The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, November 16th, 2015

SNEWS — Conference announcement  

As you know, Harvard is hosting this year’s meeting of SNEWS - a semantics workshop that brings together graduate students in Linguistics from 6 schools.

Date: Saturday, November 21, 2015
Talks in: Harvard Yard, Boylston Hall 105

The workshop program is now available on the website. All graduate students, visitors and faculty members are welcome to attend!


Phonology Circle 11/16 - Rafael Abramovitz  

Speaker: Rafael Abramovitz (MIT)
Title: Morphologically-conditioned restrictions on vowel distribution in Koryak
Date: Monday, November 16th
Time: 5-6:30
Place: 32-D831

When the morphemes of a language display systematic alternations in vowel quality based on other morphemes present in the same word, we usually consider vowel harmony to be the culprit. Based on the properties of the controllers of harmony, the attested vowel harmony systems can be roughly divided into two types: position-controlled systems and dominant-recessive systems. In both cases, standard analyses from various frameworks account for this phenomenon by appealing to the phonological features (or lack thereof) of the controlling and harmonizing vowels. In this presentation, I will argue that Koryak, a Chukotko-Kamchatkan language of the Russian Far East, displays systematic alternations in the quality of the vowels in its morphemes that are strongly reminiscent of dominant-recessive vowel harmony, but that these alternations cannot be accounted for by only appealing to the featural specifications of the various vowels. I will show that these alternations can only be captured by treating the harmonizing features as a property of morphemes, and will present two possible implementations of this idea, each of which requires the existence of yet-not-well-accepted machinery in either the phonological grammar or the set of post-syntactic operations. In particular, I will suggest that an explanation of the Koryak data requires there to be either constraints on the underlying representations, or a mechanism for percolating morpheme-level diacritics through the syntactic structure at PF.


Syntax Square 11/17 - Snejana Iovtcheva  

Speaker: Snejana Iovtcheva (MIT)
Title: Distinguishing ‘non-core’ external possessors from possessor raising in Bulgarian
Date: Tuesday, November 17th
Time: 10:00am-11:00am
Place: 32-D461


LFRG 11/17 - Itamar Kastner (NYU)  

Speaker: Itamar Kastner (NYU)
Title: Towards a compositional semantics for reflexives in Hebrew
Time: Tuesday, 11/17, 1-2:30pm
Location: 32-D769

The verbal system of Modern Hebrew consists of seven distinct verbal “templates”: specific morphophonological patterns of affixes and vowels which, on combining with a lexical “root” made up of consonants, result in verbal forms. This kind of non-concatenative morphology obscures the hierarchical arrangement of whichever syntactic, semantic and phonological primitives are involved; the affixes are all fused and superimposed one atop another, in a manner of speaking.

This talk focuses on the hitXaYeZ template (where X-Y-Z are the root consonants), the only one of the seven templates in which reflexive verbs can appear. The question is what is special about the morphosemantic structure of this template and how this structure interacts with the root.

On the one hand, the lexical semantic content of the root constrains the argument structure of the resulting verb (not all verbs in this template are reflexive). On the other hand, there must be something special about the hitXaYeZ template itself since it is the only one of the seven that derives reflexives; this behavior will be cashed out in terms of Voice-related heads in the syntax. I will discuss what this tension can tell us about the grammar of reflexivity, agentivity and unaccusativity crosslinguistically, reviewing a recent approach to the morphosemantics of reflexives in Greek (Spathas et al 2015).


LFRG 11/18 - Raj Singh & Ida Toivonen  

Speaker: Raj Singh & Ida Toivonen (Carleton University)
Title: Distance distributivity and the semantics of indefinite noun phrases
Time: Wednesday, 11/18, 5:30-7 pm
Location: 32-D461

The sentences in (1) are equivalent ways of expressing the meaning that for each boy x, there is a ball y such that x kicked y:

(1a) Each boy kicked a ball
(1b) The boys each kicked a ball
(1c) The boys kicked a ball each

This meaning is transparently expressed in (1a) and (1b), but it is harder to see how to derive this compositionally in (1c) because the distributive marker “each” is far away from “the boys”, hence “distance distributivity”. Previous approaches have approached the problem by analyzing the “each” in (1c) — so-called binominal “each” — as a new kind of operator, either derived from another “each” through type-shifting or by lexical stipulation (see e.g., Zimmermann, 2002; Dotlacil, 2014; Champollion, 2014; Cable, 2014).

We present evidence within and across languages suggesting that this approach misses important empirical generalizations. For example, unlike (1a) and (1b), (1c) becomes ungrammatical if “a” is replaced by anything that’s not an existential quantifier (Safir & Stowell, 1988):

(3a) Each boy kicked {the/no/every/one} ball
(3b) The boys each kicked {the/no/every/one} ball
(3c) The boys kicked {*the/*no/*every/one} ball each

In fact, in some languages (e.g., East Cree, Hungarian), distance distributivity is marked simply by reduplicating the numeral: “the boys kicked one-one ball” (e.g., Farkas, 1997; Junker, 2000).

We also present new experimental evidence from English and Swedish suggesting that participants prefer NPs headed by numerals to NPs headed by the indefinite article as hosts for binominal “each”. That is, although both (4a) and (4b) are acceptable, (4a) is preferred to (4b):

(4a) The boys kicked one ball each
(4b) The boys kicked a ball each

The talk will overview these and other generalizations that come from our experimental data collection as well as from typological studies. We will suggest an approach to distance distributivity that introduces no new semantic operators. Instead, our proposal reuses semantic machinery that has been motivated independently, but has to make stipulations about how these meanings are or are not visible at the surface. Specifically, we will argue that (i) indefinite objects in English can receive an incorporation semantics even though there’s no overt evidence for this (building on Carlson, 2006), (ii) that on their non-incorporated interpretation indefinites denote General Skolem Functions (e.g., Kratzer, 1998; Chierchia, 2001; Winter, 2004; Schlenker, 2006; Steedman, 2012), and (iii) that binominal “each”, like other markers of distance distributivity across languages, is the overt realization of a bound variable inside the Skolem term denoted by the indefinite NP it appears adjacent to on the surface.


Ling Lunch 11/19 - Idan Landau  

Speaker: Idan Landau (Ben-Gurion University)
Title: Hybrid Nouns and Agreement Zones Within DP
Time: Thursday, November 19th, 12:30-1:45 pm
Place: 32-D461

“Hybrid” nouns are known for being able to trigger either syntactic or semantic agreement, the latter typically occurring outside the noun’s projection. We document and discuss a rare example of a Hebrew noun that triggers either syntactic or semantic agreement within the DP. To explain this and other unusual patterns of nominal agreement, we propose a configurational adaptation of the CONCORD-INDEX distinction, originated in Wechsler and Zlatić 2003. Morphologically-rooted (=CONCORD) features are hosted on the noun stem while semantically-rooted (=INDEX) features are hosted on Num, a higher functional head. Depending on where attributive adjectives attach, they may display either type of agreement. The observed and unobserved patterns of agreement follow from general principles of selection and syntactic locality.

Colloquium 11/20 - Susi Wurmbrand  

Speaker: Susi Wurmbrand (University of Connecticut)
Title: Fake indexicals, feature sharing, and the importance of gendered relatives
Date: Friday, November 20th
Time: 3:30-5:00 PM
Place: 32-141

A popular trend in binding theories is to view binding as a dependency between the bindee and a functional verbal head (v, T, C), rather than a direct dependency between the antecedent DP and the bindee (Reuland 2001, 2005, 2011, Chomsky 2008, Kratzer 2009). In this talk, I will show that binding is not sensitive, nor can it be assumed to be driven or mediated by functional heads. Instead data are provided that argue for a return to the traditional view that binding requires a direct dependency between the antecedent and the bindee/variable. I propose that this dependency is formalized as Reverse Agree (Wurmbrand 2011 et seq.), constrained by a locality condition reminiscent of Rule H (Heim 1993, Fox 1998) and the concept of feature sharing proposed in Pesetsky and Torrego (2007).

The empirical focus of the talk will be bound variable interpretations, in particular (fake) indexical pronouns in four Germanic languages—English, Dutch, German, and Icelandic. In all four languages, bound variable interpretations are available for 1st and 2nd person pronouns in focus constructions such as Only I did my best—in these contexts, the 1st person pronoun my is not interpreted as the speaker in the set of alternatives (no one else did their best), but as a variable, hence the term fake indexicals. Fake indexicals are, however, restricted in relative clauses of the form I am the only one who takes care of my son/(*)who did my best: English and Dutch allow a bound variable interpretation of my in such contexts, whereas German and Icelandic prohibit fake indexicals (my can only be interpreted as referring to the speaker).

Kratzer (2009) proposes a morpho-syntactic spell-out approach for English vs. German, in which the feature sets of the relative pronoun, T, v, and the possessive pronoun unify, leading to conflicting 1st/3rd person feature specifications on T and the possessive pronoun, which leads to a fatal spell-out dilemma in German. In English, on the other hand, markedness rules allow ignoring certain features, and the spell-out dilemma can be resolved in favor of person for the possessive pronoun (my) and in favor of gender for verbs (with gender corresponding to 3rd person). This account does not address why only some languages have such markedness rules, in particular not why Dutch patterns with English and Icelandic with German.

Based on a series of word order differences, I show that the nature of the verbal inflection is irrelevant for the licensing of fake indexicals, but that the crucial factors are: c-command by the antecedent DP, and a locality condition favoring feature sharing with the closest possible binder whenever possible. I argue that the relevant difference between the two language groups lies in the morphological make-up of the head DP of the relative clause (and in German also the relative pronoun): the relative DP shows morphological gender distinctions in the singular in German and Icelandic, but not in English and Dutch. I propose that the lack of gender features allows by-passing the closest binder (the relative DP/pronoun) and long-distance binding by the indexical matrix subject directly, whereas morphologically fully specified relative pronouns/DPs restrict binding to the relative DP. Various consequences supporting this approach will be discussed, among them non-indexical bound variable contexts which show the same locality effect when gender agreement is attempted across a relative pronoun/DP with different morphological features.