The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Welcome to the Fall 2015 semester!  

Today, Tuesday September 8, is Registration Day. Whamit!, the MIT Linguistics Department Newsletter, appears every Monday during the semester (Tuesdays if Monday is a public holiday). The editorial staff consists of Adam Albright, Kai von Fintel, David Pesetsky, Sophie Moracchini, Lilla Magyar, and Benjamin Storme.

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 summer break.

Hope to see you all at the departmental lunch, 12pm at the 8th floor lounge!


Course announcements, Fall 2015  

24.956: Topics in Syntax: Agreement and Movement

Instructors: Shigeru Miyagawa (miyagawa@mit.edu) and Norvin Richards (norvin@mit.edu)
Time: Mondays 10-1
Room: 32-D461

In this seminar we will tackle some of the big syntactic questions: what Agree relations should we posit, and what effects do they have on structure and interpretation?

The seminar will begin with discussion of various ways in which C, and particularly root C, has a special status as a starting point for the features that participate in Agree relations in the rest of the clause; topics here will include allocutive agreement, pro-drop, the syntax of ‘why’, and ga-no conversion. The discussion will take as a starting point Shigeru’s Strong Uniformity thesis.

In the second half of the seminar we will turn to Norvin’s Contiguity Theory, which amounts to a family of proposals about how Agree and selection relations are mapped onto prosodic structure, and indirectly onto syntactic structure, driving movement operations and (we will see) determining the size of structures that can or must be moved. Topics for this half of the semester include pied-piping, the derivational history of A-bar operators, the effects of A-bar movement on nuclear stress, and the structure of DPs.

24.915/24.963 Linguistic Phonetics

Instructor: Edward Flemming
Lecture: TR11-12.30
Room: 56-169
Stellar site: https://stellar.mit.edu/S/course/24/fa15/24.915/

We will be considering three fundamental questions:

  • How do we produce speech?
  • How do we perceive speech?
  • How does the nature of these processes influence the sound patterns of languages?

We will also be learning experimental methods and analytical techniques that enable us to address these (and other) questions.

24.964 Topics in phonology: Harmonic Serialism

Instructor: Edward Flemming (flemming@mit.edu)
Time and place: Currently schedule for W 10-1 in 32D-461 but may be rescheduled

A generative grammar is a mapping between two levels of representation. Is this mapping direct or indirect? A common answer in both phonology and syntax is that the mapping is indirect: there are intermediate steps in a derivation. In Optimality Theory (OT), however, the standard answer to date has been that the mapping is direct…The central insight of OT — candidate comparison by a hierarchy of ranked, violable constraints — is not necessarily tied to the direct-mapping architecture, however. A version of OT with indirect mapping is known as Harmonic Serialism (HS). It is in most respects similar to parallel OT, except that it posits serial derivations with intermediate steps. This single change has important empirical consequences…’ (McCarthy 2010).

We will investigate the properties of Harmonic Serialist phonological grammars, and examine the evidence for serial vs. parallel evaluation in OT. Case studies will include opaque interactions between processes (e.g. stress assignment and syncope/epenthesis), ‘myopia’ in harmony, and positional and P-map faithfulness constraints. These are all interesting problem areas in phonological theory, and we will compare analyses of them based on serial and parallel versions of OT.

24.979 Topics in Semantics

Instructors: Danny Fox, Martin Hackl
Time: Thursdays, 2-5
Room: 24-461
Stellar site: https://stellar.mit.edu/S/course/24/fa15/24.979/index.html

This class will be centered on topics in the syntax and semantics of DPs. Traditional approaches to this area of research begin with the postulation of lexical items. determiners, with simple morpho-phonological properties – they are spelled out as the, some, every, etc — and familiar meanings [[the]], [[some]], [[every]]). We will discuss various phenomena that are puzzling from this perspective and might suggest a more indirect relationship between sound and meaning.

Our first topic will be Hydras (e.g . every man and every woman who were introduced to each other…) where we will consider the possibility that words such as every do not directly carry the content of quantification but are rather indicative of its presence elsewhere in the structure (perhaps similar to inflection on verbs being indicative of the presence of distinct temporal operators). Another topic will concern various puzzles in the semantics of the which, likewise, might suggest a more indirect relationship between overt form and content. Among the puzzles we will look at is the semantics of superlatives, where DPs with the have been argued to be underlyingly indefinite: the semantics of the same, the only, and a well-known problem about the semantics of stacked definite descriptions (Haddock’s puzzle).

Reading for first class are on Stellar (Champollion 2015, Fox and Johnson 2015)

24.S95. Computation and Linguistic Theory

Instructor: Professor Robert C. Berwick
Time: Monday and Wednesday 1-2:30pm
Room: 2-105

Linguistics is sometimes construed as an important part of the “computational theory of mind.” But what about its computational aspect? How can we bring linguistics and computation together? Modern students of linguists often confront a dizzying array of questions that intersect with computational analysis. Does sideways Merge or multidominance structure impact computational complexity? Should syntactic features be encoded via arbitrary hierarchal structure, using ‘unification’ like “Simpler Syntax”? Is Simpler Syntax then really “simpler”? Are there any real computational differences between different theories like HPSG, TAGs, CCGs, and Minimalism or are they all just “notational variants”? Is there some way to formally characterize what makes a natural language natural? Is phonology really “different” from syntax? What about OT accounts and constraint-based systems vs. ordered/unordered rules? Do we need to pay attention to the classic learnability results from Gold? Does Bayesian analysis solve the poverty of the stimulus? This course will teach you the computational tools needed to answer these and many other questions from a computational point of view. It will guide you through both the classical and the more modern methods that examine linguistic theories from a computational perspective. No prior knowledge of computational theory will be assumed, but some familiarity with formalisms for syntax, phonology, or semantics, including some exposure to logic, would be very useful. If you don’t have this background, permission of the instructor is OK - please just ask!


Linguistics colloquia for the academic year  

The MIT Linguistics Colloquium schedule for the Fall and early Spring. All talks are on Fridays, 3:30-5:00 p.m. For further information, please contact the organizers for this year, Athulya Aravind and Michelle Yuan.

Fall 2015:

Spring 2016 (partial):


Summer news  

We have a few items of summer news from faculty and students:

  • Faculty Kai von Fintel and Sabine Iatridou and alumni Karlos Arregi (PhD 2002) and Jonathan Bobaljik (PhD 1995) were elected 2016 Fellows of the Linguistic Society of America. This is our field’s highest honor, awarded each year to a small number of linguists for “distinguished contributions to the discipline”. This is truly fantastic news. Kai and Sabine join their faculty colleagues Noam Chomsky, Morris Halle, Irene Heim, David Pesetsky, and Donca Steriade, who have been honored as Fellows in previous years, as well as more than twenty alumni of the department. About a third of all LSA Fellows are MIT alumni or faculty. A full list of Fellows from MIT can be found here, and the full list of LSA Fellows can be found here.
  • Shigeru Miyagawa, Chris O’Brien, David Pesetsky, Juliet Stanton, and Donca Steriade taught three-day courses at the University of Brasilia in August that were attended by students and faculty from Brazil and Argentina. Donca, David, and Shigeru also gave presentations at the Congresso Internacional de Estudos Linguísticos III held at the U of Brasilia. One of the main organizers of the Brasilia events, Professor Eloisa Pilati, will be a visitor at MIT during this fall semester. Shortly after leaving Brasília, Shigeru gave a course at the University of São Paulo, and Juliet and Chris gave presentations at the University of Buenos Aires.
  • David Pesetsky and Michel DeGraff taught at the 2016 Summer Institute of the Linguistic Society of America, hosted by the University of Chicago. David taught two classes: a two-week seminar on Slavic Syntax and Semantics, co-taught with Sergei Tatevosov (a visiting faculty member in 2011-2012), and the introductory syntax class. Michel taught “Topics in Creole Studies: from Historical Linguistics to Computational Phylogenetics”. One of the two organizers of the LSA Institute this year was our own alum Karlos Arregi.
  • Juliet Stanton taught a short class on phonetics and phonology for high school students though HSSP, a program that allows students in grades 7-12 from all over New England to take classes at MIT. 24 students were registered for the class, including several who had taken the Introduction to Linguistics course taught in previous HSSP sessions.
  • Samuel Jay Keyser reports something that did not happen this summer, but is related to the question “What did you do this summer?”:

    Alistair Campbell was the author of Old English Grammar, one of the best philological (phonological) grammars of old English ever written. He was one of my tutors at Oxford when I was there in 1956-58. When he was a student, he was asked precisely the same question that you ask in your email, only the interrogator was the warden of his college. (I think it was Pembroke but I’m not sure.) It was an annual ritual called “the shaking of hands.”

    The conversation as reported on the Oxfordian grapevine, my vintage, went like this:

    Warden: Now tell me, Mr. Campbell. How did you spend your summer?

    Campbell: Sir, I spent the summer on the beach at Brighton pondering the Anglo-Saxon corpus.


Summer defenses  

Congratulations to this summer’s doctoral dissertators!

  • Isaac Gould: Syntactic Learning from Ambiguous Evidence: Errors and End-States
  • Gretchen Kern: Rhyming Grammars and Celtic Phonology
  • Ted Levin: Licensing without Case
  • Wataru Uegaki: Interpreting questions under attitudes
  • Coppe van Urk: A uniform syntax for phrasal movement: a Dinka Bor case study

In the coming year, Isaac will be a visiting assistant professor at Kansas University, Gretchen will work as a linguist for a tech company in NYC, Ted will be a post-doc at Maryland, Wataru is a post-doc at the ENS in Paris, and Coppe will be a Lecturer (= an Assistant Professor) at Queen Mary University of London.





Meet ling-15  

The members of ling-15, the incoming graduate class, have provided brief biographical notes for us. Welcome to them!

Rafael Abramovitz: “I’m from Minneapolis, MN, and in June I finished my B.A. in Linguistics at the University of Chicago. Broadly speaking, I’m interested in phonology, syntax, and Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages. More specifically, I’m interested in dominant-recessive harmony systems, accidental (or “accidental”) homophony, case and agreement phenomena (particularly in ergative languages), and syntactic ergativity. In addition, I’m excited to learn more about computational phonology and formal semantics, two areas of linguistics which I have not yet had much exposure to.”

Itai Bassi writes: “I was born and raised in a small Kibbutz in Israel. I got my B.A. in linguistics and philosophy from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where I also worked on my M.A. in linguistics. My main areas of interest are semantics, pragmatics and the syntax-semantics interface. I especially find NPIs, negative concord, modality and conditionals very intriguing. I feel honored to have the opportunity to develop my thinking on these issues at MIT. In my free time I enjoy watching sports and playing chess.”

Justin Colley

Colin Davis writes: “I was born in Colorado, but ended up getting a linguistics BA at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where I did a year of fieldwork research on the Turkic language North Azeri. From this I wrote a thesis attempting to account for several morphosyntactic puzzles in this language, which for brevity’s sake I won’t describe. I have a background in Japanese and am fond of the Altaic typology generally, but I’m interested in any language with fun morphosyntax. I occasionally like a little morphophonology as well, in moderation. At MIT I hope to do more fieldwork, get a grasp of semantics, and generally just make the most of everything. I’m hoping the Massachusetts winter is at least a bit more bearable than winter where I came from.”

Suzana Fong: “I’m from Brazil. I did my undergrad studies at the University of São Paulo, where I received a B.A. in linguistics. I also received an M.A. there. I worked on gerund clauses in Brazilian Portuguese both as an undergrad and as an M.A. student. Right now, my major research interest is syntax, but, at MIT, I’m mostly looking forward to broadening my horizons and to working on areas I have had little or no contact with.”

Verena Hehl: “As a Ravensburger (Ra-vens-bur-ger /ʁaːvənsbʊʁgɐ/ n 1 a native of the medieval town Ravensburg, Germany; 2 a German company that produces board games) I enjoy challenging puzzles of all sorts.
Before discovering semantics I was mainly puzzling over structural approaches to theory formation in history, English literature and mathematics. Besides a teaching degree in these subjects, I hold an M.A. in English linguistics from the University of Tübingen. In Tübingen I was working as a lecturer and as a research assistant in a crosslinguistic research group that is studying the semantics of comparison constructions, focus and questions. While at MIT I hope to be puzzled by and puzzle out some of the many issues in formal semantics and at the syntax-semantics interface. When I am not doing semantics, I enjoy playing the viola, I love reading and I am interested in traveling, attending theater productions, and visiting history museums.”

Maša Močnik: “I come from a small village in Slovenia. I did my undergrad in Ljubljana, studying English and French, and spent a year in Paris (Erasmus exchange). The last three years I was in Amsterdam — I did a master’s in logic and then taught a bit at the university. My primary interest is formal semantics, especially questions related to tense, aspect, and modality. When I have time, I like to read a good novel or poem, watch an older film (Wittertainment fan!), have a healthy meal, and run/cycle in nature.”

Mitya Privoznov writes: “I’m from Russia. I was born and grew up in Moscow. I received my specialist degree in linguistics (it was a Russian equivalent to BA and sometimes to MA) at Moscow State University. I’ve done some field work on Turkish (Tatar, Balkar), Mongolic (Buryat) and Uralic (Khanty and Moksha) languages, though my specialist thesis was about Russian and German passive. Mostly I’m interested in argument structure, syntax-morphology interface and semantics, especially intensional semantics. In my free time I read, play the piano, cook and watch films and a bunch of series.”


New Visiting Scholars and Visiting Students for Fall 2015  

Visiting students

  • Keny Chatain (École Normale Supérieure (ENS)) works in Syntax and Semantics. He says: “I’m interested in formal descriptions of tense, mood and aspect of verbal systems across languages.”
  • Chingting Chuang (National Tsing Hua University)’s research interests include Phonetically-based phonology, language variation, language change, prosody. She says: “My research has primarily focused on prosodic manifestations of phonetic variation and language change. I have chosen Penang Hokkien, an understudied dialect of Southern Min Chinese spoken in Northwestern Peninsular Malaysia, as the language under investigation.”
  • Maria-Margarita Makri (University of York) says: “My research mainly focuses on the syntax and semantics of comparative constructions.” Interests and Research Description: Semantics, Syntax, Language Acquisition.
  • Tiaoyuan Mao (Beijing Foreign Studies University) says: “The object of my research is to propose a unified explanation for Chinese English learners’ morpho-syntactic development of C on the basis of the feature assembly theory (Chomsky 2001, 2008) and Feature Reassembly Hypothesis (Lardiere 2008, 2009). If possible, a minor revision of the feature assembly theory would be carried out in terms of improvement of the acquisition theory for the second language acquisition.”

Visiting scholars


Phonology Circle - Call for presentations  

This semester, Phonology Circle will be meeting on Mondays, from 5-6:30pm in 32-D831 (the 8th floor conference room). Presentations about work in progress, papers from the literature, and old squibs are every bit as welcome as practice talks. Please contact Juliet Stanton (juliets@mit.edu) and/or Sam Zukoff (szukoff@mit.edu) if you would like to reserve a slot.