The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, April 7th, 2014

LFRG 4/7 - Justin Khoo

Speaker: Justin Khoo (MIT Philosophy)
Title: Backtracking counterfactuals, revisited
Date/Time: Monday, Apr 7, 12-1:30p
Location: 66-148

Backtracking interpretations of counterfactuals are weird, but very real. Under a backtracking interpretation, we evaluate the counterfactual by making the requisite changes to how its antecedent would have had to have come about, and then play out the resulting scenario to see whether its consequent would thereby be made true.

For instance, consider the following scenario from Frank Jackson: you see your friend Smith on the ledge of the roof of a twenty story building, poised to jump. Thankfully, he doesn’t! You feel relief, and say to yourself,

(1) If Smith had jumped, he would have died.

It seems pretty clear that the counterfactual you utter is true. Yet now suppose that a mutual friend Beth is also on the scene. Beth objects to your claim on the following grounds. “Smith would have jumped only if there had been a net below to catch him safely. Hence, (1) is false, and instead the following is true:

(2) If Smith had jumped, he would have lived.”

Beth’s utterance of (2) is true on its backtracking interpretation, while your utterance of (1) is true on its non-backtracking interpretation.

I am interested in the conditions under which backtracking interpretations of counterfactuals arise and why they only arise in such conditions. Related to this is the following troubling issue: given that counterfactuals are so semantically flexible, how do we ever communicate using them?

Phonology Circle 4/7 - Benjamin Storme

Speaker: Benjamin Storme
Title: Explaining the distribution of French mid vowels
Date/Time: Monday, Apr 7, 5:30p
Location: 32-D831

In French, mid vowels have a peculiar distribution (often called the “loi de position”), with closed mids [e, ø, o, ə] tending to occur in open syllables not followed by schwa and open mids [ɛ, œ, ɔ] in open syllables followed by schwa and in closed syllables. Making sense of this distribution requires addressing the two following questions:

a. Why should syllable structure be relevant for the distribution of vowels along F1?
b. Why do open syllables followed by schwa pattern with closed syllables rather than with open syllables?

In this talk, I will present results of two experiments suggesting that the relationship between vowel quality and syllable structure cannot be derived via duration alone, as hypothesized in most phonological accounts (Morin 1986, Fery 2003, Scheer 2006 among others). Closed mids and open mids do not appear to have a special duration apart from that contributed by F1. Also, French does not seem to have a closed syllable vowel shortening effect.

Instead, I will propose that the relationship between vowel quality and syllable structure can be understood in terms of the perceptual requirements of vowels and consonants. Consonants that are poorly cued by their release transitions require good closure transitions. Building on work by Burzio (2007) and Lisker (1999) on English, I will argue that longer and lower vowels provide better closure transitions than shorter and higher ones. This will derive the preference for open mids and the absence of schwa in closed syllables and open syllables followed by schwa. When the release transitions are good enough, then no pressure is imposed on preceding vowels and the vowel inventory that is best dispersed along F2 and maximizes the number of duration contrasts, namely the inventory with closed mids and schwa, is chosen. This proposal will be formulated using the OT implementation of Dispersion Theory by Flemming (2004).

Syntax Square 4/8 - Annie Gagliardi

Speaker: Annie Gagliardi (Harvard)
Title: Reconciling two kinds of subject-object asymmetries
Date/Time: Tuesday, Apr 8, 1-2p
Location: 32-D461

Built into the grammatical architecture of any language we find constraints on possible structures. The processing system that uses these structures appears to have inherent preferences in how we interpret them. By looking at a domain where there exists tension between what constraints a learner might expect their language to conform to and the interpretations that are easier to arrive at, we can learn more about what a learner’s own abilities and expectations contribute to language acquisition. In this talk we look at one case where grammatical constraints pull in the opposite direction of the preferences of the system using those constraints: A-bar extraction of transitive subjects. In particular, we look at the comprehension of relative clauses by children and adults in Q’anjob’al, Mayan language where extraction of ergative marked subjects is reportedly banned. Results of a comprehension experiment with adults and children suggest that this tension does affect language acquisition, and may effect language change.

Ling-Lunch 4/10 - Mark Baker

Speaker: Mark Baker (Rutgers)
Title: On Case and Agreement in Split-Ergative Kurmanji
Date/Time: Thursday, Apr 10, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

(Joint work with Ümit Atlamaz)

We argue that tense-based split ergativity in Adıyaman Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish) is best accounted for by a theory in which nominative case is assigned by agreement, rather than a theory in which morphological case determines which NP the verb agrees with. In present tense sentences, the subject is nominative, the object oblique, and the verb agrees with the subject, whereas in past tense sentences, the subject is oblique, the object nominative, and the verb agrees with the object. To account for this, we develop a theory in which the agreement-bearing head is Voice (not T). In past tense, this undergoes cyclic Agree, agreeing downward with the object if there is one, otherwise upward with the subject. In present tense, however, VP is a distinct spell out domain, forcing Voice to always agree upward with the subject. Either way, Voice assigns nominative case to whatever it agrees with, and oblique is assigned to all other arguments. Additional support for this theory comes from the order of tense and agreement morphemes, from the passive nature of past stems but not present stems, from the special behavior of plural agreement, and from the fact that Kurmanji does not distinguish ergative, accusative, and dative, and genitive cases. We also include some remarks about how variation among NW Iranian languages relates to our main line of argument—for example, the fact that Central and Southern Kurdish have preserved the split ergative agreement pattern of Kurmanji, but have lost the split ergative case-marking pattern.

Jonah Katz to West Virginia University

Heartiest congratulations to Jonah Katz (PhD 2010), who has accepted a tenure track position as Assistant Professor of Linguistics at West Virginia University!  Jonah is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor at Berkeley (and was previously a CNRS Post-doctoral Fellow at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and Institut Jean Nicod in Paris).  Great news!!

Erlewine to McGill post-doc!

We are delighted to announce that Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine will be a post-doc at McGill university next year, working with Lisa Travis, Jessica Coon and Michael Wagner.  Congratulations, mitcho!!


Fourth-year student Coppe van Urk is back from this year’s GLOW Colloquium in Brussels, where he gave a talk “On the relation between C and T, A-bar movement and ‘marked nominative’ in Dinka”.  Alums with GLOW talks were Elena Guerzoni ’03,  Tue Trinh ’11, Betsy Ritter ’89, and Bronwyn Bjorkman ’11.   This week, Norvin Richards will teach a course on Islands at the GLOW Spring School (a new and exciting addition to the GLOW scene), alongside an array of MIT alums (as we noted a while ago) also teaching at the school: Hagit Borer ’81, Philippe Schlenker ’99 and Charles Yang (Computer Science PhD 2000)).

ESSL/LFRG 4/10 - Manuel Kriz

Speaker: Manuel Kriz (Vienna/Harvard)
Title: Finding truth-value gaps
Date/Time: Thursday, Apr 10, 5:30-7p
Location: 32-D831

A sentence with a definite plural like (1) has non-complementary truth- and falsity conditions. It is clearly true if John read all of the books, and clearly false if he read none, but if he read exactly half of them, it seems to be neither true nor false.

(1) John read the books.

We develop an experimental method for detecting such a truth-value gap and apply it to sentences where the definite plural is embedded in the scope of a quantifier (as in (2)) to ground empirically recent theoretical approaches to the phenomenon of homogeneity in plural predication.

(2) Every student read the books.

The paradigm we develop is promising also for the study of and comparison between other phenomena, including presuppositions, vagueness, and scalar implicatures.

Omer Preminger to Maryland

Late breaking news - our most delighted congratulations to Omer Preminger (PhD 2011), who has just accepted a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Maryland.  After receiving his PhD, Omer was a post-doc in Masha Polinsky’s lab at Harvard, and is currently an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University.   His monograph Agreement and its Failures will be published this summer by MIT Press.  Congratulations, Omer!!