The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, April 10th, 2017

Phonology Circle 4/10 - Benjamin Storme

Speaker: Benjamin Storme (MIT)
Title: Cyclicity in Standard French: the role of stem-base perceptual similarity
Date/Time: Monday, April 10, 5:00–6:30pm
Location: 32-D461

In Standard French, stems in derivatives behave regularly or cyclically depending on the phonological shape of the suffix: stem-final mid vowels behave regularly if the suffix starts with a non-schwa vowel or a glide, and cyclically otherwise. I compare two approaches to explain this pattern: a syllable-based analysis (cf van Oostendorp 2004 on a similar pattern in Dutch), and a perceptually-based analysis. The syllable-based analysis predicts that cyclic application entails identical syllabification of the base-final consonant and its correspondent in the stem. The perceptually-based analysis predicts that cyclic application entails greater perceptual similarity of the base-final consonant and its correspondent in the stem. A comparison of the results of two experiments (a small experiment based on a syllabification task and an experiment based on a discrimination task) suggests that the perceptually-based analysis is superior: it can better explain the difference between liquid-initial suffixes (before which stems behave cyclically) and glide-initial suffixes (before which stems behave regularly). The results of this study are relevant for two debates in phonology: whether phonotactics are better explained in syllable-based or perceptually-based terms (Steriade 1999), and whether phonetic detail plays a role in cyclicity (Steriade 2000).

LFRG 4/12 - Neil Banerjee

Speaker: Neil Banerjee (MIT)
Title: A problem with future-shifting
Date and time: Wednesday April 12, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

The English verbs hope and want are future-shifters in that they allow their non-future complements to be interpreted as occurring in the future.

(1) a. Paul hopes to win the championship.
b. Sam wants to live in Boston.

Assuming that non-finite clauses behave like bound present tense, Abusch (2004) builds the future shift into the lexical semantics of future-shifting verbs. Work by Lekakou and Nilsen (2008), as well as Klecha (2016) suggests that the difference, while lexical, can be made to fall out from Condoravdi’s (2001) diversity condition and the modal base of the attitude report. This gives us a lexical semantics where the future is introduced because of the modal base of the attitude report. Verbs compatible with non-doxastic modal bases are predicted to be future-shifters. Independent evidence from want suggests that it can indeed have a non-doxastic modal base, and is also a future-shifter. But the prediction then is that hope and want should then have the same truth conditions in the following case.

(2) a. I have what I want
b. *I have what I hope

Evidence from other future shifters in English (other attitude verbs, antecedents of conditionals, probability reports) suggests that locating the source of futurity in the modal base may not be on the right track. I leave finding the right track as a puzzle for the future.

Ling-Lunch 4/13 - Ezer Rasin

Speaker: Ezer Rasin (MIT)
Title: Severing stress from phonology
Date/Time: Thursday, April 13th, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

According to the consensus view in generative linguistics, the cognitive module known as ‘phonology’ is responsible for various phonological computations, including the computation of word stress, tone, and segmental processes. I will present two differences between stress and segmental phonology to motivate a modular decomposition of phonology, where the computation of stress is carried out in a separate module with a limited interaction with the rest of phonology:

1) Information Encapsulation: drawing on observations by de Lacy (2006) and Blumenfeld (2006), I propose a universal asymmetry between stress and segmental processes. Segmental processes are often sensitive to the position of stress (In American English, for example, [t] is flapped between a preceding stressed vowel and a following unstressed vowel, as in políDical vs. politícian) but the computation of stress is never directly sensitive to segmental information: stress patterns like ‘stress the rightmost vowel followed by a velar’ are unattested, and can be excluded in the modular architecture if the input to the stress module excludes representations of segmental features.

2) Weak Generative Capacity: Heinz (2014) observes that the computational complexity of attested stress patterns goes beyond that of segmental patterns. In particular, stress patterns can require exactly one primary stress per word, but segmental patterns that require exactly one e.g. sibilant per word are unattested. This difference places stress and segmental phonology in two different domains of the Chomsky hierarchy of formal languages, a hallmark of modularity.


Explanatory adequacy in formal semantics 4/14 - Keny Chatain

The reading group on explanatory adequacy in formal semantics continues this week with a discussion of the paper “The logical primitives of thought” by Piantadosi, S. T., Tenenbaum, J. B., and Goodman, N. D. led by Keny Chatain.

Speaker: Keny Chatain (MIT)
Title: Piantadosi, S. T., Tenenbaum, J. B., and Goodman, N. D. (2016). The logical primitives of thought: Empirical foundations for compositional cognitive models. Psychological review, 123(4):392–424 (link)
Date/Time: Friday, April 14, 2:00-3:00pm
Location: 32-D831

The notion of a compositional language of thought (LOT) has been central in computational accounts of cognition from earliest attempts (Boole, 1854; Fodor, 1975) to the present day (Feldman, 2000; Penn, Holyoak, & Povinelli, 2008; Fodor, 2008; Kemp, 2012; Goodman, Tenenbaum, & Gerstenberg, 2015). Recent modeling work shows how statistical inferences over compositionally structured hypothesis spaces might explain learning and development across a variety of domains. However, the primitive components of such representations are typically assumed a priori by modelers and theoreticians rather than determined empirically. We show how different sets of LOT primitives, embedded in a psychologically realistic approximate Bayesian inference framework, systematically predict distinct learning curves in rule-based concept learning experiments. We use this feature of LOT models to design a set of large-scale concept learning experiments that can determine the most likely primitives for psychological concepts involving Boolean connectives and quantification. Subjects’ inferences are most consistent with a rich (nonminimal) set of Boolean operations, including first-order, but not second-order, quantification. Our results more generally show how specific LOT theories can be distinguished empirically.

Tenure for Omer Preminger

Special congratulations to distinguished alum Omer Preminger (PhD ‘11) on his promotion to Associate Professor with tenure at the University of Maryland!


A new Haitian Creole-English elementary school opens in Boston

Faculty member Michel DeGraff shares with us the news of the opening of the first dual-language Haitian Creole-English elementary school in Boston, as reported in The Atlantic:

“I think this is a great example of linguistics and education for social justice—-and an antidote against “othering” in our political era. I particularly like these headlines from the Atlantic:  ”Dual-language programs universally focus on both language and culture, giving students who come from that given culture an opportunity to see their own histories prioritized by their schools and giving other students an opportunity to develop a deep appreciation for people who are different from them.”“



AFLA 24 happened over the weekend, and MIT was represented by students both current and erstwhile. TC Chen (Ling-11) and Mitcho Erlewine (PhD ‘14) gave talks, while Julie Anne Legate (PhD ‘02) was an invited speaker.

TC presenting at AFLA

Credits for the picture: Michael Erlewine (mitcho)