The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, September 13th, 2021

Privoznov defends!

August saw several wonderful and successful dissertation defenses. On August 19, we were privileged to participate via Zoom in Dmitry Privoznov’s brilliant defense of his dissertation entitled “A theory of two strong islands”.
A syntactic island is a structural domain that blocks dependencies such as that between a wh-phrase and the gap that it binds from applying across its boundaries. The nature of islands and island phenomena have been a central topic of syntactic research for over a half-century — and Mitya’s research offers strong new evidence adjudicating among distinct approaches, along with some entirely surprising new results supporting his perspective.
With evidence from the Balkar (a Turkic language of the Caucasus), Russian, and English, Mitya’s dissertation supports the hypothesis that the island status of subjects and adjuncts reflects the schedule by which constituents are “spelled out” and frozen in the course of a syntactic derivation. Remarkably, he shows that the same regime of spell-out that blocks certain extractions acts to *permit* certain semantic connections between indefinite noun phrases and pronouns (that are blocked when islands are *absent*). Mitya ably presented and defended his results to an audience on two continents.

Great work — congratulations!!



For those who want to read the official abstract for his defense presentation:

“This thesis examines two strong island effects: the Adjunct Condition and the Subject Condition. It proposes that both are derived from the same basic principles that determine when and to which constituent the rule of Spell Out is applied over the course of the derivation. The proposed theory consists of two assumptions. First, between any two phrasal sisters at least one must be spelled out. Second, a spelled out phrase does not project its category. The immediate consequence of these is that all adjuncts and all specifiers must be spelled out, because all adjuncts and all specifiers are, by definition, maximal projections whose sister is a phrase. This theory predicts, first, that all adjuncts and all specifiers are opaque for extraction, and second, that all adjuncts and all specifiers are interpreted before their sister. The thesis examines these predictions and argues that they are indeed borne out, based on data from Balkar, Russian and English.”

Chatain defends!

Another great August dissertation defense. On August 27, Keny Chatain defended with the greatest possible success his dissertation entitled “Cumulativity from Homogeneity”.

Cumulativity is a central, yet extremely puzzling phenomenon in plural semantics which has prompted radical overhauls and enrichments of canonical assumptions about predicate denotations (lexical semantics) and semantic composition. Despite these (often heavy-handed) efforts, a treatment that is both empirically and theoretically satisfying has proven illusive.
The dissertation approaches cumulativity from a new perspective, pointing out and exploiting close and systematic parallels with homogeneity phenomena in plural semantics. From this perspective, plural predication contributes only weak (existential) truth-conditions which are directly detectable in negative environments but strengthened, hence masked by exhaustive participation inferences in canonical positive sentences. This two-pronged mechanism paves the way for a principled account of what aspects of lexical semantics are responsible for cumulative readings and why, as well as the precise way in which they rely on the structural configuration feeding semantic composition.

The resulting proposal is developed with remarkable clarity and penetrating insight into the empirical phenomena as well as the space of analytical options, has far reaching consequences for all areas of (plural) semantics, and — in the opinion of his committee — is sure to become a landmark in this domain of inquiry.

Félicitations, Keny!! Congratulations!!


The official abstract:

“Since Schein (1996), cumulative readings of quantifiers have often motivated a departure from standard assumptions about composition. This dissertation proposes a new theory of these cumulative readings that connects them to the phenomenon of homogeneity. Specifically, taking inspiration from Bar-Lev (2018), I argue that predicates sometimes have weak existential meanings, which are revealed when placed under negation. The stronger meaning observed in positive sentences are the result of a procedure of exhaustification. By recognizing predicates’ underlying weak meanings and their liability to strengthening, cumulative reading of quantifiers can be accounted for by maintaining relatively standard assumptions about composition. This analysis predicts a range of intricate cases, including Schein’s famous video-game examples. It also predicts the truth-conditions of negative cumulative sentences and asymmetries in the availability of cumulative readings of quantifiers.”