The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 28th, 2013

Phonology Circle 10/28 - Eduard Artes Cuenca

Speaker: Eduard Artes Cuenca (MIT/Barcelona)
Title: Valencian hypocoristics: when morphology meets phonology
Date/Time: Monday, Oct 28, 5:30pm
Location: 32-D831

This talk aims to present evidence in favor of a grammar governed by strong interactions between morphology and phonology. Valencian hypocorostics demonstrate that the need to conform to certain prosodic patterns forces the insertion of morphologically meaningful vowels (inflectional exponents), i.e., ‘morphological epenthesis’ (Cardinaletti & Repetti 2008). Instead of creating new phonological material, the grammar chooses an exponent already listed in the lexicon, thus resorting to Lexical Conservatism (Steriade 1994).

Ling-Lunch 10/31 - Pauline Jacobson

Speaker: Pauline Jacobson (Brown)
Title: The Myth of Silent Linguistic Material
Date/Time: Thursday, Oct 31, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

The literature abounds with arguments for the claim that there is actual silent (or deleted) linguistic material in a variety of “ellipsis” constructions - call this the Silent Linguistic Material (SLM) hypothesis. While obviously not all such arguments can be deconstructed over lunch, this talk aims to show that the reasoning behind many of them is fallacious, and that there is no reason to think there is linguistic material which is silenced or deleted under identity.

First we begin with the broader question at issue. The reason for doubting the SLM hypothesis is not driven by a stubborn allergy to silent material; rather we will put this hypothesis in the context of Direct Compositionality. Direct compositionality (see, e.g., Montague’s English as a Formal Language) maintains that the syntax and semantics work in tandem locally building expressions and assigning them a meaning. While mapping an expression into a silent version of that expression can be done quite locally, what is difficult to reconcile with this architecture is the idea of material being silenced under some sort of identity with something else in the discourse context, as this kind of identity condition is not a local property of an expression. I will briefly mention alternative accounts of both fragment answers and VP Ellipsis that don’t make use of SLM, although time precludes details arguments for the alternatives. Here then I can only level the playing field and show that SLM has no real advantage.

The arguments for SLM to be considered (and deconstructed) here fall into two classes. The first is based on the idea that the “remnant” acts as if it were surrounded by additional material with respect to certain grammatical processes/generalizations. But I will show that this itself relies on non-direct compositional and non-local account of the relevant generalizations, and that for an interesting class of such cases there are indeed alternative accounts “on the market” which undermine the rationale for SLM. Moreover, facts about indexicals known about since at least as early as Hankamer and Sag (1984) make it clear that the requisite “identity” condition cannot be formal. But if that is the case, some of the arguments for SLM also collapse as they crucially assume formal identity. The second type of argument is often implicit but seems to underlie much of the reason that SLM seems at first glance like a commonsense view: this is that the “meaning” of constructions with ellipsis becomes trivial to account for if there is SLM. But we don’t know the actual meaning - only the likely understanding in a discourse context, so this view only makes sense if put in terms of processing. But I will argue that positing SLM makes the job of the processor no easier than not positing SLM. In fact, work on processing often (or at least occasionally) makes the mistake of assuming that there is SLM, that the processor has access to the quiet material, and that processing proceeds from there. In other words, some claims about the processing of ellipsis make sense only if the processor already knows what it meaning it is “trying” to compute. As a case study I will consider an argument from Hackl, Koster-Hale and Varvoutis (2010) concerning the interaction of ACD, processing, QR, and de re vs. de dicto readings. My discussion of this point is based on joint work with Ted Gibson, Ev Fedorenko, Steven Piantadosi and Peter Graff.

LFRG 11/1 - Wataru Uegaki

Speaker: Wataru Uegaki
Date/Time: Friday 1 November, 1 pm
Location: 32-D831
Title: Exhaustive inferences and intonation-discourse congruence


[This is a revision of the talk I presented last semester at LFRG.]

It has been observed that an exhaustive inference (hereafter ExhInf) of question-answers arises only when the polarity of the answer matches that of the question (Schulz and van Rooij 2006; Spector 2007). E.g., although the answer “I will invite Sue” to the question “Who will you invite?” gives rise to the inference that Sue is the only person that the speaker will invite, the answer “I won’t invite Sue” to the same question does not readily give rise to the inference that Sue is the only person that the speaker will not invite (pace von Stechow and Zimmermann 1984).

Previous approaches to this phenomenon stipulate mechanisms that are specific to polarity (or monotonicity)-mismatching question-answer pairs (Schulz and van Rooij 2006; Spector 2007) and largely ignored the role of intonation. In this presentation, I provide an account of the phenomenon in terms of a general constraint on the alternatives to be used in the derivation of ExhInfs, taking into account the discourse structure modelled as a tree of Question under Discussions (Roberts 1996, Büring 2003). Specifically, the constraint states that the alternatives are restricted to be members of the Hamblin-denotation of the immediate QUD of the utterance (the mother of the utterance in terms of the discourse tree representation).

Taking a closer look at the data, we see that there is a restriction on the felicitous intonations in a polarity-mismatching answer. The only available intonation involves a contrastive topic intonation on the item corresponding to the wh and a focus intonation on the item indicating polarity. I argue that this reflects the general intonation-discourse interface conditions (in particular, Question-answer congruence and CT congruence by Rooth 1992, Büring 2003), and the uniquely available intonation reflects a discourse structure in which the wh-question is divided into multiple polar questions. Given the general constraint on alternatives stated above, such a discourse structure is predicted not to give rise to an exhaustive inference.

Welcome back, Danny!

We are delighted to share the news that Danny Fox will be returning to MIT as a full-time faculty member next Fall, after three years at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, during which he helped build Hebrew University’s groundbreaking new Language, Logic and Cognition Center. Welcome back, Danny!!

Colloquium 11/1 - Eric Reuland

Speaker: Eric Reuland (Utrecht)
Date/Time: Friday November 1st, 3:30-5pm
Location: 32-141
Title: Why reflexivity is (not) so special


Cross-linguistically one sees a variety of ways in which languages express reflexivity. Languages use bodypart reflexives, self-anaphors, clitics, special verbal markings, but one also sees simplex anaphors, pronominals, and verb forms that have been characterized as ‘detransitivized’. The vast majority of languages does ‘something special’ to express reflexivity. In my talk I will address two major questions that keep intriguing me:

i. Why would this domain be special? Why would the prima facie simplest way to express reflexivity, namely a structure where the subject just binds an object pronominal (‘brute force’ reflexivization, BFR) be so generally avoided?

ii. Are there nevertheless commonalities underlying the various ways in which reflexivity is expressed, and if so what principles of grammar do they follow from?

For an answer, we need sufficiently detailed analyses of languages that prima facie exhibit non-standard properties. In this talk I will focus on the way reflexivity is expressed in languages of two rather different types, namely Tegi Khanty (an Uralic language), and Bahasa Indonesia (Malay), and related languages. I will show that each in its own way raises intriguing issues, from having locally bound pronominals to having multiple ways of expressing reflexivity.

I will briefly review some current approaches to binding, and show that despite their merits they are unable to capture and explain the patterns of variation we find. I will show how the facts discussed follow from the interplay between the effects of binding per se and independent properties of the grammatical system, along the lines proposed in Reuland (2011). Thus, what appeared to be special turns out to be not so special after all.