The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, July 5th, 2021

Welcome, Amir Anvari!

We are very excited to announce that Amir Anvari, a specialist in semantics and pragmatics, will be joining our faculty in January 2022 as Assistant Professor of Linguistics! Amir comes to us from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he worked primarily with Benjamin Spector and Philippe Schlenker, receiving his M.Sc. in 2016 and PhD in 2019 (with a dissertation entitled “Meaning in Context”). Earlier, he studied math in Iran and received his B.A. in cognitive science at Carleton University in Canada (where he was introduced to linguistics by our own alum Raj Singh).
Amir has done groundbreaking work in the theory of presupposition, scalar implicatures, and indexicality, with far reaching implications for the modular organization of the human language faculty — and its interface with general systems of belief accessed for communicative purposes. He describes his interests on his webpage as follows: “I work on formal semantics and pragmatics, often on the basis of data from Farsi. I am particularly interested in various aspects of context-dependency and intensionality, alternative-based reasoning, syntax-semantics interface, and the interpretation of co-speech gestures.”
Eagerly looking forward to his arrival next year!

Newman defends!!

Tuesday morning, we attended a brilliant defense by Elise Newman of her PhD dissertation entitled The (in)distinction between wh-movement and c-selection. The dissertation builds on the idea that the building of clause structure is driven by featural requirements on two verbal heads, and that subset relations among the elements that combine with these heads and the possibility of satisfying more than one requirement at a time guide the order in which pieces of structure get built — with surprising (in some cases very surprising) consequences. A work with a central unifying theme, the empirical consequences are nonetheless quite diverse — uniting, for example, a new explanation for the special morphology that accompanies subject movement in many Mayan languages with restrictions on the interaction of passive and wh-movement in double-object constructions in Norwegian and many (but not all!) other languages. Extraordinary findings, and a superb presentation.
Congratulations, Elise!!
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For those who want to know more, here is the abstract for her defense presentation:
This thesis asks the following question: what can wh-movement teach us about verb phrase structure? I examine two apparent interactions between wh-movement and Voice: Mayan Agent Focus and the Double Object Movement Asymmetry (DOMA) (Holmberg et al. 2019). In certain Mayan languages, subject but not object wh-questions require the verb to take a special intransitive-looking form; in many languages with symmetrical passives, wh-moving an indirect object in a passive clause is restricted to contexts in which the indirect object is the passive subject. By contrast, wh-moving direct objects face no restrictions about which argument is the passive subject.
Typical approaches to these phenomena take the basic underlying verb phrase structure of a language to be insensitive to whether any of its arguments are wh-phrases. In other words, the fact that wh-questions are built from clauses containing a wh-element, while non-questions are built from clauses that lack a wh-element, is assumed to be irrelevant to what we assume the basic underlying clause structure to be in each case — object wh-questions are therefore assumed to be built from clauses that are identical to their non-wh-counterparts; subject wh-questions are assumed to built form clauses that are identical to their non-wh-counterparts, and so forth. On this view, many researchers propose that the so-called interactions between wh-movement and Voice should be explained by constraints on wh-movement from certain contexts.
By contrast, I take the opposite approach. I propose that the observed interactions between wh-movement and Voice are teaching us very transparently about the basic clause structure of clauses that contain wh-elements, which may be different than their non-wh-counterparts. In other words, Mayan Agent Focus teaches us that clauses containing a wh-subject (as opposed to a non-wh-subject) may be built in such a way as to feed intransitive-looking morphosyntax; the DOMA is teaching us that indirect object wh-phrases (in contrast to non-wh-indirect objects) are always generated in such a way as to make them the subject in a passive clause. I propose a theory of the features driving Merge in which the underlying position of a wh-phrase is not only determined by the “selectional’’ properties of verbs, but also by the feature that controls successive cyclic wh-movement through the edge of the verbal domain. Thus, the structure of a verb phrase is not invariant across all contexts — it depends on the features and categories of the elements that are configured inside of it, including the distribution of wh-elements. This approach likewise has implications for clauses that do not contain wh-elements, which I propose account for symmetric and asymmetric A and A’-movement in different contexts.