The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, September 2nd, 2019

Welcome to Fall 2019!

Welcome to the first edition of Whamit! for Fall 2019! 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, Hyun Ji Yoo, and Tracy Kelley.

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

Welcome ling-19!

Welcome to the students who are joining our graduate program!

Ido Benbaji I was born and grew up in Jerusalem. Recently, I received a B.A. in linguistics and history from the Hebrew University, where I was also working towards and M.A. in linguistics. I am interested in semantics, syntax and their interface, and in particular in singular terms, referentiality, modality, ellipsis and movement. On my free time, I watch many many movies. 

Omri Doron I was born and grew up in Jerusalem. I received my B.Sc. in Mathematics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I was also working on my M.A. in linguistics. I’m interested in semantics and its interface with syntax and philosophy of language, and in particular in tense and aspect, NPI’s and ellipsis. In my free time I enjoy playing basketball and arguing with people about food.

Yeong-Joon Kim I was born and grew up in the city of Daegu (literally large hills in Sino-Korean), an industrial city located in the heart of a hilly agricultural area in the southern part of Korea. Soon after I had finished my first B.A. degree with a triple major in theatre & cinema, history, and political Science & diplomacy at Hanayang University, I realized that I want to do somewhat more ‘scientific’ study, and so I decided to transfer to Seoul National University where I earned my second B.A. degree with a double major in linguistics and psychology. At Seoul National University, I discovered my affinity for linguistics, and this led me complete my M.A. thesis on the typology of coronal palatalization and affrication. My main areas of interest include formal language theory (in general), roles of phonetics in phonology, and linguistic typology. Besides linguistics, I enjoy a morning walk, a cup of coffee, reading, and video games.

Eunsun Jou I’m from Seoul, South Korea. I did my B.A. and M.A. in linguistics at Seoul National University. I focused on syntax and semantics there, but I really hope to widen my scope of interest during my years at MIT - both in terms of linguistic subfields as well as the typology of languages that I look into. Some of my hobbies include swimming, knitting, and cooking. And for those who are wondering how to say my name: it’s roughly pronounced /ɯn.sʌn/.

Adèle Mortier I come from Paris, where I studied theoretical computer science, literature and management (but I prefer not to talk about the latter). I like very much how linguistics allows to mix formal and theoretical stuff, so I spent last year at the École normale supérieure working on statistical models for numerical approximation expressions. I am interested in semantics, but also possibly on more experimental topics such as language acquisition. When I have time, I like to walk or bike, visit art exhibitions and cook sweet things. Also, I have one tiny tortie cat named Sacha; it is my baby.

Annauk Denise Olin My family is from the Native Village of Shishmaref, an island in northwestern Alaska. I grew up in Utqiaġvik and Fairbanks, Alaska and was also raised in central Massachusetts. I received a B.A. from UMass-Amherst, studying Comparative Literature (French and Russian languages and literatures). Through teaching, self-study, and a mentor apprenticeship, I have dedicated the last three years to revitalizing my native language, Iñupiaq. As a new mom, I hope to speak primarily in Iñupiaq to my son Daał. Outside of work and academia, I enjoy berry picking, beading, Eskimo dancing, travel, the martial arts, and being outdoors. 

Yash Sinha I’m from a city called Jamshedpur in eastern India, but I’ve spent most of my life shuttling between Mumbai and Kolkata. I did my undergrad in linguistics at the University of Chicago. I have so far worked on morphology and syntax, but I am also looking forward to try my hand at semantics. I am interested in case and agreement systems, and the semantics of tense, aspect and mood. I am also interested in language change. Outside of linguistics, I enjoy reading, card games, and exploring cities (I’m looking forward to seeing what Boston has).

Ruoan Wang I’m from Singapore, and my main linguistic interest lies in typology. I also really like classical music, cuddly toys, and nature. 

Welcome to Visitors!

Please join us in giving a warm welcome to this semester’s visitors.

Visiting Professor

Patrick Elliott

“I was born in South Shields, a coastal town in the Northeastern part of England - this, colloquially, makes me a “sanddancer” (according to wiktionary this is a derogatory term, but I think that’s inaccurate). I received a BA in linguistics from University College London, which included a year in Tübingen, Germany. Afterwards, I did an MSc in linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, before returning to UCL for my PhD. My thesis was on the syntax and semantics of clausal embedding. Since then, I’ve been a postdoc at ZAS Berlin, as part of Uli Sauerland’s semantics group. Right now, I work on frankly too many different things, including dynamic semantics, continuation semantics, expressives, and wh-questions. While at MIT, i’m looking forward to being part of an incredibly vibrant research community, and interacting with brilliant students. Outside of work, I spend a great deal of time at the climbing wall.”

Visiting Scholar

Nabila Louriz

Visiting Students

Émile John Michel Enguehard

Luiz Fernando Ferreira

“I’m from São Paulo - Brazil. I’ve finished my B.A. in Linguistics in 2015 and my M.A. in 2017. During my B.A. and M.A., I’ve researched mood expression in Karitiana (an indigenous language  spoken by a tribe in the Amazon rainforest). Now in my PhD, I’m investigating the influence of tense in counterfactual sentences in this language. I’m interested in the Semantics of Brazilian indigenous languages, mainly in the interface between tense/aspect and mood systems. I love swimming, cats (have two of them in Brazil), sci-fi movies and cooking.”

Philipp Shushurin

Hi, My name is Philip. I started studying linguistics in Moscow. Now, I am a fifth-year PhD student at NYU Linguistics. I am primarily interested in syntax, such topics as Case, Argument Structure and DP-structure. I have conducted fieldwork on Dagestanian and Khoisan languages. Right now, I am doing research on properties of internal and external possessors and properties of Nominal Arguments marked with Ergative case.

Mengwei Yu

“I’m from China. I received my B.A. in English at Wuhan University and proceeded to an MA in English Language and Literature at Fudan University in Shanghai. Then I was recommended for admission into the doctoral program and I am now a PhD. candidate at Fudan. I grew up to find myself more interested in learning language and especially its grammar. As a child then, I had very limited resources and restricted access to language learning and grammar systematic training. That’s why I majored in linguistics later, where I discovered that grammar can be learned as a science and composed of syntax, phonology and semantics modules other than described generally in a taxonomical way. I am interested in phonology and syntax and familiar with the generative paradigm. My main research areas are element theory, government phonology and optimality theory. Actually, phonological and syntactic theories fascinate me as mathematics and logic, in which I believe something in common as well as truth lies. In my spare time, I read, travel, admire breathtaking scenery and local culture, watch films, listen to original soundtrack, and think while strolling. Basically, I like to know and experience new and unpredictable things, for there is more to life than axioms, rules and principles”. 

“Remarks on Noam”

“Remarks on Noam,” a compendium of the tributes to Noam Chomsky collected on the occasion of his 90th birthday, is now available on the PubPub platform: https://remarksonnoam.mitpress.mit.edu/ We are delighted to make these wonderful remembrances available, and invite you to read, comment, and contribute as you wish. If you’d like to contribute, please: 1. Create a free PubPub account at https://www.pubpub.org/signup 2. Read as many Remarks on Noam as you’d like, and leave comments and annotations on others’ tributes by highlighting the relevant text. 3. Share this compendium with your networks.

Summer News 2019

We have some summer news to share with you:

  • The CreteLing Summer School took place in July at the University of Crete in Rethymnon. There were courses and seminars in a variety of linguistic subfields. Several MIT faculty (and alumni) taught courses:

There were also many MIT Linguistics graduate students who TAed for CreteLing Summer School including Neil Banerjee, Cora Lesure, Mitya Privoznov, Vincent Rouillard, Frank Staniszewski, Dóra Takács, Chris Yang, and Stan Zompì. MIT Linguistics & Philosophy alumni who taught include William Snyder, Doug Pulleyblank, Pritty Patel-Grosz, Patrick Grosz, Zoltan Szabo, Philippe Schlenker, Heidi Harley, and Paul Kiparsky.

Dinner photo of faculty and TAs taken during CreteLing Summer School 2019

  • Tanya Bondarenko (3rd year), Colin Davis (5th year), and Mitya Privoznov (5th year) participated in the fieldtrip to the village Verkhnyaya Balkaria (Kabardino-Balkar Republic, Russia) organized by Lomonosov Moscow State University, where they worked on the Karachay-Balkar language. Tanya has submitted some pictures from their fieldtrip that you can view below!

  •  Stanislao Zompì paper published in Glossa!

Congratulations to Stan Zompì whose paper “Ergative is not inherent: Evidence from *ABA in suppletion and syncretism” was published in July. http://doi.org/10.5334/gjgl.816

  • Sulemana article published in Glossa!

Congratulations to Abdul-Razak Sulemana whose paper “Q-particles and the nature of covert movement: Evidence from Bùlì” was just published! Abdul-Razak is a final-year graduate student in our program, and taught at the African Linguistics School this summer.

  • Conference presentations:
    • At the end of May, Elise Newman, (4th year) attended ACAL 50 at UBC in Vancouver, where she presented a talk titled “vP infinitives in Wolof: on A-bar movement to Spec vP”.
    • In June, Maša Močnik ( 5th year), gave a talk Higher-Order Confidence with Epistemic Modals here: http://semantics.uni-konstanz.de/workshops/evidence-2019/program
    • Sherry Chen (3rd year) “I spent my summer in Berlin doing various things: 1. This summer, I’ve been funded by the XPrag.de Research Internship to work at ZAS Berlin, on the MUQTASP project “Modelling the Use of Quantifiers in Typical and Atypical Speakers Probabilistically”. I worked primarily under the supervision of Dr Bob van Tiel and Dr Uli Sauerland. I was very happy to have this opportunity to work with the researchers here in Berlin.2. In July, I gave two invited talks here:Memory Retrieval in the Processing of Anaphoric Presupposition Dependencies. Talk given at the Psycholinguistics Colloquium, Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany. Processing Lifetime Effects in Tensed and Tenseless Languages. Talk given at the Psycholinguistics Colloquim, Institut für deutsche Sprache und Linguistik, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany. 3. In August, I attended the DGfS summer school organized by theXPrag.de Priority Program. I studied presupposition, sentence processing at the syntax-discourse interface, and probabilistic pragmatics. This summer school offers a wide range of courses, taught by leading researchers in the field. It was a wonderful program that I thoroughly enjoyed and would enthusiastically recommend!” 
  • Education:
    • Tracy Kelley (2nd year) taught language classes for Wampanoag tribal elders throughout the summer as part of the tribe’s “Lunch & Learn” program. She mainly instructed through immersion using total physical response (TPR) and a variety of interactive games. She also continued to develop curriculum for a new high school language course that is being offered by the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project at Mashpee Middle High School.

Summer defenses

This summer our department celebrated successful defenses by Nick Longenbaugh, Naomi Francis, Erin Olson, and Ömer Demirok, with champagne and baked goods. Our happiest congratulations to this summer’s doctoral dissertators!

Nick Longenbaugh - On expletives and the agreement/movement correlation

Naomi Francis - Presuppositions in focus

Erin Olson - Loanwords and the Perceptual Map: A perspective from MaxEnt learning

Paul Crowley - Tense in the modal and temporal domains

Ömer Demirok - Scope Theory Revisited: Lessons from pied-piping in wh-questions

Miyagawa published by Frontiers

Shigeru Miyagawa’s new article “Systems underlining human and nonhuman primate communication: One, two, or infinite” (Miyagawa and Clarke) has been published online today in Frontiers in Psychology!

LingLunch 9/5 - Shigeru Miyagawa (MIT)

Speaker: Shigeru Miyagawa (MIT)
Title: The Question Particle in Japanese and the Nature of Exhaustivity in Wh-questions
Time: Thursday, September 5th, 12:30pm - 1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Wh-questions typically require an answer that gives the maximal information possible. I argue that this notion of exhaustivity is overtly marked by the Question particle in the root clauses in Japanese. We can detect the exhaustivity associated with the Q-particle by optionally omitting it; in the absence of the Q-particle, the question loses the exhaustive meaning, which signals that a partial answer is sufficient. We will see that the Q-particle provides a test for a number of issues in the meaning of questions that heretofore were not easily testable. We will see that a question that has for example, which asks for a partial answer, nevertheless may have the Q-particle because the question can contain the meaning of exhaustivity in its underlying meaning. Why questions require the Q-particle because why cannot lead to a partial answer. There is one situation where the Q-particle is prohibited; I argue that it is a pure form of Question Under Discussion, made possible by a question lacking the meaning of exhaustivity. For the mention-all versus mention-one question-answers, we will see that both contain exhaustivity. I will propose that the exhaustivity associated with mention-one questions is directly related to Schwarzschild’s (2002) idea of singleton indefinites.

Course Announcements: Fall 2019

Course announcements in this post:

  • 24.956 Topics in Syntax: Acquisition of Case, Agreement, and Finiteness Revisited
  • 24.964 Topics in Phonology, Representing stress
  • 24.979 Topics in Semantics: The only seminar
  • 24.943: Aspects of Haitian Creole syntax and related issues in the diachrony & synchrony of other languages

24.956 Topics in Syntax: Acquisition of Case, Agreement, and Finiteness Revisited

  • Instructors: Athulya Aravind & David Pesetsky
  • Schedule: Tuesdays 2-5pm (first class 9/10)
  • Room: 32-D461 

From the mid-1980s and through the early 2000s, a series of fascinating and plausibly connected puzzles of early child language were discovered and explored in a large literature that blurred and transcended the boundaries between empirical acquisition research and syntactic theory (something quite new at the time).  These puzzles included (1) root infinitival clauses (“optional infinitives”) produced by children acquiring a wide variety of languages (but possibly not all); (2) apparent (but controversial) early subject pro-drop in children acquiring non-pro-drop languages; and (3) recurrent case production errors of particular types in children acquiring case systems; among others . The excitement of these discoveries arose from the fact that children’s non-adult-like behavior was not only systematic, but also coexisted with startlingly adult-like behavior in other respects (for example: production of non-adult root infinitives coexisting with apparent full knowledge of other consequences of the finite/infinitival distinction).  An additional source of excitement was the existence of apparent correlations between specific types of non-adult behavior with specific syntactic properties of the language being acquired. 

Over the past two decades, however, the attention of the field turned to other topics, leaving many open questions unanswered and many avenues unexplored.  In the meantime, research on adult syntax has made significant advances in the very areas in which children were discovered to differ from adults in systematic and perplexing ways.  These include the laws governing case and agreement; their role in regulating null pronouns; the nature and origin of finiteness distinctions; among others.

For this reason, we believe that it should be instructive and even exciting to revisit some of the puzzles of language acquisition that preoccupied the field just a few decades ago in light of recent research on adult syntax — with a focus on issues connected to case, agreement, and finiteness.  Our plan for this class is to juxtapose discussion of results from the language acquisition literature with an exploration of recent research on adult syntax relevant to these results.  We do not know exactly what will emerge from these juxtapositions, but the intrinsic interest of the works to be discussed and the obvious potential connections among them holds significant promise.  We’ll see what emerges!
See attached file for course requirements and readings for the first class.

24.964 Topics in Phonology, Representing stress

  • Instructor: Donca Steriade
  • Schedule: Mondays 2-5pm
  • Room: 32-D461

I have posted a syllabus for 24.964 Topics in Phonology: Representing Stress, at https://stellar.mit.edu/S/course/24/fa19/24.964/materials.html

From the syllabus: 

We explore three issues in the representation of stress:

 i. The evidence for metrical constituents (feet, higher units); for grids; and the sw relation

  ii. Gradient evaluations of inter-stress distance, including weight

 iii. Other forms of prominence (quantitative, tonal) and their relation to stress

More on (i): recent work on stress reports over- and under-generation problems posed by foot-based constraint inventories, and proposes to remedy them by adding more foot types and more foot-based constraints. Most of this work does not experiment with foot-free solutions or the idea that stress assignment proceeds independently of the need to group syllables into rhythmic units. 

We will give several foot-free alternatives a try, after Prince (1983) and Gordon (2002). We will revisit Liberman and Prince’s (1977) arguments for representing stress as the stronger-than (sw) relation; and for grid structure. If there’s time, we look for evidence of nested metrical constituents in poetic meter.

 More on (ii): constraints on stress clash and lapse evaluate the distance between stresses or between stresses and boundaries. There is some evidence that this distance is measured not in categorical terms (counting syllables or rhyme slots) but in a gradient way that’s sensitive to the phonetic duration of individual segments. A parallel question arises in the classification of individual syllables as heavy or light.

 On (iii): quantitative rhythm, the periodic succession of longer and shorter rhythmic units, exists independently of stress. This thing is attested in quantitative meters, but it’s not clear if it exists in spoken language. We’ll examine evidence that it does. We’ll ask what quantitative rhythm means for the typology of prominence in spoken language: is there such a thing as tonal rhythm or tonal prominence? What are the dimensions on which rhythm can be expressed, and why those?

 The course opens with a unit on background issues: how we can tell where stress is, a question made urgent by reports of rampant inaccuracies in the stress data; how stress can be inferred based on the segmental traces it leaves; what is the typology of stress-on-segment effects.

24.979 Topics in Semantics: The only seminar

  • Instructors: Kai von Fintel & Sabine Iatridou
  • Schedule: Thursdays 2-5pm
  • Room: 32-D461 


This semester, we’ll work through classic and recent work on exclusives and exceptives. Along the way, we’ll talk about alternative semantics, scalarity, mirativity, sufficiency, quantificational force, and many other thrilling topics and ideas.

To receive credit for the seminar, you need to attend, participate, read, send two or three comments or questions before each class, and submit a final term paper. If the paper focuses on syntactic issues, the seminar can count as a syntax seminar. Listeners are welcome, as always.

24.943: Aspects of Haitian Creole syntax and related issues in the diachrony & synchrony of other languages


Course Description:

2019 is a special year, and August 2019 is a special month.  Four hundred years ago, on August 20, 1619, the British transatlantic slave trade was introduced in what is now the U.S.  That’s when some 20 enslaved Africans from Angola disembarked in a colonial port in Virginia called … “Point Comfort.”  This brutal transatlantic slave trade had already started in Latin America and the Caribbean more than 100 years before that—in the early 16th century.

This infamous triangular traffic linking Europe, Africa and the Americas is among the key historical events that triggered the emergence of Creole languages.  Some of my papers have analyzed how the hierarchies of power embedded in this colonial, then neo-colonial, history have shaped certain scientific claims around Creole languages, from the onset of Creole studies, as early as the very first description of Creole languages by European scholars in the 17th century.

Now, four centuries after “Point Comfort,” the field of Creole studies is still discomforted by debates around the proper characterization of Creole languages and their formation—debates around a host of questions such as: Are Creole languages “normal” / “regular” languages?  Do Creole languages arise through “abnormal” processes of language evolution?  Are Creole languages (part of) a family? In the case of Caribbean Creole languages, are they genetically related to the Indo-European or Niger-Congo languages that were in contact during Creole formation?  Do Creoles belong to an “exceptional” typology? Can Creole languages be used to teach and learn science and other complex concepts?
Etc, etc…

I mention these questions because they are part of the larger socio-historical and biographical backdrop of this seminar. But in this seminar we won’t spend too much time on these centuries-old debates about the development, structures and viability of Creole languages, even though these debates still infect most linguistic textbooks—as a banal reflex of (neo-)colonial power/knowledge cycles in the human sciences and the unbroken transmission of biases therein.  After a brief overview of these debates, we’ll focus on my native Haitian Creole (“Kreyòl”) as a perfectly “normal” language, and we’ll study it with “uniformitarian” lenses—that is, we’ll enlist the toolbox of contemporary syntactic theory in order to examine Kreyòl as a language that is as “exceptional” as every other language.  More generally, I’d like to assume that whatever tools linguistic theory gives us to understand the synchrony and diachrony of any non-Creole language will also help us understand the synchrony and diachrony of any Creole language.  That is, our seminar will assume that there’s absolutely no need for a sui generis theory of Creole formation. 

It is with these caveats in mind that I’ll invite course participants to take a stab at various puzzles in the diachrony and synchrony of Haitian Creole and other Creole and non-Creole languages.  For starters, we’ll examine some of the data and proposals in my and related publications on Haitian Creole, with initial focus on: clause structure, (non-verbal) predication, clefts, negation, noun-phrase structure, bare noun phrases, prepositional phrases, serial verbs, etc.  My analyses will serve as jumping points into related data and analyses for other (Creole and non-Creole) languages, including Romance and Germanic. We’ll be inspired by work of colleagues such as Enoch Aboh, Marlyse Baptista, Viviane Déprez, Jacqueline Guéron, Herby Glaude, Daniel Harbour, Salikoko Mufwene, Pieter Muysken, Tonjes Veenstra, Anne Zribi-Hertz, etc.

We’ll invite participants to present and lead discussion on topics of their liking that connect with the afore-mentioned areas of syntax and that include relevant (Haitian) Creole data.  So the formal course requirements will include regular weekly participation, questions and comments before each session, in-class presentations and a short paper  (~10 pages) which may well be a draft of something publishable.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, September 4, we’ll begin the seminar with a discussion of (very) basic issues, in order to clear up some muddy issues around general terminological and conceptual background about “Creole” languages and their history.  So we’ll begin with my and Enoch Aboh’s views about “a null theory of Creole formation based on Universal Grammar”.  The relevant paper for that, of the same title, is available at:


You may also want to look at another paper of mine that gives a general survey of Haitian Creole—from John Holm’s 2007 book _Comparative Creole Syntax_:


Course Requirements:

1.     Regular weekly class participation

2.     Questions & comments on relevant readings before each session

3.     Presentation in class

4.     Short paper

Experimentalist Meeting 9/6

Next week Friday 09/06 we will be meeting from 2:00 to 3:00 pm in 32-D8461. 

This meeting will be focused on the Language Acquisition Lab. In this meeting we will introduce our new Lab space and our new Lab people, and we will discuss some of the ongoing language acquisition projects we have going on in the Lab right now. 

Please contact Leo Rosenstein if you have any questions.