The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, April 1st, 2019

Syntax Square 4/2 - Rafael Abramovitz and Itai Bassi (MIT)

Speaker: Rafael Abramovitz and Itai Bassi (MIT)
Title: Relativized Anaphor Agreement Effect: Evidence from Koryak
Time: Tuesday, 4/2, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, we discuss the Anaphor Agreement Effect (AAE), an observation first proposed in Rizzi (1990) to the effect that anaphors do not trigger phi-agreement. We report on novel data from Koryak, a Chukotko-Kamchatkan language of the Russian Far East, which we claim constitutes a particularly revealing partial counterexample to previous formulations of the AAE. Specifically, we show that the Koryak anaphor uvik triggers obligatory number agreement consistent with its binder, but never triggers person agreement consistent with it. We therefore propose that the AAE is limited to preventing anaphors from triggering covarying person agreement, but that it does not block number (or gender) agreement. Our account of this combines arguments from recent work by Omer Preminger on the AAE, as well converging evidence about the syntax of phi-features from Moskal (2015), Harbour (2016), and van Urk (2018). Following Preminger (2019), we take the AAE to be the result of the way that anaphors are structured: they contain a head Anaph that blocks agreement into its complement. However, to account for the Koryak facts (as well as other partial counterexamples to the AAE discussed in Murugesan (2018)), we deviate from Preminger’s proposal by allowing languages to vary with respect to where Anaph merges along the pronominal spine. In languages like Koryak, where anaphors trigger number agreement, Anaph merges below Num, whereas in languages like Albanian, where they trigger only 3SG agreement (Woolford 1999, Run Chen p.c.), it merges above Num. Following Moskal (2015) et. seq., we take person to be the most embedded phi-feature, forcing agreement with it to be blocked by Anaph regardless of how low it merges. Finally, we propose a compositional semantics for the Anaph head that explains how its presence gives rise to co-reference between the two arguments of the relevant predicate.


Extended Visit: Simon Charlow (Rutgers)

We’re very happy to announce that Simon Charlow will be here this week, and will teach a mini-course Wednesday and Thursday, April 3rd and April 4th. Details are below. 

Speaker: Simon Charlow (Rutgers)
Title: Extensible semantics
Time: Wednesday (4/3), 1:00-2:30pm  and Thursday (4/4), 3:30-5:00pm
Place: 32-D461 on Wednesday, 37-212 on Thursday

Abstract: Since the basics were outlined by Frege, semantic theory has been enriched in various ways. Pronouns and alternative-invoking expressions motivated a souped-up interpretation function, one capable of composing assignment-sensitive and multifarious meanings (and eventually meanings that were both). Various kinds of ‘dynamic’ phenomena resulted in lexical enrichments that replaced propositions with context-change potentials. Quantification and scope gave us the Y-model. Type-shifting has appeared from time to time.
This mini-course will show how to recast all these enrichments in a uniform way with basic, well-studied tools used by programmers to introduce so-called ‘side-effects’ into functional programs: (applicative) functors and monads. We’ll see concrete examples of how to abstract these tools out of existing semantic theories, and compositionally combine them to build new super-tools (in more ways than one). We’ll study how this flexible, modular approach to composition solves various empirical problems and dissolves some recalcitrant technical issues. And we’ll apply these techniques to the study of pronouns (with or without assignments), exceptionally scoping indefinites, cross-sentential and donkey anaphora, quantification and scope (with and without events), and ‘higher-order’ analogs of these phenomena (e.g., functional pronouns and higher-order questions).

Suggested readings: [1] “The scope of alternatives“ And optionally, one of the following: [2] ”A modular theory of pronouns and binding“[3] “Variable-free semantics and flexible grammars for anaphora


Ling-Lunch 4/4 - Daniel Hole (Universität Stuttgart)

SpeakerDaniel Hole (Universität Stuttgart)
Title: Arguments for a universal distributed syntax of evaluation, scalarity and basic focus quantification with ‘only’
Time: Thursday, 4/4, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: In this talk, I review the evidence that has been adduced for a multi-constituent syntax of focus particle constructions. Traditionally, those components that I model as independent morphemes with their own scope-taking properties have been analyzed as submorphemic components of focus particles. I use ‘only’ words to make this point. This work is based on Hole (2013, 2015, 2017), and it makes use of data from Chinese, Vietnamese, German and Dutch. However, many arguments carry over to English. Time allowing, I will also present novel data from the interaction of German nur with modals and the German NPI modal brauchen ‘need (+NPI)’.

This approach to focus particles stands in stark contrast to Büring & Hartmann (2001) or Coppock & Beaver (2013).


Comp-Lang 4/4 - Candace Ross (MIT CSAIL)

Speaker:  Candace Ross (MIT CSAIL)
Title: Grounding Language Acquisition by Training Semantic Parsers using Captioned Videos
Time: Thursday, 4/4, 5-6pm
Location: 46-5165

We develop a semantic parser that is trained in a grounded setting using pairs of videos captioned with sentences. This setting is both data-efficient, requiring little annotation, and similar to the experience of children where they observe their environment and listen to speakers. The semantic parser recovers the meaning of English sentences despite not having access to any annotated sentences. It does so despite the ambiguity inherent in vision where a sentence may refer to any combination of objects, object properties, relations or actions taken by any agent in a video. For this task, we collected a new dataset for grounded language acquisition. Learning a grounded semantic parser — turning sentences into logical forms using captioned videos — can significantly expand the range of data that parsers can be trained on, lower the effort of training a semantic parser, and ultimately lead to a better understanding of child language acquisition.


MIT Colloquium 4/5: Simon Charlow (Rutgers)

Speaker: Simon Charlow (Rutgers)
Title: Local contexts in ellipsis
Time: Friday, April 5th, 4pm-5:30pm
Location: 32-155

Abstract: This talk advocates a specific semantic implementation of discourse congruence (Rooth 1992, Schwarzschild 1999), which plays a central role in the licensing of ‘anaphoric’ reduction (i.e., ellipsis and deaccenting). I argue that congruence is checked compositionally, and that satisfaction of congruence is determined extensionally — that is, in a local context. I show how this leads to significant simplifications in the theory of reduction licensing, allowing us to dispense with otherwise necessary prohibitions on Meaningless Coindexing (Sag 1976, Heim 1997) and Redundancy within an assignment (cf. Schlenker 2005), and to strengthen the relationship between an elided phrase and its antecedent to one of pure identity.
I consider several consequences of my proposal for the formulation of congruence operators, arguing that it compels us to take their anaphoric character seriously, while allowing for ex post facto (i.e., post-suppositional) linking of congruence operators to their ‘antecedents’. And I explore some consequences of these moves for restrictions on antecedent-contained deletion (Kennedy 1994) and the puzzling phenomenon of focused bound pronouns (Sauerland 1998).


15th Workshop on Altaic formal linguistics @ Moscow State University

The 15th workshop on Altaic formal linguistics will take place at Moscow State University on September 26th to 28th. The deadline for abstract submissions is April 14th 2019.


BIC Tizon Dife @ MIT

From April 2 to April 5, Arts at MIT, in collaboration with Prof. Michel DeGraff at MIT Linguistics and the MIT-Haiti Initiative, and Prof. Nick Montfort in Comparative Media Studies, is hosting the visit from Haiti of rapper, poet and singer BIC Tizon Dife (Roosevelt Saillant) for a celebration of music, literature, linguistics, dance and community. Joining BIC at his concert on Friday, April 5, 8pm, at MIT, is the Boston-based dance company Jean Appolon Expressions (JAE). JAE will also offer a dance workshop on Friday, April 5, 1-3pm. BIC will help lead a digital story-telling workshop on Tuesday, April 2nd, 5-7pm, and he will perform at Brothers’ Kafe Kreyòl in Everett on Wednesday, April 3rd, 8pm. All events are free of charge and open to the MIT and greater Boston community. For more information on BIC’s schedule and related events, please visit https://arts.mit.edu/artists/bic/#schedule.


Yong Chen @ CUNY

Second year student, Sherry Yong Chen, presented two projects at the 32nd CUNY Annual Conference on Human Sentence Processing:

  1. “QUD effects on scope ambiguity involving comparative quantifies” - Sherry Yong Chen, Leo Rosenstein and Martin Hackl
  2. “Interference effects in the memory retrieval of presuppositional dependency” - Sherry Yong Chen and E. Matthew Husband

In other news, her co-authored chapter has just appeared in the Oxford Handbook of Experimental Semantics and Pragmatics (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-oxford-handbook-of-experimental-semantics-and-pragmatics-9780198791768): Chapter 5 “Event (de)composition”, Sherry Yong Chen and E. Matthew Husband. 


Levin to Facebook

Congratulations to our alum Ted Levin (PhD 2015) on his new job at Facebook in Seattle! Here’s what he writes to us about his new position:

“I’ve been working as a Linguist at Facebook Reality Labs for the past month or so. I’ve found the work to be challenging with lots of new things to learn, and am enjoying it despite it being quite different than my academic work. Broadly speaking, the team of ~20 linguists that I’m a part of sits at the very beginning of a pipeline to make Facebook apps better at understanding user intentions through voice or text.

“Narrowly, my job is to identify ways in which users might want to interact with Facebook apps (e.g. send messages, get recommendations, set reminders), collect data to exemplify the utterances that satisfy requests within these domains, and oversee the annotation of this data so that it can be utilized to train machine learning algorithms farther down the pipeline.”

Before joining Facebook, Ted was a post-doc at the University of Maryland and at the National University of Singapore. It is very exciting to learn of the many new possibilities available for linguists (and the increasing importance of linguistics expertise) in today’s world! Wonderful news, Ted!!


Uegaki to Edinburgh

News has reached us from our recent alum Wataru Uegaki (PhD 2015) that he has accepted a position as a Lecturer in Semantics (≅ Assistant Professor) in the Linguistics department of the University of Edinburgh. Wataru is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands. Congratulations, Wataru!!