The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, November 8th, 2021

LFRG 10/11 — Mitya Privoznov (MIT)

Title: Poka živoj, poka eŝe ne umer (‘While alive, while yet not died’). Some puzzles and thoughts about poka
Abstract: This talk will present some puzzles concerning the distribution of the Russian complementizer poka ‘while’, and some preliminary thoughts about what these puzzles might tell us about the meaning of the perfective and the imperfective aspect. The meaning and restrictions on the distribution of the complementizer/particle poka ‘while’ have been discussed in the literature quite extensively (Khalizeva 1969, Brown and Franks 1995, Abels 2005, Iordanskaya and Melchuk 2007, Paducheva 2014, 2015). It has several uses and is usually assumed to correspond to several different particles/complementizers (Iordanskaya and Melchuk 2007). I will focus on the use of poka as a complementizer that embeds a temporal adjunct clause. The discussion will be centered around the follwing three puzzling facts.


First, it seems that in an “out of the blue” context the clause under poka must be imperfective and may not be perfective:

(1) a. Poka Marina šla domoj, Osja gotovil obed.
while Marina walk.IMP.PST.F.SG home, Osya cook.IMP.PST.M.SG dinner
‘While Marina was walking home, Osya was cooking dinner.’
b. #Poka Marina prišla domoj, Osja gotovil obed.
while Marina come.PFV.PST.F.SG home, Osya cook.IMP.PST.M.SG dinner
‘While Maria came home, Osya was cooking dinner.’

Second, if the clause under poka contains negation, both aspects are fine (2). Furthermore, at least the sentence in (2b) entails that the event of the negated poka-clause took place in the actual world (Marina came home).

(2) a. Poka Marina ne šla domoj, Osja gotovil obed.
while Marina NEG walk.IMP.PST.F.SG home, Osya cook.IMP.PST.M.SG dinner
‘While Marina was not walking home, Osya was cooking dinner.’
b. Poka Marina ne prišla domoj, Osja gotovil obed.
while Marina NEG come.PFV.PST.F.SG home, Osya cook.IMP.PST.M.SG dinner
‘Until Marina came home, Osya was cooking dinner.’
Lit.: ‘While Maria didn’t come home, Osya was cooking dinner.’

Third, the clause under poka could be perfective even without negation, but only if the verb in the poka-clause is an accomplishment and the main clause is also perfective:

(3) Poka Osja obegal vse magaziny v poiskax instrumentov, Marina otremontirovala plitu bez nix.
While Osya run.through.PFV.PST.M.SG all stores in search tools, Marina fix.PFV.PST.F.SG stove without them
‘While Osya ran through all the stores in search of the tools, Marina fixed the stove without them.’

In this talk I will follow an approach, according to which, poka only has one meaning throughout (1-3) and negation in its context is not “expletive”, but has its standard interpretation (Abels 2005, Tatevosov 2016, Tiskin 2017, 2018). I will discuss whether the facts in (1-3) could be derived from an assumption that poka forms a predicate over maximal time intervals (similar to a definite article with a maximality presupposition).

Ling-Lunch 11/04 — Vincent Rouillard (MIT)

Speaker: Vincent Rouillard (MIT)
Title: Temporal in-Adverbials: A Study of Polarity Chameleons
Date: Thursday, 11/04
Time: 12:30 — 1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Temporal in-adverbials include expressions like “in three days”, which can occupy at least two syntactic positions. Surprisingly, where such expressions occur in the syntax determines whether or not these are negative polarity items (NPIs). These expressions can modify a VP, restricting the set of events in its extensions to those of a duration specified by the adverbial. As shown in (1) and (2), in-adverbials show no polarity sensitivity in these configurations.

(1) The workers built the house in three days.
(2) The workers didn’t build the house in three days, (they built it in two).

Another available syntactic position for in-adverbials has them modifying the perfect. In such configurations, in-adverbials seem to measure the duration of the Perfect Time Span, an interval introduced by the perfect (Iatridou et al. 2002). What (4) states is that at least three days have passed since the workers last slept. As shown by the contrast between (3) and (4), in-adverbials behave like NPIs in these environments.

(3) *The workers have slept in three days.
(4) The workers haven’t slept in three days.

Where in-adverbials display polarity sensitivity can be captured if we make two assumptions. The first is that these expressions have alternatives and obligatorily fall under the scope of an exhaustification operator (Chierchia 2013). The second is that whenever a contradiction is guaranteed to be derived from the logical material in an utterance, this results in ungrammaticality (Gajewski 2009). I show that the only syntactic configuration among (1-4) where in-adverbials are predicated to be bad is when they modify the perfect in upward-entailing environments. This is because only there does exhaustification always lead to a contradiction. In-adverbials therefore represent a strong argument in favor of a general theory of NPIs, where the grammaticality of these expressions is dependent on the logical relations that exist between a sentence that includes NPIs and the sentence’s alternatives.

The presentation will be given in person, however, if you cannot make it to Stata on Thursday, you will be able to join via Zoom. Please contact Ling-Lunch organizer (kukhto@mit.edu or mortier@mit.edu) for zoom link. 

Linguistics and Social Justice Seminar 11/2 - Carol Rose Little (OU) and William Scott (Oxford)

You are invited to participate in our discussion this week, Tuesday, November 2nd, 2-5pm ET, on “Linguistics and Social Justice: Language, Education & Human Rights”  (MIT Linguistics, Graduate Seminar, 24.S96).  Please contact Michel <degraff@mit.edu> for information about Zoom link and readings.  NB: We are committed to creating an inclusive and accessible environment in our seminar. If you need assistance for accommodations or accessibility in order to fully participate, please email degraff@MIT.EDU so that we can work out adequate arrangements.

This Tuesday, November 2nd, we’re welcoming two guests: Carol Rose Little on “doing linguistic work with and in Ch’ol” and William Scott on “standardization of minoritized languages”.

From definiteness to poetry: doing linguistic work with and in Ch’ol

Carol Rose Little, University of Oklahoma

This talk discusses applications of theoretical linguistics to the creation of pedagogical materials, capacity building and poetry translation with the Ch’ol language. Ch’ol is a Mayan language spoken by a quarter of a million people in southern Mexico and diasporic communities across North America. Although the language is still being passed on to children, most who speak it are never taught to read or write in the language, contributing to its minoritized status. Recently, there has been a growing interest in learning to read and write in Ch’ol—a desire further amplified by the fact that a Ch’ol poet, Juana Peñate Montejo, won the 2020 Premio de Literaturas Indígenas de América, an award that has been called the Nobel prize for literature in indigenous languages. In the first part of this talk, I discuss how the use of two corpora in Ch’ol led to theoretically informed descriptions of definiteness and how these descriptions are informing pedagogical materials (see also Little et al., Forthcoming). I also discuss how project members have given talks on this research entirely in Ch’ol to audiences in Mexico and the United States. In the second part of the talk, I discuss how my linguistic training has helped and informed translations of Peñate Montejo’s poetry from Ch’ol to English, recently published in Latin American Literature Today. I provide examples of the decisions I and my co-translator made in terms of translating certain structures (focus, topic), a special class of affect predicates, and even cases where we left in a Ch’ol word with a footnote in English.

Standardizing minoritized languages and the reproduction thesis: Does language activism necessarily create sociolinguistic hierarchies like those it seeks to disrupt?

William Scott, University of Oxford

In order to end linguistic exclusion, advocates of minoritized language communities often seek social institutions to be more accommodating of these languages. For example, they may seek a greater place for the language in schools, court systems, and the formal economy. To facilitate their effort in the face of resistance, it is natural for them to select one variant to perform these official functions, as opposed to trying to simultaneously promote several spelling systems or disjoint sets of technical vocabulary, etc. 

Through this selection, they have created a new “standard,” and thus in some respects made all other variants (“dialects,” “regionalisms,” etc.) nonstandard. As a result, some scholars claim that “in advocating for their linguistic rights, minority language movements tend to reproduce the values of dominant language ideology and, inadvertently, the inequalities and hierarchies these values entail.” (Jacquelina Urla et al, 2017 p 43). This ‘reproduction thesis’ (ibid) potentially poses a serious problem to such movements, which seek to break down sociolinguistic hierarchies, not create new ones. 

We will elaborate on the ‘reproduction thesis,’ its potential causes and implications, then explore several critiques that demonstrate how language advocacy movements can and do resist reproducing the sort of social inequalities that they are working to end.

MorPhun 11/3 - Patrick Niedzielski (MIT)

Speaker: Patrick Niedzielski (MIT)
Title: Distributed Morphology is more powerful than Finite-State Morphology, but not much more
Time: Wednesday, November 3rd, 5pm - 6:30pm

Abstract: Computational research in morphology has focused on finite-state technologies as grammatical descriptions (Beesley & Karttunen 2003), placing the computational power of the morphology on par with that of the phonology. At the same time, the rise of Syntax-All-The-Way-Down theories of morphology such as Distributed Morphology seem to complicate this picture, by making the syntactic component handle the word-formation aspects of the morphology. As the syntax is mildly-context sensitive (Shieber 1985), this would seem to place the computational power of the morphology on par with the more powerful syntax rather than the weaker phonology. To investigate this, we introduce a simple extension of Minimalist Grammars (Stabler 1997, 2001), called Minimalist Grammars with Complex Words (MGCWs), which enable us to reason formally about the set of words that head movement, Distributed Morphology’s primary word-formation operation, can build. We find that the generative capacity of head movement is precisely the class of linear context-free languages, which is strictly larger than the set of languages produced by finite-state morphology, but strictly smaller than the class of mildly context-sensitive languages the syntax is otherwise able to produce. This suggests even if morphological structure is built by the syntax, its power is still quite weak.

First LSA Morris Halle Award to alum Juliet Stanton (2017 PhD)

We were utterly delighted to learn that our brilliant 2017 PhD alum Juliet Stanton, now an Assistant Professor at New York University, has won the very first Morris Halle Memorial Award for Faculty Excellence in Phonology, awarded by the Linguistic Society of America.
Morris Halle, of course, was the co-founder (with Noam Chomsky) of MIT Linguistics, one of the most important progenitors of modern phonology, and our beloved colleague and friend, sorely missed. We could not be more thrilled that one of our own, thus an institutional as well as intellectual descendant of Morris, was chosen as the first recipient of this award in his memory.  To quote the citation from the LSA:
“First established in 2021, the Morris Halle Award for Faculty Excellence in Phonology will be used to defray expenses associated with participation in the LSA’s Annual Meeting. It is to be awarded for outstanding scholarship in phonology by an early career faculty member in linguistics. With this award, the LSA recognizes in Stanton’s research the linguistic spirit of Morris Halle: her work is fundamental and far-reaching, rigorous and comprehensive, deep and broad. She leads the field in redefining what it means to do Phonology. By combining analysis with experiments and computational modeling in the service of theory, she has reinvigorated the field of phonological typology. By exhausting the available data, she sets a new bar for empirical depth. All those that worked with Morris will be hearing in their heads his voice proclaiming, ‘You gotta read this paper by Juliet!’ Congratulations on this well-deserved honor.”
Congratulations indeed!

Linguistics major “at the crossroads of language, technology, and empathy”

Please have a look at this article from the MIT News Office about Rujul Gandhi — one of our great undergraduate majors!

“Initially thinking she might want to study creative writing or theater, Gandhi first learned about linguistics as its own field of study through an online course in ninth grade. Now a linguistics major at MIT, she is studying the structure of language from the syllable to sentence level, and also learning about how we perceive language. She finds the human aspects of how we use language, and the fact that languages are constantly changing, particularly compelling.

 ’When you learn to appreciate language, you can then appreciate culture,’ she says.

[…]  ”Looking ahead, Gandhi wants to focus on designing systems that better integrate theoretical developments in linguistics and on making language technology widely accessible. She says she finds the work of bringing together technology and linguistics to be most rewarding when it involves people, and that she finds the most meaning in her projects when they are centered around empathy for others’ experiences.”

MIT Linguistics @ NELS 52

NELS 52 was held virtually at Rutgers University. The following students, faculty, and staff members presented at the conference.

  • Trevor Driscoll (2nd year): Voicing as a diagnostic of foot structure
  • Fulang Chen (5th year): On split partitivity, external possession, and the phasehood of Mandarin DP
  • Danfeng Wu (6th year): Syntax of negation in corrective “but” sentences
  • Ido Benbaji (3rd year): A new argument against Verb-Stranding VP-Ellipsis: The case from focus particles in polar questions
  • Dmitry Privoznov (postdoc, PhD 2021): A Spell Out theory of adjunct islands
  • Patrick Elliott (postdoc): A Q-based theory of pied-piping in relative clauses
  • Sherry Yong Chen (5th year), Cindy Torma (Lab Manager), and Athulya Aravind (professor, PhD 2018): Asymmetry in Presupposition Projection in If-Conditionals: Evidence from Acquisition
  • Jad Wehbe (3rd year) and Enrico Flor (4th year): Focus sensitivity and homogeneity in attitude predicates

Many of our alums also gave presentations:

  • Richard Stockwell, Aya Meltzer-Asscher, and Dominique Sportiche (PhD 1983): Experimental evidence for the Condition C argument-adjunct asymmetry in English questions
  • Colin Davis (PhD 2020): The Morpho-Syntactic Significance of the Unextractability of English Possessive Pronouns
  • Coppe Van Urk (PhD 2015) and Zhouyi Sun: Dinka plural morphology is concatenative and regular
  • Aron Hirsch (PhD 2017) and Bernhard Schwarz: Reconciling maximality with cumulativity in questions
  • Wataru Uegaki (PhD 2015): Doubt, highlighting and exhaustification
  • Karlos Arregi (PhD 2002) and Emily Hanink: Reverse Weak PCC in Washo
  • Suzana Fong (PhD 2021): Nominal licensing via dependent case: the view from Pseudo Noun Incorporation in Wolof
  • Deniz Satik and Susanne Wurmbrand (PhD 1998): The unavailability of temporal de re in English infinitives
  • Stefan Keine, Will Oxford, and Jessica Coon (PhD 2010): Person restrictions depend on overt agreement, not nominal licensing
  • Bridget Copley (PhD 2002) and Alda Mari: Ingredients for a causal analysis of order and forbid
  • Idan Landau (PhD 1999): Argument Ellipsis as pro-replacement after TRANSFER
  • Isabelle Charnavel and Dominique Sportiche (PhD 1983): Unifying intensifiers ourselves

And one alum gave an invited talk:

  • Lisa Cheng (PhD 1991): All about “hit”

Colloquium 11/5 - Jonah Katz (West Virginia University)

Speaker: Jonah Katz (West Virginia University)
Title: A prosodic-phonetic approach to intervocalic lenition
Time: Friday, November 5th, 3:30pm - 5pm

Abstract: In this talk, I argue that a subset of cross-linguistically common lenition processes, such as spirantization, intervocalic voicing, and flapping, take place outside the narrow phonology, in a component of grammar that governs the fine-grained temporal dynamics of speech sounds and their interaction with prosodic structure. I review evidence that these lenition patterns are different from other processes sometimes referred to as ‘lenition’; that they do not manipulate phonological features; that they lie on a much broader continuum of prosodically-driven phonetic variation; and that they are driven primarily by subphonemic adjustments to duration and the temporal separation between prosodic units. With data from Campidanese Sardinian, I illustrate a schematic approach to modeling lenition as a language-specific property of phonetic implementation, operating on prosodic structure and the output of narrow phonology.