The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 31st, 2022

Industry workshop (11/3) — Katharina Pabst

who: Katharina Pabst
when: 2pm
where: virtual talk (contact Hadas for zoom link)
what: My name is Katharina Pabst (she/her). I will graduate with my Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Toronto in November 2022. Since February 2022, I have been working as an Educational Developer at York University where I support the campus community in the development, implementation, and evaluation of learning experiences at the faculty and course levels. I also offer guidance for curriculum review and facilitate workshops and certificate courses for instructors with a focus on eLearning, internationalization, and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL).
I originally came to North America as an international student, but became a permanent resident of Canada last year, so I have some experience in navigating the job market as an international student.

Colloquium (11/4) - Michelle Yuan (UCSD)



Speaker: Michelle Yuan (UCSD)
Title: Morphological conditions on movement chain resolution: Inuktitut noun incorporation revisited
Time: Friday November 4, 3:30pm, 32-141

Prior research on the Copy Theory of Movement has suggested that the realization of movement chains may be regulated by well-formedness conditions governing complex word formation, such as the Stray Affix Filter (e.g. Landau 2006; Kandybowicz 2007). This talk provides new evidence for this idea, based on an investigation of noun incorporation in Inuktitut (Eastern Canadian Inuit). At the same time, this talk aims to offer new insights into the nature of incorporation in Inuktitut (and Inuit as a whole), informed by its interactions with clausal syntax.
Noun incorporation in Inuktitut (and Inuit) is cross-linguistically unusual, in that a small set of verbs is obligatorily incorporating (i.e. affixal), while for most other verbs incorporation is not possible. I provide novel data showing that, in Inuktitut, incorporated nominals are syntactically active, able to participate in case and agreement alternations and undergo phrasal movement, despite surfacing within the verb complex. That these nominals nonetheless invariably surface within the verb complex even when extracted follows straightforwardly from the aforementioned interaction between chain resolution and morphological well-formedness. Moreover, in contrast to most previous characterizations of incorporation (in Inuit and cross-linguistically), I conclude that noun incorporation at least in Inuktitut takes place to satisfy the morphological requirements of the incorporating verb—and not in response to the structural deficiency of the noun.

Exp/Comp Group (11/4) - Huteng Dai (Rutgers)

Date/Time: Friday (11/4) from 2-3:30pm
Location: 32-D831 and on Zoom
Speaker: Huteng Dai (Rutgers)
Title: A Neo-Trubetzkoyan approach to phonotactic learning in the presence of exceptions
Abstract: Lexicalized exceptions are a major source of noise in phonological acquisition. In a positive-evidence-only setting, it is common to cope with exceptions with indirect negative evidence from distributional information (Clark & Lappin 2010). Most distribution-sensitive models assume a probabilistic grammar that evaluates the grammaticality of words by their predicted likelihood (Hayes & Wilson 2008). However, a probabilistic grammar conflates all words into the same spectrum of probability and grammaticality. As a result, short attested exceptions become more ‘grammatical’ than longer grammatical words with lower probabilities (Daland 2015). This can be problematic because it blurs the boundary between exceptions and grammatical words. In this talk, I spell out a Neo-Trubetzkoyan algorithm that learns a categorical grammar in the presence of exceptions with respect to a restrictive Subregular (Heinz 2010) hypothesis space and iterative Observed/Expected comparison. I argue that this approach is at least as good as, and appears to be superior to the “Probabilistic grammar + Probabilistic inference” approaches in handling exceptions in the case study of Turkish nonlocal vowel phonotactics.

LF Reading Group (11/2) - Katie Martin (MIT)

Speaker: Katie Martin (MIT)
Title: A new presuppositional account for slurs
Time: Wednesday, November 2nd, 1pm - 2pm

Abstract: Preexisting analyses of slurs have treated the negative appraisal associated with their meaning as deriving either semantically, via presupposition or conventional implicature (Cepollaro (2015) and Gutzmann (2015), among others), or pragmatically, via Gricean reasoning (Nunberg (2018) and Bolinger (2017) among others). I respond in this project to two recent works that have criticized these analyses of slurs, both semantic (Lo Guercio 2021) and pragmatic (Falbo 2021).

Falbo (2021) observes that accounts that deem slurs to be semantically equivalent to their neutral counterparts are significantly challenged by what she calls “non-target” uses, such as the following:
(1) Deandra’s a lesbian, but she’s not a dy*e.
(2) Not only is my neighbour a lesbian, but she’s a total dy*e too. She drives a motorcycle and is covered in tattoos.

Under the claim that slurs and their neutral counterparts have identical semantics, (1) should be incoherent and (2) should be redundant – however, this is obviously not the case. Indeed, this data provides a challenge not just for pragmatic accounts, but for semantic accounts as well – if the only difference in meaning between “lesbian” and “dyke” is that the latter presupposes a negative attitude towards lesbians on the part of the speaker, it seems distinctly odd that a single speaker would utter both of the clauses in each of (1) and (2) – and yet such utterances are perfectly natural.

In a similar vein, Lo Guercio (2021) criticizes presuppositional accounts of slurs on the grounds that even bigoted speakers can use “neutral” forms in place of slurs, which ought to cause a violation of Maximize Presupposition, but seems in fact to be perfectly felicitous.

I address these important objections by proposing a theory of slurs in which the presuppositional content associated with the use of a slur is not simply a negative attitude on the speaker’s part towards the group identified by the slur, but rather a negative attitude towards the stereotypes associated with that particular group and, crucially, that these stereotypes are relevant/salient in the conversational context.
(see also abstract attached)

LingLunch (11/3) - Brian Leahy (Harvard)

Speaker: Brian Leahy (Harvard)
Title: Problems with Possibilities
Time: Thursday, November 3rd, 12:30pm - 1:50pm

Abstract: I will present the results of several studies that test preschoolers’ ability to talk about and think about mutually incompatible possibilities. These studies reveal systematic errors in how preschoolers (a) answer questions about what can and has to happen, and (b) form contingency plans when choosing actions in the face of multiple open possibilities. For example, when choosing between a container that must contain a prize and two additional containers that merely might contain a prize, older 2-year-olds choose a risky option half of the time. They take a risk when they could have a sure thing. This error slowly becomes less frequent with age, but is still common among 4-year-olds.

In this talk I will quickly sketch some of the behavioral results, and put an explanation on the table that accounts for the observed patterns of errors: when faced with multiple incompatible possibilities, children use simulation to generate one possible outcome and then treat that outcome as the fact of the matter. They do not mark the simulated outcome as merely possible and check whether there are other possibilities that need to be accounted for.

After sketching the behavioral results, I will present our language comprehension studies. There is no doubt that learning the English modal auxiliary system is difficult: each modal auxiliary can express many different meanings, and many different auxiliaries can express the same meaning. I will present evidence that comprehension of modal vocabulary appears late, around the same time that children start succeeding on the behavioral tasks described earlier. I will argue that the complexity of the mapping problem cannot fully account for children’s struggles. In particular, I will show that there are correlations in children’s ability to answer questions about what has to happen and their ability to apply nonmodal vocabulary like ‘all’ and ‘only’ in the modal domain. Children comprehend ‘all’ and ‘only’ by age 4, so these correlations are surprising if children’s struggles with modal auxiliaries arise only from the complexity of the mapping problem.

What is the additional problem that children face? Why is there such consistency across age in children’s ability to talk about and think about mutually incompatible possibilities? One candidate answer is that the ability to mark representations as merely possible emerges late in the preschool years, typically after age 4. Existing data do not rule out this hypothesis, and it offers a tidy explanation for all of the observed data. This motivates a direction for future research: If the ability to mark representations as merely possible is one that emerges with age, what are the mechanisms by which it emerges?