The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, September 21st, 2015

Phonology Circle 9/21 - Charles B. Chang

Speaker: Charles B. Chang (BU)
Title: Relative informativeness as a guiding principle of crosslinguistic transfer
Date: Monday, September 21st
Time: 5-6:30
Place: 32D-831

Transfer of language structures from the native language (L1) to a second language (L2) is a concept central to the study of L2 acquisition, yet there is no general consensus on the level at which such transfer occurs. This study explored the hypothesis that in L2 perception, transfer occurs at the level of processing biases shaped by the relative informativeness (RI) of acoustic cues in the L1. To examine the role of RI, perception of unreleased final voiceless stops was tested in L1 English listeners and four groups of late-onset L2 English learners whose L1s differ in the RI of a crucial cue to unreleased stops (vowel-to-consonant formant transitions). Speeded discrimination and identification tasks were used to investigate perception in English (a familiar L2) and Korean (an unfamiliar L2). With two exceptions, the results support the view that RI in the L1 influences processing biases that transfer to L2 perception. However, these biases interact with prior L2 knowledge, which may result in significantly different perceptual consequences for a familiar and an unfamiliar L2.

Syntax Square 9/22 - No meeting this week

There will be no Syntax Square meeting this week.

ESSL/LacqLab 9/23 - Roger Levy

Speaker: Roger Levy (UCSD)
Title: Bayesian pragmatics: lexical uncertainty, compositionality, and the typology of conversational implicature
Date: Wednesday, September 23rd
Time: 3:00p
Place: 32-D831

A central scientific challenge for our understanding of human cognition is how language simultaneously achieves its unbounded yet highly context-dependent expressive capacity. In constructing theories of this capacity it has been productive to distinguish between strictly semantic content, or the “literal” meanings of atomic expressions (e.g., words) and the rules of meaning composition, and pragmatic enrichment, by which speakers and listeners can rely on general principles of cooperative communication to take understood communicative intent far beyond literal content. Major open questions remain, however, of how to formalize pragmatic inference and characterize its relationship with semantic composition. Here I describe recent work within a Bayesian framework of interleaved semantic composition and pragmatic inference. First I show how two major principles of Levinson’s typology of conversational implicature fall out of our models: Q(uantity) implicature, in which utterance meaning is refined through exclusion of the meanings of alternative utterances; and I(nformativeness) implicature, in which utterance meaning is refined by strengthening to the prototypical case. Q and I are often in tension; I show that the Bayesian approach derives quantitative predictions regarding their relative strength in interpretation of a given utterance, and present evidence supporting these predictions from a large-scale experiment on interpretation of utterances such as “I slept in a car” (was it my car, or someone else’s car?). I then turn to questions of compositionality, focusing on two of the most fundamental building blocks of semantic composition, the words “and” and “or”. Canonically, these words are used to coordinate expressions whose semantic content is least partially disjoint (“friends and enemies”, “sports and recreation”), but they can also be used to coordinate expressions whose literal semantic content is in a one-way inclusion relation (“boat or canoe” — c.f. Hurford, 1974; “roses and flowers”) or even in a two-way inclusion relation, or total semantic equivalence (“oenophile or wine-lover”). But why are these latter coordinate expressions used, and how are they understood? Each class of these latter expressions falls out as a special case of our general framework, in which their prima facie inefficiency for communicating their literal content triggers a pragmatic inference that enriches the expression’s meaning in the same ways that we see in human interpretation. More broadly, these results illustrate the value of integrating recursive probabilistic models with formal semantic theories in the study of linguistic meaning and communication.

This talk covers joint work with Leon Bergen, Michael C. Frank, Noah Goodman, Daniel Lassiter, Till Poppels, and Christopher Potts.

Ling Lunch 9/24 - Mia Nussbaum

Speaker: Mia Nussbaum (MIT)
Title: Tense and Scope in Superlatives
Time: Thurs 5/14, 12:30-1:45
Place: 32-D461

This paper provides new evidence that relative superlatives are indefinites, as proposed by Szabolcsi (1986) and Heim (1985, 1999), and contra Farkas and É. Kiss (2000) and Sharvit and Stateva (2002). Szabolcsi (1986) discovered several ways that absolute superlatives pattern with definites, and relative superlatives with indefinites. In this paper, I discuss the puzzle presented by the novel data in (1) and (2), and show that its solution depends on the same contrast between the definite and the indefinite article in superlatives that Szabolcsi argues for.

(1) Context: On a certain game show, the game ends up with each contestant receiving a box with money in it. There are 20 boxes available, each with a different amount of money inside, and 10 contestants. The top prize is a million dollars. At the end of the show, the contestants all open their boxes at the same time.

a. Which contestant opened the box that has the most money inside?

b. Which contestant opened the box that had the most money inside?

(2) Who married the tallest first-grader?

(1b) obeys Sequence of Tense, and is ambiguous between a relative reading (asking who won the game) and an absolute reading (asking who got the million dollars); (1a) only has the absolute reading. In (2), a relative reading is incompatible with an interpretation where the time-sensitive predicate first-grader held at an earlier time than the matrix verb married.

Tense mismatch and independent temporal interpretation are incompatible with relative superlatives (which, according to the theories of Heim and Szabolcsi, are indefinites), and require an absolute (definite) interpretation. I argue that this contrast is an instance of Musan’s Generalization (Musan 1997): a noun phrase can have a temporally independent interpretation if and only if it is strong. I adopt Schwarz (2009)’s analysis of determiners, whereby strong determiners come with their own situation pronoun arguments, and show how it can explain the contrast between strong absolute superlatives and weak relative superlatives.

MIT in Europe

Four linguistics conferences were held in Europe over the last two weeks.

(1) The 20th Sinn und Bedeutung was held at the University of Tübingen, Germany (September 9-12 2015). Irene Heim gave an invited talk in the Stechow workshop. Two MIT students presented posters.

Three recent alumni gave talks and presented posters:

Two recent visiting students at MIT gave poster presentations:

(2) The 12th Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition conference (GALA 12) was held at the University of Nantes, Nantes (France) on September 10-12, 2015. An MIT student and a recent alumnus gave talks.

(3) The University of Göttingen hosted the Göttingen Spirit Summer School on Negation on September 14th-17th, 2015. An MIT student and an MIT alumnus gave poster presentations.

(4) The 2015 Annual Meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (LAGB 2015) was held at University College London, 15-18 September 2015. The abstract booklet can be found here. An MIT student and two alumni gave talks.

  • Sam Steddy (UCL): Uniform and non-uniform analysis of bracketing paradoxes
  • Fourth year Benjamin Storme: Modeling aspectual asymmetries in the past and in the present
  • Coppe van Urk (Queen Mary, University of London; PhD 2015): Pronoun copying and the copy theory of movement: Evidence from Dinka