comparative studies of language development; and the neuroscience of phonetics and phonology.
  • Masayuki Wakayama (Paichi Shukutoku University) says: “My research concerns how language variation should be explained theoretically with a special focus on transitivity and word order variation. In addition, I am also interested in a correlation between human development and language evolution.”
  • Wendy Wu (Shanghai International Studies University) works on the relationship between foreign language production and perception, using ERP and behavioral investigations of cross-linguistic perception; production and perception of different lexical strata in Japanese; phonology-morphosyntax interactions in Makassar languages (Austronesian languages of South Sulawesi, Indonesia); the quality and position of vowels inserted in loanwords and vowel epenthesis in Arabic dialects.

Visiting Student

  • Eduard Artés Cuenca (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)’s research explores the trade-off between phonology and morphology. Specifically, it focuses on “morphological epenthesis”, i.e., a direct relation between morphology and the phonological content of epenthesis. The data analyzed come mainly from Catalan, Italian and Spanish.

Luka Crnic to Hebrew University of Jerusalem & Tue Trinh to University of Wisconsin Milwaukee  

Luka Crnic (PhD 2011) has just accepted a tenure-track position as Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and the Language, Logic and Cognition Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (the Israeli counterpart of an Assistant Professorship). Congratulations, Luka!

…and his classmate Tue Trinh (PhD 2011) has taken a tenure track position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.  Congratulations, Tue!


MIT linguists at WAFL  

MIT was well represented at the Workshop on Altaic Formal Linguistics (WAFL9) held at Cornell, August 23-25. Omer Preminger (now at Syracuse, jointly with Jaklin Kornfilt) and Yusuke Imanishi gave papers, and Ted Levin gave a poster, which was selected as the best poster presentation at WAFL9.

WAFL10 will be held at MIT, May 2-4, 2014. The deadline for abstracts is January 15, and invited speakers are:

Katja Lyutikova, Moscow State University
Masha Polinsky, Harvard University
Koji Sugisaki, Mie University
Sergei Tatevosov, Moscow State University


Meet ling-13  

The members of ling-13, the incoming graduate class, have provided brief biographical notes for us. Be sure to say hello to the newest cohort, perhaps by dropping by the newly renovated first years’ office on the 9th floor.

Athulya Aravind reports: “I’m originally from Kerala, a region in the southwest nook of India, but grew up mostly in Maryland and New York. In 2011, I received my BA in Linguistics from Northeastern University, after which I spent two years managing a Language Development Lab at Smith College. My main interests lie in language acquisition, syntax/semantics, and experimental linguistics. In my spare time, I’m an avid consumer of pop culture and an aspiring yogi.”

Kenyon Branan moved around a lot as a kid, but he’s “mostly from Newton, New Hampshire.” He continues: “I did my BA in linguistics at Brandeis. My main interests at the moment are syntax and Tibeto-Burman languages. I like to spend my free time watching films and reading.”

Paul Crowley is a local, having grown up just south of Boston. He writes: “I went to the University of York, UK where I did a BA in Linguistics with a minor in Philosophy. I’m interested in the interfaces and the philosophy of language. Music is a big part of my life with Spanish flamenco guitar and North Indian classical sitar being my main focuses. I also like hiking, cycling, woodworking, reading, beering.”

Sophie Moracchini writes: “I’m from Nantes, in the West of France. My name is Corsican this is why is does not sound typically French. I did a M.A in Linguistics at the University of Nantes, I was interested in the semantic primitives of comparison and I mostly looked at the Vietnamese language. In my free time, I enjoy listening to music, reading, cooking and hiking.”

Takashi Morita is from Chiba, Japan, with a degree from International Christian University (linguistics major and mathematics minor). As an undergrad he spent a year as an exchange student at UC Santa Cruz. He considers himself “open-minded” with respect to his academic interests, but mentioned in particular biolinguistics, formal semantics, and theoretical phonology.

Ezer Rasin grew up in Israel, in a small town near Tel Aviv. His last name is a Hebraized version of an Arabic phrase roughly translating into “one who has two heads”, and carries dual morphology. He received a B.Sc. in Mathematics and Linguistics from Tel Aviv University, where he was also working on his M.A. in Linguistics. His previous research focused on induction of morphophonological grammars, drawing on insight from theoretical computer science. While still not committed to a particular linguistic subfield, he hopes to have the opportunity to work in all theoretical subfields at MIT and to continue investigating the relationship between linguistic representations and language learnability.

Milena Sisovics writes: “I come from Austria, which could lead people to stereotypically believe that I love classical music, hiking and the mountains in winter and that I have lived and studied in Vienna. All of that is true. In addition, I like reading, can have a lot of fun trying out new food, and love spending time with my friends and family. Apart from my MA in Linguistics, I received a BA in Russian Language/Slavic Studies from the University of Vienna and also spent one semester studying at RGGU (Russian State University for the Humanities) in Moscow. While I was mainly concerned with syntax during my study in Vienna, I look forward to going deeper into the semantic side of things at MIT.”

Michelle Yuan reports: “I was born in Beijing, China, but grew up in Toronto, ON, where I received my BA and MA in linguistics at the University of Toronto. I’m primarily interested in syntax, particularly that of Inuktitut, an Eskimo-Aleut language spoken across northern Canada. I’m also interested in Dinka (Nilo-Saharan), and hope to continue working on both languages (as well as others!) while at MIT. Outside of linguistics, I like cats, biking, and listening to music.”


Rafael Nonato makes the news (and gives a talk)  

In late July, the MIT News office published a very nice article about 5th-year student Rafael Nonato.  You can read it here:


A week later, Rafael presented some of his research on coordination in Kĩsêdjê at the conference Recursion in Brazilian Languages & Beyond.


Coppe van Urk papers accepted  

Fourth-year student Coppe van Urk learned over the summer that two papers of which he is a co-author were accepted for publication.  The first, jointly authored with Laura Kalin (UCLA), entitled “Aspect splits without ergativity: Agreement asymmetries in Neo-Aramaic,” was accepted by Natural Language & Linguistic Theory.  The second, co-authored with our own Norvin Richards, was accepted by Linguistic Inquiry.  It is entitled “Two components of long-distance extraction: Successive cyclicity in Dinka.”  Double congratulations, Coppe (and Laura and Norvin too!)

Events at MIT, Fall 2013  

At least three conferences and workshops will be held at MIT during the fall semester:

M@90, a two-day workshop on Metrical Structure: Stress, Meter, and Textsetting to celebrate Morris Halle’s 90th birthday, will be held on Friday September 20th and Saturday 21st. Advance registration is free but required; please email Lilla Magyar to register.

Japanese/Korean Linguistics 23 will be held from Friday October 11th to Sunday October 13th.

Invited speakers are:

  • Yoonjung Kang (University of Toronto)
  • Hideki Kishimoto (Kobe University)
  • Junko Shimoyama (McGill University)
  • James Hye Suk Yoon (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

NECPhon, the Northeast Computational Phonology Workshop, will be held on Saturday October 26th in room 32-D461. Please contact Adam Albright for more details.