The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 17th, 2022

Giovanni Roversi @ NYU!

Giovanni Roversi presented at NYU’s Ling-Lunch on Oct 13, 2022! 

Title: Where can probes be? Evidence from asymmetric adjectival concord

Abstract: We currently don’t have a theory telling us what kind of probes should or shouldn’t be where; I’m not going to propose one either. In this talk I will make an indirect argument for not wanting too restrictive a theory: the empirical landscape, when looked at carefully, is too varied for us to be able to afford a restrictive theory of probe distribution. The domain I will concentrate on is asymmetric adjectival concord, that is, languages where the morphological patterns on attributive adjectives and predicative ones (“the red car” vs “the car is red”) are different. Concretely, I will look at German, North Sámi and Northern Norwegian, which I argue exhaust the logically possible space of variation for the matter in question (that is: (i) only concord on attributive but not on predicative; (ii) the opposite of that; (iii) concord on both but of different kind). I will try to convince you that especially the North Sámi and Northern Norwegian patterns are real, and will exclude alternative analyses. In other words: the typology of attested patterns does in fact cover all logically possible asymmetries, and our theory should therefore be able to derive all of them.

DeGraff in the NY Times

On October 14, a guest essay by our very own Michel DeGraff appeared in the New York Times: “As a Child in Haiti, I Was Taught to Despise My Language and Myself”. The essay details in a personal and powerful way the effects of language policy on Haitian education and identity, and advocates for the types of change that are promoted by the MIT-Haiti Initiative. Congratulations, Michel!

Beginning of term party @ Mex!

On August 12, 2022, we had a beginning of term party @ Mex, seeing old and new faces with smiles all around! 

MIT News on DeGraff becoming an LSA fellow

MIT News has a nice article about our colleague Michel DeGraff’s having been elected a Fellow of the LSA, as previously reported by WHAMIT!.

Industry workshop (10/19) - Alaina Talboy

who: Dr. Alaina Talboy
when: 2:45pm (notice unusual time)
where: virtual talk (contact Hadas for zoom link)
what: Dr. Alaina Talboy earned her PhD Cognition, Neuroscience, and Social Psychology from the University of South Florida. Her research focused on the cognitive underpinnings of data-informed decision making. In 2019, she joined Microsoft where she currently applies her expertise toward improving data governance solutions and industry research ethics. Dr. Talboy’s work is published regularly in a variety of outlets from popular press to high impact peer-reviewed journals. Her book “What I Wish I Knew: A Field Guide for Thriving in Graduate Studies” was released in March 2022.
All are welcome; current students might find this speaker particularly helpful.

Phonology Circle 10/17 - Donca Steriade (MIT)

Speaker: Donca Steriade (MIT)
Title: Vowel-to-Vowel intervals in quantitative meter
Time: Monday, October 17th, 5pm - 6:30pm
Location: 32-D831


I present evidence for V-to-V intervals as units of rhythm, drawn from laws that govern the distribution of word-final V̆C0# sequences in the quantitative meters of the classical languages.

Weight-changes in phrasal contexts: The talk analyzes changes in the weight of word-final V̆(C)# positions between phrase-final and phrase-medial contexts, as diagnosed by the quantitative meters of Greek and Latin. The relevant generalizations are outlined in (2). The top row shows the metrical weight of the first position in a V̆CC0V string containing a word boundary, as observed in dactylic hexameter lines. The 3rd and 4th rows indicate that some phrase medial cross-boundary V̆CC0V sequences are underattested, thus arguably disfavored.       

(2) First position is metrically high First position is metrically heavy
  (a) V̆C#V  (b) V̆#CV (c) V̆#CCV  (d) V̆C#CV (e)  V̆CC#V
Greek   restricted restricted restricted  
Latin   restricted impossible restricted  

The restricted shaded cells contain sequences that are underattested at major junctures in the dactylic hexameter, or absent in all positions. Unshaded cells correspond to favored sequences (V̆C#V is favored over V̆#CV at a major juncture) or unrestricted ones (V̆CC#V compared to V̆CC#CV). Unlike V̆C# and V̆# finals, heavier V̄C0 # and V̆CC(C)# finals are not restricted.

Interval-based and syllable-based analyses: The sequences in (2) are parsed into intervals in table (3), and into syllables in table (4). Shaded cells correspond, as in (2), to restricted sequences:

(3) (a) |V̆C|#V (b) |V̆#C|V (c) |V̆#CC|V   (d) |V̆C#C|V  (e) |V̆CC|#V
(4) (a) V̆.C#V  (b) V̆.#CV  (c) V̆#C.CV  (d) V̆C.#CV  (e) V̆C.C#V

The interval parses in (3) reveal a simple reason for selective underattestation: in all shaded cells, the weight of the word-final interval has changed in the shaded cells relative to its weight in isolation, as one or more Cs were added to it by the following word. By contrast, the word-final interval in (a) and (e) maintains line-internally the same weight as in isolation.

On an interval analysis, all patterns of underattestation outlined in (2-4) emerge as driven by the preference for weight correspondence between intervals in isolation and their correspondents in line-medial or phrase-medial contexts. All substantial changes of weight between the isolation context and the line-medial context are disfavored, and cause poets to avoid the sequence.

Compare now the syllable-based parses, (4). No syllabic factor distinguishes restricted sequences from unrestricted ones. The weight of the first syllable in (4.a) and (4.c) must be attributed, on any syllable-based theory of weight, to the reassignment of a C from one syllable to a neighboring one, turning heavy final V̆C.# into the initial light V̆.C#V in (4.a); and light V̆.# into heavy V̆#C. in V̆#C.CV, (4.e). So both (4.a) and (4.c) have undergone resyllabification, but only (4.c) is restricted. Also hard to explain is why, of the two sequences that begin with a light syllable, VC#V (4.a) and V#CV (4.b), the unrestricted sequence V.C#V is the result of resyllabification. Similarly mysterious is why (4.d) V̆C.#CV, with syllable and word boundaries properly aligned, is restricted, while syllabically misaligned (4.e) V̆C.C#V occurs freely.

LingLunch 10/20: Paul Rössler (Universität Regensburg)

Speaker: Paul Rössler (Universität Regensburg)

Time: Thursday 10/20, 12:30-1:50pm

Zoom link: https://mit.zoom.us/j/98155777682

In-person location: 32-D461

Title: Comma and prefield. What does German orthography tell us about the relation between norm, system and language use?


In text types with distinct nominal style, such as academic texts, the writer tends to mark the extensive complex nominal phrases in front of the finite verb graphically by comma placement. Meanwhile, this phenomenon seems to have outreached the domain of academic texts. The talk reveals how widely this writing practice which is incompatible with the norms of standard German orthography has already spread. This raises the question how linguists and codifiers deal with that pervasive phenomenon of language standardization as players in the field of social forces, and which consequences this entails for teachers as norm authorities and norm mediators.

Professor Rössler is co-PI with Kai von Fintel on an MISTI seed grant on “Comparative Punctuation” and visiting MIT for a couple of weeks.

LF Reading Group 10/19 — Ido Benbaji and Omri Doron (MIT)

Speakers: Ido Benbaji and Omri Doron (MIT)
Title: Adversative only is only only
Time: Wednesday 10/19, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461


Jespersen (1954) discusses uses of the word only in which it seems to behave as a sentential connective, as in (1) below. Following von Fintel & Iatridou, we call this adversative only.
(1) He’s a nice man, only he talks too much.
We propose a unified analysis for regular only and adversative only, and suggest that the difference between the uses stems from scopal interaction with an operator in LF that enforces the informativity requirement on sentences. We extend our analysis to other cases of CP-taking only and even.


Upcoming article in NLLT - Ruoan Wang

A paper, Honorifics without [HON], by 4th year student Ruoan Wang, has been accepted for publication in Natural Language & Linguistic Theory! Huge congratulations to Ruoan!
Manuscript here: https://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/006802
Honorifics are grammaticalized reflexes of politeness, often recruiting existing featural values (e.g. French recruits plural ‘vous’ for polite address, and German third person plural ‘Sie’). This paper aims to derive their cross-linguistic distribution and interpretation without [HON], an analytical feature present since Corbett (2000). The striking generalization that emerges from a cross-linguistic survey of 120 languages is that only certain featural values are ever recruited for honorification: plural, third person, and indefinite. I show that these values are precisely those which are semantically unmarked, or presuppositionless, allowing the speaker to consider an interlocutor’s negative face (Brown & Levinson 1987). I propose an alternative analysis based on the interaction between semantic markedness, an avoidance-based pragmatic maxim called the Taboo of Directness, and Maximize Presupposition! (Heim 1991) to derive honorific meaning.