The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Kai von Fintel in MIT News  

In a recent article published by MIT News, Kai von Fintel shares his thoughts about semantics, open access in linguistics, and the role of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) at MIT. Here it is!


Course announcements, Spring 2015  

24.954: Pragmatics in Linguistic Theory

Instructors: Danny Fox, Irene Heim
Time: MW 10-11:30
Room: 56-162

24.956: Topics in Syntax

Syntactic structure: outstanding puzzles of cyclicity, overtness, and linearization
Instructors: Danny Fox and David Pesetsky
Tuesdays 10-1, 32D-461

According to a familiar and relatively minimal view of syntax, all structures are constructed from primitive elements by recursive external or internal Merge of two preexisting units. This view derives a very strong version of the strict cycle, the Extension Condition — with well-known salutory consequences both empirical and conceptual. On the face of it, however, this simple view is incompatible with analyses of a wide range of phenomena that posit, or might have to posit countercyclic Merge involving positions other than the root. For example:

  • Late Merge: Following Lebeaux (1988), Chomsky (1995), it has been argued that Merge can add elements to a phrase that has been moved, so that the added elements are present in the higher, but not the lower position. This operation appears to be countercyclic by its very nature, but is supported not only by the binding interactions discovered by Lebeaux, but also by Fox & Nissenbaum’s (2003) analysis of modifier extraposition; Takahashi & Hulsey’s (2009) explanation for anti-reconstruction effects for A-movement; Stanton’s (2014) explanation for asymmetries in English P-stranding; Stepanov’s (2001, 2007) explanation for CED effects; and Johnson’s (2010) tangled-tree alternative to Fox’s trace conversation — among other proposals.
  • Covert movement: The standard view of covert movement (Chomsky 1975; May 1977) explains its covertness as a consequence of a second syntactic cycle after Spell-out — a claim supported by Huang’s claim (1982) that covert movement creates configurations that can block later covert, but not overt, movement.
  • Tucking in: Following Richards (1997; 2001), it has been argued that the formation of multiple specifier constructions is crucially countercyclic, with the outermost specifier merged first. This claim permits a simple locality explanation of the relative ordering of internally merged specifiers in many languages — but at the cost of a crucially countercyclic derivation.
  • Multidominant sharing: Since McCawley (1982), a number of researchers have developed detailed proposals for the analysis of constructions in which elements appear to occupy multiple positions that are not in a c-command relation — and therefore cannot be easily explained as standard instances of movement. These include the wh-coordination, bulk and non-bulk sharing structures studied by Gračanin-Yuksek and Citko (independently and in co-authored work) and by De Vries in many papers. They also include proposals concerning Right Node Raising by Wilder, Sabbagh, and many of the authors just cited — plus interactions with island phenomena explored by Bachrach & Katzir, O’Brien, and others.

In this class, we will spend time exploring each of these domains for which the simple “first-year syntax” view of Merge looks inadequate (at first glance, and maybe second glance too). So at the very least, we promise that you will leave with you head full of exciting problems in empirical domains that may be new to you — and ideas about possible directions to pursue solutions. At the same time, we will be pursuing a hunch of our own, that the solution to some aspects of these problems is closely connected to certain puzzles of word order: in particular, what determines the relative order of complements and specifiers, and what determines whether movement is to the left or right. For this reason, we will probably spend at least a class near the end of the semester discussing the Final-over-Final-Constraint, and various proposals for deriving it.

But it should come as no surprise that our main focus throughout the semester will syntactic structure itself, and the question of what operation produces it.

Course requirements:

  • weekly readings
  • active class participation including some in-class problem solving
  • two squibs: the first reviewing some paper on a topic related to the class, the second exploring (but not necessarily solving!) a puzzle of your own related to the class

First class:

Danny will talk about arguments for Late Merge, his own recent work on how deep it can apply (contradicting some recent claims by Sauerland and Stanton). No reading.

24.965: Morphology

Instructors: Adam Albright, David Pesetsky, and Martin Walkow
Time: Mondays, 2–5 (note: first class is 2/9)
Location: 66-156 (note: not the room you expect!)

Topics in the structure of words and their components. The leading question underlying the course will be: is there a distinct morphological grammar, or can morphological phenomena all be understood as arising from the interaction of syntax and phonology?

Particular questions to be discussed in light of this leading question include:

What is the evidence for structure below the level of the word?
What (if anything) distinguishes word structure from sentence structure?
What principles account for the order of morphemes?
How does morphological structure influence the phonological shape of complex words?
Why does morphology sometimes fail to express syntactic/semantic differences (one affix, two functions), and how do multiple morphemes compete to express the same meaning?

Course website: http://stellar.mit.edu/S/course/24/sp15/24.965 (currently empty; to be stocked with readings soon)

Course requirements:

  • weekly readings
  • active class participation including some in-class problem solving
  • discovery of a data-rich problem to explore for term paper and class presentations of your work on that problem
  • written term paper

Syllabus: Will be available sometime in the next 4-5 days, but for a glimpse at an ancestor of this class, look at the Stellar pages from 2012, including that year’s syllabus. Some of this year’s topics will differ, but the overall gist will be similar.

24.967: Topics in Experimental Phonology

Instructors: Adam Albright (albright@mit.edu), Edward Flemming (flemming@mit.edu)
Time: Tuesdays 2-5
Room: 32-D461

In the past decade, the field of phonology has increasingly looked to experimental results to confirm and extend its understanding of phonological patterns. In this course, we will examine some of the issues involved in deriving experimentally testable predictions from a theory, designing and running an experiment, and interpreting the results.

The class has several goals:

  • Consider the relation between phonological theory, empirical predictions, and experimental results
  • Gain practical knowledge in designing and carrying out experiments in the lab and on-line, and performing data analysis using R
  • Gain familiarity with some commonly used experimental paradigms, comparing what they can tell us about the linguistic system

The class will be organized around a set of phonological topics that have benefited from experimental investigation. These topics will serve to illustrate a variety of experimental and statistical techniques:

  • Sonority sequencing preferences
  • Generalization from the lexicon
  • Perceptual similarity
  • Phonetic underspecification


  • Readings and class participation
  • Regular assignments (modest and practical in nature)
  • Final project: designing (and perhaps piloting) an experiment

24.979: Topics in Semantics

Instructors: Kai von Fintel, Irene Heim, Sabine Iatridou
Fridays 12–3, Room 32-D461

This semester’s semantics seminar will consist of three “mini-seminars”:
Conditionals without “if” (2/6, 2/13, 2/20, 2/27)
The semantics of tense (3/6, 3/13, 3/20, 4/3, 4/10)
The semantics of surprise (4/17, 4/24, 5/1, 5/8)

Course website: http://stellar.mit.edu/S/course/24/sp15/24.979/

Students who are taking the seminar for credit are expected to attend all sessions and to submit a term paper on a topic related to one of the topics of the seminar. Auditors are welcome to attend any of the three parts of the seminar.

24.S96: Computational Phylogenetics

Instructors: Bob Berwick & Michel DeGraff
Time: Thursdays, 2–5
Location: Room 32D–461

In this course, we’ll endeavor to make the inscrutable scrutable. Computational phylogenetic methods have been gaining wide currency among, and seem convincing to, linguists of various theoretical stripes. Yet, these methods and their results are often not fully understood. In this seminar we will explore the scope and limitations of computational phylogenetics methods in historical linguistics, especially in studies on Creole formation, with an eye toward the improvement of such methods. Creole languages have traditionally been excluded from the scope of the Comparative Method, generally because it has been thought that methods that reconstruct phylogenetic trees of related languages are not applicable in the case of Creoles (Taylor 1956, Thomason & Kaufman 1998, Ringe et al 2002, Nakhleh et al 2005b, Labov 2007, etc.). Recent studies continue to claim that Creoles lie outside well-established language families, constituting an exceptional typology as the least complex human languages (Parkvall 2008, McWhorter 2011). In a related vein, Bakker et al 2011 and Daval-Markussen & Baker 2012 enlist phylogenetic tools (i.e., Splits Tree from Huson & Bryant 2006; cf. Dunn et al 2008) to argue that “Creoles are typologically distinct from non-Creoles.” In this seminar we will start with some general background on Creole studies and computational phylogenetics, and then we’ll evaluate the applications of computational phylogenetics to Creole studies. Much of the seminar will involve hands-on active-learning activities as we delve first-hand into the nuts and bolts of computational phylogenetics and applications thereof to Creole data. One overall objective is to better understand the scope and limitations of the computational phylogenetics methods and how to improve on their applications in historical linguistics, especially in Creole studies. Given historical linguists’ increasing use of both computational phylogenetics and language-acquisition findings, it is important that such methods be reviewed with great care, as we’ll do in the seminar, before they can be constructively and reliably applied in the analysis of language-creation and language change phenomena.

For more information, in particular concerning the course requirements and schedule, please visit the course website: http://stellar.mit.edu/S/course/24/sp15/24.S96/


MIT Linguistics Colloquium Schedule, Spring 2015  

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

  • February 6: Kristine Yu, UMass Amherst
  • February 20: Sigrid Beck, Tübingen
  • February 27: Gunnar Hansson, UBC
  • March 6: Richard Larson, Stony Brook University
  • April 17: Aditi Lahiri, University of Oxford, Somerville College
  • April 24: Ming Xiang, University of Chicago
  • May 1: Nina Topintzi, Aristotle University of Thessalonik
  • May 8: Jessica Coon, McGill University
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    Ling Lunch - 2/5 - Despoina Oikonomou  

    Speaker: Despoina Oikonomou (MIT)
    Title: C-Negation is not Constituent Negation but CP-Negation: Evidence from Modern Greek
    Time: Thurs 2/5, 12:30-1:45
    Place: 32-D461

    Abstract: C-Negation is not Constituent Negation but CP-Negation: Evidence from Modern Greek

    Please join us for our first Ling Lunch this semester!


    Colloquium 2/6 - Kristine Yu (UMass)  

    Speaker: Kristine Yu (UMass)
    Title: Tonal marking of absolutive case in Samoan
    Date: Friday, January 6th
    Time: 3:30-5:00p
    Place: 32-141

    This paper argues that the ergative-marking Austronesian language Samoan has a high boundary tone that occurs on the last mora of the word preceding an absolutive argument, and that the source of this tone is inflectional morphology and not lexical representations, pragmatics, syntax, semantics, or phonology. In short, the claim is that Samoan has an absolutive high boundary tone case morpheme. This claim is surprising for two reasons. First, Samoan is not a tone language. Second, regardless of the source of the absolutive tone, positing it: (1) introduces a boundary paradox since it groups an absolutive case head with the prosodic constituent preceding the absolutive argument, and (2) implies that the presence of an absolutive induces a new phonological constituent. Nevertheless, I show that inflectional morphology must be the source of the absolutive high tone based on a converging body of evidence from: (1) the distribution of the rarely discussed ia particle that optionally precedes absolutive arguments and (2) the phonetic and phonological analysis of intonational patterns in the spoken utterances of a systematically varied set of syntactic structures. I also address the puzzles that the presence of an absolutive tonal case morpheme in Samoan raises.

    MIT at the LSA meeting  

    Vast numbers of current MIT linguists and alumni prowled the corridors of the Portland Hilton presenting papers and posters at the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America on January 8-11, 2015. The following talks and posters featured MIT presenters:

    Several recent alumni were also present:

    • Jessica Coon (‘10; McGill) organized and presented at a Tutorial on “LingSync and ProsodyLab-Aligner: Tools for Linguistic Fieldwork and OS2 Experimentation”; her copresenters were recent visiting faculty member Alan Bale (Concordia) and Michal Wagner (‘05; Mcgill)
    • Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine (‘14 McGill University): On the position of focus adverbs
    • Jonah Katz (‘10; West Virginia University): Continuity lenition
    • Jonah Katz (‘10; West Virginia University) and Melinda Fricke (Pennsylvania State University): Lenition/fortition patterns aid prosodic segmentation
    • Hadas Kotek (‘14; McGill University) : A new compositional semantics for wh-questions

    A picture of Aron Hirsch poster presentation:

    A picture of Theodore Levin poster presentation:


    MIT at OCP 12  

    The 12nd meeting of the Old World Conference in Phonology (OCP) was held last week in Barcelona, Spain. The following MIT faculty and students gave talks there:

    • Adam Albright: Faithfulness to non-contrastive phonetic properties in Lakhota
    • Fifth-year student Gretchen Kern: Syntactically unjustified morphs and other strategies for hiatus resolution in Irish prepositions
    • Third-year student Benjamin Storme: Closed Syllable Vowel Laxing: A strategy to enhance coda consonant place contrasts

    Two MIT alumni were present as well:

    • Andrew Nevins (PhD 2004; University College of London): Undergoers are harmony sources: Maintaining iterative harmony in Oroqen dialects (co-authored with Elan Dresher (University of Toronto))
    • Giorgio Magri (PhD 2009; CNRS, UniversitéŽ Paris 8): Idempotency and the early acquisition of phonotactics