The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 13th, 2014

Syntax Square 10/14 - Heidi Klockmann

Speaker: Heidi Klockmann (Utrecht University)
Title: Case alternations and case hierarchies: A view from numerals and negation
Date/Time:Thursday, October 14, 12:30-1:45pm
Location: 32-D461

A number of Slavic and Uralic languages share the property of blocking structural case assignment in the presence of an oblique case assigner. This alternation has attracted the most attention in the context of numerals, whereby the case triggered by the numeral, genitive in Polish (1) and partitive in Finnish (2), fails to appear in oblique contexts.

(1) a. Iwan kupił pięć samochodów
Ivan   bought  five   cars.GEN
Ivan bought five cars
b. z pięcioma samochodami
with five.INST    cars.INST
…with five cars

(2) a. Ivan osti viisi auto-a
Ivan bought five-0 car-PART.SG
Ivan bought five cars (Brattico 2011: 1045)
b. Minä asuin kolmessa talossa
I lived three.INE.SG house.INE.SG
I lived in three houses (Brattico 2011: 1051)

Previous accounts have described the data in terms of case hierarchies, whereby inherent case outranks structural case, leading to the patterns above (cf. Babby 1987). However, such accounts suffer in the face of Finnish, which does not appear to respect the structural-inherent case distinction for case alternations (Brattico 2010, 2011).

In this talk, I discuss various case alternations, focusing specifically on numerals and negation in Polish and to a lesser degree, Finnish. I show that we can model these facts using a case stacking mechanism, which necessitates the use of a case hierarchy in terms of specific cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, etc), rather than case types (inherent, structural). I further show that certain cases appear to have a lexical requirement, leading to case percolation in the context of semi-lexical elements. Finally, I consider the possible underpinnings of the case hierarchy, and suggest that it actually reflects a structural difference between certain cases.

ESSL/LacqLab 10/15 - Amanda Swenson

Speaker: Amanda Swenson (MIT)
Time: Wednesday, October 15, 3:00-4:30pm (note exceptional time!)
Location: 32-D831
Title: The Morphosemantics of the Perfect in Malayalam

In this talk, I will examine the the semantics of the two constructions identified by Asher & Kumari (1997) as expressing the perfect in Malayalam. I consider whether or not the Right Boundary of the Perfect Time Span is set by tense, as it is in perfect constructions in Greek, English and Bulgarian (Iatridou et al. 2001). This question is particularly interesting in light of work by Amritavalli & Jayaseelan (2005) and Amritavalli (2014) which has argued that Malayalam does not have a TP and that temporal interpretation is read off of aspect. I will show, based on evidence from the construction that expresses the Existential perfect, that their system makes incorrect predictions for the perfect. I will provide a compositional analysis for the Malayalam Existential perfect. I also consider the other construction used for the Resultative and Universal perfects and show the ways in which it does and does not match the semantics of the parallel constructions in other languages.

Ling-Lunch 10/16 - Ayaka Sugawara

Speaker: Ayaka Sugawara (MIT) (joint work with Martin Hackl and Ken Wexler)
Title: On acquisition of “only”: Question-Answer congruence and scalar presuppositions
Date/Time:Thursday, October 16, 12:30-1:45pm
Location: 32-D461

There is a long-standing puzzle in acquisition of only since Crain et al. (1994): children up to age 6 display difficulties understanding sentences with pre-subject only (“subject-only”, e.g. Only the cat is holding a flag.) while having no difficulty understanding sentences with pre-VP only (“VP-only”, e.g. The cat is only holding a flag.). We note that neither “subject-only” nor “VP-only” are congruent with a broad question (e.g. What happened?), which is typically used to prompt puppet’s answers in experiments in the literature. Instead, they are congruent with different sub-questions, which we hypothesize that listeners must accommodate during comprehension. Our experiments compare children’s adult-like responses when we use broad questions and their responses when we use sub-questions. The results show that children are sensitive to Question-Answer Congruence (QAC) and support the idea that accommodation of sub-questions of What happened? plays a role in Crain’s puzzle.

LFRG 10/17 - David Nicolas

Speaker: David Nicolas (ENS)
Day/time: Friday, 17 October, 3:30pm
Location: 32-D461
Title: Two and a half apples

With some count nouns, we understand expressions of the form “a half N” and “half of an N” and sentences like this one:

(1) Two and a half apples are on the table.

This is true, for instance, if on the table there are two apples and one half apple (half of an apple).

If instead of “two and a half” we use a simple cardinal like “two”, the truth conditions of a similar sentence can be stated like this:

(2) Two apples are on the table
is true iff exists x (apple(x) & card(x) = 2 & on_the_table(x)) {“at least” semantics}

This “at least” semantics of cardinals just asserts the existence of two things. An “exact semantics” would assert the existence of exactly two things and no more.

Whether one adopts an “at least” semantics or an “exact” semantics, these kind of truth conditions are inadequate for (1) for two reasons (Salmon 1997, Liebesman 2014):

  • Half an apple is not in the denotation of “apples”, so it cannot be in the denotation of two and a half apples if one just “intersects” the meaning of “apples” with that of “two and a half”.
  • The function card() returns the cardinality of a plurality or set, which can never be a fractional number.

So what are the truth conditions of the sentence and how do we get them?