The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, September 27th, 2021

Colloquium 10/1 - Dan Milway

Speaker: Dan Milway
Title: Parallel Derivation: Adjunction and Coordination
Time: Friday, October 1st, 3:30pm - 5pm

Abstract: I argue that apparently singular expressions containing adjuncts or coordinate structures consist, in reality, of multiple independent syntactic objects, but that generative syntactic theory has consistently ruled out such an analysis by tacitly assuming that all derivations must be serial. I develop a theory of MERGE-based syntax (Chomsky 2020) which allows for semi-independent derivations to occur in parallel, and show that this theory yields solutions to or insights into various puzzles associated with adjuncts. I then apply this theory to coordination structures and discuss its implications for semantic theory with particular emphasis what I refer to as “reference to computation”.

Champagne and Lamour on ”The Right to Read and Write: Language Activism in a Diasporic Haitian Creole Space”

You are invited to participate in our discussion this week on “Linguistics and Social Justice” with Darnelle Champagne and Wynnie Lamour on ”The Right to Read and Write: Language Activism in a Diasporic Haitian Creole Space.”  Darnelle and Wynnie will share their work promoting Haitian Creole as a heritage language via the Haitian Creole Language Institute in New York  and Jaden Ti Moun.  Please contact Michel <degraff@mit.edu> for Zoom link.

Hadas Kotek: Workshop on internships in industry (continued)

This week we only got through about half of the deck, so we’ll pick this up for a third and (likely) last meeting next week:

When: Wednesday 9/29, 2-3:30pm EST
Where: https://mit.zoom.us/my/hkotek
Who: students, visitors, and faculty members who are curious about tech internships/jobs
What: resumes (cnt’d), interviews

Feel free to attend even if you didn’t attend previous sessions.

Hadas Kotek: Workshop on internships in industry

Hadas Kotek, MIT alumna, is hosting a workshop, which discusses applying for internships in industry and putting together a resume for such applications. Here are the details for the second session: 
When: Wednesday 9/22, 2-3:30pm EST
Where: https://mit.zoom.us/my/hkotek
Who: students, visitors, and faculty members who are curious about tech internships/jobs
What: resumes, interviews, other ways students can develop skills for non-academic positions beside internships
For those who will attend Session 2, there is a bit of simple “homework” (see also slide 21 of the deck). It would be helpful, though not required, for you to take a look:
  • On LinkedIn, identify some linguists in tech in jobs that might appeal to you (see slides 5, 7 for ideas)
  • Look at their resumes. What do they highlight? How do they talk about their background?
  • Bonus: ideally, find people with similar backgrounds and level of technical expertise to you own

New seminar by DeGraff! Linguistics and social justice: Language, education & human rights

Michel DeGraff is inviting colleagues and students, with interest in linguistics for a better world, to visit his new seminar.  You are welcome to visit any and all sessions on Tuesdays 2-5pm (see schedule of themes and guest speakers below). Please forward far and wide to all those who might be interested.

Linguistics and social justice:
Language, education & human rights
24.S96, Tu 2-5PM
In person — in Room 32-D461
Via Zoom — please email degraff@mit.edu for link and for further details

Here’s Michel’s course description:

I am very excited about this new seminar because it brings together three topics that I am passionate about and that I think should be of utmost importance, not only to linguists, but also to the world at large. These three topics are: linguistics, education and social justice.

So I’m hoping that you too will be interested as well, as I am planning much of this seminar as a “sandbox” for designing the foundations of socially-engaged research that can have practical impact in the lives of the people whose languages we so love to study.

Our point of departure will be these three related observations:

1) We linguists take it for granted that all languages, including languages in the Global South, are worthy of study in our investigation of Universal Grammar.

2) Yet some 40% of children in the world are prevented from studying in, and valorizing, their home languages—including some of these very languages that we linguists study with such fondness. (Incidentally UNESCO estimates that 43% of the world’s ~6,000 languages are endangered.)

3) And so much of our research in linguistics and the benefits thereof remain inaccessible to the bulk of the very speech communities whose languages we study.

Now consider this three-way gap between:

• our own egalitarian ideals in (1) about the universal worth of the world’s languages;

• these discriminatory practices, in (2), that exclude too many languages in classrooms (and even courtrooms) throughout the world, especially in the Global South, where these languages are most needed for universal access to quality education (and to justice);

• the, often inadvertent, elitist and exclusive nature of academia, as in (3), which risks alienating these very speech communities whose struggles for liberation, justice and economic opportunity stand to benefit from our research in linguistics.
Now here’s a key question for us:

Is it our responsibility, as linguists, to analyze and try to narrow this three-way gap?

Some of the reasons for the sort of linguistic discrimination mentioned in (2) have to do with colonial history and white supremacy writ large.  A full analysis of (2) would take us too far afield as it would require forays into history, sociology, political science, critical race theory, etc.

Our goal this semester will be more modest and more in line with our discipline, though we will certainly need to keep the above disciplines in mind throughout our discussions.  At the very least, we need to unveil the, often hidden, role of ideology and various “normative gazes” in deciding what sorts of questions, in the first place, are even worth asking among linguists.

In this seminar as a “sandbox”, we will look at efforts by linguists and educators making their research more inclusive, accessible and hospitable, and trying to reduce that three-way gap between: (i) linguists’ egalitarian ideals; (ii) linguistic-discrimination practices in various communities world-wide; and (iii) the (perceived) elitist attitudes of academic linguistics.

Our initial case study will be the Global South community that I’m most familiar with, namely my native Haiti—which is a rather spectacular case study whereby most Haitian children are prevented from learning academic subjects in the one language (Kreyòl) that every Haitian fluently speaks while they are forced to learn these subjects in a language (French) that most have no opportunity to learn at home. And most Haitian intellectuals, even (or especially?) some familiar with linguistics, still seem to adhere to the hegemonic belief whereby Kreyòl is “naturally inferior” to French as a language of instruction and as a language to express science, law and most everything else—outside of popular culture artefacts like songs and theater.  This is the sort of hegemonic belief and practices that I myself grew up with and that I’ve learned to un-learn while confronting somewhat related beliefs in certain quarters of linguistics.

In terms of student participation and class requirements, my hope is that each participant will bring in a particular language or language area that instantiates community-wide linguistic discrimination—one that linguists can help solve. In the ideal scenario, these case studies will lead to specific projects that linguists can concretely contribute to.  The overall goal is to have us, all together, sketch models of how linguistics can contribute to the betterment of some speech community.

To stimulate and inspire discussion and projects, we plan to cover topics and welcome speakers that engage work on linguistics for social justice in various areas of the world:

Tuesday, Sep 14, 2021: Linguistics & (in)justice: The case of Creole studies from a Haitian perspective

Tuesday, Sep 21, 2021:    Linguistics & Social Justice: The MIT-Haiti Initiative as a case study

Tuesday, Sep 28, 2021: The Right to Read and Write: Language Activism in a Diasporic Haitian Creole Space (Guests: Wynnie Lamour & Darnelle Champagne)    

Tuesday, Oct 5, 2021: Seychelles’ language policy for “leveling the field” (Guests: Penda Choppy & team)

Tuesday, Oct 12, 2021: A language that binds/a language that divides: the Kreol paradox in Mauritius (Guest: Nicholas Natchoo)    

Tuesday, Oct 19, 2021: Resistance and revitalisation of French Creole in Trinidad & Tobago and Venezuela (Guest: Jo-Anne Perreira)    

Tuesday, Oct 26, 2021: Language Rights & Justice for All in the Caribbean (Guests: Hubert Devonish and team)    

Tuesday, Nov 2, 2021: From definiteness to poetry: doing linguistic work with and in Ch’ol (Guest: Carol Rose Little)    

Tuesday, Nov 9, 2021: Decolonizing Iñupiaq Language Curricula (Guest: Annauk Denise Aulin)    

Tuesday, Nov 16, 2021: Language from Below: Grassroots efforts to develop language technology for minoritized languages. Case studies from Ireland and New Zealand (Guest: Kevin Scannell)    

Tuesday, Nov 23, 2021: Beyond linguistic repression at 60°N: Growing acceptance of diversity in Shetland (Guest: Viveka Velupillai)    

Tuesday, Nov 30, 2021: Cabo Verdean in Education: Access, Equity and a Basic Human Right (Guest: Marlyse Baptista)    

Phonology Circle 9/20 - Fulang Chen (MIT) & Michael Kenstowicz (MIT)

Speaker: Fulang Chen (MIT) & Michael Kenstowicz (MIT)
Title: Phonotactics of gender in Mandarin given names: patterns and constraints
Time: Monday, September 20th, 5pm - 6:30pm

Abstract: Research on English given names has discovered phonotactic patterns that correlate with gender (Slater & Feinman, 1985; Cutler et al., 1990; Wright et al., 2005; Sidhu & Pexman 2015; a.o.): female names are more likely to have a higher ratio of open syllables and contain more high front vowels and sonorants, while male names tend to contain more back vowels and obstruents. Recent studies suggest that some of these patterns are cross-linguistic (e.g., Sullivan 2018; Wong & Kang 2019; a.o.), conforming to the Frequency Code Hypothesis (Ohala 1984, 1994; a.o.), which states that higher acoustic frequency signifies smallness, and lower acoustic frequency largeness. Hence, high, front, unrounded vowels, which have higher F2 (or F2-F1 difference), signify smallness and in turn are favored in female names; low, back, rounded vowels, which have lower F2 (or F2-F1 difference), and grave (i.e., labial and velar places) consonants, which also have lower F2, signify largeness and in turn are favored in male names.

In this paper, we first investigate the phonotactic patterns that correlate with gender in given names for Mandarin Chinese (MC), a language phonotactically quite different from English; then we compare the phonotactic grammars of MC male and female given names using maximum-entropy phonotactic learning models (Hayes & Wilson 2008).

We find that many of the predictors for gender trend in the same direction as reported in corpus studies of English given names and conform to the Frequency Code; specifically, in MC, female names tend to have a higher proportion of open syllables and high vowels, and male names a higher proportion of back vowels, round vowels, obstruent onsets, and non-coronal (grave) onsets.

We also probed the interaction of the predictors for gender more closely and find that certain low acoustic frequency sounds that signify largeness are penalized for female names, while higher acoustic frequency sounds that signify smallness are not marked in the grammar for male names.