The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, May 6th, 2019

MIT Joint Ling-Phil Colloquium: David Beaver (The University of Texas at Austin)

Speaker: David Beaver (University of Texas)
Title: How to do even more things with words
Time: Friday, May 10, 3:30 - 5:00pm
Room: 32-141


Material drawn from:
David Beaver and Jason Stanley (to appear), “Hustle: the politics of Language”, Princeton University Press

The notion of a language as primarily a representational system is natural when you think of the words laid out on the page of an encyclopedia, or even a talk abstract. It’s less natural when you watch some guy ranting angrily in the supermarket, or at an academic talk. This leads to the Wittgensteinian and Austinian thought that language consists in the first place of things you do, not things that sit passively on the page or screen. Grammars, then are practices, and those practices consist of conventions for performing communicative actions. But how far can this program be taken, and how far should it be taken? Is there value to focusing on the actions of, say, uttering nouns and verbs and relative clauses, rather than limiting linguistic study to the corresponding classes of strings and the things they symbolize? 

First things first: is it even possible to formulate a grammar in terms of actions? Yes. I will show that formulating grammars in terms of actions does not necessitate much alteration to the technical machinery of formal linguistics, albeit that the change invites further innovation. I introduce Action Grammar, a way of looking at what language is that centers on the actions that a speaker performs. While the target of the approach is ultimately an account of the place of language in social interaction, the proposed paradigm can also be seen as making formally explicit the idea in contemporary linguistic theory that grammatical representations are “instructions for the interface systems”. In Action Grammar, it is not merely combinatorial operations like “merge” that are actions, but the merged objects themselves. 

As regards semantics, Action Grammar conservatively maintains insights of modern post-Montagovian compositional grammar, while providing a new way of cutting up semantic/pragmatic space that might be thought of as a precisification of the Relevance Theoretic distinction between conceptual and procedural aspects of meaning. Crucially, although it appears mysterious how one expression can simultaneously mean multiple things, there is no mystery at all in the fact that a speaker can use an expression to do several things (of which describing the world is just one). I will sketch how the approach offers the possibility of simplifying aspects of grammatical composition and the semantics-pragmatics interface, and suggest that it offers insights into both sentence level markers of speech acts, such as performatives, and subsentential speech acts, which may include uses of expressives, politeness markers, and parentheticals. Among other things, I will argue not merely that modern analyses of “conventional implicature” are in error, but that the term itself is a misnomer.

Noam Chomsky’s lectures now online

Noam Chomsky gave two lectures on April 10th and 12th. You can watch the first lecture here and the second lecture here.

MorPhun 5/6: Neil Banerjee on negative allomorphy in Bengali

Speakers: Neil Banerjee (MIT)
Title: Negative allomorphy in Bengali
Time: Monday, May 6th, 5-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Abstract: Bengali (Eastern Indic) has two morphemes for sentential negation: ni is used to negate finite perfect verbs, while na is used for all other constructions. In this project, I investigate the distribution of these two morphemes, present new data from the antecedents of conditionals and from TP ellipsis, and propose a morphological analysis with implications for the mechanism of ellipsis. 

   In both antecedents and with ellipsis, perfect verbs occur with the ‘wrong’ negation, namely na. I argue that this strongly supports a morphological account of the distribution, rather than the semantic account proposed in Ramchand (2004). I present a morphological account of the facts based on Trommer’s (1999) proposal for portmanteau and a modification of Adger et al’s (2003) proposal for a labelling algorithm. I demonstrate that within a Distributed Morphology framework, inward sensitivity to morphosyntactic features is required for this account to succeed. Issues of locality of triggers and directionality of allomorphy will be discussed. Finally, based on the new evidence from ellipsis bleeding allomorphy, I argue that at least in Bengali, ellipsis must be realised as featural obliteration prior to vocabulary insertion.

Syntax Square 5/7 - Filipe Kobayashi (MIT) on Keine 2018

Speaker: Filipe Kobayashi (MIT) on Keine 2018
Title: Keine (2018) Selective Opacity
Time: Tuesday, May 7, 1pm-2pm
Location: 32-D461

(Keine 2018) This article develops a general theory of selective opacity effects, configurations in which the same constituent is opaque for some operations but transparent for others. Classical observations of selective opacity lie in the realm of movement. Finite clauses, for instance, are opaque for A-movement but transparent for Ā-extraction, a pattern that generalizes beyond the A/Ā distinction. Using novel evidence from movement-agreement interactions in Hindi-Urdu, I argue that selective opacity also encompasses ϕ-agreement and I propose that the underlying constraint applies, not to movement itself, but to Agree. I develop the novel concept of horizons, which delimit search spaces in probe specific ways by terminating search. They thereby prevent particular probes from searching into them, inducing selective opacity. The horizons account derives an otherwise surprising property of selective opacity effects noted previously: the higher the structural position of a probe in the clausal spine, the more structures are transparent to it. The analysis proposed here unifies improper movement and related selective opacity restrictions, mismatches in the locality of movement and agreement, and intricate interactions between movement types and agreement.

LF Reading Group 5/8 - Tanya Bondarenko (MIT)

Speaker: Tanya Bondarenko (MIT)
Title: From think to remember: the case of Buryat’s verb hanaxa
Time: Wednesday, May 8th, 1-2PM
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Barguzin Buryat has an attitude verb hanaxa, which is naturally translated as “think” when it takes CP clauses and as “remember” when it takes nominalized clauses. I show that this difference in translation correlates with a presence of a factive presupposition, (1)-(2), and argue that this factivity alternation arises not due to lexical ambiguity or nominal/definite status of the complement, but rather due to the interaction between the argument structure of the verb and different ways of it composing with CPs and with NPs.

Phonology Circle 5/8 - Aleksei Nazarov (University of Toronto)

Speaker: Aleksei Nazarov (University of Toronto)
Title: Connecting opacity and exceptionality: “alphabet features” in constraints
Time: Wednesday (5/8), 5:00pm-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Some analyses of phonological opacity in OT maintain that opaque generalizations are encoded in the lexicon (e.g., Mielke et al. 2003, Sanders 2006), or result from language-specific constraints (Pater 2014). Developing these ideas, I propose that systematic opaque generalizations may arise from rankings of lexically indexed constraints (Kraska-Szlenk 1995, Pater 2000). This perspective has consequences for models of phonological learning, since it allows us to view both exceptionality and opacity as part of the same hidden structure learning problem.
In order to allow constraint indexation to be relevant to opacity, indexation must be binary (cf. Becker 2009) and local to particular segments (cf. Temkin-Martínez 2010, Rubach 2013, 2016, Round 2017) – ideas that had been proposed separately, but not brought together within OT, although SPE (Chomsky and Halle 1968) did originally propose local and binary indices in the form of “alphabet features” (see also Zonneveld 1978). Given such indices, different rankings of indexed markedness constraints allow for exceptionless or exceptionful opaque interactions, which will be illustrated with an analysis of Canadian Raising (Chambers 1973, Bermúdez-Otero 2003).

Boer Fu wins writing prize

Congratulations to second-year student Boer Fu, who has won the graduate student division of MIT’s Obermayer Prize for Writing for the Public, with an essay about the building of the first underground transit systems in London (1863) and Boston (1897)! Our linguistics students have talents above and beyond!!

Swenson to MTSU

We are delighted to report that our alum Amanda Swenson (PhD 2017) has accepted a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in the Department of English at Middle Tennessee State University where she will be teaching linguistics. Amanda wrote her dissertation on “The morphosemantics and morphosyntax of the Malayalam verb”, and has been a lecturer at Gordon College.