The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, February 3rd, 2014

Welcome to the Spring 2014 Term!  

Welcome to the spring semester for new and returning members of the department. Whamit!, the departmental newsletter, resumes regular Monday publication this week. The editorial staff consists of Adam Albright, Ryo Masuda, David Pesetsky, Kai von Fintel and new student editor Benjamin Storme, who replaces Michelle Fullwood following her three-year tenure.

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 winter break.


24.954 Pragmatics in Linguistic Theory  

24.954 Pragmatics in Linguistic Theory
Kai von Fintel & Irene Heim
MW 10-11.30 (56-180)

This intermediate level class will explore basic concepts and tools in five areas of linguistic pragmatics:

1. presuppositions
2. implicatures
3. indexicality
4. focus
5. speech acts, discourse dynamics

Throughout, we will provide pointers to current work on these topics.

The class presupposes familiarity with compositional intensional semantics, as developed in our introductory sequence (24.970, 24.973).

Students who take the class for credit are expected to attend class diligently, to do all required advance readings, to participate vigorously in class discussion, to submit occasionally assigned homework exercises, and to submit a final term paper on a topic related to the class.


24.943 Syntax of a Language (Family): Chinese  

24.943 Syntax of a Language (Family)
Noah Constant
W 12-3 32-D461

This course explores a range of topics at the syntax/semantics interface within the Chinese language family, with special attention to Mandarin. Topics include:

- classifiers and structure of NP
- positioning of nominal modifiers
- quantification and scope-rigidity
- topics and topic-prominence
- focus constructions and clefts
- yes-no and alternative questions
- sentence-final particles

Participants will give in-class presentations of one or more assigned readings, and will write a short final paper.


24.964 Topics in Phonology: Stress with Feet  

24.964 Topics in Phonology: Stress with Feet
Donca Steriade
Thursday 2-5, 32D-831

The full syllabus is available here (pdf).

The main goal of this class is to explore the uses of metrical constituent structure in the analysis of stress. The recent literature on stress reports overgeneration and undergeneration problems posed by existing foot-based constraints, and seeks to remedy them by adding more foot types and more foot-based constraints. Most of this work, with Kager’s 2012 exception, has not experimented with foot-free solutions. We will consider giving such alternatives a try. In the last two sessions we will apply what we have learned to the analysis of some complex metrical systems.

The course opens with a 4-week unit on background issues: how we can tell where stress is, important in light of how poor stress records occasionally are (deLacy 2012); whether stress is more than the sum of its acoustic correlates; and the early history of metrical analyses, including the debates between feet and grid-only analyses, which have set the stage for current research.


21M.269 Introduction to Music Cognition (Studies: Western Music History)  

Instructor: Martin Rohrmeier

Lecture:  MW2-3.30  (4-152)


During the past decade the field of music cognition witnessed a substantial growth and has become a major interdisciplinary research area bridging musicology and the cognitive sciences. This course focuses on a number of selected topics that featured prominently in recent and ongoing cognitive debates. The class will cover an introduction of the history of music cognition, cognitive research in music perception, processing, learning and representation. It further emphasizes the relationship between music theory, music psychology and computational models of music. Finally, recent debates concerning the cognitive overlap between music and language as well as the role of music in human evolution will be covered.

This course is intended for undergraduate and graduate students with musical experience.

Prerequisites: Basic experience in instrumental playing and score reading
Basic knowledge of music theory and harmony
Foundations of scientific and psychological research methods
(optional) background in computer science for computational term projects


24.979 Topics in Semantics: The Linguistics of the Conversational Scoreboard  

24.979 Topics in Semantics: The Linguistics of the Conversational Scoreboard
Kai von Fintel, Sabine Iatridou, Justin Khoo
Fridays 12-3, 32D-461

Short abstract: “Wait till you hear what Kai, Sabine, and Justin are learning about discourse and language. You won’t believe what happens next.”

There are linguistic phenomena (discourse particles, evidentials, speaker comments, sentence mood (?) etc.) that do not appear to contribute to the standard truth-conditional denotation of sentences but rather seem to be involved in the pragmatic deployment of these sentences in an evolving conversation. We’re planning to look at some recent work that tackles these kinds of items. Here is a small sample:

Krifka, Manfred. 2013. Embedding illocutionary acts. to appear in revised form in a volume ed. by Margaret Speas and Tom Roeper, Recursion: Complexity in Cognition, Springer. (pdf)

Yablo, Stephen. 2011. A problem about permission and possibility. In Andy Egan & Brian Weatherson (eds.), Epistemic modality. Oxford University Press.

Portner, Paul. 2007. Imperatives and modals. Natural Language Semantics 15(4). 351–383.

Farkas, Donka F. & Kim B. Bruce. 2009. On reacting to assertions and polar questions. Journal of Semantics 27(1). 81–118.

Murray, Sarah E. 2014 (to appear). Varieties of update. Semantics and Pragmatics 7(1). 1–55. (pdf)

Eckardt, Regine. 2014. Speaker commentary items. ms.

Dever, Josh. 2013. The revenge of the semantics-pragmatics distinction. Philosophical Perspectives 27(1). 104–144.

Our plan this semester is to engage with that new literature. We’ll start by talking about some historical and theoretical background. Then, we’ll tackle the new work, reflect on it, and situate it within a framework of big issues, such as “must semantics be dynamic?”. We will look at syntax, semantics, pragmatics, philosophy, whatever is of relevance. This will be an interdisciplinary joyride.

Readings to be announced as we move along. They will be available via Stellar.


MIT Linguistics Colloquium Schedule, Spring 2014  

The colloquium series talks are held on Fridays at 3:30pm. Please check the Colloquium webpage for any updates.

February 7: Raj Singh, Carleton
February 14: Elena Anagnostopoulou, University of Crete
March 14: Marcel den Dikken, CUNY
March 27: Sharon Inkelas, UC Berkeley
April 4: Adamantios Gafos, Haskins Laboratories, Universität Potsdam
April 25: Richard Kayne, NYU
May 2: Matthew Gordon, UCSB
May 9: Julie Legate, UPenn


Syntax Square Continues on Tuesdays  

Syntax Square will continue at its regularly scheduled time on Tuesdays 1-2pm in 32-D461. The organizers for the term are Mia Nussbaum and Michelle Yuan. The following dates are open for presentaton: Feb 11, 25, Mar 18, Apr 1, 8, May 6 and 13. Please contact the organizers to claim a date.


LFRG 2/6 - Organizational meeting  

LFRG will be kicking off the semester with an organizational meeting in the 8th floor conference room on Thursday, February 6 at 5 PM.


Ling-Lunch 2/6 - Danny Fox  

Ling-Lunch, the weekly informal talk series for all linguistics topics will be held at its usual time and location (Thursdays 12:30pm, 32-D461) this semester. The first talk is scheduled for this week and will be by Danny Fox. The organizers are Juliet Stanton and Athulya Aravind. Please contact them to reserve a presentaton spot — they report that the following dates are still open: Feb 20, 27, Mar 6, 13, Apr 10, 17, 24, May 1, 8, and 15.

Speaker: Danny Fox (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem / MIT)
Title: Extraposition and scope: evidence for deeply embedded late merge
Date/Time: Thursday, Feb 6, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

In this talk I will address various puzzles that pertain to the syntactic and semantic representations associated with ‘extraposition from NP’. I will argue for a resolution of these puzzles based on the assumption that “late merge” (of the sort postulated by Lebeaux and further motivated by Fox and Nissenbaum) can apply in deeply embedded positions.


Colloquium 2/7 - Raj Singh  

Speaker: Raj Singh (Carleton)
Title: Implicature and free-choice signatures: embedding, processing complexity, and child development
Time: Friday February 7th, 3:30-5pm
Place: 32-141

Scalar implicatures are inferences that strengthen what is sometimes called the “basic meaning” of the sentence:

(1) John ate some of the cookies

(1a) Basic Meaning: that John ate some, possibly all, of the cookies

(1b) Scalar Implicature: that John did not eat all of the cookies

(1c) Strengthened Meaning: that John ate some but not all of the cookies (BM + SI)

This strengthening has been shown to generate various detectable “signatures,” some of which are highlighted in (2):

(2) SI Signatures

(2a) SIs tend to disappear in DE environments (e.g., the restrictor of “every”).

(2b) SIs are detectable, but not very robust, in non-DE environments (e.g., the scope of “every”).

(2c) SIs are processed slow: (1a) is processed faster than (1c) (cf. Bott & Noveck, 2004; and much work since).

(2d) SIs show up late in acquisition: There is a stage of development at which children behave as if they assign (1a) to (1) but do not assign (1c) to (1) (cf. Noveck, 2001; and much work since).

So-called “free-choice” inferences, exemplified in (3), have been shown to also disappear in negative environments. Taking this to be one of the signatures of an SI (cf. (2a)), it has been argued that free-choice inferences should be derived in the cognitive system that computes SIs (e.g.,Kratzer & Shimoyama, 2002; Schulz, 2005; Alonso-Ovalle, 2005).

(3) John may eat the cookies or the pie

(3a) Basic Meaning: that John is allowed to eat one, and possibly both, of the cookies and the pie

(3b) Free-Choice: that John is allowed to eat the cookies and he is allowed to eat the pie

In stark contrast with the SI in (1), however, free-choice (3b) is not processed slower than (3)’s basic meaning (3a) (cf. (2c); Chemla & Bott, 2014), and free-choice (3b) is preferred to the basic meaning (3a) in positive embeddings, such as in the nuclear scope of “every” (cf. (2b); Chemla, 2009).

In this talk, I present evidence that free-choice and SIs also have diverging developmental signatures (cf. (2d)). Specifically, I present evidence that children (3;9-6;4, M = 4;11) compute conjunctive free-choice SIs for disjunctive sentences (reporting on joint work with Ken Wexler, Andrea Astle, Deepthi Kamawar, and Danny Fox). Our finding replicates earlier results showing that children often interpret disjunctions as if they were conjunctions (Paris, 1973; Braine and Rumain, 1981), and extends this to embedding in the scope of “every.” We argue that this conjunctive SI follows from: (i) Katzir’s (2007) theory of alternatives in the steady state, (ii) the assumption that children differ from adults by not accessing the lexicon when generating alternatives, and (iii) Fox’s (2007) mechanism for free-choice computation in the steady state. We further provide evidence that children at this stage of development share the adult preference for free-choice SIs in matrix and embedded positions.

These data raise the challenge of explaining why free-choice and SIs both disappear in negative environments but differ with respect respect to developmental trajectories, embeddability, and processing complexity (see Chemla & Singh, 2014 for generalizations to other scalar items). I will explore strategies for addressing this challenge.