The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, September 3rd, 2018

Welcome to Fall 2018!

Welcome to the first edition of Whamit! for Fall 2018! After our summer hiatus, Whamit! is back to regular weekly editions during the semester.

Whamit! is the MIT Linguistics newsletter, published every Monday (Tuesday if Monday is a holiday). The editorial staff consists of Adam Albright, Kai von Fintel, David Pesetsky, Itai Bassi, Elise Newman, Keny Chatain and Frank Staniszewski.

To submit items for inclusion in Whamit! please send an email to whamit@mit.edu by Sunday 6pm.


Welcome to ling-18!

Welcome to the students who are joining our graduate program!

Agnes Bi

Ruyue Bi, who also goes by Agnes, grew up in a small city along the Yangtze River in Mainland China. I received my B.A. in Linguistics and Math from UC Berkeley. My main areas of interest, in general, are syntax, semantics and their interface. My current research focuses on pronoun ellipsis in Mandarin, which hopefully provides a little insight into the broader, cross-linguistic picture. Outside of linguistics, I enjoy traveling and trying new food.

Enrico Flor

I was born and grew up in a tiny alpine village in northern Italy, but I received all my higher education in Austria (I got my MA in General Linguistics in Vienna). Semantics (with a focus on focus, quantification and plurals) has been my primary interest during my studies and work in Vienna. Coming to MIT, I obviously look forward to widening and deepening my knowledge of the field. Outside of Linguistics, I am interested in philosophy (of language and meta-ethics in particular), history, literature and politics - I never get tired of debating! Listening to and singing old music is my main hobby, but when I can I like to spend time in theater. Good typography and Free Software are things of beauty for me.

Peter Grishin

I was born and grew up in Dallas and got my BA in linguistics at the University of Cambridge. My main interests lie in syntax, especially in cases of unexpected agreement and/or movement (or lack thereof), and I have worked a bit on agreement with argument CPs in Zulu and VP fronting in English. I also like to dabble in phonetics, and am especially interested in the question of “how much” phonetics we should encode in the phonology, as well as interactions between prosody and syntax. Outside of linguistics, I’m an avid violinist, cat lover, board gamer, tabletop RPGer, and YouTube cooking video watcher and aspiring home cook.

Tracy Kelley

Wunee Keesuq! I was born and raised in the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe located in Mashpee, Massachusetts. I’m a very proud mother of one son. I received my BA in English and Journalism from the University of Massachusetts—Amherst, where I was also engaged in student life, youth mentoring, and civil rights advocacy. I am passionate about revitalizing my native language, in which I have been growing with since the language project’s inception in 1993, as an apprentice, instructor, illustrator, and author. Some of my personal interests include gaming with my son, teaching language, cooking, swimming, and listening to NPR—oh and coffee!

Anton Kukhto

I’m a Muscovite; I received a BA and an MA in linguistics at Moscow State University. My main interest lies in phonetics and phonology, particularly lexical stress in Irish, Russian, and beyond. I’ve also done some fieldwork on Mordvin, Mari, and Khanty. Outside of linguistics, I enjoy reading, watching films, going to art galleries, taking pictures, singing, learning to play the harp, drinking tea, skiing, and obviously being a bore. But above all, I want to thank all of you who have been ever so ready to lend me a helping hand over the past year (and before). Even eleventy-one years would be far too short a time to spend among you.

Patrick Niedzielski

I grew up in Massachusetts, and did my undergrad at Cornell University, where I majored in Linguistics and Computer Science. After graduating, I took some time away from academia to work in software development.  My research interests are mainly in historical linguistics and the syntax-morphology interface, especially focusing on analyzing data from ancient, highly-synthetic languages that have not received much treatment within the generative tradition—-my undergrad thesis was on clausal structure and polysynthesis in Sumerian, one such language.  I’ve also done work in computer science at the intersection of systems programming and programming language theory.  Otherwise, I spend too much time listening to comedy podcasts, and not enough time playing jazz harmonica.  I also like good espresso, Jethro Tull, and conlanging.

Roger Paul

Katie Van Luven

I’m from Kingston, Ontario in Canada. I received a B.A. in Linguistics and an M.Cog.Sc., both from Carleton University in Ottawa. I am primarily interested in syntax, semantics and their interfaces. In my master’s thesis I looked at various issues surrounding the focal properties of pseudocleft constructions. I’ve also worked on the argumenthood/event structure of directional PPs, as well as locality and low-level effects in phonetics/phonology. Outside of linguistics, I like reading, hiking, re-watching old X Files episodes and getting tattooed.

Hyun Ji Yoo

I was born in Korea, not far from Seoul, and moved to Los Angeles when I was nine. I never really got out of the city since then, and received my B.A. in Linguistics and Psychology and M.A. in Linguistics at UCLA. I am currently working on finding predictability of medial tones in Seoul Korean Accentual phrases, but also am interested in paradigm effects, loanword phonology, and Harmonic Grammar. In my free time, I like to eat good food, watch Korean TV shows and play board games—all the better with coffee and/or ice cream.


Welcome to visitors!

This semester also witnesses the arrival of a contingent of warmly welcomed visitors.

Visiting Professor

Luka Crnic (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) : I work on semantics and syntax. Some of the topics that I have pursued recently are exceptives and approximatives, degree constructions, and exhaustification.

Visiting Scholars

Sascha Alexeyenko (University of Göttingen) : My work lies at the interface of syntax and semantics of natural languages, and I am also interested in linguistic typology. Somewhat more specifically, the domains I have worked on include event semantics, categorial status of adjectives and adverbs, constraints on linearization, semantics of gradability, genericity, morphosyntax and semantics of nominalizations. My current semantic work concerns quantification in event semantics, looked at from the perspective of habituality. And at the syntactic front, I am currently involved in a cross-linguistic investigation of the Head Final Filter, a constraint on linearization which prohibits intervening material between prenominal modifiers and the nouns they modify.

James Fidelholtz (Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla)

Juan Gao (Zhengzhou University of Aeronautics)

Todor Koev (Universität Konstanz) : My research program is grounded in formal semantics and pragmatics, and is informed by my interests in experimental linguistics, dynamic semantics, formal syntax, and Slavic and Germanic linguistics. Broadly speaking, I am interested in how grammar and discourse structure parameters constrain linguistic meaning and I have worked on topics such as parentheticality, evidentiality, modality, indefiniteness, at-issueness, projection, and adverbial modification. The methodologies I use to gain insights into these topics include traditional and experimental techniques of data collection as well as formal tools from logic and probabilistic reasoning. My far-reaching goal is to establish a reliable and predictive theory of the various factors (operator scope, projectivity, evidence source, information status, etc.) that anchor semantic content, thus refining our understanding of how seemingly independent meaning dimensions are integrated into a coherent whole. 

Ljiljana Progovac (Wayne State University)

Sergei Tatevosov (Moscow State University)

Visiting Students

Zohra Fatima (National University of Modern Languages) : My research interests include synatx-semantics interface and experimental approaches to Syntax and Semantics. I am a graduate student from National University of Modern Languages (NUML) Pakistan. I am currently working on the Semantics of temporal reference in Urdu Syntax. I will be staying at MIT for two semesters and working with Prof. Sabine Iatridou.

Julian Lysvik (University of Oslo) : I am a visiting student from the University of Oslo. I am currently investigating phonological biases using Artificial Grammar Learning. In particular I am looking at the bias against word-final voicing. Otherwise I am generally interested in AGL methodologies and acquisition biases.

Shumian Ye (Peking University) : My research centers on syntax-semantics interface, using formal and typological approaches to investigate linguistic universals. I currently work on the meaning and structure of biased polar questions in Chinese, and I’m also interested in negatives and comparatives.


Summer News

We have some summer news to share with you:

The summer school was attended by many MIT students as well: Rafael Abramovitz (4th year), Daniel Asherov (2nd year), Tanya Bondarenko (2nd year), Colin Davis (4th year), Ömer Demirok (5th year), Verena Hehl (4th year), Maša Močnik (4th year), Elise Newman (3rd year), Frank Staniszewski (3rd year) and Stan Zompi (2nd year). Rafael, Daniel, Tanya and Ömer also served as course TAs. Check out nice photos from the event, such as this one below, on the summer school’s Facebook page.


  • Justin Colley (4th year), Verena Hehl, Anton Kukhto (1st year) and Mitya Privoznov (4th year) went into the heart of Siberia for a fieldwork expedition in the village of Kazym, Central Khanty. Mitya reports: “We had a lot of fun, suffered from mosquitoes and hopefully gathered some useful data as well :).”

  • In August, Tanya Bondarenko and Colin Davis participated in a joint fieldtrip with a group of researchers from Lomonosov Moscow State University to study Barguzin Buryat in Baraghan village, the Republic of Buryatia, Russia.


  • Education:
    • Neil Banerjee, Cora Lesure (3rd year) and Dóra Takács (2nd year) taught a 7-week introductory linguistics course for middle and high school students as part of HSSP, from June till August. Their course, entitled `How language works’, covered topics ranged from sound production and the IPA over cross-linguistic variation and case to NPIs and implicatures. Dóra writes: “About 35 students participated in the class, which was hopefully a lot of fun and definitely an interesting and valuable experience for everyone.”
    • Naomi Francis (5th year), Verena Hehl and Maša Močnik graduated from the Kaufman Teaching Certificate Program (KTCP) in June. The participants report: “Graduates of the KTCP attend 8 sessions on a wide range of topics in teaching and learning and are exposed to current research on pedagogical methodology through assigned readings and in-class discussions. We also had the opportunity to create and receive feedback on teaching philosophy statements for academic job applications.”
    • In May, Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), an MIT initiative to support global education, announced a grant funding to MITILI  student Newell Lewey and to prof. Norvin Richards for the project Skicinuwi-npisun: A Community-Centered Project for Documentation and Teaching of the Passamaquoddy Language. The project supports language teaching and curriculum development to help preserve the severely endangered Passamaquoddy language of Northern Maine. The grant includes funding for Newell’s language classes, and for a group of graduate students from the department to travel with Norvin to Passamaquoddy country to work with elders. Here you can read a little more about the project. Congratulations Newell and Norvin!
  • Alumni news:
    • Our distinguished alum Heidi Harley (PhD 1995), now at  the University of Arizona, has been elected a 2019 Fellow of the Linguistic Society of America! Heidi’s colleagues as LSA Fellows include 38 other MIT alums and members of our faculty who have been elected in previous years — more than a quarter of the (now) 138 Fellows of the Society. Congratulations Heidi (and our warmest congratulations to the other newly elected Fellows as well)!
    • Another one of our distinguished alums, John McCarthy (PhD 1979) - a pioneer in the development of phonological theory for over four decades - has been named Provost and more at UMass Amherst, where he has taught since 1985. Very exciting news — congratulations John! 

Reading Group Announcements

This semester we are blessed with an abundance of (old and new) reading groups. 

  • LPRG is the Linguistics and Philosophy Reading Group, held Mondays from 1:00 to 2:00pm in 32-D769. Linguists and philosophers join forces to understand language and linguistics. We read and discuss old and new papers in the field (especially in formal semantics and philosophy of language). For more information visit the website or contact the organizers Christopher Baron or Maša Močnik.
  • Morphun is a new reading group that centers on topics in morphology. The group will meet from 5 to 6:30 pm on Mondays (the old Phonology Circle slot) in room 32-D831, a.k.a the 8th floor conference room, hopefully on a weekly basis. We encourage discussion of old and new readings in morphology (including recently snatched conference handouts) and informal data sessions. Since this is aimed to be an informal group, we will give priority to these kinds of proposals as opposed to fully-fleshed-out original research ideas. We also wish to emphasize that you can propose a reading without committing to present it yourself, so that someone else can get interested and hopefully take up the task - add your reading idea to the Google document we created. If you want to reserve one or more dates for presentation, please write your request and your reading proposal to either Stan or Filipe
  • Syntax Square exists to facilitate the presentation or discussion of anything relating to syntax. Syntax square will be meeting this semester on Tuesdays from 1-2pm in room 32-D461 (the 4th floor seminar room). As always, we welcome works in progress, presentation of papers on topics of interest, practice talks, etc. There are still plenty of available slots (including next week!): 9/11, 9/18, 10/2, 11/6, 11/13, 11/27, 12/4, 12/11, 12/18. Please contact Colin Davis (colind@mit.edu) and/or Mitya Privoznov (dpriv@mit.edu) if you would like to reserve any of them.
  • LF Reading Group (LFRG) is an informal, weekly semantics and semantics/syntax interface group. LFRG will be meeting as usual on Wednesdays 1-2pm, room 32-D461 (the 4th floor seminar room). We welcome work in progress at any stage, practice talks, presentations on papers on topics of interest etc. In order to bring back the traditional reading group idea behind LFRG and not completely treat it as a formal platform for presentation of original research, this semester we reserve the first three meetings for presentations of papers on topics of interest. Note that you can also suggest a paper for one of these meetings even if you do not want to present it yourself. There is currently one slot available: 9/26. Please let Tanya or Dóra know if you would like to present then.
  • Phonology Circle will be meeting on Wednesdays (notice the day change!), from 5:00–6:30pm, in 32-D831 (the 8th floor conference room). Phonology Circle is the weekly phonology meeting group. It is an informal group, so we welcome presentations on all kinds of topics: work in progress at any stage, presentation of new puzzles you’d like to discuss, tutorials about particular research tools, as well as practice talks. We also encourage you to consider volunteering to lead a discussion of a paper (we will take care of announcing the suggested reading in advance). Following are the available dates for presentations:  9/5, 9/12, 9/19/9/26, 10/3,10/10, 10/17,10/24, 10/31, 11/7, 11/14, 11/21, 11/28, 12/5, 12,12. Please contact Daniel and Chris if you would like to reserve a spot.
  • Ling-Lunch is a series of weekly talks, held on Thursdays from 12:30 to 1:50pm in room 32-D461 (the 4th floor seminar room). Talks can be on any topic in linguistics and everybody is welcome to present their work, though preference is given to members of the MIT Linguistics Department. There are still available dates to present in Ling-Lunch: 10/11, 10/25, 11/8 (and maybe 12/13 if there’s ample interest). Contact Cora and Boer to reserve a slot. There’s Ling-Lunch this week! see separate post below.

Course Announcements: Fall 2018

Course announcements in this post:

  • 24.943 Syntax of a Language Family (Algonquian)
  • 24.949J Language Acquisition
  • 24.967 Topics in Experimental Phonology
  • 24.979 Topics in Semantics


24.943 Syntax of a Language Family (Algonquian)

  • Instructor: Richards
  • Schedule: R9:30-12:30
  • Room: 32-D461

In 24.943 this year we will be learning about the syntax of the Algonquian languages.  We will pay particular attention to the Eastern Algonquian languages, which include Passamaquoddy-Maliseet and Wampanoag, but will read literature concentrating on languages outside this group as well.


24.949J Language Acquisition

  • Instructor: Hackl
  • Schedule: T2-5
  • Room: 32-D461

24.949/9.601J is a graduate level class on language acquisition, focussing on (typical) first language acquisition. The course provides A) a forum for discussion of foundational questions in language acquisition based on a review of the state of the art in selected topics in the areas of syntax, semantics and pragmatics and B) an opportunity for students to develop an experimental or corpus-based research project which, by the end of the semester, will consist in a well-defined (set of interrelated) question(s), a research plan (description of concrete hypotheses, data acquisition method(s), and data analysis strategies), and (ideally) pilot data. Potential topics include: 

- Early clause structure, OI, correlations between inflectional morphology and functional syntax

- A-movement, passives, raising, unaccusative syntax, …

- Argument structure

- Binding Theory

- Quantification, quantifier scope, determiners, …

- Comparatives, adjectives, number

- Prepositions, spatial syntax and semantics

- Modals, modality, evidentials, tense, …

- NPIs, negation

- Acquisition of Presupposition

- Scalar Implicatures

- Learning models, statistical approaches to L1-acquisition, learnability theory


24.967 Topics in Experimental Phonology

  • Instructor: Flemming
  • Schedule: TR2-3:30
  • Room: 32-D769/TBA

In the past decade, the field of phonology has increasingly looked to experimental results to confirm and extend its understanding of phonological patterns. In this course, we will examine some of the issues involved in deriving experimentally testable predictions from a theory, designing and running an experiment, and interpreting the results.

The class has several goals:

  • Consider the relation between linguistic theory, empirical predictions, and experimental results
  • Gain practical knowledge in designing and carrying out experiments in the lab and on-line, and performing data analysis using R
  • Gain familiarity with some commonly used experimental paradigms, comparing what they can tell us about the linguistic system

The emphasis this year will be on statistical analysis. The course will be organized around the statistical models that are most applicable to linguistic experiments (in all areas of linguistics):

  • Linear models and linear mixed-effects models
  • Generalized linear (mixed) models: logistic/probit regression, ordinal logistic regression, log-linear models

The application of these models will be illustrated through case studies selected based on the interests of the participants. Candidate topics include: Perceptual similarity, the P-Map Hypothesis, Universal Grammar/learning biases, phonetic underspecification, and parallel vs. serial sentence processing. Experimental paradigms examined are likely to include production, perceptual identification and discrimination, artificial language learning, phonological and syntactic acceptability judgments.

Note: Please let me know if you plan to attend this class - we’re still trying to arrange a room, and it would be useful to know how many people we need space for.


24.979 Topics in Semantics

  • Instructor: Crnic
  • Schedule: R2-5
  • Room: 32-D461

In this course, we will study Negative Polarity Items. While raising familiar foundational questions for linguistic theory, Negative Polarity Items enter into complex and often revealing interactions with a host of other phenomena in grammar. We will investigate several such interactions, with the goal of advancing our understanding of not only Negative Polarity Items but also these other phenomena. This investigation will help us address the overarching question of the course: Is the classic insight that the distribution of Negative Polarity Items should be described and explained by recourse to a notion of entailment tenable, and if so, how should it be cashed out? Some of the topics that we will touch on during the course are focus, presupposition, exhaustification, quantification, (in)definiteness, modals and attitudes, comparison and superlatives, and questions. Although our main focus will be on Negative Polarity Items in English, we will also attend to some cross-linguistic variation in this domain.


LF Reading Group 9/5 - Tanya Bondarenko (MIT)

Speaker: Tatiana Bondarenko (MIT)
Title: Elizabeth Bogal-Allbritten 2016, 2017: Building attitudes in Navajo and beyond
Date and time: Wednesday, September 05, 1-2 pm
Location: 32-D461
In this talk, I will present Elizabeth Bogal-Allbritten’s work on attitude reports of belief and desire in Navajo. Navajo presents an interesting case of expressing several attitudes - think, want, and wish - with one verb: nízin. Elizabeth Bogal-Allbritten shows that there is a correlation between the shape of the complement clause and the attitude expressed. She argues against an analysis where nízin is lexically ambiguous, and also against an analysis where nízin has underspecified meaning that is dependent on the context. In her work she argues that this verb denotes situations of general mental attitude, and that this attitude is constrained by the embedded (modal) material. This analysis suggests that sentences with nízin present a limiting case within the landscape predicted by Kratzer’s (2006,2013) and Moulton’s (2009) analysis of English and German attitude reports and verbs of saying. In the end of the talk, I will show some data from Barguzin Buryat, which also has a verb (hanaxa) that can express several attitudes, including think and want, and I will briefly compare it to Navajo’s nízin.  

Ling Lunch 9/6: Richard Faure

Speaker: Richard Faure (Université Côte d’Azur, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, CNRS and Harvard University)
Title:Wh-fronting is not wh-movement in colloquial French
Date and time: Thursday, 9/6, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

French is said to be one of those languages that have the option to form wh-questions with in-situ (1a) or ex-situ whPs (1c). It is also assumed to have optional subject-verb inversion (1d). Moreover, wh-in-situ structures come actually in two guises, with or without a prosodic break before the whP (1a vs. 1b), a fact little addressed in the literature.

(1) a. Il   a     vu     qui?
         he has seen who
     b. Il   a     vu |  qui?
        he has seen who
     c. Qui  il    a     vu?
        who he has seen
    d. Qui a-t-  il   vu?
       who has  he seen

Starting with these four patterns, I will show that 1) not every pattern belongs to the same variety of French, 2) wh-in-situ questions with a prosodic break, but not those without it pattern with wh-ex-situ in many respects (a source of much confusion in the previous studies): Intervention effects, expressivity, contrastive contexts. Focusing then on colloquial French and the patterns illustrated by (1a) (with no prosodic break) and (1c), I will show that questions like (1c) do not display all the features of wh-movement (e.g., no superiority effect in multiple questions), and claim that colloquial French is actually a bona fide wh-in-situ language, so that wh-fronting is not wh-movement. Finally I address the question as to what triggers wh-fronting in this variety of French and tentatively suggest that it is an Exclusion feature.