The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 8th, 2018

MIT at NELS 2018

This year, NELS took place at Cornell University, from October 5th to 7th. MIT was well represented with talks and posters by currents students and faculty:

  • Danfeng Wu (3rd year), A copy-based approach to either in either … or … sentences
  • Frank Staniszewski (3rd year), Wanting, acquiescing and neg-raising
  • Carolyn Spadine (5th year), Control in illocutionary adjuncts as a diagnostic for discourse arguments
  • Luis Alonso-Ovalle and Vincent Rouillard (2nd year), Number inflection, Spanish bare interrogatives and higher-order quantification
  • Norvin Richards (faculty), Detecting contiguity-prominence
  • Maša Močnik (4th year), Existential belief and embedded epistemic modals
  • Suzana Fong (4th year), Spec-CP as an A-position: an argument from Mongolian
  • Naomi Francis (5th year), Imperatives under even
  • Ömer Demirok (5th year), Deniz Ozyildiz and Balkiz Ozturk, Complementizers in Laz are attitude-sensitive
  • Colin Davis (4th year), Possessor extraction in English
  • Keny Chatain (3rd year), Wide-scope distributivity
  • Tanya Bondarenko (2nd year) and Colin Davis (4th year), Parasitic gaps diagnose concealed pied-piping in Russian
  • Itai Bassi (4th year), Fake Indexicals are not so fake: on the grammar of variable binding
  • Rafael Abramovitz (4th year), Successive-cyclic wh-movement feeds dependent case competition

Recent and less recent alums were also presenting papers and posters: Michelle Yuan (UChicago), Ezer Rasin (Leipzig University), Benjamin Bruening (University of Delaware), Julie Legate (UPenn), Karlos Arregi (UChicago), Hadas Kotek (Yale).

MIT participants couldn’t be taken a proper picture of (credit: Rajesh Bhatt)


The MIT-Haiti Initiative in Nature!

An article in Nature on opening up access to STEM education world wide, especially for economic development in the Global South, mentions the MIT-Haiti Initiative led by MIT Linguistics professor Michel DeGraff, along with fellow MIT colleagues Vijay Kumar (MIT Open Learning) and Haynes Miller (MIT Mathematics). Read the article here.


MIT at AMP 2018

The 6th installment of the Annual Meeting on Phonology, AMP 2018, took place at UCSD from October 5th to 7th. Presentations by current MIT students and faculty included:

  • Erin Olson (5th year): Pitch and vowel duration make schwa invisible to Passamaquoddy stress
  • Adam Albright (faculty): English vowel reduction is conditioned by duration, not stress
  • Edward Flemming (faculty): Systemic markedness in sibilant inventories

Several recent alums also presented: Gillian Gallagher (NYU), Sam Zukoff (Princeton University), and Feng-fan Hsieh (Chang National Tsing Hua University).


LSA honor for Colin Davis

Congratulations to fourth-year student Colin Davis, whose abstract for the Linguistic Society of America annual meeting “English Possessor Extraction” was the second-place winner of the LSA’s award for “best abstract submitted by a student” for the conference! Read here: https://www.linguisticsociety.org/…/2019-student-abstract-w…


Syntax Square 10/10 (Wednesday!) - Sasha Alexeyenko

Speaker: Sasha Alexeyenko (Goettingen/MIT)
Title: (Dis)obeying the Head Final Filter: linearization or agreement?
Date and Time: *Wednesday*, October 10, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461
Modifiers in many languages are subject to a well-known constraint that disallows them to be not head-final (cf. “*a proud of his son father” despite “John is proud of his son”). This constraint, which, following Williams (1982), is commonly referred to as the Head Final Filter on pre-nominal modifiers (HFF), is often believed to be universal, and in fact a version of it features as Greenberg’s (1963) Universal 21. Although there are several accounts available in the literature that attempt to derive this constraint (Abney 1987, Escribano 2004, Sheehan 2017, a.o.), none of them appears to be fully satisfactory in terms of data coverage, given that HFF does not always apply both within a language (cf. “an easy to read text” in English) and cross-linguistically, as a number of languages do not obey to it, including Bulgarian, Latin, Modern Greek, Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian. This talk will first present the results of our ongoing data collection, which seem to suggest that a reformulation of the empirical generalization is necessary, such that HFF is stated in terms of agreement richness, rather than head finality. It will then propose an alternative analysis, which covers a subset of the data and models the adjacency requirement of adnominal modifiers w.r.t. their modifiees as a result of constraints on linearization of agreement morphology. In the final part of the talk, I will discuss some possible ways to go about the remaining parts of the data, which involve zero exponence.

Ling-Lunch 10/11 - Ljiljana Progovac (Wayne State)

Speaker: Ljiljana Progovac  (Wayne State)
Title: What use is half a clause? The Five Problems facing language evolution research
Date and time: Thursday, 10/11, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

I have proposed that human languages reconstruct back to an intransitive absolutive-like grammar, which provides the foundation and common denominator for crosslinguistic variation in the expression of transitivity (e.g. Progovac 2015, 2016). The proposal is based both on an internal reconstruction using syntactic theory (in particular, Chomsky’s 1995 Minimalism), and on comparative typological considerations, in an attempt to directly bring together formal, typological, and evolutionary considerations.

The internal reconstruction is achieved by peeling off, from the top, the syntactic layers postulated to form the basic skeleton of the modern sentence/clause (CP>TP > vP > VP/SC), leading to reconstructing the initial, ancestral grammar as intransitive, featuring only the VP/SC layer with one single argument. Approximations of such one-argument grammars are arguably found in the absolutive and middle constructions across a variety of languages, as well as in certain verb-noun compounds, both of which will be illustrated and discussed. Rather than staying with general, vague claims, I will use specific data and detail in an attempt to make this proposal testable, and will report the results of an fMRI experiment designed to test some predictions of this proposal (Progovac et al. 2018: doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00278).

I will furthermore introduce The Five Problems/Challenges routinely encountered in language evolution research (Progovac, In Press), and will use the proposal above as a test case to demonstrate how these challenges can begin to be addressed.

  1. Identification of the initial stage(s) of language (The Decomposition Problem)
  2. The genetic basis for language, i.e. how genetic basis for language came to be (The Selection Problem)
  3. The language-brain-genes linkage (The Loop Problem)
  4. Compatibility with the parameters of language variation and change (The Variation Problem)
  5. Grounding in linguistic theory and analysis (The Theoretical Grounding Problem)

Especially thorny are The Decomposition and The Selection Problems, partly because they are intertwined, in the sense that only a successful decomposition will reveal utility, which can in turn identify possible reasons for natural/sexual selection. Consistent with the proposal above, I will explore a specific natural/sexual selection scenario which attempts to disentangle the two, while addressing the question of “What use is half a clause?”


ESSL/LacqLab Meeting Talk: Yadav Gowda and Elise Newman (MIT)

Speakers: Yadav Gowda and Elise Newman (MIT)
Title: Polarity Sensitivity of Even in Early Child Grammar
Date and Time: Friday, 10/12 2-3pm
Location: 32-D831

This study explores non-adult-like behavior in children’s comprehension of the scalar focus particle even, which triggers a polarity-sensitive likelihood inference (“least-likely presupposition” in positive sentences, “most-likely presupposition” in negative sentences; Karttunen&Peters’79):

  1. Even Alex sang.
            Inferred: Alex was least-likely to sing.
  1. Even Alex didn’t sing.
            Inferred: Alex was most-likely to sing.

We probe children’s comprehension of even with a forced choice task. Children are shown stories about 3 characters of different sizes (not identified by name) attempting to do some task, which scales in difficulty by their size. The story ends when all the characters either succeed or fail, and the experimenter says, “Even X was(n’t) able to [do the task]!”. Participants are then asked to identify X and provide a justification for their answer. 

We observe a polarity effect: children exhibit more adult-like interpretations in negative environments than in positive environments. This asymmetry interacts with age: younger children (3-4ya) exhibit a more pronounced asymmetry than older children (5-6ya), struggling more to understand even in positive contexts, and often choosing the middle character (i.e. neither least- nor most-likely). Additionally, their justifications show that they use scalar reasoning when choosing extrema characters but not when choosing middle characters.

Child performance on this task and their justifications for their answers suggest two things: 1) they treat even as an NPI at some stage of development (Rooth 1985, Tieu 2010), and 2) they use scalar reasoning to evaluate even before they have learned the adult interpretation. This suggests an expansion of the hypothesis space for scalar focus particles.