The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, September 11th, 2017

Another visiting scholar - Senem Şahin

This is a follow up on last week’s post about our visiting scholars this semester. Happy circumstances led to a delay in bringing you information about Senem Şahin. Here is her description below. Good luck Senem!

Senem Şahin  (Universität Augsburg): graduated from Hacettepe University in Ankara (Turkey), Department of English Language Teaching in 2002. She holds a M.A. and PhD degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) from the University of Munich (Germany), specializing on nonverbal communication, intercultural communication and teacher training. She has been teaching and researching as associate professor at the Chair of TEFL at Augsburg University (Germany) since 2010. Her teaching experience includes courses about individual differences, intercultural learning, research methods, and multilingualism in TEFL. Her current research projects focus on bilingual education, second and third language acquisition, and multilingualism.



Phonology Circle 9/11 - Roni Katzir (TAU & MIT) and Ezer Rasin (MIT)

Speaker: Roni Katzir (Tel Aviv University & MIT) and Ezer Rasin (MIT)
Title: Learning opacity, optionality, and abstract URs using Minimum Description Length
Date and time: Monday, September 11, 5:00-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

We discuss two posters that we will present at the Annual Meeting on Phonology 2017:

1. Acquiring opaque phonological interactions using Minimum Description Length

Opacity poses an obvious challenge for the child learning the phonology of their ambient language: a process to be acquired loses support because of environments in which it was supposed to apply but didn’t (e.g., counterfeeding) or in which it wasn’t supposed to apply but did (e.g., counterbleeding). Not surprisingly, no learners in the literature can handle opacity distributionally, from unanalyzed input data alone. Children, however, do manage to acquire opacity in a variety of languages (Dell 1981, McCarthy 2007). This talk shows how opaque interactions (including optionality, counterfeeding, and counterbleeding) can be acquired using the principle of Minimum Description Length (MDL; Solomonoff 1964, Rissanen 1978). Specifically, we use an adaptation of Rasin & Katzir 2016’s MDL learner (originally used for OT phonology) to rule-based phonology and show how it applies to various cases of opacity. We then show simulations on artificial-language data illustrating the mechanization of the idea.

2. Minimum Description Length subsumes Free Ride effects in UR learning

Human learners have been argued to infer URs that are sometimes different from their corresponding surface representation (SR) even without being forced to do so by an alternation. McCarthy (2005) proposes the Free Ride Principle (FRP), which allows the learner to extend non- identical mappings in alternating forms to non-alternating forms. Recently, Rasin & Katzir (2016) proposed Minimum Description Length (MDL) as an evaluation metric for OT. The present work shows how MDL supports the induction of nonidentical URs both in cases that have motivated the FRP and in cases that have been argued to involve nonidentical URs in the absence of supporting alternations (and are thus outside the scope of the FRP). As a result, the FRP is redundant.


Syntax Square 9/12 - Danfeng Wu (MIT)

Speaker: Danfeng Wu (MIT)
Title: Ellipsis As A Diagnosis Of Movements In The Expletive There and It Sentences
Date and time: Tuesday, September 12, 1:00-2:00pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, I present an argument from ellipsis that there and it are initially merged within vP or lower in the structure. I adopt Takahashi and Fox’s (2005) proposals concerning MaxElide and parallelism and Hartman’s (2011) extension of their proposal. Hartman attributes the contrast between TP-ellipsis and VP-ellipsis of (1) to an interaction between A-movement of the subject and wh-movement.

(1) John will buy something, but I don’t know what (*he will).

Building on his analysis, I show that there and it behave just the same:

(2) There will be something in the room, but I don’t know exactly what (*there will).

(3) We all know that it will be possible for scientists to achieve something in ten years, but we don’t know what (*it will be).

By showing that the expletives behave exactly like non-expletive subjects across the entire ellipsis paradigm, I argue that they are similarly base generated internal to the vP.

My analysis suggests that semantically vacuous elements can create variable-binding configurations at LF by movement, similar to the effects created by the movement of a null operator previously proposed in semantics. This also adds to Hartman’s observation that semantically vacuous movement of otherwise contentful elements creates the same effects, such as head movement. Movement brings about semantically relevant consequences in a mechanical way, independent of the semantics with which they may interact.


Ling-Lunch 9/14 - Ted Gibson (MIT)

Speaker: Ted Gibson (MIT)
joint work with Richard Futrell, Julian Jara-Ettinger, Kyle Mahowald, Leon Bergen, Sivalogeswaran Ratnasigam, Mitchell Gibson, Steven T. Piantadosi, and Bevil R. Conway
Title: Color naming across languages reflects color use
Date and time: Thursday, September 14, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

What determines how languages categorize colors? We analyzed results of the World Color Survey (WCS) of 110 languages to show that despite gross differences across languages, communication of chromatic chips is always better for warm colors (yellows/reds) than cool colors (blues/greens). We present the first analysis of color statistics in a large databank of natural images curated by human observers for salient objects, and show that objects tend to have warm rather than cool colors. These results suggest that the cross-linguistic similarity in color-naming efficiency reflects colors of universal usefulness, and provide an account of a principle (color use) that governs how color categories come about. We show that potential methodological issues with the WCS do not corrupt information-theoretic analyses, by collecting original data using two extreme versions of the color-naming task, in three groups: the Tsimane’, a remote Amazonian hunter-gatherer isolate; Bolivian-Spanish speakers; and English speakers. These data also enabled us to test another prediction of the color-usefulness hypothesis: that differences in color categorization between languages are caused by differences in overall usefulness of color to a culture. In support, we found that color naming among Tsimane’ had relatively low communicative efficiency, and the Tsimane’ were less likely to use color terms when describing familiar objects. Color-naming among Tsimane’ was boosted when naming artificially colored objects compared to natural objects, suggesting that industrialization promotes color usefulness.

MIT at Sinn und Bedeutung 2017

Last weekend, several MIT faculty, students, postdocs and alumni gave talks at Sinn und Bedeutung 22 in Potsdam. Danny Fox was an invited speaker, and gave a talk on Exhaustivity and the Presupposition of Questions. Other talks by members of our community and alums included:

Current MIT-ers: