The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, February 26th, 2018

CANCELLED DUE TO ILLNESS / LingLunch 3/1: Richard Futrell (MIT-BCS)

Speaker: Richard Futrell (MIT-BCS) 
Title: Memory and Locality in Natural Language
Date and time: Thursday, March 1, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

I explore the hypothesis that the universal properties of human languages can be explained in terms of efficient communication given fixed human information processing constraints. First, I show corpus evidence from 54 languages that word order in grammar and usage is shaped by working memory constraints in the form of dependency locality: a pressure for syntactically linked words to be close to one another in linear order. Next, I develop a new theory of human language processing cost, based on rational inference in a noisy channel, that unifies surprisal and memory effects and goes beyond dependency locality to a new principle of information locality: that words that predict each other should be close. I show corpus evidence for information locality. Finally, I show that the new processing model resolves a long-standing paradox in the psycholinguistic literature, structural forgetting, where the effects of memory on language processing appear to be language-dependent.


LingPhil Reading Group 2/26 - on Rothschild (2011)

Title: on Rothschild (2011) 
Date and time: Monday February 26th, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D831

This week’s paper is Rothschild (2011) Explaining presupposition projection with dynamic semantics. It is not pre-read.

Keny will be presenting the paper.


CompLang 2/26 - Thomas Schatz (UMD/MIT)

Speaker: Thomas Schatz (UMD/MIT)
Title: Leveraging automatic speech recognition technology to model cross-linguistic speech perception in humans
Date and time: Monday, February 26 5:00-6:00pm
Location: 46-3310

Existing theories of cross-linguistic phonetic category perception agree that listeners perceive foreign sounds by mapping them onto their native phonetic categories. Yet, none of the available theories specify a way to compute this mapping. As a result, they cannot provide systematic quantitative predictions and remain mainly descriptive. In this talk, I will present a new approach that leverages Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) technology to obtain fully specified mapping between foreign and native sounds. Using the machine ABX evaluation method, we derive quantitative predictions from ASR systems and compare them to empirical observations in human cross-linguistic phonetic category perception. I will present results both where the proposed model successfully predicts empirical effects (for example on the American English /r/-/l/ distinction) and where it fails (for example on the Japanese vowel length contrasts) and discuss possible interpretations.

Invited talk 2/27 - Shota Momma (UC San Diego)

Speaker: Shota Momma (UC San Diego)
Title: Aligning parsing and generation
Time: Tuesday, February 27th, 1:00-2:30pm 
Place: 32-D461

We use our grammatical knowledge in at least two ways. On one hand, we use our grammatical knowledge to say what we want to convey to others. On the other hand, we use our grammatical knowledge to understand what others say. In either case, we need to assemble sentence structures in a systematic fashion, in accordance with the grammar of our language. Despite the fact that the structures that comprehenders and speakers assemble are systematic in an identical fashion, the cognitive systems that assemble the mental representation of sentence structures in comprehension and production might or might not be the same. The potential existence of two independent systems of structure building doubles the problem of linking the theory of linguistic knowledge and the theory of linguistic performance, making the integration of linguistics and psycholinguistic harder. In this talk, I will discuss whether it is possible to design a single system that builds mental representations of sentence structures in comprehension, i.e., parsing and in production, i.e., generation. I will discuss existing and new experimental data pertaining to how sentence structures are assembled in real-time comprehension and production, and attempt to show that the unification between parsing and generation is possible.


LF Reading Group 2/28 - Milena Sisovics (MIT)

Speaker: Milena Sisovics
Title:  Embedded imperatives and voluntatives in Mongolian  
Date and time: Wednesday February 28, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

Imperatives have long been considered immune to embedding, though recent research has found numerous counterexamples across languages. I introduce novel data showing that Mongolian likewise allows for genuine embedding of (hearer-directed) imperative as well as a speaker-directed non-assertive speech acts (“voluntative”). I propose a uniform analysis of voluntatives and imperatives (collapsed under the term “jussives”) as necessity modals. Moreover, I address the interesting question as to the analysis of jussive subjects: Subjects of embedded jussives are interpreted relative to the reported context in that they denote the reported speaker (in voluntatives) or hearer (in imperatives), rather than the actual discourse participants. I demonstrate how an analysis of imperative and voluntative clauses as PRO clauses can derive this fact, and provide arguments why such an analysis is preferable over an alternative, indexical shift analysis of embedded jussive subjects.


Invited talk 3/2 - Lyn Tieu (Western Sydney)

Speaker: Lyn Tieu (Western Sydney)
Title: Semantic theory and meaning acquisition
Date and time: Friday, March 2nd, 3:30-5:00pm
Location: 32-D461

The overarching goal of my research program is to understand the nature of language by drawing on different empirical sources of data in a way that is informed by linguistic theory. In this talk, I will present three examples of recent work that highlight the interplay between theoretical issues in semantics and empirical facts about meaning acquisition. I will begin with the acquisition of the polarity-sensitive item ‘any’ in English (Tieu 2013). In this case, corpus and experimental data from child language suggest a potential learnability problem. A possible solution can be found in current linguistic theory; specifically, the cross-linguistic typology of polarity-sensitive items (Chierchia 2013) may provide a restricted hypothesis space for the learner to consider. In the second example, I discuss a series of recent developmental studies of various kinds of implicatures (Tieu et al. 2016, Tieu et al. 2017, and others). In this case, the child data suggest the presence of a developmental stage where children have mastered some implicatures but not others. Crucially, here too the relevant distinction turns out to quite naturally align with one made in current linguistic theories, specifically about scalar alternatives (Katzir 2007; Fox & Katzir 2011). In the final example, I discuss ongoing work that experimentally investigates the semantic contribution of co-speech gestures (gestures that accompany speech) and pro-speech gestures (gestures that replace spoken words) (Tieu et al. 2017, 2018, ongoing). In this case, experimental work with adults suggests people can very rapidly learn new meanings and project presuppositions from a single exposure to novel iconic gestures that they have never seen before, suggesting productive rules for triggering presuppositions.


Miyagawa, Lesure, and Nóbrega in Frontiers in Psychology

Shigeru Miyagawa (faculty), Cora Lesure (2nd-year), and Vitor Nóbrega (former visitor, University of São Paulo) recently published an article on the relationship between prehistoric cave paintings, symbolic thinking, and the emergence of language in Frontiers in Psychology, available here. MIT News wrote an article about the research, and the story was subsequently picked up by the Boston Globe and National Geographic!