The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, May 7th, 2018

Aravind to MIT

We are beyond delighted to announce that fifth-year student Athulya Aravind, who specializes in language acquisition, has accepted our offer of a tenure-track assistant professor position!

Phonology Circle 5/7 - Thomas Schatz and Naomi Feldman (UMD/MIT)

Speakers: Thomas Schatz and Naomi Feldman (UMD/MIT)
Title: A simple framework to study how phonological structure can emerge from the interaction of social, physical and cognitive evolutionary pressures
Date/Time: Monday, May 7, 2018, 5:00-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Nowak and Krakauer (1999) proposed a framework to study how combinatoriality in language can emerge from evolutionary pressures to communicate in the presence of noise in the communication channel. I will present this framework and discuss possible extensions that might lead to functional accounts for certain phonological phenomena. I will focus in particular on an extension of the framework that adds a pressure to limit the production costs of words in the language, for which I will present a few preliminary results.
This is very preliminary work in collaboration with Matthias Hofer and Naomi Feldman. The main object of the presentation will be to get feedback on the potential of the framework and to advertise the project to students with a formal background in phonology - which both Matthias and me lack - who might be interested in collaborating with us.

Syntax Square 5/8 - Carolyn Spadine (MIT)

Speaker: Carolyn Spadine (MIT)
Title: Evaluating Syntactic Approaches to Interrogative Flip: Test cases from English and Malayalam
Date and time: Tuesday May 8, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

“Interrogative flip” describes a phenomena in which elements that appear to orient to the speaker in a declarative utterance shift perspective and orient to the addressee in an interrogative context — evidentials, perspective-sensitive anaphora, modals, adverbs, predicates of personal taste, and others have been reported to show this behavior. In proposing a mechanism for encoding discourse-pragmatic information in syntax, interrogative flip is one of the core phenomena that Tenny and Speas 2003 intend to address, and the same problem has been subsequently taken up in Woods 2014, Zu 2018, and many others.

This talk presents preliminary work on two constructions that display interrogative flip, and examines the ways in which existing syntactic approaches to modeling interrogative flip account for or fail to account for this data. The first is discourse participant-oriented modifiers in English, as in (1):

1. a. [As a film critic], this movie deserves an Oscar.
b. [As a film critic], does this movie deserve an Oscar?

In (1a), the preferred and perhaps only interpretation of the bracketed constituent is that the speaker is a film critic, whereas in (1b), English speakers report both speaker- and addressee-oriented interpretations for the same constituent. A similar but more constrained pattern emerges for embedded instances of these modifiers, posing a challenge for some proposals. The second comes from a reportative evidential marker ennu (glossed as REP) in Malayalam (2a), which can either scope under or over the question particle, yielding two different interpretations — either a question about a report heard by the addressee (2b), or a declarative report of a question overhead by the speaker (2c).

2. a. prime minister varunnu ennu
prime minister come.PROG REP
“I heard that the Prime Minister is coming”
b. prime minister varunnu enn-oo?
prime minister come.PROG REP-Q
“Did you hear if the Prime Minister is coming?”
c. prime minister varunn-oo ennu
prime minister come.PROG-Q REP
“I heard someone ask if the Prime Minister is coming”

In both cases, I suggest the data supports the general pattern that existing proposals intend to account for, but also raise concerns about the specific structures proposed to implement them.

LF Reading Group 5/9 - Naomi Francis (MIT)

Speaker: Naomi Francis (MIT)
Title: Presupposition-denying uses of even
Date and time: Wednesday, May 9, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

This talk explores a puzzle about how even interacts with presupposition-denying discourse moves. Even can be used in declarative sentences that deny presuppositions, but only if it appears below negation (1).

(1) A: Did Kenji’s wife go to the picnic? Presupposes: Kenji has a wife, i.e. is married.
B: He isn’t even married!
B’: #He’s even unmarried!

I present a solution to this puzzle that makes crucial use of the additive presupposition of even. This presupposition requires that, in addition to the prejacent (the sentence that hosts even) being true, at least one of its focus alternatives must be true as well. I propose that the relevant focus alternatives in this context all contain the trigger (Kenji’s wife) for the presupposition that the prejacent denies, meaning that they are incompatible with it. This means that the additive presupposition of even can only be satisfied if the presupposition that Kenji has a wife is appropriately “cancelled” within the alternatives, which I argue is only possible when these alternatives contain sentential negation (1B). Drawing on data from German, Greek, Russian, and Hebrew, I show that the contrast in (1) is not unique to English and that the proposed solution makes good crosslinguistic predicitons.

Ling Lunch 5/10: Sabine Iatridou (MIT)

Speaker: Sabine Iatridou (MIT)
Title: No commands
Date and time: Thursday, May 10, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, I will try to establish the existence and cross-linguistic stability of a phenomenon I will call “Negation-Licensed Commands”. In addition, I will reject several possible solutions, leaving the actual account of this phenomenon as a mystery (for now).

MIT Joint Colloquium with Philosophy: Daniel Rothschild (UCL)

Speaker: Daniel Rothschild (University College London)
Title: What it takes to believe.
Time: Friday 5/11, 3:30-5pm
Place: 32-155

Much linguistic evidence supports the view that believing something only requires thinking it likely. I assess and reject a rival view, based on recent work on homogeneity in natural language, according to which belief is a more demanding attitude. I discuss the implications of the linguistic considerations about ‘believe’ for our philosophical accounts of belief. 


Formal Approaches to Slavic Linguistics 27 took place at Stanford over the weekend, and three MIT presentations were given.

  • Colin Davis and Tatiana Bondarenko: Parasitic gaps and covert pied-piping in Russian LBE
  • Rafael Abramovitz: Verb-Stranding Verb Phrase Ellipsis in Russian: Evidence from Unpronounced Subjects
  • Maša Močnik: Where Force Matters: Embedding Epistemic Modals and Attitudes