The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, April 24th, 2017

Syntax Square 4/25 - Nick Longenbaugh

Speaker: Nick Longenbaugh (MIT)
Title: Towards a unified treatment of the φ-Agree/Move correlation
Date/Time: Tuesday April 25, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

The past two decades have seen an explosion of research into the cross-linguistic manifestation of φ-Agreement and the basic principles at stake in its operation. Much of the original impetus for this investigation came from a desire to understand the precise correlation between φ-Agree and movement. If anything, however, ensuing discoveries have muddied the waters in this domain. While it is almost universally acknowledged that φ-Agree and Move are related (see van Urk 2015 for discussion and a formalization of this link), there has been a steady retreat from the strong position of the early 1990s that φ-Agree is parasitic on movement.

(1) Specifier-head agreement (Kayne 1989): If AgrX is an agreement head and DP a phrase bearing φ-features, morphological agreement obtains only if the following structural configuration obtains: [AgrXP DP [AgrXP AgrX […DP…]]]

A principle like (1) is especially successful for capturing agreement phenomena in the vP domain, e.g., past-participle agreement (PPA) in Romance and Scandinavian (Kayne 1985, 1989a; Christensen and Taraldsen 1989), but a wealth of cross-linguistic data (in at least Tsez (Polinsky and Potsdam 2001; English (Chomsky 2000, 2001), Icelandic (Sigurðsson 1996, 2008; Boeckx 2010), Hindi-Urdu (Boeckx 2004; Bhatt 2005), Basque (Etxepare 2006; Preminger 2009)) supports a “long-distance” φ-Agree operation, as in Chomsky 2000, 2001.

(2) Agree (Chomsky 2000, 2001): An Agree relation obtains between a head H and a phrase XP, provided:
(i) Matching: XP bears valued features that are a superset of the unvalued features on H
(ii) Locality: There is no YP asymmetrically c-commanding XP that satisfies matching

Given that (2) formally dissociates Agree and Move, the link so commonly observed between them must be added back in, a task that usually falls to ad-hoc “EPP” features, either stipulated to be present on heads or probes themselves. This state of affairs leaves unanswered a number of fundamental questions, both theoretical and technical: How do we handle cases like PPA and other apparent instances of Spec-Head agreement? Can we predict which probes trigger movement, or must this be stipulated in an ad-hoc, language specific way? Most crucially, why should Agree and Move ever be correlated in the first place?

It is to these questions that this talk will be addressed. Beginning with a case study of PPA, I argue for the conclusion that every φ-probe has the postulated “EPP-property,” so that φ-Agree must trigger movement unless independent factors intervene to block it. This allows us to remove “EPP” as a feature of heads or probes, and to predict straightforwardly whether φ-Agree triggers movement. I then explore two consequences of this proposal. The first is that those “null subject” languages where T has φ-probe have both the traditional EPP (T must project a specifier) and null expletives (following Chomsky’s 1981 proposal), a result I argue for on independent grounds following Bresnan & Kanerva (1989) and Sheehan (2010). The second is a new theory of expletive there that treats it as a semantically vacuous oblique pronoun. By analogy to the behavior of oblique pronouns in Icelandic and cross-linguistically, I show this treatment better captures the distribution of there in English and cross-linguistically with fewer stipulations than competing treatments.


LFRG 4/26 - Keny Chatain

Speaker: Keny Chatain (MIT)
Title: Relative clauses; interactions with modals and definite article choice in Fering and Akan
Date and time: Wednesday April 26, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, I propose a different semantics for relative clauses that brings them closer to the semantics of conjoined sentences. This accounts for the intuition that in many cases (albeit not all), a sentence with a relative clause is paraphrasable as a conjunction of two clauses:

1. I saw a dog that was limping.

2. I saw a dog and it was limping.

I explore two consequences of this idea in two unrelated areas.

First, I show that this semantics can improve over the standard Grosu & Krifka (2007)’s account of intensional relative clauses (as in (3)), in that it avoids postulating type-shifters that are specific to this construction and it does not posit higher-order abstraction.

3. The gifted mathematician you claim to be should be able to solve this problem in no time.

Second, I show that this semantics can explain interactions between relative clauses and the choice of the definite article in languages with the weak/strong definite article distinction. While strong articles are standardly taken to be anaphoric to previously mentioned entities (Schwarz 2012), they can appear in combination with a restrictive relative clause even when no previous referent is available. However, using the strong form in contexts where they are not licensed is not possible in all languages that make the weak/strong distinction: while Fering can, Akan and Haitian creole cannot. I account for this split in terms of the syntax/semantics interface given here.

Finally, I will discuss other patterns that may fall out from the proposal, and patterns that probably won’t.


MIT Colloquium 4/28 - Jonathan Bobaljik (UConn)

Speaker: Jonathan Bobaljik (UConn)
Title: On Some Universals(?) of Case and Agreement
Time: Friday, April 28th, 3:30-5:00 pm
Place: 32-155

The distribution of the major case and agreement alignments has been held to reflect a tetrachoric (implicational) universal: languages may show the same alignment in both case and agreement, but if they diverge, then it is always the case that case alignment is ergative-absolutive, while agreement alignment is apparently nominative-accusative. The reverse combination is unattested. After reviewing the explanation of this universal in Bobaljik 2008 (cf. Baker 2008, Legate 2008), I examine alleged counter-examples, arguing that the universal survives scrutiny, once the distinction between accusative case and differential object marking is made clear. The proposed explanation makes use of the grouping of cases known as the Dependent Case Hierarchy: {nom/abs} < {erg/acc} < {dat/obl}. Dependent Case Theory may play a central role in the explanation of another asymmetry between case and agreement, specifically, in explaining the the typological observation that “Split-S” and other “active” alignments are surprisingly much rarer as case alignments than as alignments of bound person marking. The account, developed in joint work in progress with Mark Baker, relies on the observation that where active agreement systems can be readily described, an active case pattern cannot arise as a core alignment under DCT. Such patterns can only arise as the interaction of one of the core alignment patterns with independent aspects of the grammars of individual languages. In developing that account, we predict a further, and as far as we are aware previously unobserved, asymmetry between what Bittner & Hale called “accusative active” and “ergative active” languages.

Juliet Stanton Defends

Congratulations to Juliet Stanton, who just defended her dissertation, titled Constraints on the Distribution of Nasal-Stop Sequences: An Argument for Contrast, last Friday!

Juliet Stanton at her post-defense celebration

As readers may remember, Juliet will be joining the Department of Linguistics at NYU as an Assistant Professor in the Fall. Well done Juliet!


Brillman to Spotify

Ruth Brillman, who is currently finishing her dissertation on antilocality and non-finite clauses, has accepted a fantastic position at Spotify. Here is Ruth’s description of the job:

I’ll be working as a Research Scientist alongside Spotify’s machine learning team (the force behind their recommendation systems like Discover Weekly and Daily Mix) at their Somerville office. A lot of my work will involve figuring out how their machine learning systems should deal with natural language data, and how to evaluate those systems once they’re off the ground. My team will also help establish research goals and standards for the company. I’m so excited!

Congratulations, Ruth!


The University of Delaware organized the 47th Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages, which took place in April 20—23. MIT was represented by the following presentations:

Benjamin Storme (5th year grad student): Schwa-stem derivatives in French and gradient attraction

Nikos Angelopoulos & Dominique Sportiche (PhD ‘83): Romance Scrambling and Hierarchy within Clitic Clusters

Luca Iacoponi & Viviane Déprez (PhD ‘89): Negative Concord in Italian: An experimental approach

Sophie Harrington & Maria Cristina Cuervo (PhD ‘03): Mood selection under parecer (‘to seem’): introducing the polarity indicative [poster]


And the 2017 SHASS Levitan Award goes to… Donca Steriade!

Our very own Donca Steriade is among the recipients of the 2017 James A. and Ruth Levitan Teaching Awards in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

Announcing the 2017 award recipients, Dean Nobles remarked, “This prize honors those instructors in our School who have demonstrated outstanding success in teaching our undergraduate and graduate students. These great educators, who are nominated by students themselves, have made a difference in the lives of our remarkable students.”

That Donca should receive an award for fantastic educators should come as no surprise to those of us lucky enough to have taken one of her classes. David Pesetsky notes, “The most important point is indeed the fact that Donca’s students themselves nominated her for this award — honoring one of our most distinguished colleagues and most devoted teachers.”

Congratulations Donca!


Aboh and DeGraff in Oxford Handbook of Universal Grammar

Enoch Aboh (University of Amsterdam) and Michel DeGraff have recently published a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Universal Grammar. The chapter, titled A Null Theory of Creole Formation Based on Universal Grammar argues that Creoles emerge from principles of UG as all other languages do, and thus can provide important insight into both contact induced and diachronic language change.

Michel writes:

Enoch and I propose an analysis of Creole formation that goes against the grain of the most popular classic textbook dogmas which cast Creoles as the “exceptional” outcome of a Pidgin-to-Creole cycle. Our is a straightforward theory of “creolization,” without any “pidgin” phase and without any other creolization-specific stipulation. That is, ours is a “Null theory of Creole formation.”

An online version of the chapter is available here.