The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 29th, 2018

LingPhil Reading Group 10/29 – on Sauerland (2014)

Itai Bassi will be presenting a paper by Uli Sauerland. This paper uses Lewis counterpart theory to obtain a more constrained and empirically adequate view of the De Re/De Dicto phenomenon. The meeting will take place on Monday 29th in the 8th floor seminar room.

Title :
Counterparts block some “De Re” readings

Author(s) : Uli Sauerland

Abstract :

Irene Heim in unpublished work proposed a new syntax-semantics interface for propositional attitude reports based on an ontology without transworld individuals, but counterpart functions instead. We show that the approach can capture the ‘de re’/‘de dicto’ distinction, but makes different predictions from accounts with transworld individuals. Specifically, the account uses a non-invertible counterpart functions: a single individual in an alternative world can be the counterpart of many individuals of the real world. The directionality of counterpart functions predicts that a ‘de dicto’ interpreted DP cannot be an argument of a ‘de re’ interpreted predicate. We show that the predicted restriction is corroborated by existing work on restrictions on ‘de re’ interpretation. The derivation of constraints on ‘de re’ interpretation argues empirically for the counterpart ontology and Heim’s implementation thereof.



Syntax Square 10/30 - Suzana Fong

Speaker: Suzana Fong (MIT)
Title: Asymmetries in the licensing of bare nominals in Wolof
Date and Time: Tuesday, October 30, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461
In this research in progress, I try to analyze some properties of the syntactic behavior of bare nominals (i.e. nominals without an overt determiner) in Wolof (Niger-Congo), (1c).
Awa defar na oto bi/yi.
Awa fix NA.3sg car the.SG/the.PL
‘Awa fixed the car/the cars.’ 
Awa defar na ab/ay oto.
Awa fix NA.3sg some.SG/some.PL car
‘Awa fixed some car/some cars.’
Awa defar na oto.
Awa fix NA.3sg car
Lit.: ‘Awa fixed car.’
Bare nominals in Wolof are apparently singular in that (i) they can bind a singular reflexive, though not a plural one; (ii) they cannot saturate a collective predicate, and (iii) a sentence containing a bare nominal cannot be followed up by the question how many targeting the bare nominal.
However, added plural morphology elsewhere in the sentence “turns” bare nominals plural. A plural relative clause or plural genitive agreement render a bare nominal (i) an adequate binder for a plural anaphor and (ii) an appropriate argument for a collective predicate. Conversely, plural verbal morphology has no effect in the licensing of (i) and (ii). The first asymmetry to explain, then, is why nominal-internal plural morphology in relative clauses and genitive agreement are able to “turn” a bare nominal plural, but verbal morphology does not have the same effect.
A second asymmetry that I will describe is that (iii) how many follow-up becomes felicitous due to the addition of plural morphology not only from a relative clause or genitive agreement, but also from verbal agreement.
I will present a tentative analysis where bare nominals in Wolof come in two varieties, a singular and a plural one, number being determined by the type of Phi-P (Sauerland 2003) that tops off the bare nominal. With an additional stipulation of a featural difference between a singular and a plural Phi-P and some assumptions about binding, I will try to derive the binding and how many data. I will also comment on how the analysis falls short of accounting for the collective predicate data.

LF Reading Group 10/31 - Carolyn Spadine (MIT) & Gunnar Lund (Harvard)

Speaker: Carolyn Spadine (MIT) & Gunnar Lund (Harvard)
Title: Complementizers in matrix contexts: Reporting attitudes without attitude verbs
Date and time: Wednesday, October 31st, 1-2 pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Using evidence from attitude-report constructions lacking attitude verbs, we argue against the received view of attitude-reports, which locates the central component of attitude-reports, quantification over sets of accessible worlds, in the attitude verb. Instead, we follow recent proposals (Kratzer 2006, a.o.) placing intensional quantification in the complementizer, while providing an analysis for a class of under-researched attitude reports involving matrix complementizers.



Phonology Circle 10/31 - Filipe on Hayes & Wilson (2008)

Presenter: Filipe Hisao Kobayashi (MIT)
Title: A Maximum Entropy Model of Phonotactics and Phonotactic Learning (Hayes & Wilson 2008)
Date/Time: Wednesday, October 31, 5:00-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

“The study of phonotactics is a central topic in phonology. We propose a theory of phonotactic grammars and a learning algorithm that constructs such grammars from positive evidence. Our grammars consist of constraints that are assigned numerical weights according to the principle of maximum entropy. The grammars assess possible words on the basis of the weighted sum of their constraint violations. The learning algorithm yields grammars that can capture both categorical and gradient phonotactic patterns. The algorithm is not provided with constraints in advance, but uses its own resources to form constraints and weight them. A baseline model, in which Universal Grammar is reduced to a feature set and an SPE-style constraint format, suffices to learn many phonotactic phenomena. In order for the model to learn non-local phenomena such as stress and vowel harmony, it must be augmented with autosegmental tiers and metrical grids. Our results thus offer novel, learning-theoretic support for such representations. We apply the model in a variety of learning simulations, showing that the learned grammars capture the distributional generalizations of these languages and accurately predict the findings of a phonotactic experiment.”


Mini-course 11/1 @ Harvard: Lisa Matthewson (UBC)

We are happy to announce an extended visit with Lisa Matthewson, joint between MIT and Harvard. Lisa will teach a mini-course at Harvard this Thursday 11/1, details below.

Speaker: Lisa Matthewson (University of British Columbia)
Title: Finding semantic building blocks: Tense, aspect and evidentials 
Time: Thursday, November 1, 12-1:30pm
Location2, Arrow Street - Room 420

According to von Fintel and Matthewson (2008), semantic universals will likely not be found at the level of umbrella categories such as ‘perfective’ or ‘accomplishment’. Instead, we should search for semantic building blocks: smaller pieces of meaning, which recur cross-linguistically and combine in different ways. In this mini-course we explore building blocks in the areas of tense, aspect and evidentials. We explore traditional larger categories like ‘past’, ‘perfect’, and ‘inferential’, and we identify recurring atoms such as existential quantification over times, changes-of-state, and reliance on prior reports. We discuss the new perspectives on cross-linguistic comparison which result from this approach.

Fieldwork Reading Group 11/1: Lisa Matthewson (UBC)

Time: Thursday, Nov 1st, 5-6pm
Place: 32D-831
Speaker: Lisa Matthewson (UBC)
Title:  Visual contexts for semantic elicitation: Single images vs. storyboards and the (not-)at-issue distinction

Comp-Lang 11/1 - Keny Chatain

This week’s Comp-Lang meeting features our very own Keny Chatain! everyone is welcome to join. Pizza will be served.

Speaker: Keny Chatain (MIT)
Title: Is logic useful in the study of meaning? Pronouns can tell
Date and time: Thursday, 11/1, 5-6pm
Location: 46-5165

Pronouns, like heshe, or it, are among the items with highest frequency in English and other languages that use overt pronouns. Within the same language, they have a variety of uses that do not form an obvious natural class. They can for instance be used to refer to a previously mentioned name (the anaphoric use), but also as variables in quantified statements (the bound use, e.g. ‘every athlete thinks he will win’). More intriguingly, it seems, in broad strokes, that no language distinguishes these uses by employing different forms, suggesting an underlying connection between them.

In this talk, I will show how this connection has been used to shed light on the system that underlies meaning. I will start off by showing that standard predicate logic provides a remarkably adequate understanding of the behavior of pronouns. I will then present the famous case of so-called donkey sentences that translations to predicate logic seem unable to capture. These cases are taken to argue in favor of new take on the meaning of sentences, called Dynamic Semantics ; the meaning of sentences, it is claimed, is more appropriately understood as the effect that sentences have on the context. I will show how this approach can capture donkey sentences, and other pronoun-related phenomena. Time allowing, I will discuss alternatives.


MIT Colloquium 11/2: Lisa Matthewson (UBC)

Speaker: Lisa Matthewson (UBC)
Micro-variation in discourse particles: From St’át’imcets to German (joint work with Henry Davis)
Time: Friday, November 2nd, 3:30-5pm
Place: 32-155

Discourse particles convey information about the discourse status of propositions and the belief states of interlocutors. They are cross-linguistically understudied, and there is little understanding of what makes a possible vs. impossible particle meaning.

Investigating micro-variation offers a route towards eventually answering the big-picture questions. In this talk we examine the St’át’imcets (Salish) ‘frustrative’ particle, and compare it to similar elements in Tohono O’odham, Kimaragang and German. We argue that the particles micro-vary in properties including whether the prejacent is entailed, (lack of) reference to the common ground, (lack of) reference to a salient proposition, and (a)symmetry of contrast entailments. 


DeGraff plenary speaker in Haiti conference

Michel DeGraff, along with Enoch Aboh, Viviane Déprez, Salikoko Mufwene and Anne Zribi-Hertz, were plenary speakers at a conference in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, October 18–19, 2018, celebrating the 40-year anniversary of the Applied Linguistics Faculty of the State University of Haiti.  The conference was also in honor of the memory of two giants of linguistics in Haiti: Prof. Yves Dejean and Prof. Pierre Vernet.  Michel’s slides for his plenary lecture are available on his Facebook page at:

The conference agenda, with abstracts, is at: http://langse.ueh.edu.ht/resumes-du-colloque/