The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, February 6th, 2017

Welcome to the Spring 2017 semester!

Welcome to the first Whamit! edition of Spring 2017!

Whamit! is the MIT Linguistics newsletter. It is published every Monday during the semester. The editorial staff consists of Adam Albright, Kai von Fintel, David Pesetsky, Suzana Fong, and as of Spring 2017, Neil Banerjee, Yadav Gowda, and Mitya Privoznov. Welcome Neil, Yadav and Mitya!

To submit items for inclusion in Whamit! please send an email to whamit@mit.edu by Sunday 6pm.

Our best wishes for an enjoyable semester!

Welcome to our new visitors!

Visiting Scholars

Mascaró received his PhD from our department. Currently, he is a professor at UAB and he works on phonological theory and descriptive phonology and morphology

“My research interests are in semantics, pragmatics (particularly formal and experimental approaches), and reasoning. Currently, I’m working on implicative verbs (in Finnish and English) and related issues, inlcuding actuality entailments on ability modals.”

Visiting Students

“I am a third year PhD student at NYU Linguistics. My research interests lie primarily in the area of semantics and pragmatics, and their interfaces with syntax and prosody. I am keenly interested in cross-modal phenomena, in particular, in sign language and gesture.”

“I’m a fourth-year PhD student at Stony Brook University specializing in semantics and its interfaces with pragmatics and syntax. More specifically, my work is primarily in intensionality, event semantics, gradability, and the pragmatics of co-speech gesture.”

Winter news

We have several items of winter news from students and faculty:

  • First and foremost, we are very happy to congratulate Amanda Swenson on the successful defence of her dissertation “The Morphosyntax and Morphosemantics of Malayalam verbs”.11336851_946035558749855_9007491336874171080_o-2
  • The most pressing world news of the winter affected MIT linguistic community as well. Our leaders can be smart or stupid, but, as a Soviet comedian once said, dealing with us, they have no idea of the class of professionals they are messing with, because we are quite accomplished at defending ourselves and our friends. Many members of MIT linguistic community participated in the Boston Women’s March, as well as in the protests against the President’s recent executive order. Faculty Wayne O’Neil reports: “On 21 January, I was among the ~175,000 at the Boston Women’s March. And on 29 January, I was with the ~20,000 at Copley Sq, protesting Trump’s illegal executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries.”
  • The linguistic life, however, goes on. Many our faculty members, students and alumni participated in the Linguistic Society of America’s 2017 Annual Meeting (see detailed account at our other post). As linguistics may at some point take its rightful place among such respectable high school disciplines as physics, The LSA Annual Meeting held an organized session on Getting high school students into linguistics - Current activities and future directions (7 January), where Wayne O’Neil presented a paper (‘This time is different’) at an LSA2017/Austin TX. The entire session will shortly appear on line.
  • Another faculty member Michel DeGraff was part of a panel on Language and Educational Justice organized by Prof. Anne Charity Hudley and Prof. Mary Bucholtz on January 6, 2016.
  • Michel DeGraff also took part in the General Assembly of the Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen (“Haitian Creole Academy”) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on December 15-18, 2016.
  • MIT was also represented at the Berkeley Linguistics Society. Michelle Yuan and former visiting student Nico Baier (UC Berkeley) presented “Anti-agreement with bound variables”. Omer Preminger (PhD 2011) gave a plenary talk titled “Privativity in Syntax”.
  • Meanwhile, in the Old World our faculty member Roni Katzir and our graduate student Ezer Rasin taught a mini-course in Paris on “Compression-based learning in phonology and semantics”. A description of the course is available here (phonology) and here (semantics). This would be specifically interesting for those who plan to attend Roni Katzir’s class “Special Topics: Learning and Learnability” (24.S96) offered this semester, as well as several LFRG sessions devoted to the explanatory adequacy in semantics (keep an eye on WHAMIT and LFRG announcements).
  • In Nijmegen, the Netherlands, Michel DeGraff taught a one-week course at the LOT Winter School of Linguistics (see also here) (January 9-13, 2017). He also gave the Schultink lecture, with the title “A Cartesian Creolist’s Agenda for Linguistics in the 21st century”. Abstract and more details are available here.
  • David Pesetsky gave a six-hour mini-course entitled “Exfoliation: towards a derivational theory of clause size” at the University of Bucharest on January 19-20 (just as the anti-government demonstrations were getting under way) at the invitation of Carmen Dobrovie-Sorin and Alexandra Cornilescu, and was delighted to reunite with our Spring 2016 visitors Alexandru Nicolae and Adina Dragomirescu.

MIT Linguistics at the LSA

MIT linguists had another strong year at the LSA 2017 Annual Meeting, this year held in Austin, TX from January 5th-8th, 2017.

The following department members and recent graduates presented talks and posters:

Athulya Aravind and Kristen Syrett (Rutgers): Gradability and vagueness in the nominal domain: an experimental approach

Lauren Clemens (SUNY Albany), Jessica Coon (PhD ‘10), Carol-Rose Little (Cornell), and Morelia Vázquez Martínez (ITSM): Encoding focus in Ch’ol spontaneous speech

Michel DeGraffLinguistics, STEM, educational justice and political and economic equality: MIT-Haiti as case study for retooling linguistics

Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine (PhD ‘14): C-T head-splitting: evidence from Toba Batak

Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine and Ted Levin (PhD ‘15): On the unavailability of argument ellipsis in Kaqchikel

Rachel Dudley (UMD), Meredith Rowe (Harvard), Valentine Hacquard (PhD ‘06) and Jeffrey Lidz (UMD): Distributional cues to factivity in the input

Aron HirschFragments, pseudo-clefts, and ellipsis

Michela Ippolito (PhD ‘02), Angelika Kiss (UToronto), and Tomohiro Yokotama (UToronto): The semantics of object marking in Kinyarwanda

Sudheer Kolachina (S.M. ‘16): Vowel harmony in Telugu

Hadas Kotek (PhD ‘14): Movement and alternatives don’t mix: a new look at intervention effects

Ivona Kučerová (PhD ‘07): Evidence against φ-feature resolution accounts of agreement with DP coordinations

Ted Levin (PhD ‘15): Palauan DOM is a licensing phenomenon

Lilla MagyarGemination in loanwords: interaction between perceptual similarity and gradient phonotactic well-formed ness

Kevin Tang (Yale) and Andrew Nevins (PhD ‘05): Expectation and lexical retrieval in naturalistic and experimental misperception

Christopher O’BrienATB-movement and island effects: an experimental study

Wayne O’Neil: This time is different

Juliet StantonInteractions between prenasalized stops and nasal vowels

Coppe van Urk (PhD ‘15): Mixed chains in Dinka

Michael McAuliffe (McGill), Michaela Socolof (McGill), Sarah Mihuc (McGill), Michael Wagner (PhD ‘04), and Morgan Sonderegger (McGill): Montreal Forced Aligner: an accurate and trainable forced aligner using Kaldi

Michelle YuanOn apparent ergative agreement in Inuktitut

Ryan Sandell (UCLA) and Sam ZukoffThe development of the Germanic preterite system: learnability and the modeling of diachronic morphophonological change

Additionally, Christopher Baron (A prospective puzzle and a possible solution) and Cora Lesure (Phonologically null morphemes and templatic morphology: The case of Chuj (Mayan) ‘h’) presented at SSILA (Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas) 2017, which was held jointly with the LSA annual meeting.

Spring 2017 reading groups

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. Light refreshments will be provided. Please contact Rafael Abramovitz and/or Abdul-Razak Sulemana if you would like to reserve a slot.

  • February: 13, 27
  • March: 20
  • April: 24

Syntax Square will be meeting on Tuesdays, from 1-2pm in 32-D461 (the 4th floor seminar room). Rough ideas, works in progress and presentations of papers from the literature are very welcome! Please contact this semester’s organizers, Justin Colley or Danfeng Wu to reserve a slot. The following dates are still open:

  • February: 14
  • March: 7, 14, 21
  • April: 4, 11, 25
  • May: 2, 9, 6

LFRG will be meeting on Wednesdays from 1-2pm in 32-D461. LFRG is an informal, weekly semantics and syntax/semantics interface group. Rough ideas, work in progress, practice talks and discussion of papers from the literature are most welcome. Please contact this semester’s organizers Itai Bassi or Mitya Privoznov for more information.

LPRG will be on Wednesdays, 3:30-5pm in the 7th floor conference room. The Linguistics & Philosophy Reading Group is encouraging people planning to attend to sign up for presenting a paper or leading a discussion on a paper. Co-presenting is especially encouraged. Further questions can be directed to Chris Baron and/or Maša Močnik.

Ling-Lunch is a series of weekly talks, held on Thursdays from 12:30 to 1:50pm. It is open to all linguistics topics and everybody is welcome to present their work, though preference is given to members of the MIT Linguistics Department. Contact this semester’s organizers, Keny Chatain and/or Suzana Fong, to reserve a slot.

  • April 20
  • May 4

MIT Linguistics Colloquium Schedule, Spring 2017

Colloquium talks will be held on Fridays from 3:30pm - 5:00pm in 32-155 unless otherwise noted. Please check the colloquia webpage for details and any updates. For further information, please contact organisers Nick Longenbaugh or Elise Newman.

LFRG 2/8 - Ezer Rasin

Speaker: Ezer Rasin (MIT)
Title: Keenan, E. L., & Stavi, J. (1986). A semantic characterization of natural language determiners. Linguistics and Philosophy, 9, 253–326 (link)
Time/date: Wednesday, Feb. 8, 1-2pm
Location: 32D-461

Ling-Lunch 2/9 — Stuart Davis

Speaker: Stuart Davis (Indiana University)
Title: On Explaining English Schwa Syncope
Time: Thursday, February 9, 12:30pm-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

English schwa syncope (Zwicky 1972, Hooper 1978, Kenstowicz 1994, Polgardi 2015) deletes schwa between word-internal consonants.  The structural observation is that schwa syncope is likely to occur if the resulting consonant cluster has rising sonority (1) but not if the resulting cluster has falling (or level) sonority (2) (where the target schwa is underlined).

(1) chocolate opera family happening javelin Deborah

(2) pelican felony monitor canopy picketing melody

Hooper (1978) emphasizes the structural conditions noting that even high frequency words will disfavor schwa syncope if the structural conditions are not right. Thus, mel­ody strongly disfavors schwa syncope since the resulting cluster after syncope has falling sonority.

Typologically, the schwa syncope pattern is odd since it favors rising sonority clusters over falling ones in syllable contact.  This can be contrasted with English hypocoristic formation which favors intervocalic falling sonority clusters over rising ones as can be seen in the comparison of Barbara-Barby with Gabriella-Gabby (not Gabry).  Further, the exact location of the syllable boundary of the resulting schwa-deleted forms in (1) is not clear; Hooper (1978) maintains that the resulting cluster is always ambisyllabic.   On the other hand, if schwa syncope were to apply in (2) the resulting cluster would have a clear syllable boundary. For example, schwa syncope applied to pelican (i.e. pel.can) results in a clear syllable break between the two consonants of the resulting cluster.  Under a new conception of English schwa syncope developed in this talk, schwa syncope is viewed as a problem of foot structure reduction:  Schwa syncope reduces a dactylic foot into a preferred trochaic one.  We will maintain that a preferred trochee in English has ambiguous syllabification within the foot and that this functionally helps to enhance the foot-initial boundary.

MIT Colloquium 2/10 - Gaja Jarosz (UMass Amherst)

Speaker: Gaja Jarosz (UMass Amherst)
Title: Sonority Sequencing in Polish: Interaction of Prior Bias and Experience
Time: Friday, February 10th, 3:30-5:00 pm
Place: 32-155

Recent work on phonological learning has questioned the traditional view that innate principles guide and constrain language development in children and explain universal properties cross-linguistically. In this talk I focus on a particular universal, the Sonority Sequencing Principle (SSP), which governs preferences among sequences of consonants syllable-initially. Experimental evidence indicates that English, Mandarin, and Korean speakers exhibit sensitivity to the SSP even for consonant sequences that never occur syllable-initially in those languages (such as [nb] vs. [bn] in English). There is disagreement regarding the implications of this finding. Berent et al. (2007) argue that these results can only be explained with reference to an innate principle; however, Daland et. al (2011) show that computational models capable of inferring statistical generalizations over sound classes can detect evidence for these preferences based on related patterns in the language input (and therefore no reference to innate principles is required). Building on these studies, I argue that English is the wrong test case: it does not differentiate predictions of these two hypotheses. I examine learning of syllable structure phonotactics in Polish, a language with very different sonority sequencing patterns from English. Polish provides a crucial test case because the lexical statistics contradict the SSP, at least in part. I review developmental evidence indicating that children acquiring Polish are nonetheless sensitive to the SSP, producing larger sonority rises more accurately in spontaneous production (Jarosz to appear). I then present results from two experiments investigating adult Polish native speakers’ phonotactic knowledge. The findings indicate that Polish native speakers’ phonotactic preferences are sensitive to the SSP and that this SSP sensitivity is not predicted by the computational models that succeeded for languages like English, Mandarin, and Korean. This suggests a crucial role of an inherent bias or a constraint on generalization from the input. At the same time, native speakers’ sonority-sequencing preferences are not entirely expected on the basis of SSP alone, suggesting an important role for experience as well. I discuss implications of these prior bias – experience interactions for modeling of phonological learning.

Course announcements, Spring 2017

24.956: Topics in Syntax

  • Instructors: Noam Chomsky, Sabine Iatridou, David Pesetsky
  • Time: Fridays 10am-1pm
  • Room: 32-D461

This semester’s 24.956 will cover a number of loosely related topics.

  1. For the first five or six weeks, we will explore the syntactic behaviour of elements that are (apparently) totally or mostly devoid of meaning. We will have two foci: expletives and light verbs (such as English do of do-support fame). We will start with expletives. For the first class, please read and be prepared to hear about Amy Rose Deal’s 2009 paper in Syntax, entitled “The origin and content of expletives: evidence from selection”
  2. Then, for the next three or four weeks we will look into recent work by Chomsky and by researchers inspired by his recent papers, with a focus on labeling and related matters. These papers are not always easy, and have not been a focus in recent classes at MIT, so this should be new to most of you. In particular, the idea is to be well prepared for…
  3. … three classes by Noam. Here is an abstract for those classes:
    Assume, as reasonably well-established, that UG is a species property, with I-languages as instantiations, each a combinatorial system CS yielding representations at the conceptual-intensional CI interface, and modes of externalization to sensorimotor systems. Assume also that both methodological and empirical considerations suggest that the operations of CS are quite simple, perhaps approaching a version of the Strong Minimalist Thesis SMT. Crucial open questions arise at every point in this outline, among them the status of externalization (is it ancillary, or does it feed CI) and the nature of the operations of CS, which, there is reason to believe, have not yet been properly formulated, a matter of particular interest that I would like to turn to after some critical review and discussion of the general picture.
  4. Following this, there will be three more classes, on a topic that we will choose together.

Sabine will be mostly in charge of part 1, David of parts 2 and 4 — and, well, you know who will be in charge of part 3


Following we we think was a successful experiment in 24.956 last Spring, this class will not require a final paper or squib, on the grounds that if you’re interested in syntax, you are working on papers anyway. Instead, we will ask for :

  • weekly submission of a comment or question+discussion based on that week’s reading
  • co-presentation of one or two of the topics to be covered in parts 1, 2 or 4 of the class (details to be announced after class 1, partly depending on registration numbers)

If you find the class topics interesting and plan to attend, please register! Our hope is that people who attend will be active participants, and without the burden of a final research paper will find it more attractive to register— so they truly involve themselves in the class.

24.964: Topics in Phonology: The Phonetics and Phonology of Sentence Prosody

  • Instructor: Edward Flemming
  • Time: Wednesdays 10am-1pm
  • Room: 32-D461

Different ways of pronouncing the same sentence can convey different meanings. The properties of pronunciation that modify meaning in this way are referred to as sentence prosody. There are three components of prosody: intonational melody, prominence, and phrasing. These components will be introduced through an overview of English prosody, then we will investigate the phonological representation and phonetic realization of each in more detail based on data from a variety of languages.

The goal of this course is to provide sufficient understanding of the phonetics and phonology of sentence prosody for participants to be able to engage in research on prosody in its own right, or in relation to other areas of linguistics (e.g. syntax, semantics/pragmatics, sentence processing).


  1. Overview of the prosody of English
    • The Pierrehumbert/Beckman analysis of American English intonation
    • ToBI transcription
    • The phonetic implementation of intonation and phrasing
  2. Instrumental and experimental techniques
    • Pitch tracking
    • Resynthesis
  3. Intonational melody
    • What are the contrastive units of intonation?
    • Phonetic realization of melody
    • Alignment of F0 and segments
  4. Prominence
    • The variety of meaningful prominence distinctions
    • Focus marking across languages
    • Phonetic correlates of prominence
    • The interaction of downstep and declination with prominence marking (Japanese, English)
  5. Phrasing
    • Representation (prosodic hierarchical structure? boundaries?)
    • The factors that determine prosodic phrasing

24.979: Topics in Semantics

  • Instructors: Gennaro Chierchia & Irene Heim
  • Time: Thursdays, 2-­‐5PM
  • Places: 32-­‐D461 (MIT) & Emerson 106 (Harvard)

Indefinites: where do we stand?

This class will analyze the scope, quantificational, and anaphoric properties ofi ndefinites. We will start from the ‘classic DRT’ period and work our way to present days, through dynamic approaches and situation based ones.

  • Week 1: Introduction to classic DRT for the uninitiated. Indefinites as variables, quantificational variability, adverbs of quantification, existential closure.
  • Week 2: Developments of classical DRT. Diesing’s mapping hypothesis, aspects of the theory of generics
  • Week 3: Basically, Heim (1982) and its developments. The birth of dynamic semantics: File Change Potentials.
  • Week 4: “Standard” Dynamic Semantics of the 90’s. Indefinites as Dynamic Generalized Quantifiers, weak and strong readings of donkey pronouns, existential disclosure.
  • Week 5: Situation based approaches and e-­‐type anaphora
  • Week 6: More on situation based approaches and e-­‐type anaphora
  • Week 7: The debate on long distance indefinites: Non canonical scope properties of indefinites. Weak 8: Students’ presentations
  • Weak 9: An interesting way to compare dynamic vs. e-­‐type approaches: Plural anaphora.
  • Week 10: Student presentations
  • Week 11: An attempt at explaining Weak Crossover with dynamic semantics
  • Week 12: More on Weak Crossover
  • Week 13: Other Binding Theoretic issues (especially, principle B and principle C).

24.S95: Computation and Linguistic Theory

  • Instructor: Roni Katzir
  • Time: Tuesdays 10-1
  • Room: 32-D461

In this class we will explore the connection between linguistic theory and models of learning, examining considerations of learning that have been central to work in theoretical linguistics over the years.

The first half of the class focuses on the learning challenge from a mathematical and computational perspective. We will discuss work by Gold, Angluin, and others showing that, on certain innocent-looking assumptions, the child faces insurmountable problems when faced with even basic learning tasks. We will further see that making the learning criterion probabilistic seems at first to make the learning task much easier but ultimately does not help. During this formal part of the course we will also discuss mathematical notions of complexity and look at how these provide a natural handle on the kind of generalization needed for learning, along with a tight connection between linguistic representations and the learning process.

In the second half of the semester we will look at experimental attempts to determine what can and cannot be learned both in humans and in other organisms, starting with the radical empiricist approach of behaviorists such as Watson and Skinner and moving to the instinct-centered approach of ethologists like Lorenz and Tinbergen. In this context we will discuss Chomsky’s review of Skinner, as well as other early generative work on learning. We will then turn to the familiar argument from the Poverty of Stimulus and examine its implications for the child in light of the conclusions arising from the first part of the semester. We will then consider results that show that humans are very good at extracting certain kinds of statistical regularities from unanalyzed data but very bad at learning other, seemingly similar patterns. We will end the semester by looking at what can be said about the division of labor between innateness and learning based on typological generalizations and at the nuanced view on this connection offered by evolutionary approaches to language change.

Requirements: attendance and participation; reading; and a final paper.

(Please, check back for updates!)