The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, March 2nd, 2020

Phonology Circle 3/2 - Adam Albright (MIT)

Speaker: Adam Albright (MIT)
Title: Speakers avoid saying improbable words, but not exceptional words
Time: Monday, March 2nd, 5pm - 6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Abstract: Numerous studies over the past two decades have documented cases in which restrictions that are obeyed categorically in some languages are obeyed gradiently in others, and that speakers are aware of such gradient restrictions. Such facts suggest that gradient restrictions are included in speakers’ grammars, even if they are not enforced absolutely. An implication of this approach is that lexicons may be rife with exceptions to gradient restrictions. This is not necessarily a problem, as long as learners have adequate evidence to learn both the restriction and the exceptions. In order to learn that a particular morpheme is exceptional, it must have sufficiently high token frequency. This effect is seen very clearly in the domain of irregular morphology, where irregular items tend to be skewed towards high token frequency. Phonological alternations show a similar effect: items that run counter to general lexical trends tend to have higher token frequency. The current study tests whether a similar skewing is found for words that are exceptions to static phonotactic trends, using data from English and Korean. The hypothesis is that exceptional items should likewise require the support of high token frequency.

In order to examine the distribution of grammatically exceptional forms, I employed the UCLA Phonotactic Learner to discover gradient phonotactic restrictions in English and Korean. I examined three lexicons: 4,657 English monosyllabic lemmas, 15,386 Korean mono- and disyllabic nouns, and 3,750 Korean verbs. For each lexicon, the model was used to discover 500 constraints, which were assigned weights to form a maximum entropy grammar. In order to examine the frequency distribution of exceptions, I selected constraints with at least modestly high weights, and reasonably many (>50) exceptions. For each constraint, the frequency density distributions of regular vs. exceptional forms were then compared, testing for a skew towards high frequency among exceptions.

For some constraints, exceptional items are indeed skewed towards higher token frequency. For example, English exhibits a gradient restriction against [ŋ] followed by coronals, and exceptions show a slight skewing towards higher frequencies. This effect is small compared to the effect for morphological irregulars, however, and most constraints do not show such a skewing at all. The same general pattern holds for for Korean nouns and verbs: a few constraints show a slight trend for exceptions to have higher frequency, but most constraints do not.

In order to test the relation between phonotactic probability and frequency more generally, I also calculated bigram transitional probability of existing items in each of the three datasets, and compared bigram probability to token frequency. For all three data sets, generalized linear models show that even when segment count is controlled for, lemma frequency is positively correlated with bigram probability. Thus, phonotactically unusual words tend to have lower frequency, not higher frequency. In the domain of static phonotactics, grammatically exceptional words do not require high token frequency to maintain their exceptionality. I conclude that phonotactically exceptional words are reliably learned, but speakers tend to avoid using them, lowering their token frequency (Martin 2007).

Syntax Square 3/3 - Masha Privizentseva (Leipzig University)

Speaker: Masha Privizentseva (Leipzig University)
Title: Nominal ellipsis reveals concord in Moksha Mordvin
Time: Tuesday, March 3rd, 1pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: In some languages nominal modifiers generally do not show concord with the noun, but are inflected if the noun is elided. This inflection is often analyzed as stranded and cliticized affixes of an elided noun (see Dékány (2011), Saab & Lipták (2016), Ruda (2016), Murphy (2018), and Saab (2019)). On the basis of original data from Moksha Mordvin (Finno-Ugric), I argue that inflection under nominal ellipsis is best analyzed as nominal concord and that features are regularly present on a nominal modifier, but remain without morphological realization in non-elliptical contexts. The distribution of features follows from conditions on Spell-Out and types of features that can be spelled out. In particular, I suggest that shortly after valuation probe features are still identifiable as such and are therefore not subject to Vocabulary Insertion. Spell-Out applies to nominal modifiers right after probes responsible for concord are valued, so that features are exempt from realization. Concord is morphologically realized under ellipsis, because in this case there is an additional feature on a nominal modifier, which postpones Spell-Out.

Experimentalist Meeting 3/6 - Agnes Bi (MIT)

Speaker: Agnes Bi (MIT)
Title: Resumptive pronouns and how to interpret them
Time: Friday, March 6th, 2pm - 3pm
Location: 32-D831

Abstract: There are at least two broader classes of resumptive pronouns cross-linguistically: (I) grammatically licensed resumptives that are subject to various syntactic locality constraints, and (II) processor resumptives that are utilized as a last-resort strategy responding to extra-grammatical factors such as distance and complexity. It is generally assumed English has only the latter type. I start with the observation that in select constructions, English does seem to have resumptives which show the syntactic behavior on par with grammaticality licensed resumptives across languages: specifically, the such-that relative. In this work in progress, I explore a hypothesis that resumptive pronouns are in fact generated in the grammar of English and become degraded due to separate mechanisms. I’d like to discuss the experiment design and (hopefully) some preliminary results.

Colloquium 3/6 - Nicholas Fleisher (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

Speaker: Nicholas Fleisher (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
Title: On Binding-Strict Configurations
Time: Friday, March 6th, 3:30pm - 5pm
Location: 32-155

Abstract: Many prominent approaches to binding and ellipsis countenance binding-strict configurations: cases where strict identity is licensed for an elided pronoun while the corresponding pronoun in the ellipsis antecedent is locally bound. I argue that such a licensing regime overpredicts the distribution of strict readings. This is a particularly dire problem for theories that involve what I call compulsory binding (Reinhart 1983, Grodzinsky & Reinhart 1993, Fox 2000, Büring 2005), but it also afflicts the widely adopted ellipsis licensing framework of Rooth (1992). I suggest that we should seek a theory of ellipsis that bars binding-strict configurations. I sketch a modified Rooth-style approach involving formal alternatives (Fox & Katzir 2011); the core idea is that the licensing condition be stated on syntactic logical forms, which preserve crucial pronoun-related distinctions that are neutralized in the mapping to the denotational semantics. I pair this with the approach to binding developed by Heim (1993), Reinhart (2006), and Roelofsen (2010). Beyond its success in taming the generation of strict readings, the theory sketched here offers a straightforward account of certain scope parallelism phenomena (Fox 2000, Merchant 2018), and the alternatives-based licensing mechanism bears a close resemblance to Fiengo & May’s (1994) notion of a reconstruction.