The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 23rd, 2023

MIT at the 55th Algonquian Conference!

Our postdoc Peter Grishin gave two talks at the 55th Algonquian Conference this past weekend (Oct 20–Oct 22, 2023), hosted by the University of Alberta in Edmonton (https://algonquian-conference.org/pac50/):

Peter Grishin (MIT): Passamaquoddy-Wolastoqey modals
Peter Grishin (MIT) & Will Oxford (University of Manitoba): When central suffixes agree with peripheral participants

Check the slides out here and here

Syntax Square 10/24 - Elise Newman (MIT)

Speaker: Elise Newman (MIT)
Title: When wh-phrases are their own interveners
Time: Tuesday, October 24th, 1pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Much work on syntactic locality has shown that processes like wh-movement are subject to several kinds of locality restrictions. In addition to being sensitive to intervening wh-phrases, wh-movement must proceed successive cyclically through various points in the clause, and in some cases/languages, may not cross intervening arguments (see e.g. Branan and Erlewine (2022) for a recent overview). Sensitivity to intervening arguments is known to be quite fine-grained: according to insights from Keenan & Comrie (1977) and others, languages might differ with respect to what kinds of arguments count as interveners for a wh-element, and might also treat arguments vs. adjuncts differently.

In this talk, I propose that all of these locality restrictions and their various levels of granularity are interconnected. More specifically, I suggest that they reduce to a particular view of how selection influences the projection of category information from daughter nodes to their mothers. I show that by examining the nature of selection and projection, we can leverage the architecture of grammar to predict the requirement for wh-movement to be successive-cyclic: the projection rule makes it so that wh-phrases create their own barriers for extraction if their wh-features get too high, meaning they have to move outside the scope of their own features in order to extract. The theory entails that movement must be successive cyclic, but does not say through which positions. By varying the different allowed parameters in this theory, I show that it also captures variable sensitivity to the Keenan & Comrie hierarchy. Thus, the various locality requirements governing wh-movement can be reduced to basic principles governing selection and projection.

LF Reading Group 10/25 - Yizhen Jiang (MIT)

Speaker: Yizhen Jiang (MIT)
Title: Putting bare plurals into context (joint work with Yasu Sudo)
Time: Wednesday, October 25th, 1pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Bare plurals give rise to plurality inferences in positive sentences but not in negative sentences. There are two main approaches to this phenomenon. The implicature approach derives plurality inferences via scalar implicatures (Ivlieva 2020, Spector 2007, Sudo 2023, Zweig 2009, a.o.). The homogeneity approach attributes plural interpretations to trivalent semantics of bare plurals and claims a parallelism between bare plurals and plural definites (Križ 2017). Specifically, these two approaches make divergent predictions regarding the availability of plurality inferences in negative sentences and their sensitivity to context w.r.t. sentence polarity. We report on three experiments investigating plurality inferences of bare plurals via precise manipulation of context.

Our results show: 1) Plurality inferences are available in simple negative sentences (Exp 1) and quantified negative sentences under proper context (Exp 2); 2) the context sensitivity of plurality inferences exhibits a symmetry w.r.t sentence polarity in simple sentences (Exp 1) but an asymmetry in quantified sentences (Exp 2); 3) Partial plurality inferences are available in both positive and negative sentences but are insensitive to contextual manipulation. These results pose challenges to both the implicature and homogeneity approach. We discuss possible directions for both approaches to address these issues.

LingLunch 10/26 - BUCLD practice talks

Speakers: Keely New, Premvanti Patel, Giovanni Roversi, Kate Kinnaird, Athulya Aravind (MIT)
Title: BUCLD Practice Talks
Time: Thursday, October 26th, 12:30pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

How toddlers answer multiple wh-questions (Keely New, Premvanti Patel and Athulya Aravind)

Abstract: The ability to comprehend wh-questions is one that already emerges in infancy. Infants comprehend subject whquestions like “Who ate something?” by 15-months, and distinguish them from object wh-questions like “What did Mom eat?” by 20-months. Adult linguistic competence, however, includes more complex wh-questions like “Who ate what?”, which in turn demand more complex answers. In this work, we investigate 2-and-3-year-olds’ understanding of multiple wh-questions. To do so, we probed their sensitivity to restrictions on which wh-word in a multiple question can be fronted (the “superiority constraint”). Using a novel “fly-in-the-wall” paradigm, which recreates naturalistic parent-child interactions, we elicited responses from toddlers on grammatical and ungrammatical multiple wh-questions, as well as single wh-questions. Toddlers differentiated single and multiple wh-questions, often giving adult-like pair-list responses to the latter. Both groups distinguished between ill-formed and well-formed questions in their response patterns, albeit in different ways.


Acquisition of *ABA paradigms in a child Artificial Language Learning Experiment (Giovanni Roversi, Kate Kinnaird and Athulya Aravind)

Abstract: Across the world’s languages, only certain types of linguistic patterns are attested, while other, equally logically possible patterns appear to be non-existent. Are these gaps accidental or do they in fact reflect biases in our linguistic system? We bring developmental data to bear on this issue. As a concrete case study, we examine irregular adjectival degree paradigms. For example, English has adjectives like good-better-best, and other types of irregular paradigms are known from other languages, but no language seems to have paradigms that would look like goodbetter-goodest. We designed an Artificial Language Learning study to determine whether unattested adjectival paradigms are in fact harder to learn than attested ones. Our preliminary results indicate that children indeed find the unattested paradigms harder to learn than the attested ones. This brings suggestive evidence to the idea that language learning might be constrained in such a way that excludes these paradigms.