The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 5th, 2015

Phonology Circle 10/5 - Juliet Stanton

Speaker: Juliet Stanton (MIT)
Title: Environmental shielding is contrast preservation
Date: Monday, October 5th
Time: 5-6:30
Place: 32D-831

The term “environmental shielding” refers to a class of processes where the phonetic realization of a nasal depends on its vocalic context. In Kaiwá (Tupí, Bridgeman 1961), for example, nasals are prenasalized before oral (/ma/ > [mba]) but not nasal (/mã/ > [mã]) vowels. Herbert (1986:199) claims that shielding occurs to protect a contrast in vocalic nasality: if Kaiwá /ma/ were realized as [ma], the [a] would likely carry some degree of nasal coarticulation, and be less distinct from nasal /ã/ as a result. This paper provides new arguments for Herbert’s position. I show that a contrast-based analysis of shielding correctly predicts a number of typological generalizations, and argue that any successful analysis of shielding must make reference to contrast.


Special LFRG 10/6 - Patrick Grosz

Speaker: Patrick Grosz (Tuebingen)
Time: Tuesday, Oct. 6, 1-2:30pm
Location: 32-D831
Title: On the syntax and semantics of God knows what – a scalar epistemic indefinite

This talk investigates phrases such as ‘weiß Gott w-’ (‘God knows wh-‘) in German, in (1). Similar constructions are attested in a wide range of European languages (Haspelmath 1997:131).

(1) Der muss gedacht haben, wir seien weiß Gott wer. [DeReKo corpus, U03/AUG.02157]
intended: ‘He must have thought that we are someone important.’
literal: ‘He must have thought that we are God knows who.’

While ‘weiß Gott w-’ phrases originate as separate clauses (CPs) that are parenthetically inserted into a host clause (so-called “Andrews amalgams”, Lakoff 1974), I argue that ‘weiß Gott’ (‘God knows’) in Present Day German (PDG) has fully grammaticalized into an indefinite particle (like German ‘irgend’ [‘any, some’]); it combines with a wh-element to form a complex word of category D (an indefinite determiner/pronoun). I argue that ‘weiß Gott w-’ indefinites are scalar in that they [i.] existentially quantify over a subset X of the alternatives that the wh-element introduces, [ii.] and the alternatives in this subset X are high on a salient scale. This scalar effect is illustrated in (1), where ‘weiß Gott wer’ (‘God knows who’) is understood to mean ‘someone important’ (i.e. someone who is high on a scale of importance). I argue that the scalarity of ‘weiß Gott w-’ is part of the truth-functional at-issue content of a sentence (cf. Potts 2015), due to semantic reanalysis of what used to be a conversational implicature (cf. Eckardt 2006).


Syntax Square 10/6 - Nick Longenbaugh

Speaker: Nick Longenbaugh (MIT)
Title: The processing of long-distance dependencies in Niuean (joint work with Masha Polinsky)
Time: Tuesday 10/6, 10-11am
Place: 32-D461

It is well documented that nominative-acccusative alignment coincides with a strong subject-preference in long-distance dependency formation, both in terms of processing (in particular, subject gaps in relative clauses are processed more easily than other types of gaps) and accesibility for extraction (there appears to be an implicational universal that the availability of relativization with a gap entails the availability of subject relativization with a gap Keenan & Comrie 1977). This subject preference does not, however, carry over uniformly to languages with ergative-absolutive alignment; in some morphologically ergative languages, the ergative subject cannot extract with a gap at the extraction site, a phenomenon termed `syntactic ergativity’. In this talk, I explore the viability of a processing-based explanation of syntactic ergativity. Much as has been proposed for various island phenomena (Kluender 1998, 2004), the extraction of ergative arguments may simply be more taxing on the parser than corresponding absolutive extraction. If this is true, following Hawkins (2004, 2014), syntactically ergative languages could then be taken to differ from their morphologically ergative counterparts in their tolerance for difficult structure, eliminating the less efficient, more difficult ergative extraction. To test this account, I explore the processing of relative clauses in Niuean, a morphologically, but not syntactically, ergative language. Niuean is an ideal test case, given that it is closely related to the syntactically ergative Tongan, and thus might be expected to show an obvious bias against ergative extraction (a bias that Tongan turns into a categorical restriction). I present novel experimental data showing that ergative subject gaps in Niuean RCs do not impose any additional processing difficulty as compared to the processing of absolutive object gaps, thus calling into question the viability of the processing account in this domain.

Ling Lunch 10/8 - Athulya Aravind & Nick Longenbaugh

Note: Because these are practice talks for NELS, there will be two shorter talks this week.

Time: Thursday, October 8, 12:30-1:45pm
Place: 32-D461

Speaker: Athulya Aravind (MIT)
Title: Minimality and wh-licensing in Malayalam

Malayalam (Dravidian) is characterized as a wh-in-situ language, but wh-phrases in embedded clauses cannot take matrix scope (Madhavan 1987). This restriction is surprising in light of two facts (i) the wh-in-situ strategy is not clause-bounded in other wh-in-situ langages like Japanese and Korean, and (ii) Malayalam finite embedded clauses are otherwise transparent to syntactic and semantic operations. Similar restrictions in languages like Hindi, Bangla and Iraqi Arabic have led some researchers to conclude that wh-in-situ languages may vary parametrically in locality of wh-agreement (Ouhalla 1996, Simpson 2000). I will argue instead that the wh-in-situ strategy is uniformly non-clause-bounded. Failure to licensewh-phrases across a clause boundary can be shown to result from the interaction of wh-agreement and independent operations affecting embedded clauses. In Malayalam, wh-licensing is disrupted by A-bar movement of finite CPs, which creates a minimality violation. The features on the head of the embedded clause triggering clausal movement in the first place are sufficiently similar to wh-features that they block Agree between a higher C and an embedded wh-phrase. I show that in configurations in which such intervention is circumvented, e.g. in cleft questions, finite embedded clauses do not appear to be wh-scope islands.

Speaker: Nick Longenbaugh (MIT)
Title: Difficult movement



LFRG 10/9 - Paul Marty

Speaker: Paul Marty (MIT)
Time: Friday, October 9, 2-3:30
Place: 32-D831
Title: Economize Binding Theory

In the stream of generative linguistics, it has been proposed that derivations and interface representations are subject to global economy principles. In this talk, I investigate the predictions made by such proposals regarding the licensing of the bound-variable construal of pronouns in natural languages. Capitalizing on Ruys (1994), I propose that the so-called Crossover effects, i.e. cases in which the bound-variable interpretation of a pronouns is unavailable (e.g., *He_i likes every student_i, *His_i mother likes every student_i), reduce to violations of the following two economy principles:

(1) Interface Economy: Be as economical as possible in deriving an LF output representation.

(2) Interface Transparency: Favor transparent reflections of LF properties in PF precedence relationships.

I will begin by setting out the basic proposal behind Interface Economy and show that it provides a principled account for the distribution of the Strong Crossover (SCO) effects. I will argue, however, that the Weak Crossover (WCO) effects might be better captured by Interface Transparency, (2). It will be shown that the perspective advocated here sheds a new light on the cross-linguistic variations in WCO effects and offers a better grasp on the most recalcitrant counterexamples to previous WCO generalizations. If time permits, I will discuss how these facts support a model of grammar in which the rules assigning appropriate interpretations to anaphoric elements do not form a specific module but rather follow from more general principles that govern the whole computational system.


Chomsky relic

Punchcard from a 1978 National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship that allowed Noam Chomsky to refine and expand his theories of universal grammar. That was the year he spent at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, which led to his 1981 book “Lectures on Government & Binding”.


Ken Hale papers

A new addition to our departmental website collects a number of papers, both published and unpublished, as well as previously unavailable teaching materials by our legendary colleague and dear friend, the late Ken Hale (1934-2001). To quote from the introduction to the page (and please note our interest in adding more materials):

This page collects many of Ken Hale’s papers as well as some of his unpublished teaching materials that were preserved by his students. The collection includes some papers that are well-known but not very accessible, as well as others that will be new to most readers — along with hectographed handouts from the 1970s and marvels of early word processing that should bring a smile of reminiscence to students and colleagues who were lucky enough to attend Ken’s classes or public lectures. “We are making these materials available so that the work that went into these papers and handouts will not be lost to the communities of linguists and speakers that Ken’s work so enriched. These papers do not merely document a wonderful man, a great career and a stunningly productive era in the history of linguistics. They also contain ideas, discoveries and puzzles that Ken himself did not develop further that still have the power to excite — to advance the study of human language and languages, and the intellectual wealth that they embody for their speakers. “We are grateful to Ken’s children Ezra and Caleb for their permission to organize this site, as well as to Ken’s co-authors represented here. We are eager to add to this collection. If you have additional materials to contribute, please contact <see site for email address>.


10/6 - Getting From Here to There: Prof. Shigeru Miyagawa

Tuesday, October 06, 2015
Speaker: Shigeru Miyagawa, MIT Professor of Linguistics and Professor of Japanese Language and Culture
Time: 5:15p–6:15p
Location: 3-133

Getting From Here to There: A Series of Faculty Talks for Students

MIT students may find it hard to imagine their accomplished professors as uncertain twenty-somethings, making choices about grad school, first jobs and career paths. This series is designed to give students new insights into the many twisting and unexpected paths one can take toward a successful career.

On Tuesday, October 6th at 5:15pm in 3-133, Professor Shigeru Miyagawa will share his journey from growing up as a Japanese-American in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to becoming an MIT faculty member with a career bridging Japan and America, linguistics and culture, education and technology.

Open to: the general public
Sponsor(s): Chancellor’s Office, Professor Lorna Gibson