The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 19th, 2015

Syntax Square 10/20 - Isa Kerem Bayirli

Speaker: Isa Kerem Bayirli (MIT)
Title: On the concord phenomenon
Time: Tuesday 10/20, 10-11am
Place: 32-D461

I will talk about the morphosyntactic features (gender, number and case) that enter into concord in natural languages. I first attempt to establish the following generalization:

Concord Hierarchy

For some language L Let a1…an be features (canonically) hosted by functional heads in the extended projection of the noun such that aj+1 c-commands aj, then

If aj+1 enters into concord with the adjectives in L
then aj enters into concord with the adjectives in L

This generalization is derived from an extension of the FA Rule (first version) developed in Pesetsky (2013). It turns out that, when combined with some, hopefully plausible, assumptions, this system makes two more predictions: concord-suspension complementarity and idiosyncratic gender generalization. I provide some data indicating that the observations are in line with these predictions.

ESSL/Language Acquisition Lab 9/21: Michael Clauss

Speaker: Michael Clauss (UMass)
Title: Classifying Adjectives without Semantic Information (joint work with Jeremy Hartman)
Time: 5-6:30pm
Place: 32D-461

The problem of children’s acquisition of “Tough” constructions in English has a long history. It has often been found that children commonly interpret the subjects of “Tough” sentences as the subjects of the embedded clauses rather than the objects, analogous to Control adjectives like “eager”. Numerous studies have shown this phenomenon (Chomsky 1969, Solan 1978, Anderson 2005). Recent work by Becker (2014) suggests that children are better than previously claimed, and can use semantic cues (namely subject animacy) to give the correct parse to sentences of this form, based on novel word learning experiments.

  • The teacher is ADJ to draw → The teacher1 is ADJ [PRO1 to draw]
  • The apple is ADJ to draw → The apple1 is ADJ [PROar b to draw (e)1]

The present work seeks to expand the picture developed by this recent work by examining what syntactic cues children (and adults) may use to parse potentially ambiguous strings with novel adjectives, particularly in environments with as little semantic content as possible. To answer this, we start with the observation that Tough and Control adjectives appear in a different range of syntactic frames. Thus, a novel adjective may be ambiguous between Tough and Control interpretations in some syntactic frames, but unambiguously Tough or Control if it is heard in others.

a John is daxy to see (ambiguous)
b It’s daxy to see John (tough only)
c John is daxy to see Bill (Control only)
d John is daxy to look at (tough only)

In our experiment, participants were taught a novel adjective in one of the frames in (a-d), and then tested by being asked questions about a series of pictures using the ambiguous frame (which one is daxy to [verb]). We found that children, aged 4-6, consistently skew toward Control readings no matter which frame was used in training. For adults, however, we found that training condition had a strong effect on performance on the test; adults were at chance responding when trained on the ambiguous condition a, but tended to give the expected answers on the other conditions. The different performance of children and adults adds support to the notion that, for children, semantic information is crucial to choose between the two adjective types, while for adults syntax does most of the work.

However, we also find that the Tough construction is still difficult to learn from syntax for adults: adults are less likely to give target responses in the conditions which should train for Tough syntax than for the condition that trains for Control. We also argue that this shows that there is some general bias towards Control-type interpretations for both children and adults which interacts with cues that signify Tough constructions. We discuss further paths to piecing together all the cues which might signify that a word is of either of these types.

Ling Lunch 10/22 - Kenyon Branan

Speaker: Kenyon Branan (MIT)
Title: Licensing with Case: Evidence from Kikuyu
Time: Thurs 10/22, 12:30-1:45
Place: 32-D461

In Kikuyu, structurally low, post-verbal nominal arguments are subject to a curious restriction: adjacency between the noun head and the verbal complex must not be interrupted by any element. However, this restriction holds only when the relevant nominal is the only argument in the post-verbal domain—-when there are two or more nominals in the post-verbal domain, none are subject to this restriction. In this talk, I argue that this can be explained straightforwardly in a configurational Case system, where Case may be assigned between two sufficiently local DPs. I also discuss the implications of this for two recent approaches to Case and Licensing: Levin (2015) and Baker (2015). These data constitute a strong argument against one of the core arguments in Levin (2015); namely, that Case, regardless of how it is assigned, does not have a licensing function.

LFRG 10/23 - Matt Mandelkern

Who: Matt Mandelkern (MIT)
When: Friday, October 23, 2-3:30pm
Where: 32-D461
Title: A Note on the Architecture of Semantic Presupposition

The Proviso Problem is the problem of accounting for the discrepancy between the predictions of nearly every major theory of semantic presupposition about what is semantically presupposed by conditionals, disjunctions, and conjunctions, versus observations about what speakers of certain sentences are felt to be presupposing. I argue that the Proviso Problem is a more serious problem than has been recognized in much of the current literature. After briefly describing the problem and a set of standard responses to the problem, I give a number of examples which, I argue, the standard responses are unable to account for. I argue that not only are the details of those responses inadequate, but so is the more general theoretical architecture that they instantiate. I conclude by briefly exploring alternate approaches to presupposition that avoid this problem.

Thursday Talk 10/22 - Philippe Schlenker

Speaker: Philippe Schlenker (Institut Jean-Nicod, CNRS; New York University)
Title: Formal Monkey Linguistics
When and where: 5-630 PM Thursday, 32D-461
Abstract: Monkey_Linguistics-MIT-15.10.17

Colloquium 10/23 - Philippe Schlenker

Speaker: Philippe Schlenker (Institut Jean-Nicod, CNRS; New York University)
Title: Visible Meaning: Signs vs. Gestures
Date: Friday, October 23rd
Time: 3:30-5:00 PM
Place: 32-141

Semantic studies of sign language have led to two general claims. First, in some cases sign languages make visible some crucial aspects of the Logical Form of sentences, ones that are only inferred indirectly in spoken language. For instance, sign language ‘loci’ are positions in signing space that can arguably realize logical variables or ‘indices’, but the latter are covert in spoken language. Second, along one dimension sign languages are strictly more expressive than spoken languages because iconic phenomena can be found at their logical core. This applies to loci themselves, which may simultaneously function as logical variables and as simplified pictures of what they denote. As a result, the semantic system of spoken languages can in some respects be seen as a ‘degenerate’ version of the richer semantics found in sign languages. Two conclusions could be drawn from this observation. One is that the full extent of Universal Semantics can only be studied in sign languages. An alternative possibility is that spoken languages have comparable expressive mechanisms, but only when co-speech gestures are taken into account (Goldin-Meadow and Brentari 2015). In order to address this debate, one must compare a semantics with iconicity for sign language to a semantics with co-speech gestures for spoken language. We will sketch such a comparison, focusing on the assertive vs. non-assertive status of iconic/gestural enrichments in each modality.

Phonology Circle 10/19 - Discussion of Tessier & Jesney (2014)

Erin Olson will be leading a discussion of the following paper: Tessier, Anne-Michelle & Karen Jesney (2014). Learning in Harmonic Serialism and the necessity of a richer base. Phonology 31.1, 155-178.


The 46th annual meeting of the North East Linguistics Society was held at Concordia University (Montréal, Québec) on October 16-18, 2015. The following MIT students gave talks or poster presentations:

Two of our most distinguished alums gave invited talks …

…and the following alumni (also distinguished!) gave presentations: