The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

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