The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, November 27th, 2017

Syntax Square 11/28 - Elise Newman

Speaker: Elise Newman (MIT)
Title: Middles produce easily if you have enough stuff
Date and time: Tuesday November 28, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

It has been proposed in the literature that Anti-locality (Abels 2003, Erlewine 2016) can help us understand a number of subject-object asymmetries in A-bar movement. However, it has been stipulated that such a restriction cannot exist for A-movement due to the idea that subjects move string-vacuously to Spec TP. In this talk, I argue that such subject-object asymmetries also occur with A-movement, and that they also can be explained by Anti-locality. I propose that middles are a direct reflection of this, as can be seen by regarding novel facts about middle formation that previous semantic accounts cannot explain. 
Middles look like inchoative unaccusatives except for a few key differences:
  • They have unexpressed external arguments
  • They have an adverb restriction
(1) a. The ice melted (quickly) (all by itself).
     b. The book read *(quickly) (*all by itself).
I propose that objects of middles move through the canonical subject position on their way to Spec TP. The adverb restriction is a result of the object’s sensitivity to Anti-locality as it undergoes this movement chain. The two (arguably 3) types of adverb restrictions pattern with how embedded the object is at the beginning of the derivation.

LF Reading Group 11/29 - Moshe Bar-Lev (HUJI)

Speaker: Moshe Bar-Lev (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Title: Don’t mind the gap: an implicature account of Homogeneity
Date and time: Wednesday November 29, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

I will present an implicature-based view of Homogeneity with definite plurals (following Magri 2014’s lead) in which the universal meaning definite plurals give rise to in positive sentences is the result of implicature calculation, while the existential meaning they give rise to in negative sentences reflects the basic meaning.

The proposed account builds on the implicature approach to free choice disjunction, which I claim behaves similarly to Homogeneity. Given this perspective, Non-maximal readings of definite plurals can be taken to follow from the context-sensitivity of implicature calculation, and neither-true-nor-false judgments can be the result of context-indeterminacy. This is in contrast with a view in which they motivate semantically encoding a truth-value gap (recently Križ 2016).

To support the implicature-based account I will discuss asymmetries between positive and negative contexts in children’s interpretation of definite plurals (Tieu et al. 2015), non-maximal readings, and neither-true-nor-false judgments (Križ & Chemla 2015).


Ling-Lunch 11/30 - Michelle Yuan (MIT)

Speaker: Michelle Yuan (MIT)
Title: Anaphors and antipassives in Inuktitut
Date and time: Thursday, November 30th, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

The Anaphor Agreement Effect (AAE) refers to the cross-linguistic (possibly universal) inability for anaphors to be cross-referenced with co-varying phi-agreement (Rizzi 1990, et seq.). In this talk, I investigate the AAE in Inuktitut (Inuit; Eskimo-Aleut) as a window into its antipassive construction and clause structure more generally. It has been claimed that the Inuit languages avoid phi-agreement with anaphoric objects by resorting to the antipassive construction, which demotes the object to an oblique (Woolford 1999; Sundaresan 2015). However, a closer look reveals that the interaction of anaphors and antipassives in Inuktitut is both more nuanced and more complex than previously assumed.

Despite surfacing with identical case morphology, I argue that anaphors enter the derivation with inherent case, while true (non-anaphoric) antipassive objects receive structural Case (building on Spreng 2006, 2012). Thus, Inuktitut obviates the AAE by enclosing its anaphors in a PP layer, not by antipassivization. Evidence for this distinction comes from the possibility of case stacking on anaphors (not otherwise possible in Inuktitut), as well as from the parallel behaviour of phi-agreement and verbal antipassive morphology in anaphoric contexts. I also explore the wider implications of this analysis for Inuktitut clause structure and argument licensing.


CompLang 11/30 - Takashi Morita (MIT) & Timothy O’Donnell (McGill)

Speaker: Takashi Morita (MIT) & Timothy O’Donnell (McGill)
Title: Bayesian learning of Japanese sublexica
Date/Time: Thursday, November 30th, 5:00-6:30pm
Location: 46-5165

Languages have been borrowing words from each other.
A borrower language often has a different list of possible sound sequences (phonotactics) from a lender’s.
While loanwords may be reshaped so that they fit to the borrower’s phonotactics, they can also introduce new sound patterns into the language.
Accordingly, native and loanwords can exhibit different phonotactics in a single language and linguists have proposed that such a language’s lexicon is better explained by a mixture of multiple phonotactic grammars: words are classified into sublexica (e.g. native vs. loan), and words belonging to different sublexica are subject to different phonotactic constraints.
This approach, however, raises a non-trivial learnability question: Can learners classify words into correct sublexica?
Words are not labeled with their sublexicon, so learners need to infer the classification.
In this study, we investigate Bayesian unsupervised learning of sublexica.
We focus on Japanese data (coded in international phhonetic alphabet), whose sublexical phonotactics has been proposed in linguistic literature.
It will turn out that even a simple Dirichlet process mixture of ngram leads to remarkably successful classification.


MIT Colloquium 12/1 - Nina Sumbatova (RSUH)

Speaker: Nina Sumbatova (Russian State University for the Humanities)
Title: Referential, Radical Alliterative, and other uncommon instances of gender agreement
Time: Friday, December 1st, 3:30-5pm
Place: 32-155

According to the widely cited definition by Charles Hockett, “genders are classes of nouns reflected in the behavior of associated words” (Hockett 1958: 231). In other words, genders are defined via agreement. At the same time, in most languages with gender systems, the speakers cannot determine the gender of an arbitrary noun neither by its meaning nor by any formal properties – it is a lexical feature of the noun and should be kept in the lexicon.

However, there is a whole number of languages whose gender systems are described as totally semantic as well as some languages where (almost) all nouns are assigned to particular genders by applying some simple and highly regular formal rules. In this talk, I shall discuss some languages of these two types.

First, I shall present the data of Dargwa (East Caucasian), a language with a “semantic” gender system. I hope to show that gender assignment in Dargwa is rather based on the properties of the NP referents than on the lexical features of the nouns.

Second, I shall discuss the possibility of systems where gender is assigned solely by a set of rules and probably does need to be stored in the lexicon. The language of Landuma (Mel < Niger-Congo) is a unique example of a language where the choice of agreement markers seems to be conditioned by a purely phonological rule. The “gender” system in Landuma needs a serious discussion, since it looks as a violation of the well-known principle of phonology-free syntax (Zwicky 1969; Zwicky, Pullum 1986, etc.).

The data of Dargwa and Landuma were obtained in course of fieldwork in Daghestan (Russian Federation) and in the Republic of Guinea, respectively.



SNEWS (the Southern New England Workshop in Semantics) is happening at MIT on Saturday, December 2nd! This is an informal graduate student workshop featuring presenters from MIT, Harvard, UMass Amherst, UConn, Brown, and Yale. More information, including a program, can be found on the workshop website.


Zukoff at Grinnell College

Sam Zukoff (PhD ‘17, post-doc) gave an invited talk at Grinnell College last week. The handout for the talk, entitled Reduplication in Ancient Greek, is available on Sam’s website, here.