The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Archive for the ‘Announcements’ Category


The annual Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT) conference took place last weekend (5/18-20) at MIT.  A number of current and recent members of our department, in addition to quite a few less-recent ones, gave talks and presented posters. Those include:

Current members - 

  • Sophie Moracchini (5th-year): “Evaluativity and structural competition”
  • Naomi Francis (4th-year): “presupposition-denying uses of even
  • Keny Chatain (2nd-year): “Gaps in the interpretation of pronouns”
  • Moshe E. Bar-Lev (visiting student): “An implicature account of homogeneity and non-maximality”

Recent alumni - 

  • Aron Hirsch (2017) and Luis Alonso-Ovalle: “keep only strong”
  • Paul Marty (2017): “Towards an Implicature-Based Account of Disjoint Reference”
  • Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine (2014) and Keely New: “The expression of exhaustivity and scalarity in Burmese”
  • Wataru Uegaki (2015): “The problem of presupposition projection in question-embedding”
  • Wataru Uegaki and Floris Roelofsen: “Do modals take propositions or questions? Evidence from Japanese”

The conference was a great success, not only because of the high quality of presented work, but also due to the wonderful organizing team headed by Kai von Fintel.  Thank you Kai and everyone else!


Memorial for Morris Halle

Our memorial for Morris Halle took place on the afternoon of Saturday May 5.   

Though the loss of our friend, colleague, and guiding spirit, is unutterably sad, the memorial was — quite appropriately — a celebration.  One by one, Morris’s three children, two grandchildren, former students, co-authors and intellectual fellow travelers spoke, painting a vivid picture of who Morris was and what he contributed to our lives.  The event was presided over by Jay Keyser (left), and the last speaker was Noam Chomsky (right), with whom Morris founded our linguistics program, and (many would say) our field in its modern form. 

About 240 people attended in person, and the event was webcast.  We have received numerous messages from colleagues around the world who watched the event live (some waking up in the middle of the night to do so), and from others who watched it later.  The webcast can still be viewed at http://web.mit.edu/webcast/linquistics/halle/ — skip to 48 minutes in, the actual beginning. When we find a permanent home for a properly edited version of the video, we will let you know.  Every speech was wonderful.  Do watch.
(left to right:  Cecilia Halle and Casey Rose Halle; John Halle; Donca Steriade)

Pesetsky ends term as Department Head

After five years, David Pesetsky is stepping down as department head this summer. In his honour, a party was held to celebrate his contributions and achievements as head. Delicious food and drinks were followed by a seemingly endless supply of cake. Danny Fox and Alex Byrne spoke about David’s commitment to his work, to students, and to the department. 

Entertainment for the event was a student-led song-and-dance performance featuring (left to right): Danfeng Wu (tap), Milena Sisovics (violin), Verena Hehl (viola), Frank Staniszewski and Mitya Privoznov (piano) and Elise Newman (vocals). To thank him for his service, David received gifts including a book of Russian poetry (one of the first editions of Akhmatova) and some fancy port, which he is unboxing below.

David will be taking a well-deserved sabbatical in the Fall. Thank you for all your hard work as department head, David!

Thanks to Sze-Wing Tang for the photos.


Syntax Square 5/15 - Suzana Fong (MIT)

Speaker: Suzana Fong (MIT)
Title: Bare nominals in Wolof
Date and time: Tuesday May 13, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

Even though Wolof is a language with overt determiners, it also allows for nominals to occur without any determiner at all.

(1) Awa defar na oto bi/yi/Ø.
Awa fix NA.3sg car the.SG/the.PL/Ø
‘Awa fixed the car/the cars/a car.’

In this research in progress, I try to explore the syntax and semantics of these bare nominals. The properties considered so far are the following:

(2) Syntactic properties

  • Bare nominals can the be the subject of transitive and intransitive verbs.
  • They can also be the object of transitive verbs.
  • When in subject position, bare nominals are compatible with singular or plural verbal agreement.
  • They are also compatible with a singular or plural genitive suffix.
  • They are compatible with singular or plural relative clauses.
  • They can be referred back to by a singular or plural clitic.

(3) Semantic properties

  • Bare nominals cannot be followed up with the question How many? when they are the subject of a singular verb, though this is possible when the verb is plural. Something along these lines holds of bare nominals in object position too.
  • They can be the antecedent of a singular reflexive, though not of a plural one.
  • They cannot be the argument (subject or object) of a collective predicate.
  • They can occur in the existential construction Am na… (‘there is…’), which displays definiteness effects.
  • They can scope above or below intensional predicates and an iterative verbal affix.

In order to account for these properties, I tentatively draw a distinction between syntactic and semantic number that is loosely based on Landau (2001)’s analysis of partial control. Specifically, I try to explain the semantic properties in (3) by suggesting that bare nominals in Wolof are semantically singular. However, they would have no syntactic number feature. Coupled with a fallible (Preminger 2014) version of feature checking (Chomsky 1995), this proposal could be consistent with the syntactic properties in (2).


LF Reading Group 5/16 - Sophie Moracchini (MIT)

Speaker: Sophie Moracchini (MIT)
Title: Evaluativity and structural competition
Date and time: Wednesday, May 16, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, I investigate the morpho-semantics of the degree constructions in (1). Some of these constructions are known to give rise to presuppositions of evaluativity that do not follow from the traditional semantics assumed for degree constructions: when such presuppositions arise, the adjective’s interpretation seems to depend on a standard of comparison, whose value is fixed by the context of utterance (Rett 2008, 2014 and Breakstone 2013).

(1) a. Jane is taller than Tom is.
b. Jane is less tall than Tom is.
c. Jane is less short than Tom is. (Presupposition: Jane/Tom count as `short’ in the context.)
d. Jane is more short than Tom is. (Presupposition: Jane/Tom count as `short’ in the context.)

I will argue with Rett (2008, 2014) that evaluativity is contributed by an independent and optional morpheme `EVAL’, and that it is sometimes obligatory because of a semantic competition.

My goal is to state precisely what the competition is based on. I will show that a decompositional approach of degree expressions (that follows from Heim’s 2001,2008 and Büring’s 2007 Syntactic Negation Theory of Antonymy) introduces the right metric for competition: structural complexity. I will then formulate an LF-Economy Principle (adapted from Meyer 2013, Marty 2017) which rules out structures whenever their logical meaning is expressible by means of a structurally simpler alternative. By this principle, in absence of EVAL, (1c.) and (1.d) are ruled out by (1.a) by virtue of being structurally redundant. I also discuss additional aspects of EVAL’s distribution that can be explained by independently motivated claims about morphology, and I show how the inclusion of EVAL is either forced by the LF-Economy principle or ruled out by a PF-filter.


Ling Lunch 5/17: Edward Gibson (BCS MIT)

Speaker: Edward Gibson (Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT)
Title: Meaning explanations of two syntactic islands: Subject islands and Embedded-clause islands
Date and time: Thursday, May 17, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Syntacticians have long proposed (a) that certain extractions from embedded positions are universally ungrammatical across languages and (b) that their ungrammaticality is not explainable in terms of meaning.  These two ideas together imply the existence of syntactic universals in Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (e.g., Ross, 1967; Chomsky, 1973; and many more recent studies including Sprouse et al (2012) and Sprouse et al (2016)). In this talk, I will present data from studies of two different kinds of syntactic islands that strongly suggest meaning explanations for both, without any need for syntactic universals.  First, I report collaborative work with Anne Abeillé, Barbara Hemforth and Elodie Winckel (CNRS, Paris), where we show that extractions out of subject position are actually easier to process than extractions from object position, in both English and French relative clauses, contrary to the claim of the universality of a so-called “subject island”.

a. Object PP-extracted: The dealer sold a sportscar, of which the baseball player loved the color because of its surprising luminance.
b. Subject PP-extracted:  The dealer sold a sportscar, of which the color delighted the baseball player because of its surprising luminance.
The subject extraction (1b) is rated better than the object extraction (1a) in both English and French relative clauses.  In contrast, when the extraction is in a wh-question, object-extractions are better than subject extractions for either NP or PP extractions:
a. Object NP-extracted:  Which sportscar did the baseball player love the color of because of its surprising luminance?
b. Subject NP-extracted:  Which sportscar did the color of delight the baseball player because of its surprising luminance?
Here, (2a) is rated better than (2b) in both English and French.  This is one of the first examples of differing judgments across constructions thought to involve syntactic movement in Chomskyan frameworks.  In order to account for these phenomena, we propose the Construction-based function-mapping hypothesis: (cf. Erteshick-Shir 1977; Kuno 1987; Goldberg, 2006): The discourse function of the extracted element should prefer to match the discourse function of the construction.
Second, I report collaborative work led by Yingtong Liu of Harvard in collaboration with Rachel Ryskin and Richard Futrell, in which we show that the grammaticality of extractions from embedded clauses as in (1)-(3) is best explained in terms of simple verb subcategorization frequency of the S-complement verb.
1. “bridge” verb extractions: Who did Mary think / say that Bill saw _
2. “factive” verb extractions: ?* Who did Mary know / realize that Bill saw _?
3. “manner” verb extractions: ?* Who did Mary mumble / stammer that Bill saw _?
We propose that the difficulty of these extractions is simply due to their plausibility in experience: the “bad” ones are just weird events.  We can see the same effects in declarative versions; the extra bad ratings of the extracted versions are just scaled extra bad versions.  And in context, the extracted versions get much better.  The simple meaning-based explanation accounts for the ratings for extracted and unextracted versions, in and out of context.   Furthermore, the interactions that others have observed (and that we observe) with respect to rating these types of materials (declarative / wh-question x easy / hard) is probably due to scaling issues in the acceptability scale: ratings are compressed towards the “good” end of the scale.  Overall, we propose, following Ivan Sag and others, that perhaps all “islands” are meaning- and memory-based, contrary to the UG syntax claim.

Whamit Summer Semi-Hiatus

Whamit! will be on semi-hiatus over the summer. We will continue to publish breaking MIT Linguistics news as it happens. Weekly posts will resume in the Fall.

Thanks to our editors, contributors, and of course all our readers! See you all in the Fall!


LF Reading Group 5/9 - Naomi Francis (MIT)

Speaker: Naomi Francis (MIT)
Title: Presupposition-denying uses of even
Date and time: Wednesday, May 9, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

This talk explores a puzzle about how even interacts with presupposition-denying discourse moves. Even can be used in declarative sentences that deny presuppositions, but only if it appears below negation (1).

(1) A: Did Kenji’s wife go to the picnic? Presupposes: Kenji has a wife, i.e. is married.
B: He isn’t even married!
B’: #He’s even unmarried!

I present a solution to this puzzle that makes crucial use of the additive presupposition of even. This presupposition requires that, in addition to the prejacent (the sentence that hosts even) being true, at least one of its focus alternatives must be true as well. I propose that the relevant focus alternatives in this context all contain the trigger (Kenji’s wife) for the presupposition that the prejacent denies, meaning that they are incompatible with it. This means that the additive presupposition of even can only be satisfied if the presupposition that Kenji has a wife is appropriately “cancelled” within the alternatives, which I argue is only possible when these alternatives contain sentential negation (1B). Drawing on data from German, Greek, Russian, and Hebrew, I show that the contrast in (1) is not unique to English and that the proposed solution makes good crosslinguistic predicitons.


Ling Lunch 5/10: Sabine Iatridou (MIT)

Speaker: Sabine Iatridou (MIT)
Title: No commands
Date and time: Thursday, May 10, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, I will try to establish the existence and cross-linguistic stability of a phenomenon I will call “Negation-Licensed Commands”. In addition, I will reject several possible solutions, leaving the actual account of this phenomenon as a mystery (for now).

MIT Joint Colloquium with Philosophy: Daniel Rothschild (UCL)

Speaker: Daniel Rothschild (University College London)
Title: What it takes to believe.
Time: Friday 5/11, 3:30-5pm
Place: 32-155

Much linguistic evidence supports the view that believing something only requires thinking it likely. I assess and reject a rival view, based on recent work on homogeneity in natural language, according to which belief is a more demanding attitude. I discuss the implications of the linguistic considerations about ‘believe’ for our philosophical accounts of belief. 


Halle memorial - May 5

Details about the memorial for Morris Halle, including a registration link, can be found at http://linguistics.mit.edu/hallememorialservice/.  If you are planning to attend, please register by this Wednesday if possible, so we can anticipate attendance. 


Phonology Circle 4/30 - Nabila Louriz & Michael Kenstowicz

Speakers: Nabila Louriz (Hassan-II, Casablanca) and Michael Kenstowicz (MIT)
Title: On the adaptation of vowels in French loanwords into Moroccan Arabic
Date/Time: Monday, 30 April 2018, 5:00-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

 Moroccan Arabic has a simple three-vowel phonemic system /i, u, a/ plus epenthetic schwa. The vowels appear as /e, o, ɑ/ in the context of an emphatic (pharyngealized) consonant. As shown by examples such as boîte > /bwaT/ ‘tin can’ (cf. /bwiyT-a/ diminutive), French loanwords with /o, a/ (and sometimes /e/) are regularly borrowed with pharyngeal consonants—a striking example of enhancement dubbed “reverse engineering” in Kenstowicz & Louriz (2009). In this presentation we briefly review this finding and then focus on the adaptation of French nasal vowels. Three contexts are considered. Word-medial nasal vowels are adapted as oral vowel plus homorganic nasal consonant: congé [kɔʒ̃e] ‘holiday’ appears as /kuɲʒi/. Word-final nasal vowels sometimes appear with a nasal consonant and at other times as a simple vowel with no trace of nasality: Fr bouchon [buʃɔ̃] ‘bottle stopper’ > MA /buʃun/ but bâtiment [batimã] ‘building’ > MA /baTima/. Finally, word-initial vowels are often deleted: infirmier ‘nurse’ > /fərmli/. Our discussion focuses on some of the factors that may underlie the variation.


Syntax Square 5/1 - Tanya Bondarenko & Colin Davis (MIT)

Speaker: Tanya Bondarenko & Colin Davis (MIT)
Title: Parasitic gaps, covert pied-piping, and left branch extraction in Russian [FASL practice]
Date and time: Tuesday, May 1st, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

A well-known trait of Slavic languages is left branch extraction (LBE), the A’-movement of elements out of the left edge of the nominal phrase. While much of Slavic allows LBE, languages like English do not, requiring pied-piping of the entire nominal phrase instead.  This difference presents a puzzle for syntactic theory, which we argue is clarified by the behavior of parasitic gaps (PGs; Engdahl 1983, Nissenbaum 2000) in Russian (Ivlieva 2007). We argue that patterns of PG licensing in LBE derivations teach us that LBE involves covert pied-piping of the containing NP, rather than true extraction out of NP.  This result unites the syntax of Russian with non-LBE languages, indicating that both are subject to something like Ross’ (1967/1986) Left Branch Condition (LBC). Consequently, LBE in Russian must be (at least in the cases under discussion) derived by a PF operation like scattered deletion (Fanselow & Ćavar 2005, Bošković 2015). This finding suggests that the difference between languages that allow so-called LBE, and those that do not, is the availability of this operation at the PF interface in the first group.

Ryan Bennett at MIT

We are pleased to announce that Ryan Bennett will be visiting MIT this week. In addition to a colloquium talk on Friday, he will also be giving a mini course on Wednesday and Thursday, details found below.

Speaker: Ryan Bennett (UCSC)
Title: The sound patterns of Kaqchikel (Mayan): phonology, morphology, phonetics, and the lexicon
Time: 12:30-2:00 , Wednesday 5/2 and Thursday 5/3
Place: 32-D461

In this mini-course, I report on two projects investigating the sound structure of Kaqchikel (Mayan). The first talk analyzes prosodic differences between prefixes in Kaqchikel. Prefix phonotactics provide evidence for abstract, recursively-nested prosodic structure. Importantly, alternative analyses using morphologically-oriented mechanisms to capture this data make problematic predictions about the broader morphology. The second talk considers perceptual confusions between plain and glottalized stops in Kaqchikel, arguing that such confusions owe, in part, to the statistical structure of the language (e.g. phoneme distributions, and their acoustic similarity in spontaneous speech). Connections to sound change are also discussed, along with practical issues in running corpus studies and field experiments with under-documented and under-resourced languages.


MIT Colloquium 5/4: Ryan Bennett (UCSC)

Speaker: Ryan Bennett (UCSC)
Title: Incorporation, focus and the phonology of ellipsis in Irish
Time: Friday 5/4, 3:30-5pm
Place: 32-155

This talk analyzes a pattern of misalignment between syntax, semantics, and phonology in modern Irish. This mismatch turns on the interaction between focus and ellipsis, as realized in clauses with pronominal subjects. We argue that ellipsis can be over-ridden when phonological—-rather than semantic—-requirements of focus need to be satisfied. This motivates a theoretical framework in which post-syntactic computation involves the parallel optimization of at least some aspects of morpho-syntax and prosody. The analysis relies on a kind of head movement (from a specifier to a higher head) which is predicted by bare phrase structure, but little-documented.




The 54th annual meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society was held over the weekend. The following members of our community presented:


Syntax Square 4/24 - Ryosuke Shibagaki (Nanzan University/MIT)

Speaker: Ryosuke Shibagaki (Nanzan University/MIT)
Title: Mandarin Resultatives in Syntax-Semantics Interface
Date and time: Tuesday April 24, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

In this presentation, I will offer an account of the linking issue of Mandarin Chinese Resultative V1-V2 consturction from the perspective of the syntax-semantics interface. Building up on the previous analyses such as Huang (2006), I will claim that it is indeed the semantics of V2, which determines the structure of the sentence and the linking pattern such as subject-oriented or object-oriented resultatives. I will also show that my account will successfully explain the fascinating inverse-linking type; Mandarin allows some resultatives such as “This kind of drug will eat-die you” where more proto-subject ‘you’ links to OBJ and more proto-object ‘this kind of drug’ links to the subject. In the beginning of my presentation, I will briefly introduced the history of Chinese V-V construction.


LF Reading Group 4/25 - Maša Močnik (MIT)

Speaker: Maša Močnik (MIT)
Title: Where Force Matters: Life under Doxastic Attitudes
Date and time: Wednesday, April 25, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

There has been much recent interest in the analysis and distribution of embedded epistemic modals (Yalcin 2007, Anand and Hacquard 2013, a.o.). We present novel data using the embedding verb dopuščati (‘to allow for the possibility that’) from Slovenian, analysed as an existential doxastic attitude. Building on Anand and Hacquard (2013), we focus on the distribution of existential and universal epistemic modals under doxastics. When anchored to the attitude holder, modals like must show a contrast: they are acceptable under positive universal doxastics (Suppose you wake up late one morning and, before opening your eyes, you remark: I think it must be sunny outside!), but are not as acceptable under: dopuščati, negated universal doxastics (regardless of neg-raising), and negated dopuščati. Building on Yalcin (2007) and Mandelkern (2017, ch. 1), we propose a new constraint on epistemic modals (while maintaining duality) and use blind scalar implicatures (Magri 2009, 2011) to capture their restricted distribution under doxastic attitudes. A sentence like #Dopuščam, da mora deževati (‘I allow for the possibility that it must be raining’) becomes contextually equivalent to I think it must be raining and therefore falls out as odd in the same way as Magri’s #Some Italians come from a warm country does.

This will be a practice talk for FASL. Here is the most recent version of the abstract.


LING LUNCH 4/26: Moshe Bar-Lev (MIT, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Speaker: Moshe Bar-Lev (MIT, Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Title: Simplification by Inclusion (joint work with Danny Fox)
Date and time: Thursday, April 26, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Simplification of disjunctive antecedents is a long standing puzzle for variably-strict analyses of conditionals (Lewis, Stalnaker). The main goal of this talk is to provide an account based on a theory of exhausitification involving the notion of Innocent Inclusion (Exh-II, for which we’ve argued on independent grounds in Bar-Lev & Fox 2017).  Our second goal is to discuss various consequences:
    • First, the apparent obligatoriness of simplification can be seen to follow from a more general constraint on the pruning of alternatives. 
    • Second, counterexamples to simplification (where the consequent entails one of the disjuncts in the antecedent, McKay and van Inwagen 1977) are predicted by Exh-II despite the obligatoriness attested elsewhere.
    • Third, we can make sense of the observations made in  Ciardelli et al. (2018), presented in Champollion’s recent MIT colloquium (the different behavior of conditionals with disjunctive antecedents and conditionals that differ minimally in that disjunction is replaced by a semantically equivalent expression involving negation and conjunction). Specifically, the proposal made by Schulz (2018) can be adopted (and in fact somewhat simplified). 
    • Fourth, Exh-II predicts that simplification is not a specific problem for conditionals. We argue that essentially the same problem arises when `most’ has a disjunctive restrictor, and that Exh-II provides an identical account for both cases. This, if correct, is particularly important in that it rules out accounts that make construction-specific assumptions about conditionals.

Morris Halle memories page / updated memorial information

In the weeks since our colleague Morris Halle passed away, many memories, stories, and other appreciations have been posted to linguistics-related sites such as Language Log, Phonolist, Facebook (and  others as well) — plus the stories and memories that many of us have shared more personally with each other and with ourselves in thought. We decided it would be good for these memories and thoughts to be collected in one place, with greater permanence. To this end, we have created a memories page on our departmental site, which will form part of a permanent collection of memorial pages for Morris (in progress):


If your life crossed paths with Morris’s, please share your memories, stories, and thoughts on this page.  If you have already posted elsewhere, please feel free to just copy that text, if you wish, to our page. That is no problem at all.)


As previously noted here, a memorial for Morris will take place at MIT.  Here is an update concerning the location and time, plus important registration information.

Location: Wong auditorium, E51-115 (ground floor of the Tang Center)
Date and time: Saturday, May 5 at 2:00pm

A reception will follow (by invitation only, for registered attendees) on the 6th floor of the Samberg Conference center (former Faculty Club, in the Sloan School building).

So we can estimate the number of attendees, please register at the following site if you are planning to come:

We hope to livestream the event, and make the video available online, but these details will  be confirmed in a later announcement.


LingLunch 4/19 -  Erin Olson (MIT)

Speaker: Erin Olson (MIT)
Title: Stress, pitch, and schwa in Passamaquoddy-Maliseet
Date and time: Thursday, April 19, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Passamaquoddy-Maliseet (Eastern Algonquian; spoken in Maine and New Brunswick) is well-known for having reduced vowels that are in many cases invisible to the stress/pitch accent system (LeSourd 1988, 1993; Hagstrom, 1995). While previous analyses have assumed that this invisibility is due to some sort of structural deficiency, such as lack of a mora or lack of a syllable node, I propose that it can be adequately explained by only making reference to two phonetic properties of the language. The first phonetic property that indicates stress placement is the presence of high pitch, in contrast to low-pitched unstressed syllables (LeSourd, 1988, 1993). I will present a phonetic study of pitch based on data from the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary Project (Language Keepers & Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary Project, 2016) showing that this claim is largely correct — stress is crucially accompanied by a rise in pitch, although there is rarely evidence for an obligatory initial stress, as claimed by LeSourd (1988, 1993). Based on this evidence, I propose an updated analysis of the basic stress pattern, framed within OT (Prince & Smolensky, 1993). The second phonetic property that influences stress placement is the substantially reduced duration of schwa, as compared to other vowels. A second phonetic study of pitch and vowel duration will be presented, showing that schwa is not only too short to host the full pitch rise associated with stress, but also too short to host the full fall in pitch between stresses. As a result, stress and pitch accent must shift one syllable to the left of its expected place in order to be adequately realized, leading to the apparent invisibility of schwa with respect to the stress system. As before, an analysis within OT will be provided. 


GLOW 41 took place last week at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. MIT department members presented both talks and posters.


  • Stanislao Zompì (1st-year): Ergative is not inherent: Evidence from *ABA in suppletion and syncretism 
  • Kenyon Branan (5th-year) and Abdul-Razak Sulemana (4th-year): Covert movement licenses parasitic gaps 


  • Tingchun Chen (6th-year): Multiple case assignment and case-stacking in Amis
  • Naomi Francis (4th-year): On even in presupposition denials
  • Emily Clem (visitor): Disharmony and the Final-Over-Final Condition in Amahuaca

Announcement: Memorial for Morris Halle

A memorial for Morris Halle will take place at MIT on Saturday, May 5, 2018.  So we can estimate the number of attendees, please register at the following site if you are planning to come:


The exact time and location will be announced once they have been determined — by email to those who have registered as well as on the MIT Linguistics website, here on Whamit, and on our Facebook page.  We hope to livestream the event, and make the video available online, but these details will also be confirmed in a later announcement.


MIT Colloquium 4/6: Lyn Frazier (UMass Amherst)

We are pleased to announce that Lyn Frazier will be visiting on Friday 4/6  to give a colloquium talk, details below:

Speaker: Lyn Frazier (UMass Amherst)
Title: An act apart:  Processing Not-At-Issue content
Time: Friday, April 6th, 3:30-5pm
Place: 32-155

This talk will examine the representation and processing of not-at-issue content (content conveyed by appositives, parentheticals and expressives).  Potts (2005) characterized not-at-issue content in a multi-dimensional semantics.  Others have proposed a unidimensional semantic account (e.g., Schlenker 2013) or a pragmatic account (e.g., Harris and Potts 2009).

We will begin by establishing a puzzle concerning processing complexity.  It is generally true that sentences that are longer or more complex are judged to be less acceptable than their shorter/simpler counterparts.  But if exactly the same material is added to either at issue content or not at issue content, there is a larger penalty, a larger drop in acceptability, if the material is added to the at issue portion of the sentence. The results of several experiments show this interaction of length/complexity and at-issue status is general. After excluding  a simple attention allocation source for the effect, we will turn to other possibilities ultimately arguing that not-at-issue content expresses a distinct speech act from that of the at issue content. Its status as a separate speech act has various ramifications including for its representation in memory and for the effects it imposes on grammatical dependencies spanning the not-at-issue content. The final part of the talk will present processing arguments concerning the nature of the relation between an appositive relative clause and its containing utterance. 


LingPhil Reading Group 3/19 - on Forbes 2018

Title: on Forbes (2018)
Date and time: Monday March 19th, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D831

This week’s paper is Graeme Forbes’ An Investigation of a Gricean Account of Free-Choice ‘Or’, available here.  Pre-read is gently suggested but not expected.

Kelly will be presenting the paper.


Phonology Circle 3/19 - Rafael Abramovitz and Adam Albright (MIT)

Speaker: Rafael Abramovitz and Adam Albright (MIT)
Title: Deriving allomorphic contingencies
Date and time: Monday, March 19, 5:00-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

In this talk, we report on two loosely-related things we’ve been thinking about in connection with a handbook chapter on allomorphy that we are working on. First, we consider the analysis of portmanteau in Lakhota (Siouan). Lakhota verbs show both subject and object marking, but the combination of 1sg subject with 2nd person object is marked with a single, distinct affix /chi-/. Data from marking on embedded verbs shows that although /chi-/ indicates a subject/object combination, it must actually be analyzed as 2nd person object marker that is used in 1sg subject contexts. This is consistent with the hypothesis that portmanteau is actually complex contextual allomorphy of both heads (null + special allomorph). Moreover, the conditioning context for /chi-/ appears to be the morphosyntactic (featural) context of 1sg subject, and not the specific 1sg subject marker that it normally replaces. This is consistent with Bobaljik’s hypothesis that outward-looking contextual allomorphy is sensitive to morphosyntactic structure. The conditioning context appears to be non-local (in a higher XP), but evidence from stress and root allomorphy supports an analysis in which the root and both agreement suffixes have undergone head-movement to a single projection. Next, we discuss a case of cross-template blocking found in the Koryak (Chukotko-Kamchatkan) verb, whereby the appearance of the 3PL agreement marker /-w/ blocks the appearance of the general PL morpheme /-la/. Given that /-w/ is more peripheral in the verb-word than /-la/, this appears to be a case of outward-looking phonologically conditioned allomorphy, which is incompatible with Bobaljik (2000)’s hypothesis that vocabulary insertion proceeds cyclically. We argue that a reanalysis of these facts consistent with Bobaljik’s proposal is possible, but that it nonetheless requires some element of countercyclicity in the form of countercyclic application of impoverishment rules. 

Judith Tonhauser at MIT

We are pleased to announce that Judith Tonhauser will be visiting this week. In addition to a colloquium talk on Friday, she will offer a mini course on Wednesday and Thursday, details below:

Speaker: Judith Tonhauser (Ohio State University)
Title: Methods in semantic/pragmatic research
Time: Wednesday, March 21st, 12:30pm-2pm; Thursday, March 22nd, 12:30pm-2pm
Place: 32-D461

Eliciting data from theoretically untrained speakers, as part of one-on-one elicitation or experiments, is a critical skill in research on meaning. In this mini-course, we’ll discuss two fundamental issues in empirically-driven research on meaning: first, on 3.21, we’ll talk about what constitutes a piece of data, how our theoretical hypotheses bear on the question of which response task to use or what to include in the context of a piece of data; second, on 3.22, we’ll address what constitutes empirical evidence, in particular which kinds of hypotheses are supported by different types of minimal pairs.


MIT Colloquium 3/23: Judith Tonhauser (Ohio State University)

Speaker: Judith Tonhauser (Ohio State University)
Title: Categorical and gradient distinctions between content: Implications for theories of speaker presuppositions
Time: Friday, March 23rd, 3:30-5pm
Place: 32-155

One classic categorization of clause-embedding predicates is based on introspective judgments about what follows from utterances of sentences like those in (1) and their interrogative variants in (2). First, the content of the clausal complement in these examples, that wasps lay their eggs in ladybirds, is taken to logically follow from (1a) with _be right_ and (1b) with _know_, but not from (1c) with _believe_. Thus, the content of the clausal complement of _be right_ and _know_ is classified as an entailment, but not that of _believe_. Second, the content of the clausal complement tends to follows from the interrogative variant with _know_ in (2b), but not from the variants with _be right_ in (2a) or with _believe_ in (2c). Thus, because the content of the clausal complement of _know_ tends to project from under the question operator, _know_ is a ‘factive’ predicate and its complement is a presupposition, but because the content of the clausal complement of _be right_ and _believe_ is not projective, these are ‘non-factive’ predicates and their complements are not presuppositions.

(1) a. Kim is right that wasps lay their eggs in ladybirds.

  1. Kim knows that wasps lay their eggs in ladybirds.
  2. Kim believes that wasps lay their eggs in ladybirds.

(2) a. Is Kim right that wasps lay their eggs in ladybirds?

  1. Does Kim know that wasps lay their eggs in ladybirds?
  2. Does Kim believe that wasps lay their eggs in ladybirds?

In this talk, I present experimental evidence that suggests that distinguishing entailed from non-entailed clausal complements may not be as central to empirically adequate theories of speaker presupposition as sometimes assumed. Moreover, evidence from experiments and a corpus study challenges the categorical distinction between ‘factive’ and ‘non-factive’ predicates and instead suggests that projectivity is a gradient property of utterance content. In addition to discussing the implications of these findings for theories of projective content, I will deliberate on how they bear on the larger issue of categorical versus gradient generalizations about meaning.


LingLunch 3/15 - Miyagawa (MIT/UTokyo), Wu (MIT), Koizumi (Tohoku U/Harvard)

Speaker: Shigeru Miyagawa (MIT/UTokyo), Danfeng Wu (MIT), Masatoshi Koizumi (Tohoku U/Harvard) 
Title:  Deriving Case Theory
Date and time: Thursday, March 15, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Case Theory has been central to predicting where DPs occur in a clause. The idea is that (i) a DP is assigned Case by a local [-N] head; (ii) every DP must have Case; (iii) Case may be abstract, which requires adjacency with the [-N] head, or morphological, which does not require adjacency. In this paper we note problems with each of these assumptions, and suggest an entirely different approach based on labeling of structures (Chomsky 2013). This approach not only accounts for the typical Case Theoretic structures, but also the problematic cases we point out. Our account also extends to areas of the grammar that are outside the purview of Case Theory, such as wh-questions, the expletive construction, and topicalization. Also, the [-N]/[+N] distinction Vergnaud drew for case assignment is a reflection of a structural difference between these two groups of lexical categories (Emonds 1985) that is consistent with the labeling approach we propose.


MIT-Haiti Initiative featured in Spectrum

The MIT-Haiti Initiative, led by Michel DeGraff was featured in Spectrum, a regular MIT publication that connects friends and supporters of MIT to MIT’s vision, impact, and exceptional community. The Winter 2018 issue, titled Pathways to Policy focuses on how collaborations with government, business, and organizations can help translate research findings from MIT into action. The MIT-Haiti Initiative was featured in the Tool Box  - a survey of the MIT-made online resources that are being used to bring about change in the world. You can read the whole story here.


CompLang 3/5 - Ishita Dasgupta (MIT)

Speaker: Ishita Dasgupta (MIT)
Title:  Evaluating Compositionality in Sentence Embeddings
Date and time: Monday, March 3, 5:00-6:00pm
Location: 46-5156

An important challenge for human-like AI is compositional semantics. Recent research has attempted to address this by using deep neural networks to learn vector space embeddings of sentences, which then serve as input to other tasks. We present a new dataset for one such task, “natural language inference” (NLI), that cannot be solved using only word-level knowledge and requires some compositionality. We find that the performance of state of the art sentence embeddings (InferSent, Conneau et al. (2017)) on our new dataset is poor. We analyze some of the decision rules learned by InferSent and find that they are largely driven by simple heuristics that are ecologically valid in its training dataset. Further, we find that augmenting training with our dataset improves test performance on our dataset without loss of performance on the original training dataset. This highlights the importance of structured datasets in better understanding and improving NLP systems.

CANCELLED DUE TO ILLNESS / LingLunch 3/1: Richard Futrell (MIT-BCS)

Speaker: Richard Futrell (MIT-BCS) 
Title: Memory and Locality in Natural Language
Date and time: Thursday, March 1, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

I explore the hypothesis that the universal properties of human languages can be explained in terms of efficient communication given fixed human information processing constraints. First, I show corpus evidence from 54 languages that word order in grammar and usage is shaped by working memory constraints in the form of dependency locality: a pressure for syntactically linked words to be close to one another in linear order. Next, I develop a new theory of human language processing cost, based on rational inference in a noisy channel, that unifies surprisal and memory effects and goes beyond dependency locality to a new principle of information locality: that words that predict each other should be close. I show corpus evidence for information locality. Finally, I show that the new processing model resolves a long-standing paradox in the psycholinguistic literature, structural forgetting, where the effects of memory on language processing appear to be language-dependent.


LingPhil Reading Group 2/26 - on Rothschild (2011)

Title: on Rothschild (2011) 
Date and time: Monday February 26th, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D831

This week’s paper is Rothschild (2011) Explaining presupposition projection with dynamic semantics. It is not pre-read.

Keny will be presenting the paper.


Miyagawa, Lesure, and Nóbrega in Frontiers in Psychology

Shigeru Miyagawa (faculty), Cora Lesure (2nd-year), and Vitor Nóbrega (former visitor, University of São Paulo) recently published an article on the relationship between prehistoric cave paintings, symbolic thinking, and the emergence of language in Frontiers in Psychology, available here. MIT News wrote an article about the research, and the story was subsequently picked up by the Boston Globe and National Geographic!


LingPhil Reading Group 2/20 - on Lassiter (2018)

Title: on Lassiter (2018) - Talking about higher-order uncertainty
Date and time: Tuesday February 20th, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D831

This paper is for a Festschrift for Lauri Karttunen. In it, Lassiter discusses a property of epistemic modals in English that differentiates them from the S5 modal operators: the fact that they can be nested in a non-trivial way.

Note the meeting date for this week’s LPRG is on a Tuesday. Maša will be presenting.


LF Reading Group 2/21 - Itai Bassi (MIT)

Speaker: Itai Bassi (MIT)
Title: Redefining EXH
Date and time: Wednesday February 21, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

One of the challenges for the grammatical theory of Scalar Implicatures (SIs), which takes SIs to arise as a result of an operator EXH in the syntax, is to explain their rather restricted distribution under negation (Fox and Spector 2013). For example, (1) might be analyzed as involving embedded SI, but this meaning requires a distinguished pitch contour (Meyer 2016). 
1) Debbie didn’tH* talk to her mother ORL+H* her father… she talked to both.
(coherent only under or-but-not-and meaning for “or”; infelicitous if default intonation is used instead)
In the first part of the talk I will suggest a way to understand the limited distribution of embedded SIs under negation. My proposal is based on the observation (Horn 1989) that presupposition cancellation under negation exhibits a similar pattern:
2) Mary isn’tH* late to the meeting AGAINL+H* … she has never been late before!
3) Mary didn’tH* STOPL+H* smoking… she never used to!
4) Mary can’tH* possibly climb THEL+H* tree in the garden… because there are two of them!
Capitalizing on this observation, I’ll propose to reduce (1) to (2-4). I redefine EXH in a trivalent setting to represent that it carries a presupposition, and I assume that a ‘local accommodation’ operation (Heim 1983) can neutralize the presupposition of EXH locally, but that this possibility is not freely available.
In the second part of the talk I will show that my proposal accounts for a seemingly unrelated phenomenon in the realm of SIs which is considered problematic for current theories and has been discussed in Chierchia (2004). 



LingLunch 2/22: Hanzhi Zhu (MIT)

Speaker: Hanzhi Zhu (UMass-Amherst)
Title: A scalar presupposition for already
Date and time: Thursday, February 22, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

The particles still and already are commonly thought of and analyzed as particles that mirror the other (Löbner 1989, Krifka 2000, Ippolito 2007, inter alia).  The particle still has been robustly argued to have an additive presupposition in the same vein as particles like too.  Previous accounts attempt to formulate already as also having an additive presupposition, capturing the putative duality of the two particles However, I argue that such approaches are untenable, motivated by asymmetries between the two particles as exemplified in the following pair: 

(1)  You wake up after a full night of sleep, estimating that it’s 7am. You check your clock.
       Wow, it’s already 9am!
(2)  You wake up after a full night of sleep, estimating that it’s 9am. You check your clock.
       #Wow, it’s still 7am!
I propose that already does not have an additive presupposition but instead an even-style scalar ’likelihood’ presupposition enriched with an exhaustivity operator.  This analysis will offer empirical improvements over previous analyses, notably in its ability to capture the earlier-than-expected inference conveyed by already.     

ESSL/LAcqLab 2/23 - Sherry Yong Chen (MIT)

Speaker: Sherry Yong Chen (MIT)
Title: Anaphoricity, Presuppositions, and Memory Retrieval Processes
Date and time: Friday February 23, 2-3pm
Location: 32-D831

(Joint work with E. Matthew Husband (Oxford))

The anaphoric view of presupposition treats the trigger too analogously to anaphoric expressions such as pronouns and VP ellipses, where “anaphoric” is taken to mean “requiring a contextually provided antecedent” (Kripke, 1990/2009; van der Sandt, 1992; Zeevat, 1992; Beck, 2007; a.o.).

(1) John went swimming. Mary went swimming too.

Previous work has suggested that the processing of anaphoric expressions involves a memory retrieval process, where the memory representation of an antecedent is retrieved via direct access by using a content-addressable mechanism: comprehenders are able to directly access the representation of an antecedent, without serially searching through irrelevant intermediate materials before finding the desired representation in memory (Foraker & MeElree, 2007; Martin & McElree, 2008, 2011; cf. Dillon et al, 2014). We investigate the memory retrieval processes that underlie the real-time comprehension of the anaphoric trigger too. Using the Drift Diffusion Model, we show that the memory representation of the antecedent content that satisfies the presupposition of too is also retrieved via a direct access manner.

These findings contribute to a growing body of empirical evidence suggesting that the memory representations of discourse dependencies formed during language comprehension are content-addressable in nature. They also raise an interesting question: a direct access mechanism is generally assumed to be cued-based; in the case of pronouns, morpho-syntactic cues such as gender and number features may serve as cues, but what cues are being exploited in the case of presupposition triggers? Finally, we discuss how the current study opens up further questions related to discourse structure, presupposition accommodation, and context update.


LingPhil Reading Group 2/12 - on Cappelen and Dever

Title: on Cappelen and Dever (2013)
Date and time: Monday, February 12, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D831

Nathaniel  Schwartz (MIT) will present on chapter 4 of Cappelen and Dever’s The Inessential Indexical. 

The idea: Indexicals figure prominently in opaque contexts. For instance, if I am (unbeknownst to myself) spilling sugar all over the grocery store, I can believe that the messy shopper is spilling sugar without believing that I am spilling sugar—even though “the messy shopper” and “I” are coreferential terms. Do indexicals in opaque contexts raise difficulties for theories of content beyond those raised by opacity generally? In particular, is the Fregean account of opacity particularly difficult to implement in cases involving indexicals? The authors say no to both questions.

This meeting will not be pre-read.


Syntax Square 2/13 - Emily Clem (UC Berkeley)

Speaker: Emily Clem (UC Berkeley)
Title: Ergative case as agreement with multiple heads
Date and time: Tuesday February 13, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

The mechanisms underlying ergative case assignment have long been debated, with two main view emerging in the literature: 1) ergative is an inherent case assigned by a transitive v to an agent, 2) ergative is a dependent case assigned to a DP that c-commands another DP within a case domain. In this talk, I present novel data from Amahuaca (Panoan; Peru), in which ergative case is sensitive to the position of the transitive subject. The interaction of movement and morphological case assignment in Amahuaca cannot easily be captured by current inherent or dependent case theories. Ergative is not assigned in a theta-position, as predicted by an inherent case account, nor is it dependent on whether the subject and object DPs are in the same case domain, as predicted by a dependent case account. Instead, I argue for an account of ergative case as exponing Agree operations between a DP and two distinct functional heads, v and T. This approach is able to account for the Amahuaca data, while incorporating key insights from both inherent and dependent case theories of ergativity. I further demonstrate that this view that takes case to be the exponence of multiple features is able to be extended to account for elements of Amahuaca’s case-sensitive switch reference system. The Amahuaca data thus suggest that ergative case can be viewed as a feature bundle, rather than an atomic case feature, and that morphological ergative marking arises as the exponence of structural relationships between multiple heads and a nominal.


MIT Colloquium 2/16 - Lucas Champollion (NYU)

Speaker: Lucas Champollion (NYU)
Title: Two switches in the theory of counterfactuals: A study of truth conditionality and minimal change
Time: Friday, February 16th, 3:30-5pm 
Place: 32-155

I report on a comprehension experiment on counterfactual conditionals based on a context involving two switches (joint work with Ivano Ciardelli and Linmin Zhang). We found that the truth-conditionally equivalent clauses (i) switch A or switch B is down and (ii) switch A and switch B are not both up make different semantic contributions when embedded in counterfactual antecedents. Assuming compositionality, this contradicts the textbook view that meaning can be identified with truth conditions. This finding has a clear explanation in inquisitive semantics: truth-conditionally equivalent clauses may be associated with different propositional alternatives, each of which counts as a separate counterfactual assumption. Related results from the same experiment challenge the common Stalnaker-Lewis interpretation of counterfactuals as involving minimizing change with respect to the actual state of affairs. We propose to replace the idea of minimal change by a distinction between foreground and background for a given counterfactual assumption: the background is held fixed in the counterfactual situation, while the foreground can be varied without any minimality constraint. (This talk presents work reported in a paper to appear in the journal Linguistics and Philosophy. Preprint at http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/003200.)


Welcome to Spring 2018!

Welcome to the first edition of Whamit! for Spring 2018! 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, Elise Newman, Mitya Privoznov, Neil Banerjee, and Itai Bassi.

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

Best wishes for the new year!


New Visiting Scholars and Visiting Students for Spring 2018

A warm welcome to the new visitors in our department for this spring!
Visiting Scholars
  • Angelo Mercado (Grinnell College): “I am an Associate Professor of Classics at Grinnell College (Iowa) and participate in our interdepartmental Linguistics Concentration. My areas include Greek and Latin language, comparative Indo-European philology, and linguistic poetics and metrics. I continue to chip away at describing the metrical systems in Italic. Other work in progress pertain to the role of word stress in Classical Latin epic, and the development of Indo-European accent and meter, separately and together.”
Visiting Students
  • Emily Clem (University of California, Berkeley). Her research investigates the interactions between syntax, semantics, and morphology. She is currently working on case and switch-reference in Amahuaca, a Panoan language on which she conducts fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon.
  • Zhuo (Cindy) Chen (The Graduate Center, City University of New York). Her main research interest in semantics lies in wh-indefinites, and more generally, in what their behavior reveals about plurality, distributivity and polarity.’


In addition, the majority of Fall 2017 visiting scholars and students continue with us this semester. A full list of current visitors can be found here.


Winter news

We have several items of winter news from students and faculty:

  • As usual, many our faculty members, students and alumni participated in the Linguistic Society of America’s 2018 Annual Meeting (see detailed account at our other post).
  • In Berlin, Germany, MIT was represented at the Endpoints 2018 workshop at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. Tanya Bondarenko presented a poster “Results, Repetitives and Datives: towards an account of cross linguistic variation” and Malka Rappaport-Hovav (PhD’84) gave an invited talk “(Non)Causative and (non)scalar spatial states”.
  • Meanwhile in Paris, France, our second year student Keny Chatain talked about “Local contexts for anaphora” at the LANGUAGE seminar at his alma mater Ecole Normale Superieure.
  • Speaking of bringing linguistics to the masses, one of MIT undergraduate students, Jessica Sun (‘18, Course 3) posted a new, very short and very educational video on language evolution, mentioning some of our own. In particular it overviews in two minutes (for those who are too lazy to read about it) the integration hypothesis, proposed in Shigeru Miyagawa et al’s “The emergence of hierarchical structure in human language”.
  • As linguistic life goes on, the real life intervenes with all its brutal cruelty. Our first year student Tanya Bondarenko’s bag got stolen in Berlin with her passport and other documents. Tanya is safely back in Moscow now, but it is going to take time, before she gets a new passport and visa. We all hope that, despite all the childish rubbish that our international politicians love to play at, Tanya will get her documents back soon and will be with us, before we completely dive in the Spring semester (MIT linguistics and philosophy department, as well as ISO are going to help with that). As for Tanya’s bag, we wish it to land somewhere in good hands.
  • On the bright side, speaking of the harmony of good and evil, Tanya Bondarenko also received a young researchers’ grant from Russian Academy of Sciences for her master thesis from Moscow State University.

Course Announcements: Spring 2018

Course Announcements in this post:

  • 24.942 Topics in the grammar of a less familiar language
  • 24.954 Pragmatics in Linguistic Theory
  • 24.956 Topics in Syntax
  • 24.963 Linguistic Phonetics
  • 24.964 Topics in Phonology
  • 24.966J Laboratory on the Physiology, Acoustics, and Perception of Speech
  • 24.979 Topics in Semantics
  • 9.19/9.190 Computational Psycholinguistics


24.942 Topics in the grammar of a less familiar language

  • Instructors: Kenstowicz, Richards
  • Schedule: M 2-5pm
  • Room: 32-D831

This year’s Less-Familiar Language will be Wolof (Niger-Congo, Atlantic).  We’ll spend the semester learning about Wolof’s structure (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics), and practicing techniques for working with a native speaker of a language to learn about that language.


24.954 Pragmatics in Linguistic Theory

  • Instructor: Fox
  • Schedule: T 10am-1pm
  • Room: 32-D461

Formal theories of context-dependency, presupposition, implicature, context-change, focus and topic. Special emphasis on the division of labor between semantics and pragmatics. Applications to the analysis of quantification, definiteness, presupposition projection, conditionals and modality, anaphora, questions and answers. 


24.956 Topics in Syntax

  • Instructor: Richards
  • Schedule: T 2-5pm
  • Room: 32-D461

This course will be an exploration of the relation between syntax and phonology, in the framework of Contiguity Theory (Richards 2016).  We’ll start by familiarizing ourselves with the main claims of Contiguity Theory, both in the 2016 book and in work done since.  This is an approach that posits a different kind of relation between syntax and phonology than is usually assumed; in particular, the syntax can be motivated to perform operations by the need to create phonologically well-formed objects.  We’ll discuss the implications of this approach for the architecture of the grammar.  Other topics of discussion will include the distribution of overt movements of various kinds, EPP effects, intervention effects, and conditions on pied-piping.


24.963 Linguistic Phonetics

  • Instructor: Flemming
  • Schedule: MW 10-11:30am
  • Room: 56-180

The study of speech sounds: how we produce and perceive them and their acoustic properties. The influence of the production and perception systems on phonological patterns and sound change. Acoustic analysis and experimental techniques.

We will be considering three fundamental questions:

  • How do we produce speech?
  • How do we perceive speech?
  • How does the nature of these processes influence the sound patterns of languages?

We will also be learning experimental methods and analytical techniques that enable us to address these (and other) questions.


24.964 Topics in Phonology

  • Instructor: Feldman, Katzir, Levy
  • Schedule: TR 5-6:30pm
  • Room: T 32-D461, R 46-5165

Learning and Linguistic Representations

Models of unsupervised language learning are central to understanding human cognition and replicating it in machines.  Computational advances and the availability of large speech and text corpora make it more tractable than ever before to build and evaluate such models.  This seminar considers the rich latent structures that are present in human language, and recent computational work in unsupervised learning that can provide insight into what those structures are like and whether and how they might be learned.  Seminar participants will take turns leading discussions of original research papers.  The seminar is open to graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and well-prepared, highly-motivated undergraduates.  Participants should have a strong background in at least one of two areas: (i) linguistic representation; (ii) computational approaches to learning, and should have an interest in gaining expertise in the other area.  In addition to participating in and taking turns leading seminar discussions, registered students may be required to complete periodic homework assignments and will write a final paper, either individually or in a group, that relates to unsupervised learning of linguistic knowledge.


24.966J Laboratory on the Physiology, Acoustics, and Perception of Speech

  • Instructor: Braida, Shattuck-Hufnagel, Choi
  • Schedule: TR 11am-1pm
  • Room: 35-308

Experimental investigations of speech processes. Topics include computer-aided waveform analysis and spectral analysis of speech; synthesis of speech; perception and discrimination of speech-like sounds; speech prosody; models of speech recognition; speech development; analysis of atypical speech; and others. Recommended prerequisite: 6.002, 18.03, or 24.900. 


24.979 Topics in Semantics

  • Instructor: Fox, Heim, Schwarzschild
  • Schedule: R 2-5pm
  • Room: 32-D461

We will begin this seminar with a discussion of issues that arise in the semantics of plurality: when is a predicate true of a plural definite description and when is it false?, are there cases where it is neither true nor false (cases of homogeneity)?, Is there anything interesting to say about when a sentence which neither true nor false is taken to be true, how do answers to these questions bear on the semantics of various constituents dominating a plural definite description?, etc. We will then move to discuss other areas of grammar where similar questions have been raised (questions, generics, conditionals, neg-raising). This, as usual, will likely take us to problems that are not directly related to those with which we will start. 


9.19/9.190 Computational Psycholinguistics

  • Instructor: Levy
  • Schedule: MW 9:30-11am
  • Room: 46-4199

Over the last two and a half decades, computational linguistics has been revolutionized as a result of three closely related developments: increases in computing power, the advent of large linguistic datasets, and a paradigm shift toward probabilistic modeling. At the same time, similar theoretical developments in cognitive science have led to a view major aspects of human cognition as instances of rational statistical inference. These developments have set the stage for renewed interest in computational approaches to human language acquisition and use. Correspondingly, this course covers some of the most exciting developments in computational psycholinguistics over the past decade. The course spans human language comprehension, production, and acquisition, and covers key phenomena spanning phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Students will learn technical tools including probabilistic models, formal grammars, neural networks, and decision theory, and how theory, computational modeling, and data can be combined to advance our fundamental understanding of human language acquisition and use.

This course is open to undergraduate and graduate students in Brain & Cognitive Sciences, Linguistics, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, and any of a number of related disciplines. Enrollees should have (i) one semester of programing experience (ideally Python, fulfillable e.g. by 6.00), plus (ii) either (a) one semester of probability/statistics/machine learning (e.g., 6.041B or 9.40) or (b) one semester of linguistics. The undergraduate section is 9.19, the graduate section is 9.190. Required work will include problem sets, exams, and (for enrollees in 9.190) a final project.  Postdocs and faculty are also welcome to participate!

The course will meet twice a week; course format will be a combination of lecture, discussion, and in-class exercises as class size, structure, and interests permit.


MIT Linguistics Colloquium Schedule, Spring 2018

Colloquium talks will be held on Fridays from 3:30-5pm unless otherwise noted. Please visit the colloquium webpage for more details and updates. All questions should be directed to the colloquium organizers, Yadav Gowda and Danfeng Wu.


LingLunch 2/8: Petr Kusliy (UMass-Amherst)

Speaker: Petr Kusliy (UMass-Amherst)
Title: English Present tense is relative: evidence from VP-fronting
Date and time: Thursday, February 8, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

English Present-under-Past attitude reports are commonly believed to have only the so-called double-access reading (Smith 1978). Roughly, this means that the eventuality described in the embedded clause of the attitude report must overlap the time of the matrix eventuality as well as the utterance time. Present-under-Past attitude reports in languages like Japanese or Russian besides the double-access reading also allow for the so-called simultaneous reading (the embedded eventuality is contemporaneous with the matrix eventuality but not necessarily with the utterance time). The lack of the simultaneous reading in Present-under-Past attitude reports in English lead many researchers to believe that English Present tense is crucially different from Present tense in Japanese or Russian (e.g. Ogihara, 1989; von Stechow, 2003). According to this view, English Present is indexical (i.e. always indicates a time that overlaps the utterance time). Present tense in Japanese and Russian is relative because the time it indicates does not have to overlap the utterance time and can be simultaneous with a local temporal anchor.

In this talk, I focus on the interactions between simultaneous and double-access readings, on the one hand, and VP- and CP-fronting, on the other. To my knowledge, these interactions have never been examined in the literature on tense. I present new data showing that (i) fronted VP versions of Present-under-Past attitude reports allow for a simultaneous reading (together with a double-access reading); (ii) fronted CP versions of Present-under-Past attitude reports do not allow for a simultaneous reading and only have a double-access reading, (iii) in the fronted CP, as well as fronted VP versions of the famous Kamp-Abusch sentences, the most embedded Past does not have a simultaneous interpretation and has to backshift.

I discuss these data and propose an account that contains the following claims: (a) English Present tense has a relative interpretation just like Present tense in Japanese and in Russian; (b) if a tense in a complement CP has a relative interpretation, its temporal anchor is CP-external (not a lambda abstract in the left periphery of the CP); (iii) in a fronted construction, the highest tense cannot be vacuous.


Syntax Square 2/6 - Danfeng Wu (MIT)

Speaker: Danfeng Wu (MIT)
Title: A copy-based analysis of either in either…or… constructions
Date and time: Tuesday February 6, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

While it has been observed since Larson (1985) that either can occur in many different positions in either…or… constructions, no proposal successfully accounts for its various surface positions and restrictions on its distribution. In this talk I argue that the dual identity of either as both a disjunction marker and focus-sensitive operator requires it to c-command both the disjunction phrase and the focused elements. And I argue that it achieves this goal by origination in a c-commanding position relative to the focused constituent, followed by upward movement to c-command disjunction, and that the occurrences of either in different positions are copies in the same movement chain. Not only does this analysis successfully account for the distribution of either with respect to islands, but it also makes a few predictions. For instance, because these eithers are identical copies in a movement chain, when an independent restriction bans one of them, other copies can still surface to save the sentence.


Spring 2018 Reading groups

LingPhil Reading Group (LPRG) will be reprising this semester on Mondays, 1:00-2:00pm, in 32-D831 (the 8th floor conference room). Reading list and contact information can be found on the group’s website.

Phonology Circle will be meeting on Mondays, 5:00–6:30pm, in 32-D831 (the 8th floor conference room). Please contact Erin Olson and/or Rafael Abramovitz if you would like to reserve a slot.

Syntax Square will be held at the old time-slot: Tuesdays, 1:00-2:00pm, in 32-D461 (the 4th floor seminar room). As always, we welcome works in progress, presentation of papers on topics of interest, practice talks, etc. Please contact Suzana Fong and/or Mitya Privoznov if you would like to give a talk.

LF Reading Group meets on Wednesdays, 1:00-2:00pm in 32-D461. As always, rough ideas, work in progress, practice talks, and presentations of papers from the literature are all very welcome. To reserve a slot, contact Naomi Francis or Tanya Bondarenko.

Ling-Lunch is held on Thursdays, 12:30-1:50pm in 32-D461. Anyone who wishes to present their own linguistics-related research is welcome, although preference will be given to members of the MIT linguistics department. Please contact Cora Lesure or Ömer Demirok to reserve a date.


LF Reading Group 12/13 - Sarah Zobel (University of Tuebingen/MIT)

Speaker: Sarah Zobel (University of Tuebingen/MIT)
Title: Do weak adjunct ‘as’-phrases restrict individual quantifiers?
Date and time: Wednesday December 13, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

The central observation in the literature on free adjuncts is that weak adjuncts can be understood as restricting temporal and modal quantifiers (see Stump 1985): weak adjuncts co-occurring with these types of quantifiers are ambiguous between a restricting and a non-restricting, causal-adverbial-clause like meaning, as in (1-a). Strong adjuncts, in contrast, can only have a non-restricting interpretation, as in (1-b).

(1) a. As a 10-year-old, Peter liked gingerbread. (weak)
(Possible: When Peter was 10 years old, he liked gingerbread. [interaction with [PAST])
(Possible: Since Peter is 10 years old, he liked gingerbread.)

b. Being 10 years old, Peter liked gingerbread. (strong)
(Not possible: When Peter was 10 years old, he liked gingerbread. [interaction with [PAST])
(Possible: Since Peter is 10 years old, he liked gingerbread.)

In this talk, I address the question whether weak adjuncts (using `as’-phrases), as in (2), can be understood as restricting nominal quantifiers, and, if not, how the intuitive interpretations found with these examples can be accounted for.

(2) a. As a child, every guest likes gingerbread.
b. As tourists, most visitors own cameras.

I show that the intuitive interpretation of the examples in (2) are not compatible with these `as’-phrases restricting the quantifiers `every guest’ and `most visitors’ in the same manner as observed for temporal and modal quantifiers. I propose that the intuitive interpretation found in these cases is the result of two properties of the ‘as’-phrases: (i) they associate with the individual quantifiers via Non-Obligatory Control, which I analyze similar to discourse anaphora, and (ii) they are not interpreted in the scope of their associated individual quantifiers.


Simplicity Workshop videos

Videos of talks from the MIT Workshop on Simplicity in Grammar Learning are now available online! If you would like to see the talks, visit the workshop website.


Whamit! Winter Hiatus

Whamit! will be on its Winter (semi-)hiatus from now until the start of the Spring semester. Weekly posts will resume on February 5th, 2018. In the mean time, we will have rolling posts, publishing breaking MIT Linguistics news as it happens. Thanks to all our contributors, editors, and you dear readers!

See you next year!


Syntax Square 12/5 - Colin Davis

Speaker: Colin Davis (MIT)
Title: Don’t go over the edge: More constraints on stranding at edges
Date and time: Tuesday December 5, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

Moving phrases can sometimes leave material behind in phase edges they pass through, a phenomenon I term “edge stranding” (ES). Davis (In prep) shows that the sorts of elements capable of ES are predicted given Cyclic Linearization and a theory of movement as driven by c-command-constrained Agree. In this talk, I extend those findings to make predictions about when a given edge is available as a site for stranding. In essence, I predict that specifiers crossed by a phase-exiting movement step are unavailable for ES, hence the title of this talk. I focus on stranding at vP, which interacts with both subject movement and verb movement. This approach makes good predictions about ES in West Ulster English, Korean, and Japanese, but requires more work to understand facts from Polish and Dutch.


LF Reading Group 12/06 - Tiaoyuan Mao (MIT)

Speaker: Tiaoyuan Mao (MIT)
Title: Mandarin Chinese -ne revisited: Its basic properties and derivation
Date and time: Wednesday December 6, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

Mandarin Chinese sentence final particles (SFPs) were, are and will be a hotly-debated topic. The vast majority of studies concentrate on the head-directionality, optionality and multiple semantic interpretation of SFPs, such as the first two issues fall within the domain of FOFC (the Final-Over-Fianl Constraint)(Biberauer, Holmberg and Roberts 2014; Sheehan, Biberauer, Roberts and Holmberg 2017) and Pan and Paul (2016), a.o. In this talk, I will focus on -ne, the most complicated Mandarin SFP, trying to demonstrate a tentative proposal to resolve the tension among different projects about the head-directionality and syntactic derivation of -ne, and to interpret the multiple meanings of -ne in a principled way.


MIT Colloquium 12/8 - Jason Riggle (UChicago)

Speaker: Jason Riggle (University of Chicago)
Title: The co-grammar of English: interjections and other formulaic language
Time: Friday, December 8th, 3:30-5pm
Place: 32-155

Most sentences are unique … except the ones that aren’t. The frequency distribution in any corpus of natural language has a famously `long tail’ filled with unique phrases only ever used once.  Conversely, the other end of the distribution is filled with endless repetitions of familiar and formulaic phrases used to manage conversation (yeah, mhm, oh, y’know, right, okay, well), express reactions (aw man, wow, cool, whoa, yuck, yikes, phew), and serve social scripts (good morning, thanks, fuck off, I’m sorry).    

We observe three quirky properties that seem to be peculiar to the frequent and formulaic phrases at the fat end of the distribution. 
    1) phones — phones/phonotactics/phonation outside the productive phonology 
    2) tones — phrase-specific intonational contours and floating intonational contours
    3) emblems — manual gestures with highly conventionalized meaning that occur with (and substitute for) verbal equivalents 

These properties tend to occur together and seem to be restricted to the elements at the fat end of the distribution. We propose that this be explained by positing a co-grammar for English that operates over frequent and formulaic phrases. In addition to accounting for the presence and distribution of properties (1-3) a co-grammar makes it possible to account for an over-abundance of surface regularities in the fat end of the distribution (e.g., prosodic doubling: hear hear, there there, come come, now now, aye aye, nix nix, etc.) and the presence of proto-morphology in patterns which seem compositional but not productive ({welp, nope, yup, yep}, {wowza, yowza, wowzers, yowzers, yeppers, yuppers, right-o, neat-o}, {whatevs, natch, obvs, obvi}).



SNEWS2017@MITThe Southern New England Workshop in Semantics (SNEWS) took place at MIT on Saturday. Two MIT students participated. Filipe Kobayashi (1st year) presented When modals scope below the progressive, and Keny Chatain (2nd year) presented The referentiality of generic indefinites: evidence from anaphora.

SNEWS 2018 will take place at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Photo credit: Dóra Takács


Syntax Square 11/28 - Elise Newman

Speaker: Elise Newman (MIT)
Title: Middles produce easily if you have enough stuff
Date and time: Tuesday November 28, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

It has been proposed in the literature that Anti-locality (Abels 2003, Erlewine 2016) can help us understand a number of subject-object asymmetries in A-bar movement. However, it has been stipulated that such a restriction cannot exist for A-movement due to the idea that subjects move string-vacuously to Spec TP. In this talk, I argue that such subject-object asymmetries also occur with A-movement, and that they also can be explained by Anti-locality. I propose that middles are a direct reflection of this, as can be seen by regarding novel facts about middle formation that previous semantic accounts cannot explain. 
Middles look like inchoative unaccusatives except for a few key differences:
  • They have unexpressed external arguments
  • They have an adverb restriction
(1) a. The ice melted (quickly) (all by itself).
     b. The book read *(quickly) (*all by itself).
I propose that objects of middles move through the canonical subject position on their way to Spec TP. The adverb restriction is a result of the object’s sensitivity to Anti-locality as it undergoes this movement chain. The two (arguably 3) types of adverb restrictions pattern with how embedded the object is at the beginning of the derivation.

LF Reading Group 11/29 - Moshe Bar-Lev (HUJI)

Speaker: Moshe Bar-Lev (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Title: Don’t mind the gap: an implicature account of Homogeneity
Date and time: Wednesday November 29, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

I will present an implicature-based view of Homogeneity with definite plurals (following Magri 2014’s lead) in which the universal meaning definite plurals give rise to in positive sentences is the result of implicature calculation, while the existential meaning they give rise to in negative sentences reflects the basic meaning.

The proposed account builds on the implicature approach to free choice disjunction, which I claim behaves similarly to Homogeneity. Given this perspective, Non-maximal readings of definite plurals can be taken to follow from the context-sensitivity of implicature calculation, and neither-true-nor-false judgments can be the result of context-indeterminacy. This is in contrast with a view in which they motivate semantically encoding a truth-value gap (recently Križ 2016).

To support the implicature-based account I will discuss asymmetries between positive and negative contexts in children’s interpretation of definite plurals (Tieu et al. 2015), non-maximal readings, and neither-true-nor-false judgments (Križ & Chemla 2015).


CompLang 11/30 - Takashi Morita (MIT) & Timothy O’Donnell (McGill)

Speaker: Takashi Morita (MIT) & Timothy O’Donnell (McGill)
Title: Bayesian learning of Japanese sublexica
Date/Time: Thursday, November 30th, 5:00-6:30pm
Location: 46-5165

Languages have been borrowing words from each other.
A borrower language often has a different list of possible sound sequences (phonotactics) from a lender’s.
While loanwords may be reshaped so that they fit to the borrower’s phonotactics, they can also introduce new sound patterns into the language.
Accordingly, native and loanwords can exhibit different phonotactics in a single language and linguists have proposed that such a language’s lexicon is better explained by a mixture of multiple phonotactic grammars: words are classified into sublexica (e.g. native vs. loan), and words belonging to different sublexica are subject to different phonotactic constraints.
This approach, however, raises a non-trivial learnability question: Can learners classify words into correct sublexica?
Words are not labeled with their sublexicon, so learners need to infer the classification.
In this study, we investigate Bayesian unsupervised learning of sublexica.
We focus on Japanese data (coded in international phhonetic alphabet), whose sublexical phonotactics has been proposed in linguistic literature.
It will turn out that even a simple Dirichlet process mixture of ngram leads to remarkably successful classification.


Zukoff at Grinnell College

Sam Zukoff (PhD ‘17, post-doc) gave an invited talk at Grinnell College last week. The handout for the talk, entitled Reduplication in Ancient Greek, is available on Sam’s website, here.


Syntax Square 11/21 - Stanislao Zompí (MIT)

Speaker: Stanislao Zompí
Title: *ABA in case morphology and what it may teach us
Date and time: Tuesday November 21, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

In this presentation, I try to lay out a comprehensive survey of *ABA effects in case morphology, with an emphasis on case syncretism, case-based wholesale suppletion, and case-based stem-formative allomorphy. Building on work by Baerman et al. (2005), McFadden (2017), and Smith et al. (2017), I claim that all three of these phenomena are constrained by the following universal: No Vocabulary-Insertion rule can apply to both an inherent case and an unmarked core case (nominative/absolutive) without also applying to another core case (accusative/ergative). The case hierarchy that such *ABA effects motivate is thus one where the ergative consistently occupies the same ‘middle field’ as the accusative, instead of patterning with inherent cases. This offers a new kind of argument against approaches that treat the ergative as just another inherent case, and it favors instead those case-assignment theories that do put ergative and accusative in the same box. Prominent among these is Marantz’s (1991) dependent-case theory, whereby accusative and ergative are both treated as dependent cases—i.e. assigned to nominals that stand in an asymmetric c-command relation to another as-yet-caseless nominal nearby (cf. also Yip et al. 1987). In this light, I reinterpret Marantz’s disjunctive case-assignment hierarchy as a proper containment hierarchy: [[[UNMARKED] DEPENDENT] INHERENT].


MIT-Haiti Initiative and Google team up

The MIT-Haiti Initiative, dedicated to making STEM education accessible to Haitians in Kreyòl, their native language, has gained a new ally: Google. As part of an expansion to Google Translate, Google and the MIT-Haiti Initiative have teamed up to add scientific and technical terminology, including recent coinages, to the translation software’s database. Now anyone can access translations of technical terms in Kreyòl, greatly expanding the reach of the technical terminology the Initiative works on creating and disseminating. More details can be found at MIT News.


LF Reading Group 10/25 - Hanzhi Zhu (MIT)

Speaker: Hanzhi Zhu (MIT)
Title: Mandarin cai: ‘only’ and what else?
Date and time: Wednesday October 25, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

The Mandarin focus particle cái has (at least) three readings: a scalar only reading (1), a temporal reading (2), and an “only if” conditional (3).

1. Lee is only/merely a novice.
2. John arrived only at midnight.
3. Only if the weather’s good will I go jogging.

I’ll explore existing accounts of the semantics of cai. Although the exclusive component of this particle is generally agreed upon, accounts differ on how to treat the additional meaning component(s) that the various readings of cai contribute.


Syntax Square 10/17 - Carrie Spadine (MIT)

Speaker: Carrie Spadine (MIT)
Title: Tigrinya attitude reports: arguments for syntactic perspective [NELS practice talk]
Date and time: Tuesday October 17, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

This talk presents novel data from Tigrinya (Semitic) for a perspectival projection (“PerspP”) in the left periphery of the clause. Previous works (Speas 2004, Sundaresan 2016, and others) have argued that such a projection is necessary to account for morphosyntactic phenomena that is sensitive to discourse and pragmatic factors, such as evidentiality marking, indexical shift, and perspectival anaphora. However, the existing proposals that make use of this projection extrapolate its existence from indirect factors, like auxiliary choice, agreement, and binding. Tigrinya can realize this projection overtly; the head Persp is spelled out as “ilu”, and introduces a perspective holder argument in the specifier of PerspP.

The construction under discussion also has the novel property of allowing indexical shift in root clauses. If indexical shift relies on a semantic property of the matrix verb in shifty construction (as proposed in (Munro et al. 2009) for Matses), this would be unexpected. Instead, this data suggests that indexical shift is a property of certain types of clauses, and the compatibility or incompatibility of certain verb classes with shifty embedded clauses is the result of selectional restrictions on clause size, rather than the particular semantics of those verbs.


LFRG 10/18 - Alexander Wimmer (Universität Tübingen)

Speaker: Alexander Wimmer (Universität Tübingen)
Title: Outscoping exclusion
Date and time: Wednesday October 18, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

The Chinese focus particle jiù is known to have both exclusive and nonexclusive readings, and to carry an evaluative component of easiness (Hole 2004, Liu 2016). I follow Liu (2016) in assuming that jiù has an exclusive assertion and a scalar presupposition according to which the prejacent ranks lowest on a scale of alternatives.

My first aim is to support this presupposition, and to check whether it should be supplemented by the truth of jiù’s prejacent.

I then want to consider the option of getting the nonexclusive reading by having a covert existential modal take scope above jiù at Logical Form, reducing the particle’s exclusiveness to a mere possibility. This option is inspired by a passage in Beck & Rullmann (1999), who decompose sufficiency into the components POSSIBLE and ONLY.

Ling-Lunch 10/19 - Justin Colley (MIT) + Ezer Rasin (MIT) & Roni Katzir (MIT, TAU)

This week’s Ling-Lunch consists of two NELS practice talks
Date/Time: Thursday, October 12, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Speaker: Justin Colley (MIT)
Title: Object movement derives object preference

Some languages exhibit object preference, in which agreement is with the object, if possible, and otherwise with the subject. For example, in Erzya Mordvin (Uralic), person agreement is with the object if it is 1st or 2nd person (1a), and otherwise the subject (1b) (Béjar 2003; Georgi 2010).

1) a. kunda-d-ad-yz
   I/we/(s)he/they catch you(pl).

 b. kunda-s-y-k
   You(pl) catch him/her.

Object preference is problematic for a theory of Agree in which a Probe agrees with the closest c-commanded Goal (Rizzi, 1991; Chomsky, 2000, 2001). If a Probe c-commands the subject, then all things being equal, the result is expected to be subject agreement.

There are two kinds of theories of object preference. One is a low Probe theory, in which object-preferring Probes are on v, with extra assumptions invoked to explain the possibility of subject agreement (Béjar and Rezac, 2009; Lomashvili & Harley, 2011). I will argue instead for a movement theory, in which object-preferring Probes are high, and object preference is the result of movement above the subject (Bruening, 2001). Evidence for object-preferring Probes being high comes from cross-linguistic generalisations about morpheme ordering and suppletion. Evidence for movement of the object comes from various sources, including variable binding, word order, differential object marking, and the behaviour of unaccusatives.

Speaker: Ezer Razin (MIT) and Roni Katzir (MIT, TAU)
Title: Rule-based learning of phonological optionality and opacity

Optionality and opacity pose obvious challenges for the child learning the phonology of their ambient language: a process to be acquired loses support because of environments in which it was supposed to apply but didn’t (both optionality and counterfeeding opacity) or in which it wasn’t supposed to apply but did (counterbleeding opacity). Not surprisingly, no learners in the literature can handle optionality or opacity distributionally, from unanalyzed input data alone. Children, however, do manage to acquire optionality and opacity in a variety of languages (Dell 1981, McCarthy 2007). This talk shows how optional processes and opaque interactions (including both counterfeeding and counterbleeding) can be acquired using the principle of Minimum Description Length (MDL; Solomonoff 1964, Rissanen 1978). Specifically, we use an adaptation of Rasin & Katzir 2016’s MDL learner (originally used for OT phonology) to rule-based phonology and show how it applies to various cases of optionality and opacity. We then show simulations on artificial-language data illustrating the mechanization of the idea.


ESSL/LAcqLab 10/5 - Emma Nguyen + William Snyder (UConn)

Speaker: Emma Nguyen (UConn) & William Snyder (UConn)
Title: It’s hard to coerce: a unified account of Raising-Past-Experiencers and Passives in Child English
Date/Time: Thursday, October 5, 5-6PM
Location: 32-D831

Snyder & Hyams (2015) adopt an idea from Gehrke & Grillo (2009) to account for children’s delay of non-actional passives: the problem is children’s inability to perform “semantic coercion” that non-actional verbs require before passivization. Orfitelli (2012) finds a tight correspondence between any given child’s ability to comprehend some non-actional passives and the same child’s ability to comprehend raising-past-experiencers like “John seems to Mary to be nice”. Yet, it is unclear how the idea of semantic coercion can extend to raising-past-experiencers.

Pinker (1989) argues the “core” of the English passive is the verb’s dyad of Agent-Patient theta-roles, with counterparts in other fields, like Perceiver-Perceptum. We propose that the locus of development is the ability to coerce a theta-role like Perceiver/Possessor into Agent. If a similar type of semantic coercion is necessary for raising-past-experiencers, children are delayed with both raising-past-experiencers and non-actional passives because they are late to master semantic coercion.


Happy news from Despina

Congratulations to Despina Oikonomou (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, PhD ‘16) who just gave birth to son Nicholas! Mother and child are both doing well! Thanks to Sabine for passing on the photo.


MIT Simplicity Workshop

The MIT Workshop on Simplicity in Grammar Learning will take place on September 23, 2017 in 32-155. The workshop will bring together members of MIT’s Linguistics and Brain & Cognitive Sciences departments to share current work that revisits the relevance of simplicity criteria in the study of language. Visit the website for more information.


Singer/Songwriter BIC at MIT

Haitian poet, singer & song-writer Roosevelt Saillant, better known as B.I.C. Tizon Dife (B.I.C. = Brain. Intelligence. Creativity) is one-of-a-kind Haitian artist, and he’s giving a free concert at MIT.

B.I.C. is one of the best known and most creative and prolific artists in Haiti. He has been writing and singing his poems for the past 20 years. B.I.C.’s songs, now taught at Haitian universities, reveal a unique philosophy of development and justice. His trenchant criticism about, and positive messages for, Haitian society are expressed in mordant, yet beautiful, lyrics in his native Haitian Creole, replete with word play and rhyme crafting. His songs—a mix of hip hop, rap, folk and traditional Haitian rhythms—express a profound love for his Haiti, along with an active engagement for the defense of human rights.

Thanks to a grant from Arts at MIT, B.I.C. is visiting MIT to help develop digital poetry in Kreyòl with Prof. Michel DeGraff (MIT Linguistics, Inisyativ MIT-Ayiti / MIT-Haiti Initiative) and Prof. Nick Montfort (MIT Comparative Media Studies / Writing), and he will present a concert that will include some discussion, and will be free and open to the public. Details are available on the facebook page, and repeated below.

Date: Tuesday, September 19, 5:15 pm
Location: 32-155

B.I.C.’s music can be sampled via: https://g.co/kgs/wDXfU6


Another visiting scholar - Senem Şahin

This is a follow up on last week’s post about our visiting scholars this semester. Happy circumstances led to a delay in bringing you information about Senem Şahin. Here is her description below. Good luck Senem!

Senem Şahin  (Universität Augsburg): graduated from Hacettepe University in Ankara (Turkey), Department of English Language Teaching in 2002. She holds a M.A. and PhD degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) from the University of Munich (Germany), specializing on nonverbal communication, intercultural communication and teacher training. She has been teaching and researching as associate professor at the Chair of TEFL at Augsburg University (Germany) since 2010. Her teaching experience includes courses about individual differences, intercultural learning, research methods, and multilingualism in TEFL. Her current research projects focus on bilingual education, second and third language acquisition, and multilingualism.



Phonology Circle 9/11 - Roni Katzir (TAU & MIT) and Ezer Rasin (MIT)

Speaker: Roni Katzir (Tel Aviv University & MIT) and Ezer Rasin (MIT)
Title: Learning opacity, optionality, and abstract URs using Minimum Description Length
Date and time: Monday, September 11, 5:00-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

We discuss two posters that we will present at the Annual Meeting on Phonology 2017:

1. Acquiring opaque phonological interactions using Minimum Description Length

Opacity poses an obvious challenge for the child learning the phonology of their ambient language: a process to be acquired loses support because of environments in which it was supposed to apply but didn’t (e.g., counterfeeding) or in which it wasn’t supposed to apply but did (e.g., counterbleeding). Not surprisingly, no learners in the literature can handle opacity distributionally, from unanalyzed input data alone. Children, however, do manage to acquire opacity in a variety of languages (Dell 1981, McCarthy 2007). This talk shows how opaque interactions (including optionality, counterfeeding, and counterbleeding) can be acquired using the principle of Minimum Description Length (MDL; Solomonoff 1964, Rissanen 1978). Specifically, we use an adaptation of Rasin & Katzir 2016’s MDL learner (originally used for OT phonology) to rule-based phonology and show how it applies to various cases of opacity. We then show simulations on artificial-language data illustrating the mechanization of the idea.

2. Minimum Description Length subsumes Free Ride effects in UR learning

Human learners have been argued to infer URs that are sometimes different from their corresponding surface representation (SR) even without being forced to do so by an alternation. McCarthy (2005) proposes the Free Ride Principle (FRP), which allows the learner to extend non- identical mappings in alternating forms to non-alternating forms. Recently, Rasin & Katzir (2016) proposed Minimum Description Length (MDL) as an evaluation metric for OT. The present work shows how MDL supports the induction of nonidentical URs both in cases that have motivated the FRP and in cases that have been argued to involve nonidentical URs in the absence of supporting alternations (and are thus outside the scope of the FRP). As a result, the FRP is redundant.


Syntax Square 9/12 - Danfeng Wu (MIT)

Speaker: Danfeng Wu (MIT)
Title: Ellipsis As A Diagnosis Of Movements In The Expletive There and It Sentences
Date and time: Tuesday, September 12, 1:00-2:00pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, I present an argument from ellipsis that there and it are initially merged within vP or lower in the structure. I adopt Takahashi and Fox’s (2005) proposals concerning MaxElide and parallelism and Hartman’s (2011) extension of their proposal. Hartman attributes the contrast between TP-ellipsis and VP-ellipsis of (1) to an interaction between A-movement of the subject and wh-movement.

(1) John will buy something, but I don’t know what (*he will).

Building on his analysis, I show that there and it behave just the same:

(2) There will be something in the room, but I don’t know exactly what (*there will).

(3) We all know that it will be possible for scientists to achieve something in ten years, but we don’t know what (*it will be).

By showing that the expletives behave exactly like non-expletive subjects across the entire ellipsis paradigm, I argue that they are similarly base generated internal to the vP.

My analysis suggests that semantically vacuous elements can create variable-binding configurations at LF by movement, similar to the effects created by the movement of a null operator previously proposed in semantics. This also adds to Hartman’s observation that semantically vacuous movement of otherwise contentful elements creates the same effects, such as head movement. Movement brings about semantically relevant consequences in a mechanical way, independent of the semantics with which they may interact.


Ling-Lunch 9/14 - Ted Gibson (MIT)

Speaker: Ted Gibson (MIT)
joint work with Richard Futrell, Julian Jara-Ettinger, Kyle Mahowald, Leon Bergen, Sivalogeswaran Ratnasigam, Mitchell Gibson, Steven T. Piantadosi, and Bevil R. Conway
Title: Color naming across languages reflects color use
Date and time: Thursday, September 14, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

What determines how languages categorize colors? We analyzed results of the World Color Survey (WCS) of 110 languages to show that despite gross differences across languages, communication of chromatic chips is always better for warm colors (yellows/reds) than cool colors (blues/greens). We present the first analysis of color statistics in a large databank of natural images curated by human observers for salient objects, and show that objects tend to have warm rather than cool colors. These results suggest that the cross-linguistic similarity in color-naming efficiency reflects colors of universal usefulness, and provide an account of a principle (color use) that governs how color categories come about. We show that potential methodological issues with the WCS do not corrupt information-theoretic analyses, by collecting original data using two extreme versions of the color-naming task, in three groups: the Tsimane’, a remote Amazonian hunter-gatherer isolate; Bolivian-Spanish speakers; and English speakers. These data also enabled us to test another prediction of the color-usefulness hypothesis: that differences in color categorization between languages are caused by differences in overall usefulness of color to a culture. In support, we found that color naming among Tsimane’ had relatively low communicative efficiency, and the Tsimane’ were less likely to use color terms when describing familiar objects. Color-naming among Tsimane’ was boosted when naming artificially colored objects compared to natural objects, suggesting that industrialization promotes color usefulness.

Welcome to Fall 2017!

Welcome to the first edition of Whamit! for Fall 2017! After our summer 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, Yadav Gowda, Mitya Privoznov, Neil Banerjee, and Itai Bassi.

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


Welcome to ling-17!

We’d like to extend a warm welcome to the students who are joining our graduate program this year!

Daniel Asherov

I’m from the greater Tel Aviv area in Israel. I received my B.A. in Linguistics at Tel Aviv University, where I worked on defaultness in Hebrew morphology,  acquisition of rhotics, and phonology of heritage speakers. In my M.A., also at Tel Aviv University, I primarily worked on the role of prosody in the interpretation of constructions with ‘or’. At present, I am particularly curious about the division of labor between phonetics and phonology, and all aspects of prosodic prominence. In my free time I enjoy language learning, especially through interaction with language exchange partners.

Tanya Bondarenko

I was born and have lived my whole life in Moscow, where I finished Bachelor’s and Master’s programs in linguistics at the Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU). I am interested in various topics of syntax and semantics, for example in how can subjects of embedded clauses of some languages receive accusative case marking, what mechanisms are responsible for clause reduction, or why repetitive adverbs like ‘again’ have different meanings in structures with dative arguments in different languages. I enjoy doing fieldwork a lot – I have participated in MSU’s expeditions into Balkar (Turkic) and Buryat (Mongolian) languages and have done fieldwork on Georgian on my own. When I am not doing linguistics, I enjoy snowboarding, learning to do acrobatics and artistic gymnastics, and watching and discussing films.

Cater Chen

I was born and raised in Beijing, China. I received a B.Sc. in Psychology and an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Toronto. I’ve worked on the morphology and syntax of several nominal constructions (both phrases and compounds) in Mandarin Chinese and English, and I’m generally interested in argument structure, locality (in movement), nominalization, and things about Roots. Outside of Linguistics, I enjoy reading and writing prose and poems, solving math and logic puzzles, and listening to post-rock music. I bike and hike when I’m back home. Sometimes I have ice cream or cake for lunch/dinner.

Sherry Chen

I was born and raised a little town called Longyou, located in southeastern China. I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Hong Kong, during which time I studied abroad in Melbourne, Australia. After that I did an MPhil in general linguistics at the University of Oxford, where I was advised by E. Matthew Husband and became fascinated by various topics including tense, event structure, and presupposition. My two years at Oxford has been an magical experience, which ultimately brought me to the decision of pursuing a PhD in linguistics. My main research interests lie in syntax, semantics, and their interface interfaces, involving both theoretical and experimental inquiry. While not working, I spend my time cooking and taking long walks. I think coffee and platypus are the two best things in the world.

Boer Fu

I was born in Fuxin, China. It’s a tiny town right next to Inner Mongolia. But I would consider my hometown to be Shanghai, because I have lived there since I was 4 and I have long lost my velar nasal because of it (only in Mandarin and only after certain vowels). I went to UCLA for my undergrad and did a bit of research on Mongolian vowel harmony. I came to Boston to escape the burning sun of SoCal, and to explore more of phonology. I’m also interested in historical linguistics, especially the question of how sound changes over time. When I’m not doing linguistics, you’ll probably hear me going on and on about Harry Potter and Liverpool FC (it’s a soccer team). I also love politics, maps, cats, and Agatha Christie.

Filipe Kobayashi

I’m from a small town in Brazil called Petrópolis. I received a BA in Portuguese language and literature from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Last year, I moved to Canada to do an MA in Hispanic linguistics at the University of Toronto. I’m interested in semantics, syntax and their interfaces. Currently, I am particularly puzzled by epistemic indefinites and the licensing of polarity items. In my free time, I enjoy reading, watching TV series and trying to play the guitar.

Vincent Rouillard

I grew up in Montreal, where I obtained my B.A. in linguistics from McGill University.  I am most interested in semantics and pragmatics, although I hope to extend my research into syntax. My work so far has focused on so-called presuppositional implicatures, which are inferences generated when speakers utter a sentence for which there are presuppositionally stronger alternatives. Outside of academia, I like to sit at my computer all day.

Dóra Takács

I grew up in a small industrial town in Hungary. I got my B.A. in German studies with a minor in mathematics from the University of Szeged. I have recently finished my M.A. in linguistics at the University of Göttingen. I am interested in semantics and pragmatics in general, and propositional attitude verbs, presuppositions and anaphora in particular. I am excited to continue working on these topics as well as extending my linguistic horizon in the coming years at MIT.

Christopher Yang

I was born and raised in San Jose, California. I attended UCLA and received a BA in linguistics with a specialization in computing. My main interests in linguistics center around phonology, in particular Optimality Theory, opacity, and syllable theory, as well as learning and learnability. I am currently investigating the effects of syllable structure on certain opaque interactions in Korean. Outside of linguistics, I am an avid gamer, lover of superhero films, and enjoy hiking and woodworking.

Stanislao Zompì

I was born and grew up in the South-East of Italy, a few miles away from the awesome Ionian shores of Apulia. I then moved to Tuscany to study, and earned both my BA and my MA from the University of Pisa. During those university years, however, I also managed to travel around a good deal, spending some months as an Erasmus student in Paris and London, then taking part in a couple of EGG schools in Eastern Europe, and finally arranging to write my MA thesis at the University of Geneva. In that thesis, I focused on so-called *ABA patterns in case morphology, and on what they may tell us about the way that cases are assigned. I’m also interested in syntax and morphology more generally, and I hope to get a grasp also of semantics and phonology in the years to come. Outside linguistics, I enjoy good literature (especially short stories), reading and debating about politics, and binge-watching TV series.

New Visiting Scholars and Visiting Students for Fall 2017

Visiting Faculty

  •  Naomi Feldman (University of Maryland): “I’m visiting this year from the University of Maryland.  My research is in computational psycholinguistics.  This means I use computational models to try and understand how people learn and process language, drawing on methods and insights from a number of fields: linguistics, cognitive science, computer science, engineering.  Most of my research looks at how people’s processing of speech becomes specialized for their native language, but in recent collaborations with students, I’ve also looked at questions in morphology and syntax acquisition.”
Visiting Scholars
  • Michiko Bando (Shiga University): “My research interests are morphology and syntax of Japanese complex predicates, and recently I am also interested in syntax of Japanese and English relative clauses.”
  • Yunjing Li (Tianjin Foreign Studies University): “I’m an associate professor from Tianjin Foreign Studies University, China. I got my Ph.D degree in linguistics from Nankai University.  My research interests lie primarily in doing phonological and/or phonetic studies on Chinese dialects. Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss with me linguistic things or anything else.”
  • Senem Şahin  (Universität Augsburg)
  • Ryosuke Shibagaki (Nanzan University). His research interests include Lexical Semantics and Syntax
  • Jaehyun Son (Duksung Women’s University): “I am interested in the accent types and their correspondences in Korean and Japanese. For now, I am focusing on Korean accentual dialects through field work. Research on the Korean accent has been carried out within the Korean linguistics community, but in that context, the Korean accent system has traditionally been compared to the tone system of Chinese, in which pitch contours are syllabic. In contrast, Japanese researchers have proposed that the Korean accent system should be analyzed from the point of view of word-level and phrase-level accentual systems seen in Japanese dialects. One possible reason for this difference of opinion is that recently in Japan, despite the growing influence of the accentual systems of Tokyo Japanese and the dialects of other major cities, a great variety of smaller dialects have been observed and documented, and as a result of this work researchers have discovered accent types that have played a crucial role in uncovering the history and evolution of the Japanese accentual system. In Korea, on the other hand, accent has been lost in the regions surrounding and including Seoul (the national capital) but there are still dialects, mainly in the south-eastern regions of the Korean peninsula, that retain an accentual system and can shed light on the history of accent in Korea. For the present study, I took the Japanese-oriented view rather than the traditional Chinese oriented view and analyzed the accentual systems of Korean dialects using data from a purely synchronic field survey of several locations across the Korean-speaking region. The field survey includes dialects that have already been documented by Korean and Japanese researchers, but by including the whole Korean-speaking region in its scope and using a new theoretical framework, the current study was able to highlight the shortcomings of previous work.”
  • Sze Wing Tang (The Chinese University of Hong Kong). His research interests lie primarily in Chinese syntax, theoretical approaches to the study of Chinese dialects, and comparative grammar. Topics he is currently working on include the syntax of the sentence-final expressions and the micro-parametric variation of functional categories under a cartographic approach.
  • Koichi Tateishi (Kobe College): “I am a phonologist with a strong interest in syntax. Currently, I am doing a joint work on how Japanese learners of English as a foreign language perceive prosody, how it is different from native speakers of English, and whether the learners’ levels of English matter. Also, I have been working on the relation between lexical classes and phonological phenomena related to syllables and other prosodic structures. My past work includes those on the syntax of multiple nominative constructions in Japanese and on pitch contours of Japanese speakers in relation to syntactic constructions.”
Postdoctoral Associates
  • Tiaoyuan Mao (Beijing Foreign Studies University). His research interests include syntax, semantics-pragmatics interface,and language acquisition.
  • Sarah Zobel  (University of Tübingen): “My main research interests lie in formal semantics and pragmatics (and everything in between). The two main lines of research I am currently pursuing are the description and analysis of the interpretational possibilities of German `als’-phrases and English `as’-phrases, as well as the semantics and pragmatics of German discourse particles (contrasting Federal German and Austrian German varieties). I have also worked on pronouns and modality/genericity. In addition to my theoretical work, I am interested in corpus linguistic and experimental methods, which I both apply in my research (as far as my skills permit).”
Visiting Students
  • Moshe E.Bar Lev (Hebrew University of Jerusalem):“My main research interests are Semantics and Pragmatics and their interface. I currently work on Free Choice and Homogeneity phenomena, and I’m also interested in Tense semantics cross-linguistically.”
  • Kasia Hitczenko (University of Maryland):
    I’m a 4th year grad student at the University of Maryland, advised by Naomi Feldman, and will be spending the full academic year at MIT. My research is in computational psycholinguistics, with a focus on modeling how infants learn the sound system of their language. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone!
    Alexander Wimmer (Universität Tübingen): “I am a second-year PhD student at the University of Tübingen, Germany, where I am a member of „ObTrEx“, a project that investigates obligatory presupposition triggers from an experimental or crosslinguistic perspective. My research interests lie in crosslinguistic semantics, especially in quantification over alternatives and Chinese language. Besides linguistics, I enjoy walking and all kinds of movies.”

Summer defenses

Our warmest congratulations to this summer’s shower of doctoral dissertators. From Aron Hirsch and Paul Marty’s semantics to Chris O’Brien, Isa Kerem Bayırlı and Ruth Brillman’s syntax and to Sam Zukoff and Ben Storme’s phonology. Between all the fields, a wide variety of topics and excellent defenses, it was truly a fruitful dissertation season. The department was celebrating with an as wide a variety of food and beverages: champagne, a cookie cake, sublime French wine and rakı.

  • Aron Hirsch: An inflexible semantics for cross-categorial operators
  • Benjamin Storme: Perceptual sources for closed-syllable vowel laxing and nonderived environment effects
  • Chris O’Brien: Multiple dominance and interface operations
  • Isa Kerem Bayırlı: The universality of concord
  • Paul Marty: Implicatures and the DP domain
  • Ruth, Brillman: Subject/non-subject extraction asymmetries: the view from tough-constructions
  • Sam Zukoff: Indo-European Reduplication: Synchrony, Diachrony, and Theory


Summer news

We have following summer news from students and faculty:

  • The biennial Summer Institute of the Lingusitic Society of America took place at the University of Kentucky from July 5 - August 1. Several faculty members and alumni taught classes:
    • Adam Albright (faculty): Phonology
    • Michel DeGraff (faculty): Creole Studies at the Intersection of Theory, History, Computation and Education
    • Claire Halpert (PhD ‘12, now at Minnesota): Clausal Arguments in Bantu and Beyond
    • Giorgio Magri (Phd ‘09, now at CNRS): Computational Phonology
    • David Pesetsky (faculty): Introduction to Syntax
    • Norvin Richards (faculty): Prosody and Syntax: Introduction to Contiguity Theory
    • Coppe van Urk (PhD ‘15, now at QMUL): Movement in Minimalism
    • Igor Yanovich (PhD ‘13, now at Tübingen): Statistical Inference for the Linguistic and Non-Linguistic Past
    Elise Newman (2nd-year) and Danfeng Wu (2nd-year) were attendees, and Danfeng also TAed David’s syntax class. Elise shares this group picture of some of the attendees, including MIT-ers Danfeng, Coppe, Norvin, Elise, Claire and David, and David shares this picture of a bourbon distillery.Some of the attendees of LSA Summer Institute 2017. Photo credits: Elise Newman.A bourbon distillery in Lexington, KY. Photo credits: David Pesetsky.
  • The CreteLing Summer School took place at the University of Crete in Rethymnon from July 10 to July 21, and many MIT faculty and alumni taught courses. Shigeru shares the picture below showing the view of Rethymnon from the accomodations at CreteLing. Marie-Christine Meyer (PhD ‘13, now at ZAS Berlin), Despina Oikonomou (PhD ‘16, now at Humboldt), and Uli Sauerland (PhD ‘98, now at ZAS Berlin) gave talks at the associated workshop. Rafael Abramovitz (3rd-year), Ömer Demirok (4th-year), and Maša Močnik (3rd-year) were TAs at CreteLing, while Snejana Iovtcheva (6th-year), and Tatiana Bondareko (1st-year) and attended. In addition, former visiting faculty Elena Anagnostopoulou (Crete) and Hedde Zeijlstra (Göttingen) also taught courses.
  • The ferris wheel in Toulouse.The European Summer School in Logic, Language, and Information (ESSLLII 2017) took place at the University of Toulouse from July 17-28. Among the course instructors were: Philippe also gave an evening lecture on the scope of the field of semantics. Keny Chatain (2nd-year), Yadav Gowda (2nd-year), and Maša Močnik (3rd-year) attended, and Maša also presented a poster at the student session. Roger, who shared the picture of the ferris wheel to the right, reports “The school was well organized. The location, Toulouse, France, did not disappoint nor did the students and fellow lecturers. If the 2017 instantiation of ESSLLI was representative and you have an opportunity in the future to participate, grab it!”.
  • Some MIT linguists who happened to be in Toronto in August presented at the Dog Days VI Syntax Workshop at the University of Toronto. Bridget Copley (PhD ‘02, now at CNRS/Paris 8), Neil Banerjee (2nd-year), and Tova Rapoport (PhD ‘87, now at Ben Gurion) gave talks, while Bronwyn Bjorkman (PhD ‘11, now at Queen’s University) was a co-author on a talk and gave a keynote as well.
  • For the third year in a row, MIT has participated in the Congresso Internacional de Estudos Linguísticos (VI CIEL) at the University of Brasília. From August 23-25, Shigeru Miyagawa, Kai von Fintel, and Maria Luisa Zubizaretta (PhD ‘82, now at USC) taught mini-courses.
  • Maya Honda (Wheelock College) and Wayne O’Neil (faculty) have published an article in Revista LinguíStica. The article summarizes the past thirty years of their teaching linguistics, generally in non-traditional settings. The journal is open-access, and the article is available online here.
  • In June, David travelled to Utrecht University to participate in a dissertation defense by Heidi Klockmann, who was a visitor to the department in Fall 2014. Heidi’s dissertation is available here.
  • In August, the Workshop on Quirks of Subject Extraction was held at the National University of Singapore. The workshop was organized by Mitcho Erlewine (PhD ‘14, now at NUS). David was an invited speaker, and former visitors Nico Baier (UC Berkeley) and Amy-Rose Deal (UC Berkeley) also presented at the workshop.
  • Congratulations to Pritty Patel-Grosz (PhD ‘12) who has been promoted to the rank of full professor at the University of Oslo!
  • Colin Phillips (PhD ‘96, now at Maryland) was elected a 2018 Fellow of the Linguistic Society of America! Colin joins 37 other MIT linguistics alumni and faculty members who have been similarly honored. Congratulations to Colin and the other 2018 Fellows!

Fall 2017 Reading Groups

LPRG is the Linguistics and Philosophy Reading Group, held Mondays from 1:00 to 2:00pm in 32-D769. Linguists and philosophers join forces to understand language and linguistics. We read and discuss old and new papers in the field (especially in formal semantics and philosophy of language). For more information visit the website or contact the organisers Christopher Baron or Maša Močnik.

Phonology Circle will be meeting on Mondays, from 5:00–6:30pm, in 32-D831 (the 8th floor conference room). For those of you who are new to the department, Phonology Circle is the weekly phonology meeting group. It is an informal group, so we welcome presentations on all kinds of topics: work in progress, papers from the literature, recently defended generals papers or theses, practice talks, etc. Presenters need not be affiliated with MIT, though we give priority to current students, faculty, and visitors. Light refreshments will be provided. At this point, every Monday of the semester is open other than September 18 and November 13th. Please contact Erin Olson and/or Rafael Ambramovitz if you would like to reserve one. We will ask you for a title and an abstract closer to the date of presentation.

Syntax Square exists to facilitate the presentation or discussion of anything relating to syntax. Formal presentations are welcome, but not necessary. If there’s a bit of syntax you want to have a discussion about, sign up.

Syntax square will be meeting this semester on Tuesdays from 1-2pm in room 32-D461. If you would like to lead a discussion or give an informal presentation of your work, please contact Danfeng or Suzana.

LFRG is an informal, weekly semantics and semantics/syntax interface group. Rough ideas, work in progress, practice talks and presentation of papers from the literature are most welcome.

We will be meeting on Wednesdays 1-2pm, room 32-D461.

Please let Naomi or Mitya know if you would like to present.

Ling-Lunch is a series of weekly talks, held on Thursdays from 12:30 to 1:50pm. It is open to all linguistics topics and everybody is welcome to present their work, though preference is given to members of the MIT Linguistics Department. Contact this semester’s organizers, Keny Chatain or Ömer Demirok to reserve a slot.


LFRG 08/30 - Marie-Christine Meyer

Speaker: Marie-Christine Meyer (ZAS Berlin)
Title: Sound Patterns of Exhaustification
Date and time: Wedensday August 30, 1:00-2:00pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk I will suggest a compositional semantics for certain intonational contours, arguing that the falling (LL%) and rising (LH%) boundary tones are what I call weak and strong exhaustification morphemes. These morphemes occur together with a L+H* pitch accent in constructions that have been studied under the names of Meta-linguistic Negation (e.g. Horn 1989), Contrastive Negation (e.g. McCawley 1991), and Contrastive Focus (e.g. Bolinger 1965, Rooth 1985), whereas intonational tunes like L+H*LH% have been studied in relation to their use as indicating speaker uncertainty and/or contrastive topics (e.g. Büring 1997, 2003). I will show how the semantic/pragmatic contribution of these intonational tunes across constructions is mediated by (i) the semantics of L+H* and LL% or LH% (ii) economy principles like Efficiency (Meyer 2013, 2015), (iii) quantifier domain restriction of LL% and LH%, which allows for the possibility of anaphora between the levels of presupposed and exhaustified (i.e. asserted) content (e.g. Karttunen & Peters 1979, von Fintel 1994) as well as contextual symmetry breaking of ALT (cf. Fox & Katzir 2011), and (iv) independent constraints on structural alternatives (Katzir 2007).

Zukoff appears in LI

Sam Zukoff has just had a paper titled The Reduplicative System of Ancient Greek and a New Analysis of Attic Reduplication published in Linguistic Inquiry!

The published version can be accessed through LI here. A pre-publication version is available on Sam’s site here.


DeGraff at SPCL

Michel DeGraff (faculty) gave a plenary talk at the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics (SPCL) annual conference in Tampere, Finland, this week. His talk was titled “This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers”: in search of post-colonial foundations for Creole studies. The abstract is available here.

Michel DeGraff giving a plenary talk at SPCL 2017
Photo credit: Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine (mitcho)


Whamit! summer hiatus

Whamit! will be on hiatus during the summer. The editors would like to thank all of you for reading, and all our contributors for sharing their news with us!

Weekly posts will resume September 5th, 2017, but we will certainly update you on an as-it-happens basis with any interesting news that comes our way before then. We hope everyone has an enjoyable summer. See you again in the fall!


LFRG 5/17 - Naomi Francis

Speaker: Naomi Francis (MIT)
Title: Turkish ki: A presupposition-challenging particle
Date and time: Wednesday May 24, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

This talk explores the behaviour of the Turkish discourse particle ki. I argue that it serves to challenge presuppositions, just as Iatridou & Tatevosov (2016) propose for a use of even in questions. Pursuing a unified analysis of even and ki motivates modifications of Iatridou & Tatevosov’s (2016) original account, and raises a new puzzle about possible links between even, polarity sensitivity, and presupposition-challenging discourse moves.


Phonology Circle 5/15 - Mitya Privoznov

Speaker: Mitya Privoznov (MIT)
Title: Russian stress in inflectional paradigms
Date/Time: Monday, May 15, 5:00–6:30pm
Location: 32-D461

All analyses of Russian stress agree that it is contrastive. This is easily shown by the existance of minimal pairs, like zámok ‘castle’ vs. zamók ‘padlock’. Hence, at least some information about stress has to come from the lexical entries for individual morphemes. The question is: what kind of information? Most analyses, starting with Jakobson (1963), Zaliznyak (1967) and Halle (1973), assume that there is an underlyingly specified feature [+/-stress], cf. Zaliznyak (1985), Melvold (1990) and Alderete (1999). These theories distinguish between three types of morphemes in Russian: stressed, unstressed and “right-stressed”. The latter type is underlyingly accented, but, in Halle (1973)’s terms, it invokes a specific rule that shifts stress from the morpheme itself to the next syllable to the right (cf. Zaliznyak (1985)’s rightward marking). In this talk I am going to argue that instead of introducing the right-shifting stress rule we could assume that the stress feature, apart from having [+str] and [-str] values, can also be unspecified. This will give us the desired three-way distinction: morphemes can be stressed, unstressed and unspecified for stress. I am going to show that in a combination with StressLeft constraint (cf. Melvold (1990)’s BAP principle) and some independently needed auxiliary assumptions about morpheme dominance, this would derive the desired result.

Syntax Square 5/16 - Michelle Yuan

Speaker: Michelle Yuan (MIT)
Title: Towards a unified analysis of associative plurals and plural pronouns in Inuktitut
Date and time: Tuesday May 16, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, I present work in progress on associative plurals and Plural Pronoun Constructions in Inuktitut. I propose that associative plurals and plural pronouns share a common internal syntax; evidence comes from the existence of so-called ‘extended associatives’—associative plurals modified by a comitative phrase, just like PPCs—and the observation that these constructions systematically interact with PPCs. I suggest that the correct analysis for these constructions in Inuktitut seems to roughly correspond to the one proposed by Vassilieva & Larson (2005) for plural pronouns, which are taken to be built from a singular pronoun and an additional unsaturated element (thus, “we” = “I + other(s)”). However, along the way, I’ll also introduce various puzzles for this proposal.


LFRG 5/17 - Hanzhi Zhu

Speaker: Hanzhi Zhu (MIT)
Title: Building expectation into an account of still and already
Date and time: Wednesday May 17, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, I’ll explore properties of particles like still, already, and German erst / Mandarin cái ‘only just, only … so far’. In particular, I will argue for the claim that some of these particles give rise to an earlier/later-than-expected inference (discussed in Löbner 1989, van der Auwera 1993, Michaelis 1996, inter alia).

1. Asha is already asleep.
Inference: Asha is asleep earlier than expected.

2. a. Bart qiutian cai lai.
Bart autumn erst come
b. Bart kommt erst im Herbst
Bart come erst in autumn
“Bart will only just come in autumn.”
Inference: Bart’s coming in autumn is later than was expected.

I’ll propose an account which directly builds this inference into their presuppositional content. I’ll then discuss the advantages of such an account over previous proposals (Krifka 2000, Ippolito 2007), as well as the challenges that it faces.


Syntax Square 5/9 - Karin Vivanco

Speaker: Karin Vivanco (MIT and the University of São Paulo)
Title: Inverse voice in Karitiana
Date and time: Tuesday May 5, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

The goal of this talk is to present a new analysis of the inverse voice morpheme {ti-} in Karitiana, a Tupian language spoken in Brazil. This morpheme arises in three different constructions: object WH- questions, object focus constructions, and object relative clauses (Landin 1984, Landin 1987, Storto 1999, 2005). It also changes the agreement pattern of transitive verbs, that otherwise behave in an ergative-absolutive fashion. For this reason, some {ti-} constructions have been regarded as split-ergativity contexts (Storto 2005).

In the analysis proposed here, objects in {ti-} constructions would be adjuncts located outside of the verbal phrase. Furthermore, {ti-} would be a nominal element generated as the complement of a transitive verb, being later incorporated into it and changing its valency. Specifically, I argue that a verb marked with {ti-} becomes intransitive, a claim that can be supported by diagnoses of (in)transitivity such as the copular and the passive construction (Storto 2008, Rocha 2011, Storto and Rocha 2015). This intransitive status would in turn account for the change of agreement patterns without resorting to split-ergativity.

Finally, I also claim that this proposal can account for the presence of {ti-} in WH- constructions and for a semantic requirement that has not been previously described.


Michel DeGraff at the UN

This Friday, Michel DeGraff will be presenting his paper, Language, education, human rights, equal opportunity & sustainable development: Haiti as a case study, at the United Nations symposium on Language, the Sustainable Development Goals, and Vulnerable Populations!


MIT Colloquium 5/5 - Jon Gajewski (UConn)

Speaker: Jon Gajewski (UConn)
Title: It’s not syntax, I don’t think: neg-raising and parentheticals
Time: Friday, May 5th, 3:30-5:00 pm
Place: 32-155

English allows a construction in which a sentence contains a parenthetical with a clausal gap, as in (i). I will refer to phrases such as I think in (i) as clausal parentheticals. Typically, clausal parentheticals cannot be negative, cf. (ii).
(i) There is beer in the fridge, I think.
(ii) *There is beer in the fridge, I don’t think.
It has been noted that when the clausal parenthetical contains a neg-raising predicate, an apparent doubling of a negation in the main clause is allowed, as in (ii).
(ii) There is no beer in the fridge, I (don’t) think.
This doubling has been taken to be an argument in favor of syntactic approaches to neg-raising, as in Ross (1973) and Collins & Postal (2014). I will defend an analysis of the doubling in (ii) that is compatible with a semantic/pragmatic approach to neg-raising, as in Horn 1989, Gajewski 2007, Romoli 2013.

Welcome to our 2017 incoming graduate class!

Joining our graduate program next Fall will be 10 new students. They come to us from 8 different countries (Brazil, Canada, China, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Russia, USA) and 8 different universities. We are so excited that you will be joining us — see you next September!

  • Daniel Asherov (Tel Aviv University)
  • Tatiana Bondarenko (Moscow State University)
  • Cater Chen (University of Toronto)
  • Sherry Chen (University of Oxford)
  • Boer Fu (UCLA)
  • Filipe Kobayashi (University of Toronto)
  • Vincent Rouillard (McGill)
  • Dóra Takács (University of Göttingen)
  • Chris Yang (UCLA)
  • Stanislao Zompí (University of Pisa)

Celebrating David Pesetsky @ 60

This Saturday, linguists from around the world gathered in Cambridge to celebrate the life and work of our very own David Pesetsky, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday. The workshop, organized in secret over the last year and half by Claire Halpert (PhD ‘12), Sabine Iatridou (PhD ‘91), Hadas Kotek (PhD ‘14), and Coppe van Urk (PhD ‘15) (with the generous help of Mary Grenham), included two lively panels on topics close to David’s heart, case and wh-questions, and two poster sessions which presented work from linguists that David has inspired over the many years. The breadth of topics covered during the workshop spoke not only to David’s intellectual curiosity, but also to his ability as a teacher and adviser.

In tandem with the workshop, MITWPL also produced a festschrift, A pesky set: Papers for David Pesetsky, which includes 60 papers on a diverse range of topics written by David’s students.

Thank you to everyone who worked to make this a success!









(Thank you to Athulya Aravind, Snejana Iovtcheva, Michel DeGraff, and Abdul-Razak Sulemana for providing photos.)

Further information on the workshop, including handouts and slides, can be found on the workshop website.


Welcome to the Spring 2017 semester!

Welcome to the first Whamit! edition of Spring 2017!

Whamit! is the MIT Linguistics newsletter. It is published every Monday during the semester. The editorial staff consists of Adam Albright, Kai von Fintel, David Pesetsky, Suzana Fong, and as of Spring 2017, Neil Banerjee, Yadav Gowda, and Mitya Privoznov. Welcome Neil, Yadav and Mitya!

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

Our best wishes for an enjoyable semester!


Welcome to our new visitors!

Visiting Scholars

Mascaró received his PhD from our department. Currently, he is a professor at UAB and he works on phonological theory and descriptive phonology and morphology

“My research interests are in semantics, pragmatics (particularly formal and experimental approaches), and reasoning. Currently, I’m working on implicative verbs (in Finnish and English) and related issues, inlcuding actuality entailments on ability modals.”

Visiting Students

“I am a third year PhD student at NYU Linguistics. My research interests lie primarily in the area of semantics and pragmatics, and their interfaces with syntax and prosody. I am keenly interested in cross-modal phenomena, in particular, in sign language and gesture.”

“I’m a fourth-year PhD student at Stony Brook University specializing in semantics and its interfaces with pragmatics and syntax. More specifically, my work is primarily in intensionality, event semantics, gradability, and the pragmatics of co-speech gesture.”


Winter news

We have several items of winter news from students and faculty:

  • First and foremost, we are very happy to congratulate Amanda Swenson on the successful defence of her dissertation “The Morphosyntax and Morphosemantics of Malayalam verbs”.11336851_946035558749855_9007491336874171080_o-2
  • The most pressing world news of the winter affected MIT linguistic community as well. Our leaders can be smart or stupid, but, as a Soviet comedian once said, dealing with us, they have no idea of the class of professionals they are messing with, because we are quite accomplished at defending ourselves and our friends. Many members of MIT linguistic community participated in the Boston Women’s March, as well as in the protests against the President’s recent executive order. Faculty Wayne O’Neil reports: “On 21 January, I was among the ~175,000 at the Boston Women’s March. And on 29 January, I was with the ~20,000 at Copley Sq, protesting Trump’s illegal executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries.”
  • The linguistic life, however, goes on. Many our faculty members, students and alumni participated in the Linguistic Society of America’s 2017 Annual Meeting (see detailed account at our other post). As linguistics may at some point take its rightful place among such respectable high school disciplines as physics, The LSA Annual Meeting held an organized session on Getting high school students into linguistics - Current activities and future directions (7 January), where Wayne O’Neil presented a paper (‘This time is different’) at an LSA2017/Austin TX. The entire session will shortly appear on line.
  • Another faculty member Michel DeGraff was part of a panel on Language and Educational Justice organized by Prof. Anne Charity Hudley and Prof. Mary Bucholtz on January 6, 2016.
  • Michel DeGraff also took part in the General Assembly of the Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen (“Haitian Creole Academy”) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on December 15-18, 2016.
  • MIT was also represented at the Berkeley Linguistics Society. Michelle Yuan and former visiting student Nico Baier (UC Berkeley) presented “Anti-agreement with bound variables”. Omer Preminger (PhD 2011) gave a plenary talk titled “Privativity in Syntax”.
  • Meanwhile, in the Old World our faculty member Roni Katzir and our graduate student Ezer Rasin taught a mini-course in Paris on “Compression-based learning in phonology and semantics”. A description of the course is available here (phonology) and here (semantics). This would be specifically interesting for those who plan to attend Roni Katzir’s class “Special Topics: Learning and Learnability” (24.S96) offered this semester, as well as several LFRG sessions devoted to the explanatory adequacy in semantics (keep an eye on WHAMIT and LFRG announcements).
  • In Nijmegen, the Netherlands, Michel DeGraff taught a one-week course at the LOT Winter School of Linguistics (see also here) (January 9-13, 2017). He also gave the Schultink lecture, with the title “A Cartesian Creolist’s Agenda for Linguistics in the 21st century”. Abstract and more details are available here.
  • David Pesetsky gave a six-hour mini-course entitled “Exfoliation: towards a derivational theory of clause size” at the University of Bucharest on January 19-20 (just as the anti-government demonstrations were getting under way) at the invitation of Carmen Dobrovie-Sorin and Alexandra Cornilescu, and was delighted to reunite with our Spring 2016 visitors Alexandru Nicolae and Adina Dragomirescu.

Spring 2017 reading groups

Phonology Circle will be meeting on Mondays, from 5-6:30pm in 32-D831 (the 8th floor conference room). Presentations about work in progress, papers from the literature, and old squibs are every bit as welcome as practice talks. Light refreshments will be provided. Please contact Rafael Abramovitz and/or Abdul-Razak Sulemana if you would like to reserve a slot.

  • February: 13, 27
  • March: 20
  • April: 24

Syntax Square will be meeting on Tuesdays, from 1-2pm in 32-D461 (the 4th floor seminar room). Rough ideas, works in progress and presentations of papers from the literature are very welcome! Please contact this semester’s organizers, Justin Colley or Danfeng Wu to reserve a slot. The following dates are still open:

  • February: 14
  • March: 7, 14, 21
  • April: 4, 11, 25
  • May: 2, 9, 6

LFRG will be meeting on Wednesdays from 1-2pm in 32-D461. LFRG is an informal, weekly semantics and syntax/semantics interface group. Rough ideas, work in progress, practice talks and discussion of papers from the literature are most welcome. Please contact this semester’s organizers Itai Bassi or Mitya Privoznov for more information.

LPRG will be on Wednesdays, 3:30-5pm in the 7th floor conference room. The Linguistics & Philosophy Reading Group is encouraging people planning to attend to sign up for presenting a paper or leading a discussion on a paper. Co-presenting is especially encouraged. Further questions can be directed to Chris Baron and/or Maša Močnik.

Ling-Lunch is a series of weekly talks, held on Thursdays from 12:30 to 1:50pm. It is open to all linguistics topics and everybody is welcome to present their work, though preference is given to members of the MIT Linguistics Department. Contact this semester’s organizers, Keny Chatain and/or Suzana Fong, to reserve a slot.

  • April 20
  • May 4

MIT Linguistics Colloquium Schedule, Spring 2017

Colloquium talks will be held on Fridays from 3:30pm - 5:00pm in 32-155 unless otherwise noted. Please check the colloquia webpage for details and any updates. For further information, please contact organisers Nick Longenbaugh or Elise Newman.


Syntax Square 10/24 - Michelle Yuan

Speaker: Michelle Yuan (MIT)
Title: Movement, doubling, and selection in Inuktitut noun incorporation
Date/Time: Monday, Oct. 24, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

This talk presents ongoing work on noun incorporation in Inuktitut. Unlike languages with ‘classical’ noun incorporation (e.g. Mohawk), noun incorporation in Inuktitut is obligatory with a small class of verbs and is otherwise impossible with all other verbs (Sadock 1985, Johns 2007). It is standardly thought that this obligatoriness is motivated by wellformedness requirements on word-formation, though analyses vary in how exactly incorporation takes place (Johns 2007, Compton & Pittman 2010). In this talk, I discuss a number of additional, underanalyzed properties of Inuktitut noun incorporation that somewhat complicate the picture. These data suggest that incorporation may take place in some cases by movement, and other cases by base-generating the nominal at the incorporation site. In the latter cases, we find that the incorporated nominal may co-occur with an independent (non-identical) direct object. I suggest that incorporation in Inuktitut—whether by External or Internal Merge—involves Undermerge to the incorporating verb in v0 (Merge to complement position; Pesetsky 2007, 2013), and is moreover sensitive to the selectional requirements of v0.