The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, January 31st, 2022

Welcome to Spring 2022

Welcome to the first edition of Whamit! for Spring 2022! After our winter hiatus, Whamit! is back to regular weekly editions during the semester.

Whamit! is the MIT Linguistics newsletter, published every Monday (Tuesday if Monday is a holiday). The editorial staff consists of Adam Albright, Kai von Fintel, David Pesetsky, Peter Grishin, and Margaret Wang.

To submit items for inclusion in Whamit! please send an email to whamit@mit.edu by Sunday 6pm.

MIT @ LSA 2022

MIT Linguistics was well represented at the 2022 Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America. Several of our current students, faculty, and visitors gave presentations:

  • Danfeng Wu (6th year) and Boer Fu (5th year): Prosodic evidence for syntax in biased questions in Mandarin
  • Boer Fu (5th year) and Danfeng Wu (6th year): Numeral Allomorphy of ‘One’ and ‘Two’ in Mandarin Chinese
  • Danfeng Wu (6th year): Bipartite syntax of negation in corrective “but” sentences
  • Boer Fu (5th year): Prenuclear Glide in Mandarin Chinese: Is It a Segment?
  • Fulang Chen (5th year): Can noun modifiers be stranded or extracted in Mandarin?
  • Yash Sinha (3rd year): The Structure of Hindi indirect causatives: Evidence from apparent *ABA violation
  • Patrick Elliott (postdoctoral associate): A scopal theory of pied-piping in relative clauses
  • Yourdanis Sedarous (visiting student; University of Michigan) and Marlyse Baptista (University of Michigan): Optimization of Shared Structures in Egyptian Arabic-English Bilinguals: A View From Language Contact
  • Annie Birkeland (University of Michigan), Adeli Block (University of Michigan), Justin Craft (University of Michigan), Yourdanis Sedarous (visiting student; University of Michigan), Wang Sky (University of Michigan), Gou Wu (University of Michigan), and Savithry Namboodiripad (University of Michigan): Problematizing the “native speaker” in Linguistic Research: History of the term and ways forward
  • Robert Frank (Yale) and Hadas Kotek (PhD 2014; research affiliate): Top-down derivations: Flipping syntax on its head
  • Itamar Kastner (University of Edinburgh), Hadas Kotek (PhD 2014; research affiliate), Anonymous, Rikker Dockum (Swarthmore College), Michael Dow (Université de Montréal), Maria Esipova (University of Oslo), Caitlin M. Green (None), and Todd Snider (Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf): The Open Letter: Responses and Recommendations

Professor Michel DeGraff delivered a plenary talk:

  • Michel DeGraff (faculty): On impure linguistics for self-purification and direct action

And several alums also presented in the conference:

  • Kimiko Nakanishi (Ochanomizu University) and Ken Hiraiwa (PhD 2005; Meiji Gakuin University): Indeterminates in Comparatives as Free Choice Items
  • Ken Hiraiwa (PhD 2005; Meiji Gakuin University) and George Akanlig-Pare (University of Ghana): Syntax of Reduplication and Negative-Polarity Items in Buli
  • Ken Hiraiwa (PhD 2005; Meiji Gakuin University): Animacy Hierarchy and Case/Agreement in Okinawan
  • Sam Zukoff (PhD 2017; University of Leipzig): Less is Moro: Streamlining Jenks & Rose (2015)
  • Elsi Kaiser (University of Southern California), Ramida Phoolsombat (University of Southern California), Pritty Patel-Grosz (PhD 2012; University of Oslo), and Patrick Georg Grosz (PhD 2011; University of Oslo): Resolving ambiguity in speaker- and hearer-oriented body part emoji: Reference resolution beyond pronouns
  • Yu’an Yang (University of Maryland), Daniel Goodhue (University of Maryland), Valentine Hacquard (PhD 2006; University of Maryland), and Jeffrey Lidz (University of Maryland): Are you asking me or telling me? Learning to identify questions in early speech to children
  • Suzana Fong (PhD 2021): Nominal licensing via dependent case: the view from Pseudo Noun Incorporation in Wolof



Colloquium 2/4 - Linmin Zhang (NYU Shanghai)

Speaker: Linmin Zhang (NYU Shanghai)
Title: Post-suppositions and wh-questions: Intervention effects revisited
Time: Friday, February 4th, 6:00pm - 7:30pm

Abstract: In this talk, I investigate a novel, post-supposition-based account for intervention effects of wh-questions, i.e., the degradedness or uninterpretability of certain wh-questions containing focus items (e.g., only) or quantifiers (e.g., exactly 3 girls), as illustrated in (1) (see also Beck 2006, Li and Law 2016) as well as (2) and (3).

(1) Focus intervention in Chinese wh-questions that contain only (zhǐyǒu)

a. zhǐyǒu [Zhāng-Sān]F dú-le yǔyìxué shū.
   only Zhāng-Sān read-PFV semantics book
   'Only Zhāng Sān read a book (or books) on semantics.'
   [With only (zhǐyǒu)]

b. * zhǐyǒu [Zhāng-Sān]F dú-le shénme shū?
   only Zhāng-Sān read-PFV what book
   Intended: ‘what book(s) did only Zhāng Sān read?’
   [only …wh ↝ degraded]

c. shénme shū zhǐyǒu [Zhāng-Sān]F dú-le?
   what book only Zhāng-Sān read-PFV
   'What book(s) did only Zhāng Sān read?'
   [wh …only ↝ natural]

d. Zhāng-Sān dú-le shénme shū?
   Zhāng-Sān read-PFV what book
   'What book(s) did Zhāng Sān read?'
   [Without only: Chinese is a wh-in-situ language]

(2) a. Exactly 3 girls are above 6 feet tall. b. *How tall are exactly 3 girls?

(3) a. Exactly 3 girls read exactly 5 books. [✓ distributive, ✓ cumulative] b. How many girls read exactly 5 books? [✓ distributive, # cumulative] c. *How many books did exactly 3 girls read?

To account for these degraded wh-questions, I start with the interpretation of focus items and quantifiers in declarative sentences, examining how they affect the process of semantic composition. I argue that all these items that create intervention effects in wh-questions are triggers of post-suppositions in declarative sentences (see Brasoveanu 2013), bringing delayed evaluations. On the other hand, I propose that wh-questions (e.g., who did she kiss) are parallel to definite descriptions (e.g., the one she kissed) and also work in a post-suppositional fashion. Specifically, the semantic contribution of wh-words (e.g., who) is twofold: introducing a discourse referent, and then imposing tests of maximality as delayed evaluations. Intervention effects are considered due to an order conflict in semantic derivation, resulting from two distinct sources of post-suppositions.

Course announcements: Spring 2022

Course announcements in this post:

  • 24.943: Syntax of a Language Family: Turkic and their neighbours
  • 24.956: Topics in Syntax: The Syntax of Agree(ment)
  • 24.964 Topics in Phonology: Phonological grammars as integrated systems: Yiddish and Romanian
  • 24.979 Topics in Semantics: Discourse referents inside and out


24.943 Syntax of a Language Family: Turkic and their neighbours

  • Instructors:   Rafael Abramovitz, Dmitry Privoznov
  • Time:              Tuesdays 10:00am-1:00pm
  • Room:            32-D461
  • Description:

This class will be dedicated to the syntax of Turkic languages (with some short excursions to Uralic, Mongolic and Chukotko-Kamchatkan). We will discuss some topics in linguistic theory into which we believe that these languages can provide a useful insight.

The first part of the class will be dedicated to case studies (“studies of case”) and related topics: the structure of DP/NP and of a (finite, nominalized, relative) clause. We will discuss three cases of differential case marking and what these might tell us about the theory of case/Case/Kase/χase/ɣase/ʁase/ʔase… and the dependent vs. abstract case debate. First, we will discuss the differential case marking of the possessor in a noun phrase or Differential Possessor Marking, in relation to the NP/nP/PossP/DP-structure and the structure of nominalized relative clauses and the syntactic position of their subjects. Second, we will discuss the differential case marking of the object in a transitive clause or Differential Object Marking and object agreement in Uralic. Third, we will discuss the differential case marking of the subject in argument nominalizations or Differential Subject Marking.

In the second part of the class we will talk about the syntax and semantics of argument alternating suffixes. In particular, we will talk about the causative construction (variable case of the Causee) and the passive construction (passivized unaccusatives).

The third part of the class will be dedicated to focus and information structure. We will talk about local scrambling, the SOV-OSV word order alternation and the preverbal focus position (with some discussion of the Turkic variant of wh in-situ).

  • Requirements:

Weekly readings and participation, one question about one of the readings every week by email, a Ken Hale style research proposal in place of a final paper.

  • Tentative list of topics:

    - Background

    I Case studies

    - Differential Possessor Marking (DPM)

                   - Turkic ezafe

                   - The NP/nP/DP-structure

                   - Nominalized relative clauses

                   - Subjects of nominalized relative clauses

    - Differential Object Marking (DOM)

                   - The dependent case for Sakha

                   - The abstract case for Tatar

                   - Object (pseudo)incorporation

                   - Object agreement and DOM in Uralic and beyond

    - Differential Subject Marking (DSM)

                   - Nominalized clausal arguments

                   - DSM in Turkish and Balkar nominalizations

    II Argument alternations

    - Causatives and the case of the Causee

    - Causal passives

    III Clausal structure and focus

    - Preverbal focus

    - Wh-in-situ


24.956 Topics in Syntax: The Syntax of Agree(ment)

  • Instructors:   Amy Rose Deal, David Pesetsky
  • Time:              Tuesdays 2:00-5:00pm
  • Room:            32-D461
  • Website:        https://canvas.mit.edu/courses/13433
  • Description:

This seminar will focus on the syntax of long-distance dependencies. Of special interest is the proposal that all such dependencies are derived via a single grammatical operation, Agree. In the first part of the course, we aim to delimit basic properties of this operation with special reference to phi-Agree, clitic doubling, and movement. Empirical phenomena of special interest involve hierarchical agreement systems, PCC effects, mixed A/A’ phenomena, and locality effects (phases, Keine’s “horizons”). In the second part of the course, the logic connecting agreement to movement will be explored further, as we look carefully at the proposal for a more indirect link between the two advanced in Longenbaugh’s (2019) MIT dissertation, as modified and developed in Newman’s (2021) dissertation — as well as what might be needed to connect clause reduction phenomena with independent discoveries concerning the syntax of agreement such as Kinyalolo’s Generalization.

  • Course requirement #1 (all attendees): weekly online discussion contributions

This class will work best if those attending it are engaged enough to think about the topics both outside of class and in class itself.  With this in mind, we would like to strongly encourage students who wish to attend to register for the class.  If you want to attend faithfully but do not want to write a paper, we ask that you register as a listener and at least fulfill the posting assignment below.  It’s not onerous, and should in fact be fun.

By Friday evening each week, every student participating in the class should post a question or comment about what we have been discussing and/or reading on our Piazza discussion board. (There is a Piazza tab on the Canvas site.)  The ideal question/comment shows some substantive thinking about the topic, e.g. discussion of possible answers, the significance of the question, or other thoughts that clarify the contribution and might spark discussion. This is also a place to think about possible connections between what we have read/discussed and other work with which you are familiar or curious to learn more about.

By Monday evening each week, every student should post a reply or followup to the post of at least one other student.  These too should go beyond “I agree” or “Wow!”, and attempt to answer the question asked or develop a theme from the original posting. The goal of this is to work collaboratively toward a deeper understanding of course topics and a richer view of how course topics integrate with other areas of linguistic inquiry.

These contributions need not be long or formal (a few sentences will sometimes be fine), but should be thoughtful. 

  • Course requirement #2 (registered students): final paper + presentation of project

By the end of the week after Spring break, every registered student should pick a topic related to the class (the instructors are happy to help) and submit a short prospectus for their final paper, stating the problem to be explored and why it is interesting.  The final 1-2 weeks will be reserved for students to present their projects.  The final paper itself will be due at the end of the semester.

  • Hybridity policy

Obviously, if you are ill or do not pass the daily symptom screener, stay home; we will work with you to make sure that you miss as little as possible. Please be in touch to let us know about the situation. Similarly, if one of the instructors is unable to attend due to COVID related reasons, we will be in touch to make alternative arrangements for class. If you are not ill/unable to attend due to health reasons or MIT policy, we expect you to be in class each week. Our experiences over the past few semesters have taught us that classes like these work best if we are all together in the same classroom.  So: catch the bus on time, get plenty of sleep the night before, and join us for class in the seminar room!  


24.964 Topics in Phonology: Phonological grammars as integrated systems: Yiddish and Romanian

  • Instructors:   Adam Albright, Donca Steriade
  • Time:              Mondays 2:00-5:00pm
  • Room:            32-D461
  • Description:
The first major work in generative phonology contained a broad-coverage analysis of a single language (Chomsky and Halle 1968 The Sound Pattern of English). While the focus of SPE was arguably elsewhere, its effort to exhaustively cover all English processes pertaining to stress and vocalism was a necessary proof of concept for a generative grammar, since the hypothesis that grammars consist of sets of ordered rules can only be tested by showing that one ordering is fully consistent with all the data. The result was compelling, because it showed that a range of interacting properties of English phonology could be broken down into a set of rules, many of which had consequences for multiple processes.
Broad-coverage analyses of single languages have been pursued less commonly in constraint-based frameworks, but they remain every bit as important.  OT postulates that grammars consist of ranked hierarchies of constraints, so the hypothesis to be tested is that the entire system—including the segmental inventory, static phonotactic and prosodic patterns, alternations, and morphophonology—can be characterized by a consistent constraint hierarchy.  This is a more stringent requirement than the rule ordering requirement, since a single SPE-style rewrite rule corresponds to a ranking of three or more constraints in OT, so it is easy to write combinations of rules or rule orderings that cannot be expressed with a single consistent constraint ranking.  
In this class, we have two objectives: we want to test the extent to which the phonological grammar of a language is integrated, in the sense that all processes can be characterized by a single, consistent hierarchy; and we want to start a tradition of writing more-or-less complete phonological analyses. We will examine two languages: Yiddish and Romanian. 
The OT literature to date has used various analytical techniques that conceal the relative of lack of integration in a system. See 1-2 below. There is also the rule-based alternative, summarized in 3,  in which the issue of integration arises only in the very different sense that a single rule order obtains.
    1. The grammar may employ multiple levels of evaluation (as in Stratal OT; Kiparsky 2000) or multiple grammars associated with different morphological constructions (as in Cophonologies; Inkelas and Zoll 2005, Inkelas 2016, Sande et al. 2020), containing distinct rankings
    2. There may be constraints indexed to specific morphemes (Pater 2009) or to lexical classes (Ito and Mester 1995) which differ in their rankings from analogous unindexed constraints.
    3. Different processes require different sub-rankings, in a way that can be captured by rules, but not OT constraint hierarchies
We will explore which of these and other devices seem necessary in the larger scale analyses of Yiddish and Romanian that we will build.
  • Requirements:
Regular readings and participation, a final paper exploring process integration in a language of your choice (collaborations are encouraged), two in-class presentations during the semester, reporting progress on the final paper.
  • Tentative list of topics:
1. Background
a. Segmental inventory
b. Basic phonotactic restrictions
c. Lexical strata
2. Stress
a. Basic stress pattern
b. Lexical strata
c. Morphologically complex words: derivation vs. inflection
d. Allomorphy
3. Consonant clusters
a. Initial, medial and final clusters
b. Degemination
c. Loan adaptation, lexical strata
d. Underlying vs. derived clusters
e. Alternations: derivation vs. inflection
f. Allomorphy: proclitic ‘es’, suffixes
4. Voicing
a. Voicing in final position
b. Voicing assimilation vs. epenthesis in clusters, by position
c. Morpheme-internal vs. cross-boundary assimilation
d. Part of speech (noun and verb roots vs. others)
1.      Basics
a.       Morpho-syntactic structure
b.       Segment inventory and major phonotactics. Loan adaptation.
c.       Stress, stress matching in the meter
2.     Hiatus and nuclei
a.     Evidence: lexicographic,  metrical, spelling variation
b.     Invariant and variable glides
c.     Palatals and palatal glides: ʃi̯a, ʃe̯a vs. ʃa; ce̯a vs. ci̯a vs. ca
d.     Rhythmic glide adjustments
e.     Structure of diphthongs: weight-stress and rhyme domains
3.     Stress-dependent reduction,  harmony, derived environments
4.     Consonants
a.     Palatalization, Assibilation
b.     L Palatalization
c.     Cluster simplification
Part 2: interactions with morpho-syntax
5.     Phonology of paradigm structure: nominals
a.     Declension classes
b.     Obliques and plurals
c.     Inflection dependence in denominal derivatives
6.     Verbal paradigms
a.     Conjugation classes, theme vowels, basic endings
b.     Directional Paradigm Uniformity: the perfect
c.     Anti-homophony: imperatives, subjunctives, imperfects/perfects
d.     Agentives and gerunds
Part 3: Productivity

24.979 Topics in Semantics: Discourse referents inside and out

  • Instructors:   Patrick Elliott, Amir Anvari
  • Time:              Mondays 10:00am-1:00pm
  • Room:            32-D461
  • Description:

“Consider a device designed to read a text in some natural language, interpret it, and store the content in some manner, say, for the purpose of being able to answer questions about it. To accomplish this task, the machine will have to fulfill at least the following basic requirement. It has to be able to build a file that consists of records of all the individuals, that is, events, objects, etc., mentioned in the text and, for each individual, record whatever is said about it. Of course, for the time being at least, it seems that such a text interpreter is not a practical idea, but this should not discourage us from studying in abstract what kind of capabilities the machine would have to possess, provided that our study provides us with some insight into natural language in general.” (Karttunen 1976)

The notion of a discourse referent emerged from the work of Lauri Karttunen and David Lewis (Karttunen 1976Lewis 1979), during a time of general optimism concerning connections between linguistic theory and artifical intelligence research. The central idea is that discourse participants introduce and manipulate variables corresponding to individuals mentioned over the course of a conversation. This powerful idea subsequently informed dynamic approaches to meaning, which essentially model anaphora as a powerful cross-referencing device (Heim 1982Groenendijk and Stokhof 1991). Frank Veltman crystalizes the ‘slogan’ of dynamic approaches to meaning as follows: “You know the meaning of a sentence if you know the change it brings about in the information state of anyone who accepts the news conveyed by it” (Veltman 1996). Irene Heim’s foundational work on file change semantics in the 80s lead to an explosion of insightful research applying this central idea to an impressive variety of empirical domains. At the same time, dynamic semantics incorporates powerful propietary mechanisms for manipulating contexts in an apparently arbitrary fashion, and even precompiles these mechanisms into the meanings of logical vocabulary such as “or”. In this seminar we’ll track developments in dynamic approaches to anaphora, starting from classical theories of (singular) pronouns and their indefinite antecedents, and eventually progressing to intricate theories of modality, plurality, and quantification. In parallel, we’ll consider what exactly dynamic semantics commits us to, both as a theory of content, and as a theory of how semantic composition proceeds. A central goal will be a re-assessment of Veltman’s slogan, in light of recent work that fine-tunes the division of labour between dynamic semantics and pragmatics (Elliott 2020bMandelkern 2020).

One of the themes of the seminar will be linguistic motivations for a rich notion of contexts, which goes beyond a “flat” model of information (Stalnaker 1976) and incorporates a notion of aboutness. Mid-way through the semester, we’ll take a break from anaphora and consider a set of empirical phenomena which motivate a different kind of enrichment. Thanks to Amir Anvari for providing the following summary:

“We will rehearse a host of puzzles that have been discussed in the literature on oddness (Singh 2008, Katzir & Singh 2014, Mayr & Romoli 2016, Mandelkern & Romoli 2018, Marty & Romoli 2021). The ambition is to provide a unified analysis for all these cases. We begin with the classical insight, as formulated by Katzir & Singh (2015), that “a good assertion is one that provides a good answer to a good question”: a good sentence is one that is about something. We explore the idea that the question that a sentence addresses in a given context is one that must be constructed in a principled fashion from sentence itself and its formal alternatives (Katzir 2007, Fox & Katzir 2011). If such a “formal background question” cannot be constructed, the sentence is not about anything and predicted to be odd. We will explore one implementation of this idea in the context of the puzzles mentioned.”

  • Requirements

Regular readings and participation, a squib, a short presentation of a paper/original research.