The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, November 6th, 2023


The 48th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD 48) happend this past weekend November 2—5, 2023. MIT had a great showing with 4 talks coming out of ongoing projects at the MIT Language Acquisition Lab.

  • Giovanni Roversi, Kate Kinnaird, Athulya Aravind: Acquisition of *ABA paradigms in a child Artificial Language Learning Experiment
  • Keely New, Premvanti Patel and Athulya Aravind: How toddlers answer multiple wh-questions
  • Athulya Aravind and Megan Gotowski: Children’s Interpretations of Referential and Expletive It
  • Megan Gotowski and Athulya Aravind: Non-Canonical Agreement in Early Grammar


Maya Honda at Abralin!

Maya Honda just returned from the Abralin (Brazilian Association of Linguistics) Institute where she co-taught a week-long course on “Teaching about Language(s) as Science in Basic Education” with former MIT faculty member Richard Larson (Stonybrook University). There were 40 course participants, including high school teachers, teachers-in-training, linguistics graduate students, and linguistics faculty. Maya also spoke at the opening session of Abralin’s International Congress on “Fostering a Community of Inquiry through Linguistics”.  The opening session of the Congress was focused on the interface of Linguistics and Primary and Secondary Education. The Institute and Congress were held at the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba. 
At the Congress, Maya met up with MIT graduate Luciana Storto (University of São Paulo) and former MIT visitor Filomena Sandalo (State University of Campinas), both of who worked with Ken Hale. 

Syntax Square 11/7 - Magdalena Lohninger and Yiannis Katochoritis (MIT)

Speaker: Magdalena Lohninger and Yiannis Katochoritis (MIT)
Title: It’s getting out of control! – Control, the A/Ā-distinction and the subjecthood of pivots in Austronesian languages
Time: Tuesday, November 7th, 1pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Control has long been employed as diagnostic of subjecthood: in an active embedded clause, the controllee should invariably correspond to the agent qua external argument. Yet, the very notion of subjecthood breaks down in Austronesian-type voice systems where one argument is promoted to “pivot” and triggers a particular morphological form on the verb without altering its valency: subject properties are distributed between the agent irrespective of pivothood, and the pivot irrespective of θ-role, though not in a uniform manner (Schachter 1976; Guilfoyle et al. 1992).

The status of Austronesian voice-marking has been subsumed under three syntactic analyses: (i) pivots are established in vP/VoiceP via a process of object shift and subsequent Ā-Agree reflecting structural case, θ-role or extraction site; (ii) voice-marking reflects absolutive case assignment in a (split-)ergative system; (iii) pivots are (hanging or internal) topics.

We examine this debate on the basis of control structures, where Austronesian languages are divided into two types: type A, in which control targets the pivot (e.g., Malagasy, Acehnese), versus type B, in which control targets the external argument irrespective of voice-marking (e.g., Tagalog, Madurese). The picture gets murkier through the existence of embedded voice restructuring, default uses of Agent Voice morphology, backwards and crossed control configurations, and restrictions on matrix-embedded Voice matching.

At the same time, Austronesian pivots differ with respect to the definiteness/ specificity restriction and A/Ā-related properties such as anaphor binding. Particularly the latter forms two types of languages: type C, in which pivots reconstruct (e.g., Malagasy, Tagalog), versus type D, in which promotion to pivot feeds binding (e.g., Acehnese).

Given that types A & B of control do not fully overlap with types C & D of binding, we delve into the properties of pivots on a language-specific basis, and suggest that their A/Ā-nature is neither uniform nor absolute, but spreads over a continuum: some pivots are more A-like elements, some are more Ā-elements, and some are mixed, each determined by the type of features involved in the derivation of voice-marking. Such differences might stem from a diachronic transition from Ā-to-A syntax of voice marking (see also Chen & Patrianto 2023), each possibly correlating with several aspects of the clausal structure, such as word order, position of the non-pivot agent and allomorphy.

We conclude that the notion of “pivot” might be a structural epiphenomenon and subject to variation, in which case a uniform syntactic analysis of voice marking should be untenable.

LF Reading Group 11/8 - Jad Wehbe (MIT)

Speaker: Jad Wehbe (MIT)
Title: Covert Reciprocals
Time: Wednesday, November 8th, 1pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Predicates like “date” and “hug” participate in alternations between seemingly 1-place variants in (1a) and (2a) and 2-place variants in (1b) and (2b). Analyses of these alternations can be grouped into syntactic analyses (e.g. Hackl, 2002) and lexical analyses (e.g. Winter, 2019). On the syntactic analysis, these predicates are always 2-place predicates, and the LF for (1a) and (2a) involves a covert reciprocal in object position. On the other hand, the lexical analysis assumes that the predicates date and hug in (1a) and (2a) are collective 1-place predicates, and that the 2-place versions are derived from the 1-place variants in the lexicon. A major challenge for the syntactic account comes from cases when the covert and overt reciprocal are not truth-conditionally equivalent, as in (3) (Winter, 2019). In this talk, I propose a version of the syntactic account that addresses this challenge. I argue that the truth-conditional differences are due to distributivity (“each”) having to take lowest possible scope when “each other” is ellided. I provide evidence for this account and against a lexical one from the behavior of these predicates in downward-entailing environments and in the Lebanese Arabic double subject construction. (1) a. Jane and Mary dated. b. Jane dated Mary. (2) a. Jane and Mary hugged. b. Jane hugged Mary. (3) Context: Jane hugged Mary while she was sleeping, and then Mary hugged Jane later while Jane was sleeping. a. # Jane and Mary hugged. b. Jane and Mary hugged each other.

LingLunch 11/9 - Vina Tsakali

Speaker: Vina Tsakali
Title: Interpretation of complex- and simple-Or in adult and child Greek
Time: Thursday, November 9th, 12:30pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461


Disjunctive particles have been argued to differ cross- and intra-linguistically as to whether they are obligatorily exclusive or not (Szabolcsi 2001, Aloni 2016). The current project examines the differences between the simple (i=Or) and the complex forms (i-i and ite-ite=Either-Or) of the disjunctive operators in Greek.

The results of four online questionnaires on adult Greek speakers showed no significant effect of the disjunction type suggesting that Greek adult speakers do not perceive one of the two types as obligatorily exclusive.

The development of the disjunction in Greek tested via a forced choice picture matching test provides evidence that children interpret both disjunction types inclusively (and probably conjunctively) until the age of 7.