The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, April 2nd, 2018

Morris Halle, 23 July 1923 - 2 April 2018

Today we mourn the loss of Morris Halle, our colleague, our teacher, our friend, co-creator of MIT Linguistics, one of the most imaginative, insightful, and influential linguists in the history of the field.

We are told by his children that Morris passed away peacefully this morning at 3:45am. There will be a memorial - details to be announced.

LingPhil Reading Group 4/2 - on Stalnaker 1978

Title: on Stalnaker (1978)
Date and time: Monday April 2nd, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D831

This week’s paper is Robert Stalnaker’s Assertion. Pre-read is not required.

Mallory will be presenting the paper.

Phonology Circle 2/4 - Gašper Beguš (Harvard)

Speaker: Gašper Beguš (Harvard)
Title:  Learning the Blurring Process
Date and time: Monday, April 2nd, 5:00-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Many artificial grammar learning experiments have provided strong evidence for the assumption that learning biases influence phonological typology: typologically rare processes have been shown to be more difficult to learn. Most of the experiments, however, fail to control for diachronic influences: in many cases, the observed typology can be explained by diachronic factors equally well. In this talk, I present a method for controlling for diachronic influences when testing learning biases. Unnatural processes provide a crucial solution to this problem. I show that a statistical model of diachronic development (that I call Bootstrapping Sound Changes) identifies a crucial mismatch in predictions between the learning and diachronic bias approaches. This mismatch allows me to design experiments such that diachronic factors are controlled for. I present results from two experiments that test learnability of complex vs. unnatural processes and suggest that learnability differences have to influence observed typology in cases that cannot be explained by historical factors. I also discuss implications of this approach for phonological theory in general.

CompLang 4/2 - Idan Blank (MIT)

Speaker: Idan Blank (MIT)
Title:  When we “know the meaning” of a word, what kind of knowledge do we have?
Date and time: Monday, April 2nd, 5:00-6:00pm
Location: 46-5156

Understanding words seems to require both linguistic knowledge (stored form-meaning pairings and ways to combine them) and world knowledge (object properties, plausibility of events, etc.). In this talk, I will pose some challenges for common distinctions between these knowledge sources. First, I will ask whether rich information about concrete objects could be, in principle, learned from just the co-occurrence statistics of different words even in the absence of non-linguistic (e.g., perceptual) information. To this end, I will introduce a domain-general approach for leveraging such statistics (as captured by distributional semantic models, DSMs) to recover context-specific human judgments such that, e.g., “dolphin” and “alligator” appear relatively similar when considering size or habitat, but different when considering aggressiveness. Second, I will probe DSMs for “syntactic”, abstract compositional knowledge of verb-argument structure (e.g., “eat”, but not “devour”, can appear without an object). I will demonstrate that these syntactic properties of verbs can often be predicted from distributional information (i.e., without explicit access to “syntax”), indicating that DSMs capture those aspects of verb meaning that correlate with verb syntax. Nevertheless, only a small fraction of distributional information is needed for predicting verb argument structure - the rest appears to capture semantic properties that are relatively divorced from syntax. In fact, the overall similarity structure across verbs in a DSM is independent from the similarity structure across verbs as determined by their syntax, and both kinds of similarity are needed for explaining human judgments. Together, these two studies attempt to push against the upper bound on the potential complexity of distributional word meanings.

LingLunch 4/5 - Stanislao Zompí (MIT)

Speaker: Stanislao Zompí (MIT)
Title: Ergative is not inherent: Evidence from *ABA in suppletion and syncretism
Date and time: Thursday, April 5, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

This is a practice talk for GLOW 41. The abstract can be found here.

MIT Colloquium 4/6: Lyn Frazier (UMass Amherst)

We are pleased to announce that Lyn Frazier will be visiting on Friday 4/6  to give a colloquium talk, details below:

Speaker: Lyn Frazier (UMass Amherst)
Title: An act apart:  Processing Not-At-Issue content
Time: Friday, April 6th, 3:30-5pm
Place: 32-155

This talk will examine the representation and processing of not-at-issue content (content conveyed by appositives, parentheticals and expressives).  Potts (2005) characterized not-at-issue content in a multi-dimensional semantics.  Others have proposed a unidimensional semantic account (e.g., Schlenker 2013) or a pragmatic account (e.g., Harris and Potts 2009).

We will begin by establishing a puzzle concerning processing complexity.  It is generally true that sentences that are longer or more complex are judged to be less acceptable than their shorter/simpler counterparts.  But if exactly the same material is added to either at issue content or not at issue content, there is a larger penalty, a larger drop in acceptability, if the material is added to the at issue portion of the sentence. The results of several experiments show this interaction of length/complexity and at-issue status is general. After excluding  a simple attention allocation source for the effect, we will turn to other possibilities ultimately arguing that not-at-issue content expresses a distinct speech act from that of the at issue content. Its status as a separate speech act has various ramifications including for its representation in memory and for the effects it imposes on grammatical dependencies spanning the not-at-issue content. The final part of the talk will present processing arguments concerning the nature of the relation between an appositive relative clause and its containing utterance. 

Chen @ CUNY 2018

Sherry Yong Chen (first-year) presented a few weeks ago at the CUNY sentence processing conference at UC Davis. With co-author E. Matthew Husband, she presented on Modelling Memory Retrieval Processes with Drift Diffusion.