The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, April 17th, 2017

Welcome to our 2017 incoming graduate class!

Joining our graduate program next Fall will be 10 new students. They come to us from 8 different countries (Brazil, Canada, China, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Russia, USA) and 8 different universities. We are so excited that you will be joining us — see you next September!

  • Daniel Asherov (Tel Aviv University)
  • Tatiana Bondarenko (Moscow State University)
  • Cater Chen (University of Toronto)
  • Sherry Chen (University of Oxford)
  • Boer Fu (UCLA)
  • Filipe Kobayashi (University of Toronto)
  • Vincent Rouillard (McGill)
  • Dóra Takács (University of Göttingen)
  • Chris Yang (UCLA)
  • Stanislao Zompí (University of Pisa)

Ling-Lunch 4/20 - Ian Roberts

Speaker: Ian Roberts (University of Cambridge/UConn)
Title: Verb Movement and Cartography in English and Romance
Date/Time: Thursday, April 20th, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

I begin by presenting the recent important proposals in Schifano (2014, 2015a,b) showing that across Romance there are at least four distinct landing sites in the TMA zone of the clause for finite lexical verbs, all of them higher than the position of the English lexical verb and lower than the V2 landing site. I then show, on the basis of the interaction of verb- and object-placement with very low adverbs in the Cinque (1999) hierarchy, that English has low vP-fronting, to SpecVoiceP. Both Romance and English verb-movement license a very low event variable (arguably a condition on “anchoring” the clause to the utterance situation, in Wiltschko’s 2014 sense). I then briefly consider the English auxiliary system, drawing largely on Harwood (2013). Finally, I briefly consider three further kinds of system: the fully analytical TMA system of Haitian Creole, and two kinds of V-initial system, comparing Welsh/Irish with Niuean. A range of quite simple parameters governing V-movement and licensing the TMA field emerges.

Explanatory Adequacy in Formal Semantics Reading Group 4/21 - Itai Bassi (MIT)

Speaker: Itai Bassi (MIT)
Title: Katzir, R., & Singh, R. (2013). Constraints on the lexicalization of logical operators. Linguistics and Philosophy 36:1–29.
Date/Time: Friday, April 21, 2–3pm
Location: 32-D831

We revisit a typological puzzle due to Horn (Doctoral Dissertation, UCLA, 1972) regarding the lexicalization of logical operators: in instantiations of the traditional square of opposition across categories and languages, the O corner, corresponding to ‘nand’ (= not and), ‘nevery’ (= not every), etc., is never lexicalized. We discuss Horn’s proposal, which involves the interaction of two economy conditions, one that relies on scalar implicatures and one that relies on markedness. We observe that in order to express markedness and to account for a bigger typological puzzle, namely the absence of lexicalizations of ‘XOR’ (= exclusive or), ‘all-or-none’, and many other imaginable logical operators, one must restrict the basic lexicalizable elements to a small set of primitives. We suggest that an ordering based perspective, following Keenan and Faltz (Boolean semantics for natural language, 1985), makes the stipulated primitives that we arrive at more natural. We also propose a modification to Horn’s proposal, based on recent work on implicatures, in which only the implicature condition is operative and in which markedness is part of the definition of the alternatives for scalar implicatures rather than an independent condition.

MIT Colloquium 4/21 - Gaja Jarosz (UMass Amherst)

Speaker: Gaja Jarosz (UMass Amherst)
Title: Sonority Sequencing in Polish: Interaction of Prior Bias and Experience
Time: Friday, April 21st, 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.


The 22nd Workshop on Structure and Constituency in Languages of the Americas (WSCLA) will take place later this week at the University of British Columbia, Canada, on April 21—23. Some current students and alumni will present their work:



The East Coast Syntax Workshop (ECO5) was held at the University of Connecticut on Saturday April 15. MIT was represented by two current students.

  • Colin Davis: Cyclic Linearization and Partial Pied-Piping
  • Suzana Fong: Getting out of a finite CP: an analysis of hyper-raising

Abdul-Razak at NYU on Q-particles

Friday April 14th, our third-year student, Abdul-Razak Sulemana, gave a talk at NYU Syntax Brown Bag Talk series on Q-particles and the nature of Covert movement: evidence from Bùlì.


Michelle Yuan — invited speaker for Workshop on Person

Our fourth-year graduate student Michelle Yuan is an invited student speaker for Manitoba Workshop on Person, which is going to take place in September 22-23.


Storme in Glossa

Congratulation to Benjamin Storme (5th year), who’s paper “The loi de position and the acoustics of French mid vowels” was accepted for publication in Glossa. The paper investigates the effect of syllable structure on vowel duration and vowel quality in French. The results are relevant for the study of closed syllable laxing. A pre-publication version can be found on lingbuzz: http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/003395


Teaching award to Claire Halpert

Congratulations are due to our alum Claire Halpert (PhD 2012), an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, on this teaching award from her university!

According to the UMN website, the Arthur “Red” Motley Exemplary Teaching Award, “acknowledges faculty who inspire and care, make themselves approachable, show an interest in individual students’ well-being and in programs for the benefit of students generally, give of themselves generously in advising, counseling, and directing projects, and create an active classroom atmosphere.”

We might add that two of Claire’s former students from Minnesota are students in our PhD program right now, as well as another who she taught at the African Linguistics School — so we know first-hand the power of her teaching. Congratulations, Claire!


Ling-16 did a puzzle!

Whamit! is happy to announce that, after many weeks of hard work, Ling-16 has completed* a 3000-piece puzzle depicting the fierce naval battle between the French ship “La Cannoniere”, and the English ship “The Tremendous” during the Action of 21 April 1806.

*Careful readers will notice that a single piece is missing from the puzzle. We can only assume this is intentional, and is meant to represent the ever-incomplete nature of our work as linguists.