The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Archive for the ‘Announcements’ Category

Spadine defends!

Congratulations go to Carolyn Spadine, who defended her dissertation entitled “The structure of attitude reports: representing context in grammar” last week. The empirical core of her dissertation is a set of fascinating findings concerning Tigrinya, a Semitic language spoken in Eritrea. Tigrinya speakers can introduce a clause with an inflected element “ʔil-” that can translate the English verb ‘say’ (or ‘believe’) and take a subject of its own — but turns out not to be a verb at all, but a perspectival complementizer (a kind of subordinating conjunction) with a very different syntax and semantics. Clauses introduced by “ʔil-” also show the phenomenon called “indexical shift”, by which the meaning of pronouns such as “I” and “you” is not fixed as in English, but varies with context. Most excitingly, the syntax of indexical shift in Tigrinya can yield agreement mismatches, with a first or second person subject cooccuring with a third person verb — but only under very particular circumstances. Carrie’s dissertation shows how the details of these phenomena in Tigrinya support a novel theory of how pronouns come to be first or second person in the first place. Congratulations, Carrie!!


Abramovitz @ Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky conference

Last weekend, fifth-year student Rafael Abramovitz was an invited plenary speaker at an international conference in Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky (the administrative center of Kamchatka) devoted to “The Preservation and Development of the Native Languages and Culture of Indigenous Minorities of the North, Inhabiting the Territory of the Kamchatka Region”. Rafael’s research focuses on the syntax, morphology, and phonology of Koryak, an endangered Chukotko-Kamchatkan language with about 1,700 speakers. The title of Rafael’s plenary talk (in Russian) was “Formal Linguistics and the Koryak Language” (Формальная лингвистика и корякский язык), and he also presented a second talk entitled “Problems of Koryak Language Instruction:” (Проблемы обучения корякскому языку).

While on Kamchatka, Rafael gave a fantastic interview to local media, in Russian, in which he describes how his interest in the language was awakened by the discovery of a Russian-language Koryak grammar in the library at the University of Chicago (where he received his undergraduate degree), and stresses the importance of studying and documenting languages like Koryak both for for the benefit of its speakers and for the benefit of the science of language. Watch his interview at either of the following links:


Rafael tells us that the structure behind him during this interview is a yayanga, the traditional dwelling of the reindeer-herding Koryaks.

LF Reading Group 11/13 - Itai Bassi (MIT)

Speaker: Itai Bassi (MIT)
Title: Sloppy names and competition
Time: Wednesday, November 13th, 1pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Roeper (2006) discovered that proper names, as well as definites and indefinites, can have sloppy readings in focus and ellipsis contexts (thought to be impossible since at least Geach 1962). In a class reunion after 20 years, one can say:

(1) Only MARY still looks like Mary. (based on Roeper 2006)

…and mean that no one other than Mary looks now the way they did 20 years ago. I will offer an account of what allows non-pronominals to have sloppy interpretations in focus contexts, following an independent proposal of mine (Bassi 2019) on how focus structures are generated and interpreted (a revision of Kratzer 1991’s theory of focus). The theory also has to say what makes examples like (1) special, i.e. why sloppy readings of names are so restricted. A key observation is that it is impossible to convey exactly what (1) conveys in the context by means of a pronoun/reflexive instead of the second “Mary”: the “herself” version doesn’t allow a reading where the appearances of the subject and object are evaluated in different times (a fact about which I will speculate). I will thus propose a competition principle which implies that to express a sloppy interpretation, one is required to choose a pronominal element over its full DP counterpart, if the denotation is unaffected. I’ll show some predictions this proposal makes, in English and cross-linguistically, and try to corroborate them. I’ll discuss possible ways to derive the competition principle from something more general (Minimize Restrictors!), but that will turn out to be quite tricky.

MorPhun 11/13 - Anton Kukhto (MIT)

Speaker: Anton Kukhto (MIT)
Title: Bennett (2017): ‘Output optimization in the Irish plural system’
Time: Wednesday, November 13th, 5pm - 6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Abstract: In this paper I argue that a subpattern of Irish plural allomorphy should be analyzed as output optimizing in character. Specifically, I claim that stress-sensitive alternations between the plural suffixes -(e)anna and -(e)acha are conditioned by constraints on metrical well-formedness. This analysis connects with independent facts about the the prosodic prominence of [ax] sequences in Irish phonology. I further argue that an explanatory analysis of these patterns must make use of the notion of surface optimization. Alternative frameworks that eschew surface-oriented optimization mechanisms fail to account for synchronic and diachronic properties of the Irish plural system.

LingLunch 11/14 - Ted Gibson (MIT BCS)

Speaker: Ted Gibson (MIT BCS)
Title: Extraction from subjects: Differences in acceptability depend on the discourse function of the construction
Time: Thursday, November 14th, 12:30pm - 1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: (reporting work by: Anne Abeillé (CNRS; U Paris), Barbara Hemforth (CNRS; U Paris), Elodie Winckel (CNRS; U Paris; Humboldt University, Berlin, Edward Gibson)

In order to explain the unacceptability of certain long-distance dependencies — termed syntactic islands by Ross (1967) — syntacticians proposed constraints on long-distance dependencies which are universal and purely syntactic and thus not dependent on the meaning of the construction, e.g., wh-question vs. relative clause (Chomsky 1977, 2006 a.o.). If so, this has the consequence that such constraints may be impossible to learn, and hence were argued to be part of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar. In this paper, we investigate the “subject island” constraint across constructions in English and French. In particular, we compare extraction out of nominal subjects with extraction out of nominal objects, in relative clauses and wh-questions, using similar materials across constructions and languages. We find that unacceptable extractions from subjects involve (a) extraction from wh-questions (in both languages); or (b) preposition stranding (in English). But the extraction of a whole prepositional phrase from subjects in a relative clause, in both languages, is as good or better than a similar extraction from objects. Following Erteschik-Shir (1973) and Kuno (1987) among others, we propose a theory of extraction that takes into account the discourse status of the extracted element in the construction at hand: the extracted element is a focus (corresponding to new information) in wh-questions, but not in relative clauses. The focus status conflicts with the non-focal status of a subject (usually given or discourse old). We argue that most previous discussions of islands rely on the wrong premise that all extraction types behave alike. Once different extraction types are recognized as different constructions (Croft, 2001; Ginzburg & Sag, 2000; Goldberg, 2006; Sag, 2010), with their own discourse functions, one can explain different extraction patterns depending on the construction. We conclude that crosslinguistic variation has been exaggerated and cross-construction variation underestimated.

Experimentalist Meeting 11/15 - Fulang Chen (MIT) and Dóra Kata Takács (MIT)

Speaker: Fulang Chen (MIT) and Dóra Kata Takács (MIT)
Title: Interactin of negation and universal quantification in the grammar of 4-year-olds
Time: Friday, November 15th, 2pm - 3pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Aravind et al (2017) investigate children’s acquisition of universal quantification (every) and find that 4-year-olds stop saying “Yes” when they are asked whether (1) is true, given a picture where all but one cowboy is riding a horse (i.e. when there is an extra agent, a cowboy not riding a horse). However, 4-year-olds also start to make quantifier-spreading errors, where they say “No” to (1) when every cowboy is riding a horse but there is an extra object, a horse not being ridden by a cowboy.

(1) Every cowboy is riding a horse.

In this on-going experiment, we explore the interaction of negation and universal quantification in the grammar of 4-year-olds by asking them whether a sentence like (2) is true when they are given a picture where there is an extra agent (e.g. a picture with three giraffes each drinking a milkshake and a giraffe not drinking a milkshake) or an extra object (e.g. a picture with three giraffes each drinking a milkshake and a milkshake not being drunk by a giraffe).

(2) This is a picture where not every giraffe is drinking a milkshake.

The preliminary results replicate Aravind et al’s (2017) findings, suggesting that negation does not interact with universal quantification in a way that prevents 4-year-olds from making quantifier-spreading errors.

We propose that not and every are two independent, scope-taking elements in the grammar of 4-year-olds. To flesh out the syntactic and semantic properties of negation and universal quantification, we will address two theories of quantifier-spreading, Roeper et al (2005) and Denic and Chemla (2018), and discuss modifications need to be made to accommodate the preliminary results in our experiment.

Kobayashi and Rouillard @ LENLS 16

Filipe Hisao Kobayashi (3rd year) and Vincent Rouillard (3rd year) gave a talk, “Tying Free Choice in Questions to Distributivity”, on Nov 10th at LENLS 16 in Japan.

Kobayashi and S. Chen @ BUCLD 44

Filipe Hisao Kobayashi (3rd year) and Sherry Yong Chen (3rd year) presented a poster at BUCLD 44 this weekend: 

F. Kobayashi, S. Chen, L. Rosenstein, M. Hackl: Comprehending and: Development Path of English Conjunction in Child Language​


Syntax Square 11/5 - Elise Newman (MIT)

Speaker: Elise Newman (MIT)
Title: Mayan agent focus and the interaction between merge and agree
Time: Tuesday, November 5th, 1pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: In this week’s edition of Syntax Square, I will discuss Mayan Agent Focus from the perspective of Coon, Baier, Levin 2019. In their paper, they propose that examples like (1), where a subject has been wh-extracted, are ungrammatical due to the so called Ergative Extraction Constraint (EEC).

(1) *Maktxel max y-il ix ix? who pfv A3s-see clf woman intended: ‘Who saw the woman?’

They propose that the EEC is active in some Mayan languages due to the fact that the object moves higher than the subject, and is a more local target for agree by a higher probe. While typically A’-movement is insensitive to intervening nominals, they argue that Mayan A’-probes are relativized to seek D features as well as wh/focus features (a mixed A/A’ probe). The result is that whenever a subject is marked with wh/focus features, the relevant probe searching for those features first agrees with the internal argument before finding the subject, and thus becomes gluttonous, which leads to a crash. The only way to pronounce (1) is to insert the agent focus morpheme in place of agreement with the moved subject.

(2) Maktxel max-ach il-on-i? who pfv-b2s see-AF-itv ‘Who saw you?’

On their approach, the agent focus morpheme licenses extraction of an ergative subject by blocking movement of the internal argument to a higher position, thus preventing the object from ever c-commanding the subject. In other words, the EEC is active in some Mayan languages, and agent focus appears in these languages only to prevent violations of the EEC.

This locality approach to the EEC and agent focus in Mayan is attractive because it builds on structural considerations that are well motivated by the Mayan literature and accounts for the fact that agent focus is sensitive to certain properties of the internal argument. However, their analysis of agent focus struggles to handle cases of multiple extraction where agent focus is present, thus suggesting that agent focus and the EEC may not be so tightly related. I will therefore propose the beginnings of a reanalysis of agent focus (very much still in progress) that builds off of their structural assumptions but disentangles agent focus from the EEC.

My proposal assumes a theory of merge and agree along the lines of Longenbaugh (2019), with the additional assumption that all merge tucks in (Richards 2005). These assumptions tightly constrain the order in which multiple specifiers may appear, given a head with particular selectional and EPP requirements. The result is that the subject is always the outer specifier of vP, unless it is more featurally specified than the internal argument, in which case the order of specifiers becomes reversed. In exactly these cases of reversal, both v and T end up agreeing with the same DP, namely the internal argument. I argue that these cases co-occur with the presence of agent focus because the morphology rejects haplology.

LF Reading Group 11/6 - Enrico Flor (MIT) and Filipe Hisao Kobayashi (MIT)

Speaker: Enrico Flor (MIT) and Filipe Hisao Kobayashi (MIT)
Title: Jacobson (2016): The short answer
Time: Wednesday, November 6th, 1pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: We’ll be presenting Jacobson’s (2016) “The short answer: implications for direct compositionality (and vice versa)”. The paper abstract (as well as the paper itself) can be found in the following link: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/621187/summary.

LingLunch 11/7 - Patrick Elliott (MIT) and Uli Sauerland (Harvard/ZAS)

Speaker: Patrick Elliott (MIT) and Uli Sauerland (Harvard/ZAS)
Title: Nuclear intervention: towards a unified account of weak islands and Beck-effects
Time: Thursday, November 7th, 12:30pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Cross-linguistically, negation gives rise to intervention effects with scope-marking and wh-in-situ. Prominent analyses attempt to explain this phenomenon in terms of alternative/inquisitive semantics (see, e.g., Beck 2006, Kotek 2017). This approach works well for intervenors which are clearly focus-sensitive, such as “only”, but for negation, it is stipulative (see, e.g., Mayr 2014 for critical discussion). In this talk we develop an alternative account which aims to unify intervention by negation with weak island effects. The analysis relies on the following assumptions: (i) scope-marking and wh-in-situ compose via the cyclic scope mechanisms proposed by, e.g., Dayal (1996) and Charlow (2017), (ii) Dayal’s Maximal Informativity presupposition (MaxInf) is checked locally at the question nucleus – crucially, it is blind to the wh-restrictor.

Colloquium 11/8 - Giorgio Magri (CNRS and University of Paris 8)

Speaker: Giorgio Magri (CNRS and University of Paris 8)
Title: What is the proper model of probabilistic phonology?​
Time: Friday, November 8th, 3:30pm - 5pm
Location: 32-155

Abstract: Phonology has traditionally focused on categorical alternations. More recently, phonology has extended its empirical coverage to quantitative data such as gradient judgements and phonologically conditioned variation. This empirical extension requires a corresponding theoretical extension from categorical to probabilistic models of phonology. Perhaps the main open question in phonological theory in the next decade is how to properly characterize the probabilistic model underlying natural language phonology. This talk makes three contributions towards addressing this question. Part I provides a derivation of MaxEnt phonology from first principles. Part II (based on joint work with Arto Anttila) argues that MaxEnt nonetheless makes no sense as a model of probabilistic phonology because it severely over-generates. If even the best is not good enough, we better try something different. Part III starts to explore the alternative strategy of defining probabilistic phonological grammars by sampling from an underlying typology of categorical grammars. This class of models (which includes stochastic HG and OT) is shown to provide tight linguistic predictions and to have learnability properties comparable to those of MaxEnt. The talk is a commercial for a forthcoming textbook on categorical and probabilistic constraint-based phonology.​

NELS 50 a success!

The 50th Annual Meeting of North East Linguistic Society (NELS 50) was held at MIT. Here are some pictures:
People coming in for Kiparsky’s keynote (p.c. Kai von Fintel)
Paul Kiparsky giving a special plenary reflecting on the last 50 years in linguistics (p.c. David Pesetsky)
Thanks to all presenters and attendees, the main organizers, Neil Banerjee (4th year), Christopher Baron (4th year) and Dóra Kata Takács (3rd year), among other organizers, and the people in the main office, in particular, Mary Grenham and Aggie Fernandes, for making NELS 50 such a success!

WAFL 16 in Mongolia!

Workshop on Altaic Formal Linguistics (WAFL) 16 will be hosted by the National University of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, September 24, 25, 26, 2020. Our colleague Shigeru Miyagawa is one of the main organizers.

Abstracts are invited for 20-minute talks (plus 10-minute discussions) and for posters on topics dealing with formal aspects of any area of theoretical Altaic linguistics, including phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, or pragmatics. The term ‘Altaic’ is understood to include Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic languages, as well as Korean, Japanese, Ryukyuan, and Ainu.

Deadline for abstracts: April 2, 2020

Swenson book published!

Congratulations to our alum Amanda Swenson (PhD 2017) on the publication of her book “Malayalam Verbs: Functional Structure and Morphosemantics” by Mouton De Gruyter!

MorPhun 10/30 - Patrick Niedzielski (MIT)

Speaker: Patrick Niedzielski (MIT)
Title: Aksenova, Graf & Moradi (2016): Morphotactics as tier-based strictly local dependencies
Time: Wednesday, October 30th, 5pm - 6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Abstract: It is commonly accepted that morphological dependencies are finite-state in nature. Aksenova, Graf & Moradi (2016) argue that the upper bound on morphological expressivity is much lower. Drawing on technical results from computational phonology, they show that a variety of morphotactic phenomena are tier-based strictly local and do not fall into weaker subclasses such as the strictly local or strictly piecewise languages. Since the tier-based strictly local languages are learnable in the limit from positive texts, this marks a first important step towards general machine learning algorithms for morphology. Furthermore, the limitation to tier-based strictly local languages explains typological gaps that are puzzling from a purely linguistic perspective.

Phonology Circle 10/21 - Anton Kukhto (MIT)

Speaker: Anton Kukhto (MIT)
Title: Discussion of Smolensky and Goldrick (2016): “Gradient Symbolic Representations in Grammar: The case of French Liaison”
Time: Monday, October 21st, 5pm - 6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Abstract: “Longstanding theoretical debates about whether structure A or structure B is the correct analysis of phenomenon X are commonplace. For example, at the juncture of two words W1 and W2, French liaison consonants alternate with zero. Theories of French phonology have long debated whether the consonant is associated with W1 or W2. In this work, we argue for an alternative approach. Phenomena X is not accounted for by either A or B, but rather a conjunctive blend of structures A and B. This notion of ‘blend of structures’ is formalized using Gradient Symbolic Representations, symbol structures in which a particular position is generally occupied by a sum of gradient symbols, each symbol having a partial degree of presence: its activity. The grammatical consequences of a Gradient Symbolic Representation are the sum of the consequences of all the symbols blended to form it; the consequences of a symbol – e.g., the costs of constraint violations – are proportional to its activity. The proposed grammatical computation consists of optimization with respect to a numerical weighting of familiar phonological constraints from Optimality Theory and Harmonic Grammar, straightforwardly extended to evaluate Gradient Symbolic Representations. We apply this general framework to French liaison consonants, blending together elements of previous proposals to give a single analysis that covers a wide range of data not previously explicable within a single theory.”


The 50th Annual Meeting of North East Linguistic Society (NELS 50) will be hosted at MIT this week, from October 25–27.

Several of our current students will give talks or present posters:

And here are some of the alumni who will also present their work:

To celebrate the golden jubilee of NELS, alum Paul Kiparsky (PhD 1965) will give a special plenary address reflecting on the last 50 years in linguistics.

Cora Lesure @ CILLA

Cora Lesure, 4th year (MIT), presented Restricciones de coocurrencia entre las consonantes glotalizadas en chuj at the 9th Conference on Indigenous Languages of Latin America. CILLA IX took place at the University of Texas at Austin on October 10-12th, 2019. You can view the CILLA IX program here.

Syntax Square 10/8 - Itai Bassi and Justin Colley (MIT)

Speaker: Itai Bassi and Justin Colley (MIT).
Title: “P-word integrity”: a new condition on ellipsis
Time: Tuesday, October 8th, 1pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: We observe a curious restriction on the distribution of pronouns in ellipsis contexts, which can be illustrated with the following examples:

1) a.  I called Sheryl on Monday, and called her on Tuesday again.

    b.*I called Sheryl on Monday, and her on Tuesday again.

    c.  I called Sheryl₁ on Monday, and HER₂/HIM/Mary on Tuesday

The generalization that emerges is that if a head is gapped, its complement (if overt) must be contrastively focused. But we will show that the story is more complicated than that. We will propose that the facts follow from a phonological constraint on ellipsis: don’t elide sub-parts of a string that forms a phonological word. We will discuss the consequences of such a principle for the theory of ellipsis.

This is work in progress and we would appreciate any feedback!

MorPhun 10/9 - Nabila Louriz (Hassan II, Casablanca) and Michael Kenstowicz (MIT)

Speaker: Nabila Louriz (Hassan II, Casablanca) and Michael Kenstowicz (MIT)
Title: Verb formation in French loanwords in Moroccan Arabic
Time: Wednesday, October 9th, 5pm - 6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Abstract: This presentation deals with verb formation of borrowings from French into Moroccan Arabic. The purpose is to examine the way the morphology of a Semitic language operates on loanwords from a Romance language. Two categories of borrowed verbs are distinguished in the corpus under investigation. First, there are verbs that are directly borrowed from French verbs (e.g. Fr. caler> MA [kala] “to stall”). The second category includes denominal verbs (e.g. Fr. Joint> MA [ʒwan] “joint”> [ʒwana] “to join”, Fr. cravatte> MA [gRafaTa] “tie”> [gəRfəT] “to wear a tie”). The first and second examples seem to operate on the base form of the French verbs and the borrowed noun, respectively. On the other hand, the third example appears to operate on the consonantal root extracted from the borrowed noun. This paper will explain this asymmetry and attempts a unified account highlighting the interface of morphology and phonology in the formation of loan verbs.

LingLunch 10/10 - Ethan Wilcox (Harvard)

Speaker: Ethan Wilcox (Harvard)
Title: Neural Network Models and the Argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus: The Case of Filler—Gap Dependencies
Time: Thursday, October 10th, 12:30pm - 1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs) are one type of neural model that has been able to achieve state-of-the-art scores on a variety of natural language tasks, including translation and language modeling (which is used in, for example, text prediction). In this talk I will assess how these models might way in to linguistic debates about the types of biases required to learn syntactic structures. By treating these models like subjects in a psycholinguistics experiment, I will demonstrate that they are able to learn the filler—gap dependency, and are even sensitive to the hierarchical constraints implicated in the dependency. Next, I turn to “island effects”, or structural configurations that block the filler—gap dependency, which have historically played a role in the Argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus. I demonstrate that RNNs are able to learn some of the “island” constraints and even recover some of their pre-island gap expectation. These experiments demonstrate that linear statistical models are able to learn some fine-grained syntactic rules, however their behavior remains un-humanlike in many cases.

Experimentalist Meeting 10/11 - Daniel Asherov (MIT)

Speaker: Daniel Asherov (joint work with Ezer Rasin & Roni Katzir)
Location: 32-D461
Time: Friday, October 11, 2:00-3:00pm
Title: Learning alternations from allophonic distribution

When learning a phonology of a language, the learner faces the task of discovering the language’s phonological alternations: the ways in which the shape of morphemes changes in a predictable way, usually to accommodate phonotactic requirements of the language. 

For example, in the grammar of Yamato Japanese s alternates with ʃ: the (bound) morpheme /hanas/ surfaces with ʃ before i[hanaʃ-imasu ‘talk non-past-polite’] and s otherwise [hanas-‘talk non-past’]. This alternation serves to repair the sequence si, which is prohibited in Japanese.

Computational learners of phonology make conflicting predictions with respect to the type of evidence required for positing an alternation such as the s~ʃ alternation in Japanese. 

One group of learners does not take economy into consideration (e.g. RIP/CD, Tesar & Smolensky 2000). Given a set of surface forms with the Yamato Japanese pattern, they are expected to correctly detect the prohibition on si. However, they can only learn the correct repair (s → ʃ /_i) if they are presented with direct evidence for the alternation in form of non-identical occurrences of the same morpheme (e.g. hanas-u + hanaʃ-imasu), with the information that these forms belong to the same paradigm.

Another group of learners is one where learners balance restrictiveness and economy (e.g. MDL, Rasin & Katzir 2016). Such a learner will only posit the prohibition *si when it would make the grammar and the description of the data more compact. In the case of a language like Yamato Japanese, the grammar can be made more compact by eliminating the sound ʃ from underlying representations and deriving it in the phonology. Such a learner predicts that it should be possible in principle to infer both the phonotactic prohibition (*si) and the correct repair (s → ʃ /_i) based on only Japanese-like surface forms, with no direct evidence for the alternation.

I will present an artificial language study with adult human learners which aims to test the applicability of these computational learners to human learning in a lab setting. I will start by presenting the design and results of a pilot study testing the conflicting predictions of the computational learners. We will then discuss a new design for a follow-up experiment.


Rasin, E., & Katzir, R. (2016). On Evaluation Metrics in Optimality Theory. Linguistic Inquiry47(2), 235–282.

Tesar, B., & Smolensky, P. (2000). Learnability in optimality theory. MIT Press.

MIT Linguists Visit Passamaquoddy Communities

A group of MIT linguists spent the last two weekends in the Passamaquoddy communities of Motahkomikuk and Sipayik (Indian Township and Pleasant Point), meeting with elders and learning about the Passamaquoddy language.  We’re very grateful to Newell Lewey (MITILI alum), Roger Paul (current MITILI student) and their families for introducing us to amazing people and places, and to the elders for giving us so much of their valuable time.  We’re looking forward to heading back north!  

The participants in the trips were Tanya Bondarenko (who took the attached photos), Colin Davis, Yadav Gowda, Peter Grishin, Tracy Kelley, Anton Kukhto, Cora Lesure, Elise Newman, Roger Paul, Norvin Richards, Ruoan Wang, and Stanislao Zompi.

Phonology Circle 9/30 - Nabila Louriz (Hassan-II, Casablanca)​ & Michael Kenstowicz (MIT)

Speaker: Nabila Louriz (Hassan-II, Casablanca)​ & Michael Kenstowicz (MIT)

Title: From input to output in the Moroccan Arabic adaptation of French loanwords​

Time: Monday, September 30th, 5pm - 6:30pm

Location: 32-D831

Abstract: In this presentation we discuss three adaptation strategies that are evident in our corpus of c. 1,800 French loans to Moroccan Arabic. First, as documented in Kenstowicz & Louriz (2009) based in part on Heath (1989), French words with [ɛ,ɔ,ɑ] are often adapted into MA through the insertion of pharyngealization on an adjacent consonant: style > [stil], coude > [kud], but > [bit] vs. tête > [TeT], code > [koD], stage > [STɑʒ]. We explore some of the factors that underlie the variable nature of this phenomenon. Second, French /y/ varies between MA [i] or [u] as a function of its neighboring vowel: e.g. bureau ‘desk’ /byro/ > [biru] vs. cellule ‘cell’ /selyl/ > [silun]. Third, French loans beginning with a vowel sometimes drop that vowel and at other times insert an onset consonant: autobus ‘bus’ > [Tobis] vs. hors d’oeuvre > [LoRDof]. ​

Syntax Square 10/1 - Tanya Bondarenko

Speaker: Tanya Bondarenko

Title: Coon & Keine (2019), “Feature Gluttony”

Time: Tuesday October 1st, 2019, 1pm - 2pm

Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Coon & Keine (2019) develop a new approach to a family of hierarchy effect–inducing configurations, with a focus on Person Case Constraint (PCC) effects, dative-nominative configurations, and copula constructions. The main line of approach in the recent literature is to attribute these hierarchy effects to failures of phi-Agree or, more specifically, failures of nominal licensing or case checking. Coon & Keine (2019) propose instead that the problem in these configurations is unrelated to nominal licensing, but is instead the result of a probe participating in more than one Agree dependency. Building on Béjar & Rezac (2009), according to which an articulated probe continues probing if at least some features are left unvalued after an Agree relation, Coon & Keine propose that what characterizes hierarchy configurations is that a probe agrees with multiple DPs, a configuration that they refer to as feature gluttony. Feature gluttony does not in and of itself lead to ungrammaticality, but rather can create conflicting requirements for subsequent operations. In the case of clitic configurations, a probe which agrees with more than one DP creates an intervention problem for clitic-doubling. In violations involving morphological agreement, gluttony in features may result in a configuration with no available morphological output. Important empirical motivation for this account includes (i) the different rescue strategies available, and (ii) the fact that hierarchy effects commonly disappear in the absence of an agreeing probe, as predicted under an account which attributes the problem to the probe.

MorPhun 10/2 - Colin Davis (MIT)

Speaker: Colin Davis

Title: Case and containment in Balkar

Time: Wednesday 10/2 5pm - 6:30pm

Location: 32-D831

Abstract: In this presentation I’ll describe some properties of case marking in Balkar (Turkic) based on some recent fieldwork. In particular, my goal is to relate some interesting properties of the case morphology to the claim that cases exist in a containment relationship (Caha 2009, Smith et al 2018, a.o.). Most relevant is the concept that oblique cases contain accusative features as a sub-part, which Balkar may support, if certain complications can be understood.

LF Reading Group 10/2 - Filipe Kobayashi (MIT)

Speaker: Filipe Kobayashi (MIT)

Title: Scattered Reciprocals

Time: Wednesday, October 2nd, 1pm - 2pm

Location: 32-D461

Abstract: In this talk, I analyze an understudied reciprocal construction which I call Scattered Reciprocals (SRs). SRs are built from two syntactically distinct phrases, one in an adverbial position and another in an argumental position, as illustrated by the Brazilian Portuguese example in (1):

Os alunos vão um falar com a orientadora d-o outro.
the students will one speak with the supervisor of-the other
'The students will speak with each other's supervisor.'

This talk is concerned with the question of how the pieces of SRs compose to give rise to reciprocity. After discussing the main semantic and syntactic properties of SRs, I present evidence that, despite initial appearances, these constructions must involve a single quantifier over pairs, in the spirit of Dalrymple et al (1998). I then propose a compositional analysis of these constructions that is able to account for the properties shared across reciprocal constructions as well as those that are particular to SRs.

Mini-course 10/3 - Matthew Gordon (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Speaker: Matthew Gordon (UCSB)

Title: Prosodic domains and prominence in languages with long morphological words

Time: Thursday, October 3, 12:30pm-2:00 and 5:00pm-6:30

Location: 32-D461

Metrical stress theory has advanced considerably through the study of languages with highly agglutinative and polysynthetic morphological profiles since they contain the long words necessary to maximally differentiate stress systems. Properties for which languages with exceptionally long morphological words have provided crucial insight include, among others, iambic-trochaic asymmetries, ternary foot structure, the taxonomy of prominence, and the acquisition and computational modeling of metrical systems. Morphological complexity, however, also brings challenges to the analysis of prosody since long morphological words increase the likelihood of ambiguities in the source of prominence as a word- or phrase-level property and the possibility for otherwise rare or unattested mappings between prosodic and morphological domains, including single morphological words comprised of multiple prosodic words or even prosodic phrases.

This mini-course will examine prosodic domain and their relationship to morphological constituents in languages with the requisite morphological properties that give rise to a high density of long words. We will explore what is known about prosody in highly agglutinative and polysynthetic languages with the goals of discovering for this class of languages (at least preliminary) typological generalizations about prosodic domains and contextualizing these results within a broader prosodic theor. Material will be largely drawn from my work on a number of morphologically complex languages supplemented with published sources on other languages with similar morphological profiles.

Suggested Readings:
Baker, Brett. 2014. Word structure in Australian languages. In Koch, Harold and Rachel Nordlinger (eds.), *The languages and linguistics of Australia*, pp. 139-213. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Beck, David and David Bennett. 2007. Extending the prosodic hierarchy: Evidence from Lushootseed narrative. *Northwest Journal of Linguistics* 1, 1–34.
Bickel, B., and Zuñiga, F. (2017). The ‘word’ in polysynthetic languages: phonological and syntactic challenges. In M. Fortascue, M. Mithun, & N.  Evans (eds.), *The Oxford handbook of polysynthesis*, 158-186. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gordon, Matthew. 2005. An autosegmental/metrical model of Chickasaw intonation. In Sun-Ah Jun (ed.), *Prosodic typology: The phonology of intonation and phrasing*, pp. 301-30. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lovick, Olga, and Siri Tuttle. 2012.  The Prosody of Dena’ina narrative discourse. *International Journal of American Linguistics* 78, 293–334.
Stanton, Juliet. 2016. Learnability shapes typology: the case of themidpoint pathology. *Language* 92, 753-791.

Experimentalist Meeting 10/4 - Adele Mortier

Speaker: Adele Mortier (MIT)

Time: Friday October 4, 2pm

Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Numerical approximation expressions are expressions of the form “around n”, “approximately n”, where n is a number. They can include an explicit unit, and the n can be decimal or a round number.

(1) Around 15 people came to the party

(2) Sue ran around 6 miles

(3) The film’s average rating is around 3.5

Numerical approximation is challenging as it is used very commonly in everyday conversations, without apparent problems. Yet these expressions seem to carry inherent vagueness: is (1) felicitous if 15 people came? What about 21 people? 22? Is 20 more probable than 22? This might suggest that people tend to enrich their interpretation using the context as well as their knowledge of the world to get more precise inferences. We make the assumption that such inferences rely on classical pragmatic processes, very much alike scalar implicatures (granularity implicatures, [Cummins et al., 2012]). We also argue that these inferences can be modeled, if not explained, by probabilistic Bayesian reasoning (some variants of the RSA, [Kennedy, 2007, Lassiter and Goodman, 2013]). To back up this theory, we present experimental data about the probabilistic inferences drawn by people facing numerical approximation expressions (round numbers, no unit). The most basic results corroborate prevalent intuitions about numerical approximation (symmetry of the distribution, granularity effects). More refined (and disputable) results seem to support the hypothesis that a vague expression like “around” differs from a more exact (but underspecified) expression like “between”, as they do not give rise to the same kind of subjective probability distribution (posterior). However, another experiment would be needed to better control for unwanted order effects between items, because they are likely to explain a huge part of the observed variability.Your feedback is of course very welcome!

MIT-Haiti Initiative Launches “Platfòm MIT-Ayiti pou yon lekòl tèt an wo”

The MIT-Haiti Initiative  under the leadership of Prof. Michel DeGraff (Linguistics) & Prof. Haynes Miller (MIT Mathematics), has just launched a “Platfòm MIT-Ayiti pou yon lekòl tèt an wo” at http://MIT-Ayiti.NET .   This online platform will function as a digital library / repository for the crowdsourcing, exchange and sharing of teaching materials in Haitian Creole (“Kreyòl”) in all disciplines at all grade levels. All materials on the platform will be openly accessible via a Creative Commons license.  This platform is in response to Haitian educators’ demands for more materials in Kreyòl for active learning. This platform will also help build communities of practice among Haitian teachers who believe in the use of Haitian Creole (“Kreyòl”) as an indispensable tool for quality education for all in Haiti.  We’re hoping that this platform will become a model for other communities that have been disenfranchised as their native languages are excluded from education — due to all-too-familiar colonial reasons.

Colloquium 10/4 - Matthew Gordon (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Speaker: Matthew Gordon (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Title: (C)overt metrical structure and prominence: typology and case studies

Time: Friday, October 4th, 3:30pm - 5pm

Location: 32-155

Abstract: Although stress is typically assumed to be the definitive diagnostic for metrical structure, there are languages in which the primary evidence for feet is based on phenomena other than stress, including syncope, tone placement, lenition or fortition. In many of these languages, it is unclear whether stress patterns are consistent with the foot structure evidenced by these other processes; in others, it is likely that they conflict. These cases of metrical incoherence and uncertain coherence raise issues for representations of metrical structure and the role of covert structure in phonological theory. This talk will explore sources of evidence for iterative metrical structure with a focus on a series of phonetic and phonological case studies from languages in which the most salient evidence for feet is gleaned not from stress but from either syncope or tone. Phonetic data from these languages suggests convergence between stress and the iterative metrical structure diagnosed by other non-stress patterns. Parallel consideration of the different metrically-driven phenomena also allows for discerning between various metrical parses consistent with a single property viewed in isolation.

Phonology Circle 9/23 - Edward Flemming (MIT)

Speaker: Edward Flemming (MIT)

Title: A Generative Phonetic Analysis of the timing of L- Phrase Accents in English

Time: Monday, September 23rd, 5pm - 6:30pm

Location: 32-D831

Abstract: The narrow goal of this research is to develop an analysis of the timing of the English low phrase accent (L-) in H*L-L% and H*L-H% melodies. This is challenging because L- is generally realized as an ‘elbow’ in the F0 trajectory – i.e. a point of inflection rather than a local maximum or minimum – and it is notoriously difficult to locate F0 elbows precisely. I argue that the proper approach to locating tonal targets involves an ‘analysis-by-synthesis’ approach: Given an explicit model of the mapping from tonal targets to F0 trajectories, we can infer the location of targets by fitting that model to observed F0 contours. So a broader goal is the development of a model of tone production. The proposed model analyzes F0 trajectories as the response of a dynamical system to a control signal that consists of a sequence of step functions connected by linear ramps. Tone realization then involves selecting the control signal that yields the F0 trajectory that best satisfies constraints on the realization of tone targets.

The analysis-by-synthesis method is used to test two extant hypotheses concerning the timing of L- elbows: (a) L- occurs at a fixed interval after H*, (b) L- is aligned to the end of the nuclear-accented word. The results do not support either hypothesis: L- is not aligned to the word boundary, but there is a significant tendency for L- to occur earlier when the interval between H* and the word boundary is shorter. This pattern of realization is analyzed as a compromise between two constraints, one enforcing a target duration for the fall from H* to L-, and a second, weaker constraint requiring the fall to be completed before the end of the word.

LF Reading Group 9/25 - Keny Chatain (MIT)

Speaker: Keny Chatain (MIT)

Title: What cumulative asymmetries tell us about weak readings and vice-versa

Time: Wednesday, September 25th, 1pm - 2pm

Location: 32-D461

Abstract: There is an asymmetry between subject and object every: object every gives rise to cumulative readings ; subject every doesn’t (Kratzer, 2000).

(1) 3 detectives, 27 suspects

  1.  The three detectives interrogated every suspect (ok, 9 suspects each)
  2.  Every detective interrogated the 27 suspects (*9 suspects each)

Another asymmetry comes from weak cumulative readings. There has been hints in the literature (Buccola and Spector, 2016; Haslinger and Schmitt, 2019) that the cumulative truth-conditions of (2), given in (2a), are sometimes as weak as (2b).

(2) The 10 children inflated the 25 balloons

  1. Every balloon was inflated by a child and every child inflated a balloon
  2. Every balloon was inflated by a child period

The weak truth-conditions of (2b) are asymmetric ; they impose exhaustive participation of the theme in the event, but have no such requirement on the agent.

In this talk, I will argue that the two asymmetries have a common origin. I will bring two facts in support of the claim: 1) expanding the dataset to more arguments and positions, I will show that the two asymmetries pattern the same and that (more or less,) the positions that require exhaustive participation are the positions from which a cumulative reading of every is possible, 2) data from NPI licensing will show that the strong reading of (1) must obtain via strengthening of a weak reading like (2b) (following Ivlieva (2013)). I will present an account of these facts making minimal theoretical commitments, with the following properties:

  • cumulativity is uniformly weak (in the sense of 2b) and asymmetric ; the order of integration of thematic roles into the event predicate determines the asymmetry.
  • the meaning of every is standard, does not make reference to events, but nonetheless gives rise to cumulative readings (rejoining Champollion (2010)).
  • ** operators are not needed to derive cumulative readings of non-lexical two-place predicates.

At the end of the talk, we will be short of an explanation of how (2b) strengthens to (2a). Suggestions from the audience will be met with the earnest-est gratitude.

Experimentalist Meeting 9/27 - Keny Chatain (MIT)

Speaker: Keny Chatain
Title: Priming effects for the study of pronouns
Time: Friday, September 27th, 2-3 pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract:Despite much theoretical work on them, not much is known about the processing of “exotic” anaphoric dependencies: paycheck, donkey, subordinated pronouns and the rest (but see ). Theoretical accounts of these dependencies routinely make use of some form of hidden structure and posit that pronouns are the locus of multiple context-dependencies. It would be neat if such structure and dependency could independently be diagnosed through processing means. This is the overarching goal of the project. I’ll present our more modest steps: we tried to design a low-tech generalizable paradigm to find reactivation of antecedent nouns. I’ll present the results of our pilot and brainstorm next steps with the audience.

NELS 50 @ MIT- Registration

If you are planning to attend NELS 50, please register at the following URL no later than October 1:https://www.eventbrite.com/e/nels50-tickets-69195253867

Onsite registration will be also available, but we cannot guarantee a place at the NELS dinner for those who did not pre-register by the deadline (and we may not be able to accommodate your dietary restrictions).

Background information:

The 50th Annual Meeting of the North East Linguistic Society (NELS 50) will be hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from October 25th - 27th, 2019.

Invited Speakers

To celebrate the golden jubilee of NELS, Paul Kiparsky will give a special plenary address reflecting on the last 50 years in linguistics.

Stay tuned for more information!

Syntax Square 9/17 - Stanislao Zompì

Speaker: Stanislao Zompì

Title: On some interactions between verb movement and clitic ordering

Time: Tuesday, September 17th, 1pm - 2pm

Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Clitic ordering is notoriously subject to intricate cross-linguistic variation. Among other patterns, we know there are languages (call them “type 1”) that generally allow only DAT<ACC, and others (“type 2”) that generally allow only ACC<DAT. In this work-in-progress report, I focus on a phenomenon that cuts across this split: both types include languages that, while permitting only one order preverbally, turn out to allow both ACC<DAT and DAT<ACC postverbally. We can make sense of this if these languages choose one clitic order as their only basic order (only DAT over ACC in type 1, only ACC over DAT in type 2) but accord verb movement the option of either pied-piping or not pied-piping the lower clitic along the way. I discuss several possible implementations of this idea, and explore potential applications of it to some interactions between verb placement and PCC-like restrictions.

Experimentalist meeting - 9/20 Martin Hackl (MIT)

Speaker: Martin Hackl

Title: A Null-Theory of Haddock’s Puzzle and its Implications for the Role of Presupposition in Reference Resolution

Time: 2:00-3:00pm

Location: 32-D461


Haddock’s Puzzle presents a well-known challenge to the canonical treatment of definite descriptions according to which their use requires contextual uniqueness of the NP-restrictor of the. More specifically, as pointed out in Haddock 1987, in a situation with two hats and two rabbits, one rabbit in one of the hats while the other rabbit is not inside a hat, the definite description in (1), in which a definite DP the hat is nested inside a larger definite description is felicitous (Haddock 1987). Importantly, the utterance in (2) used as a description of the very same scene is not.

(1) The rabbit in the hat is excited. 
(2) #The excited rabbit is in the hat.

In this talk, I present a “null-theory” of Haddock’s puzzle according to which Haddock-definites are situational uniqueness definites (Schwarz 2009) in order to shed light on the role of presupposition in reference resolution. The central claim motivated by this null-theory is the constraint in (3).

(3) Constraint on Reference Resolution:     
Presupposed content of an utterance can be used for identifying the extension of referring expressions in the utterance, at-issue content cannot.

To assess and evaluate different ways of explicating (3) we are working on experimental paradigms that hopefully allow us to track often rather subtle distinctions in a systematic way. I will discuss where we are with that part of the project and look forward to comments on suggestions on how to improve our approach. 

LingLunch 9/19 - Hadas Kotek (Apple)

Speaker: Hadas Kotek (Apple)

Title: Gender representation in linguistic example sentences

Time: Thursday, September 19th, 12:30pm - 1:50 pm

Location: 32-D461

Abstract: This talk surveys two ongoing projects concerned with the representation of women in example sentences in linguistics. (Collaborations with Katharina Pabst, Paola Cépeda, Kristen Syrett, Rikker Dockum, Sarah Babinski, Christopher Geissler.). The first project looks at example sentences in syntax textbooks. Following the adoption of the LSA’s Guidelines for Inclusive Language and the 20th anniversary of Macaulay & Brice (1997: M&B)’s survey of examples in 11 syntax textbooks, we present an analysis of 6 recent textbooks. We sampled 200 examples from each textbook, and found that the gender skew and stereotypes reported in M&B are still present: Among other findings, men are twice as likely to occur as subjects and receive proper names, and examples often perpetuate gender stereotypes. The second project examines example sentences published in all papers that have appeared in Language, Linguistic Inquiry, and Natural Language & Linguistic Theory over the past 20 years. We find many similarities to prior work, but are able to provide much greater detail. Among our findings: a striking imbalance of male to female arguments; women are less likely to be subjects and have names or referring pronouns; they are more likely to be recipients or kin (mother, sister, etc). We discuss many other stereotypes in our talk, as well as trends over time and across journals, and a brief comparison to corpus-based examples published over the past 20 years in Language in Society. I conclude the talk by discussing the importance of this project for awareness-raising among individual researchers and (especially) instructors, as well as how we can improve and do better.


The 50th Annual Meeting of the North East Linguistic Society (NELS 50) will be hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from October 25th - 27th, 2019.

Invited Speakers

To celebrate the golden jubilee of NELS, Paul Kiparsky will give a special plenary address reflecting on the last 50 years in linguistics.

We are pleased to announce that the program for this year’s NELS is now available:


Phonology Circle 9/9 - Erin Olson (MIT)

Speaker: Erin Olson (MIT)

Title: Loanwords and the Perceptual Map: A perspective from MaxEnt learning

Date/Time: Monday, 9/9 5:00-6:30pm

Location: 32-D8​31

The goal of phonological learning algorithms has largely been to arrive at a constraint ranking or weighting which is consistent with the data on which it is trained (Tesar & Smolensky, 2000, a.o.). However, phonological theorists have long understood that there should be additional conditions on such a ranking or weighting, whereby some constraints should always be ranked/weighted higher than others — e.g., the P(erceptual) Map of Steriade (2001). Two models which are successful in achieving both goals are those of Wilson (2006) and White (2013), who construct models which are capable of incorporating the PMap as an additional condition (bias) on learning. Both models are successful in capturing the behaviour of adult speakers when they are explicitly asked to learn a phonological process from data, and are successful in replicating results expected from the PMap. However, each model makes a different prediction when attempting to model the knowledge speakers have before being presented with data about a novel process. A real-world example of this situation comes from loanword phonology, where speakers are tasked with repairing phonologically marked structures without ever having encountered such structures — or the appropriate repair to such structures — in their native language. The model proposed by Wilson (2006) predicts that such speakers should behave as if they have no PMap-like bias, while that of White (2013) predicts that such a bias is indeed present.
In this talk, I will present the results of a variety of experiments which aim to test these hypotheses by modelling the phonological knowledge of a speaker of Cantonese, who must infer how to properly repair illicit phonological structures from English loanwords without ever having encountered the relevant structure in their native vocabulary. In Experiment 1, it will be established that, for a reasonable set of constraints, learning from only native language data is insufficient for arriving at a weighting that is also consistent with the attested loanword repairs of that language. Thus, a substantive, PMap-like bias will be imposed over the chosen constraint set in order to attempt to improve the model. Experiment 2 will show that encoding the bias in the manner proposed by Wilson (2006) is also insufficient for arriving at a weighting that predicts the loanword data. Experiment 3, in contrast, will show that encoding the bias in the manner proposed by White (2013) is successful, thus confirming the hypotheses outlined above.

MorPhun 9/11 - Christopher Baron (MIT)

Speaker: Christopher Baron

Title: Narcissistic allomorphy in Santiago Tz’utujil (joint work with Paulina Lyskawa & Rodrigo Ranero)

Time: Wednesday, 9/11 5pm - 6:30pm

Location: 32-D831

Abstract: The realization of imperfective aspect in Santiago Tz’utujil varies depending on the phi features of agreeing arguments: (i) 3sg abs triggers allomorphy; (ii) 1sg abs or erg triggers allomorphy, even (apparently) long-distance. The former is common in other K’ichean Mayan languages’ aspect morphology; however, the latter is unattested, including in other Tz’utujil dialects. Santiago Tz’utujil is a head-marking ergative language, and (in)transitive verbs have the following template: asp-abs-(erg)-stem. Imperfective aspect has three allomorphs triggered by adjacent abs agreement: k-/_1sg, n-/_3sg, and nk- elsewhere.

(1) a. K-in-oq’a’. impfv-1sg.abs-cry ‘I cry.’ b. Nk-at-oq’a’ impfv-2sg.abs-cry ‘You cry’ c. N-Ø-oq’a’ impfv-3sg.abs-cry ‘He/she cries.’

Interestingly, 1sg erg also triggers k-, even though there is a linearly intervening abs—1sg k- trumps all other allomorphs.

(2) K-Ø-in-chop. (*n-Ø-in-chop) impfv-3sg.abs-1sg.erg-touch. `I’m touching you.’

I’ll discuss the data in more detail, and its potential implications for debates surrounding locality restrictions in allomorphy.

The Language Acquisition Lab hosts a 2-day training 9/12

The Language Acquisition Lab will be hosting a training session for the set-up and use of Eye-Link eye-trackers on Thursday, 9/12 and Friday, 9/13. Our tentative agenda for training is as follows:

Thursday AM: System installation. This will take about 2-3 hours.

Thursday PM: Training on system architecture and functionality, and practice setting up participants and calibrating the system. This will take about 3-4 hours.

Friday AM: Training on experimental programming and data analysis. This will take about 3-4 hours.

Friday PM: Discussions on more advanced topics in programming/data analysis, additional practice in using the system, and/or any final issues/questions.

Please contact Cindy Torma (crtorma@mit.edu) for more information.

Colloquium 9/13 - Beata Moskal (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt)

Speaker: Beata Moskal (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt)

Title: Phonological consequences of morphological domains

Time: Friday, September 13, 3:30-5:00pm

Location: 32-155

Starting from a broad typological survey, I explore a range of asymmetries between lexical and functional items, and propose that at the heart of these asymmetries is the fact that there is more structure in lexical items than functional items. Morphologically, I identify universal restrictions on suppletion patterns (for nominals): (i) in nouns, number-driven suppletion is common, whilst case-driven suppletion is unattested, bar a few apparent counterexamples that I discuss, and (ii) in contrast to lexical nouns, pronouns commonly supplete for both number and case. I further show that the discrepancy between functional and lexical items is reflected phonologically. Although dominant prefixes for vowel harmony and lexical stress assignment have been claimed to be universally unattested, I show that they in fact do exist, but only in functional items and not lexical items. This asymmetry mirrors the suppletion asymmetry, and again reflects that there is more structure in lexical than in functional items.

MIT @ Sinn und Bedeutung 24

Keny Chatain, Naomi Francis, and Frank Staniszewski presented at Sinn und Bedeutung 24 in Osnabrück. Sinn und Bedeutung 24 was hosted by the Institute of Cognitive Science and the Institute of Philosophy at Osnabrück University, Germany. Members of our department presented the following:

MIT alum also in attendance included Despina Oikonomou, and Roni Katzir.

Welcome to Fall 2019!

Welcome to the first edition of Whamit! for Fall 2019! 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, Hyun Ji Yoo, and Tracy Kelley.

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

Welcome ling-19!

Welcome to the students who are joining our graduate program!

Ido Benbaji I was born and grew up in Jerusalem. Recently, I received a B.A. in linguistics and history from the Hebrew University, where I was also working towards and M.A. in linguistics. I am interested in semantics, syntax and their interface, and in particular in singular terms, referentiality, modality, ellipsis and movement. On my free time, I watch many many movies. 

Omri Doron I was born and grew up in Jerusalem. I received my B.Sc. in Mathematics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I was also working on my M.A. in linguistics. I’m interested in semantics and its interface with syntax and philosophy of language, and in particular in tense and aspect, NPI’s and ellipsis. In my free time I enjoy playing basketball and arguing with people about food.

Yeong-Joon Kim I was born and grew up in the city of Daegu (literally large hills in Sino-Korean), an industrial city located in the heart of a hilly agricultural area in the southern part of Korea. Soon after I had finished my first B.A. degree with a triple major in theatre & cinema, history, and political Science & diplomacy at Hanayang University, I realized that I want to do somewhat more ‘scientific’ study, and so I decided to transfer to Seoul National University where I earned my second B.A. degree with a double major in linguistics and psychology. At Seoul National University, I discovered my affinity for linguistics, and this led me complete my M.A. thesis on the typology of coronal palatalization and affrication. My main areas of interest include formal language theory (in general), roles of phonetics in phonology, and linguistic typology. Besides linguistics, I enjoy a morning walk, a cup of coffee, reading, and video games.

Eunsun Jou I’m from Seoul, South Korea. I did my B.A. and M.A. in linguistics at Seoul National University. I focused on syntax and semantics there, but I really hope to widen my scope of interest during my years at MIT - both in terms of linguistic subfields as well as the typology of languages that I look into. Some of my hobbies include swimming, knitting, and cooking. And for those who are wondering how to say my name: it’s roughly pronounced /ɯn.sʌn/.

Adèle Mortier I come from Paris, where I studied theoretical computer science, literature and management (but I prefer not to talk about the latter). I like very much how linguistics allows to mix formal and theoretical stuff, so I spent last year at the École normale supérieure working on statistical models for numerical approximation expressions. I am interested in semantics, but also possibly on more experimental topics such as language acquisition. When I have time, I like to walk or bike, visit art exhibitions and cook sweet things. Also, I have one tiny tortie cat named Sacha; it is my baby.

Annauk Denise Olin My family is from the Native Village of Shishmaref, an island in northwestern Alaska. I grew up in Utqiaġvik and Fairbanks, Alaska and was also raised in central Massachusetts. I received a B.A. from UMass-Amherst, studying Comparative Literature (French and Russian languages and literatures). Through teaching, self-study, and a mentor apprenticeship, I have dedicated the last three years to revitalizing my native language, Iñupiaq. As a new mom, I hope to speak primarily in Iñupiaq to my son Daał. Outside of work and academia, I enjoy berry picking, beading, Eskimo dancing, travel, the martial arts, and being outdoors. 

Yash Sinha I’m from a city called Jamshedpur in eastern India, but I’ve spent most of my life shuttling between Mumbai and Kolkata. I did my undergrad in linguistics at the University of Chicago. I have so far worked on morphology and syntax, but I am also looking forward to try my hand at semantics. I am interested in case and agreement systems, and the semantics of tense, aspect and mood. I am also interested in language change. Outside of linguistics, I enjoy reading, card games, and exploring cities (I’m looking forward to seeing what Boston has).

Ruoan Wang I’m from Singapore, and my main linguistic interest lies in typology. I also really like classical music, cuddly toys, and nature. 

Welcome to Visitors!

Please join us in giving a warm welcome to this semester’s visitors.

Visiting Professor

Patrick Elliott

“I was born in South Shields, a coastal town in the Northeastern part of England - this, colloquially, makes me a “sanddancer” (according to wiktionary this is a derogatory term, but I think that’s inaccurate). I received a BA in linguistics from University College London, which included a year in Tübingen, Germany. Afterwards, I did an MSc in linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, before returning to UCL for my PhD. My thesis was on the syntax and semantics of clausal embedding. Since then, I’ve been a postdoc at ZAS Berlin, as part of Uli Sauerland’s semantics group. Right now, I work on frankly too many different things, including dynamic semantics, continuation semantics, expressives, and wh-questions. While at MIT, i’m looking forward to being part of an incredibly vibrant research community, and interacting with brilliant students. Outside of work, I spend a great deal of time at the climbing wall.”

Visiting Scholar

Nabila Louriz

Visiting Students

Émile John Michel Enguehard

Luiz Fernando Ferreira

“I’m from São Paulo - Brazil. I’ve finished my B.A. in Linguistics in 2015 and my M.A. in 2017. During my B.A. and M.A., I’ve researched mood expression in Karitiana (an indigenous language  spoken by a tribe in the Amazon rainforest). Now in my PhD, I’m investigating the influence of tense in counterfactual sentences in this language. I’m interested in the Semantics of Brazilian indigenous languages, mainly in the interface between tense/aspect and mood systems. I love swimming, cats (have two of them in Brazil), sci-fi movies and cooking.”

Philipp Shushurin

Hi, My name is Philip. I started studying linguistics in Moscow. Now, I am a fifth-year PhD student at NYU Linguistics. I am primarily interested in syntax, such topics as Case, Argument Structure and DP-structure. I have conducted fieldwork on Dagestanian and Khoisan languages. Right now, I am doing research on properties of internal and external possessors and properties of Nominal Arguments marked with Ergative case.

Mengwei Yu

“I’m from China. I received my B.A. in English at Wuhan University and proceeded to an MA in English Language and Literature at Fudan University in Shanghai. Then I was recommended for admission into the doctoral program and I am now a PhD. candidate at Fudan. I grew up to find myself more interested in learning language and especially its grammar. As a child then, I had very limited resources and restricted access to language learning and grammar systematic training. That’s why I majored in linguistics later, where I discovered that grammar can be learned as a science and composed of syntax, phonology and semantics modules other than described generally in a taxonomical way. I am interested in phonology and syntax and familiar with the generative paradigm. My main research areas are element theory, government phonology and optimality theory. Actually, phonological and syntactic theories fascinate me as mathematics and logic, in which I believe something in common as well as truth lies. In my spare time, I read, travel, admire breathtaking scenery and local culture, watch films, listen to original soundtrack, and think while strolling. Basically, I like to know and experience new and unpredictable things, for there is more to life than axioms, rules and principles”. 

“Remarks on Noam”

“Remarks on Noam,” a compendium of the tributes to Noam Chomsky collected on the occasion of his 90th birthday, is now available on the PubPub platform: https://remarksonnoam.mitpress.mit.edu/ We are delighted to make these wonderful remembrances available, and invite you to read, comment, and contribute as you wish. If you’d like to contribute, please: 1. Create a free PubPub account at https://www.pubpub.org/signup 2. Read as many Remarks on Noam as you’d like, and leave comments and annotations on others’ tributes by highlighting the relevant text. 3. Share this compendium with your networks.

Summer News 2019

We have some summer news to share with you:

  • The CreteLing Summer School took place in July at the University of Crete in Rethymnon. There were courses and seminars in a variety of linguistic subfields. Several MIT faculty (and alumni) taught courses:

There were also many MIT Linguistics graduate students who TAed for CreteLing Summer School including Neil Banerjee, Cora Lesure, Mitya Privoznov, Vincent Rouillard, Frank Staniszewski, Dóra Takács, Chris Yang, and Stan Zompì. MIT Linguistics & Philosophy alumni who taught include William Snyder, Doug Pulleyblank, Pritty Patel-Grosz, Patrick Grosz, Zoltan Szabo, Philippe Schlenker, Heidi Harley, and Paul Kiparsky.

Dinner photo of faculty and TAs taken during CreteLing Summer School 2019

  • Tanya Bondarenko (3rd year), Colin Davis (5th year), and Mitya Privoznov (5th year) participated in the fieldtrip to the village Verkhnyaya Balkaria (Kabardino-Balkar Republic, Russia) organized by Lomonosov Moscow State University, where they worked on the Karachay-Balkar language. Tanya has submitted some pictures from their fieldtrip that you can view below!

  •  Stanislao Zompì paper published in Glossa!

Congratulations to Stan Zompì whose paper “Ergative is not inherent: Evidence from *ABA in suppletion and syncretism” was published in July. http://doi.org/10.5334/gjgl.816

  • Sulemana article published in Glossa!

Congratulations to Abdul-Razak Sulemana whose paper “Q-particles and the nature of covert movement: Evidence from Bùlì” was just published! Abdul-Razak is a final-year graduate student in our program, and taught at the African Linguistics School this summer.

  • Conference presentations:
    • At the end of May, Elise Newman, (4th year) attended ACAL 50 at UBC in Vancouver, where she presented a talk titled “vP infinitives in Wolof: on A-bar movement to Spec vP”.
    • In June, Maša Močnik ( 5th year), gave a talk Higher-Order Confidence with Epistemic Modals here: http://semantics.uni-konstanz.de/workshops/evidence-2019/program
    • Sherry Chen (3rd year) “I spent my summer in Berlin doing various things: 1. This summer, I’ve been funded by the XPrag.de Research Internship to work at ZAS Berlin, on the MUQTASP project “Modelling the Use of Quantifiers in Typical and Atypical Speakers Probabilistically”. I worked primarily under the supervision of Dr Bob van Tiel and Dr Uli Sauerland. I was very happy to have this opportunity to work with the researchers here in Berlin.2. In July, I gave two invited talks here:Memory Retrieval in the Processing of Anaphoric Presupposition Dependencies. Talk given at the Psycholinguistics Colloquium, Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany. Processing Lifetime Effects in Tensed and Tenseless Languages. Talk given at the Psycholinguistics Colloquim, Institut für deutsche Sprache und Linguistik, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany. 3. In August, I attended the DGfS summer school organized by theXPrag.de Priority Program. I studied presupposition, sentence processing at the syntax-discourse interface, and probabilistic pragmatics. This summer school offers a wide range of courses, taught by leading researchers in the field. It was a wonderful program that I thoroughly enjoyed and would enthusiastically recommend!” 
  • Education:
    • Tracy Kelley (2nd year) taught language classes for Wampanoag tribal elders throughout the summer as part of the tribe’s “Lunch & Learn” program. She mainly instructed through immersion using total physical response (TPR) and a variety of interactive games. She also continued to develop curriculum for a new high school language course that is being offered by the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project at Mashpee Middle High School.

Summer defenses

This summer our department celebrated successful defenses by Nick Longenbaugh, Naomi Francis, Erin Olson, and Ömer Demirok, with champagne and baked goods. Our happiest congratulations to this summer’s doctoral dissertators!

Nick Longenbaugh - On expletives and the agreement/movement correlation

Naomi Francis - Presuppositions in focus

Erin Olson - Loanwords and the Perceptual Map: A perspective from MaxEnt learning

Paul Crowley - Tense in the modal and temporal domains

Ömer Demirok - Scope Theory Revisited: Lessons from pied-piping in wh-questions

Miyagawa published by Frontiers

Shigeru Miyagawa’s new article “Systems underlining human and nonhuman primate communication: One, two, or infinite” (Miyagawa and Clarke) has been published online today in Frontiers in Psychology!

LingLunch 9/5 - Shigeru Miyagawa (MIT)

Speaker: Shigeru Miyagawa (MIT)
Title: The Question Particle in Japanese and the Nature of Exhaustivity in Wh-questions
Time: Thursday, September 5th, 12:30pm - 1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Wh-questions typically require an answer that gives the maximal information possible. I argue that this notion of exhaustivity is overtly marked by the Question particle in the root clauses in Japanese. We can detect the exhaustivity associated with the Q-particle by optionally omitting it; in the absence of the Q-particle, the question loses the exhaustive meaning, which signals that a partial answer is sufficient. We will see that the Q-particle provides a test for a number of issues in the meaning of questions that heretofore were not easily testable. We will see that a question that has for example, which asks for a partial answer, nevertheless may have the Q-particle because the question can contain the meaning of exhaustivity in its underlying meaning. Why questions require the Q-particle because why cannot lead to a partial answer. There is one situation where the Q-particle is prohibited; I argue that it is a pure form of Question Under Discussion, made possible by a question lacking the meaning of exhaustivity. For the mention-all versus mention-one question-answers, we will see that both contain exhaustivity. I will propose that the exhaustivity associated with mention-one questions is directly related to Schwarzschild’s (2002) idea of singleton indefinites.

Course Announcements: Fall 2019

Course announcements in this post:

  • 24.956 Topics in Syntax: Acquisition of Case, Agreement, and Finiteness Revisited
  • 24.964 Topics in Phonology, Representing stress
  • 24.979 Topics in Semantics: The only seminar
  • 24.943: Aspects of Haitian Creole syntax and related issues in the diachrony & synchrony of other languages

24.956 Topics in Syntax: Acquisition of Case, Agreement, and Finiteness Revisited

  • Instructors: Athulya Aravind & David Pesetsky
  • Schedule: Tuesdays 2-5pm (first class 9/10)
  • Room: 32-D461 

From the mid-1980s and through the early 2000s, a series of fascinating and plausibly connected puzzles of early child language were discovered and explored in a large literature that blurred and transcended the boundaries between empirical acquisition research and syntactic theory (something quite new at the time).  These puzzles included (1) root infinitival clauses (“optional infinitives”) produced by children acquiring a wide variety of languages (but possibly not all); (2) apparent (but controversial) early subject pro-drop in children acquiring non-pro-drop languages; and (3) recurrent case production errors of particular types in children acquiring case systems; among others . The excitement of these discoveries arose from the fact that children’s non-adult-like behavior was not only systematic, but also coexisted with startlingly adult-like behavior in other respects (for example: production of non-adult root infinitives coexisting with apparent full knowledge of other consequences of the finite/infinitival distinction).  An additional source of excitement was the existence of apparent correlations between specific types of non-adult behavior with specific syntactic properties of the language being acquired. 

Over the past two decades, however, the attention of the field turned to other topics, leaving many open questions unanswered and many avenues unexplored.  In the meantime, research on adult syntax has made significant advances in the very areas in which children were discovered to differ from adults in systematic and perplexing ways.  These include the laws governing case and agreement; their role in regulating null pronouns; the nature and origin of finiteness distinctions; among others.

For this reason, we believe that it should be instructive and even exciting to revisit some of the puzzles of language acquisition that preoccupied the field just a few decades ago in light of recent research on adult syntax — with a focus on issues connected to case, agreement, and finiteness.  Our plan for this class is to juxtapose discussion of results from the language acquisition literature with an exploration of recent research on adult syntax relevant to these results.  We do not know exactly what will emerge from these juxtapositions, but the intrinsic interest of the works to be discussed and the obvious potential connections among them holds significant promise.  We’ll see what emerges!
See attached file for course requirements and readings for the first class.

24.964 Topics in Phonology, Representing stress

  • Instructor: Donca Steriade
  • Schedule: Mondays 2-5pm
  • Room: 32-D461

I have posted a syllabus for 24.964 Topics in Phonology: Representing Stress, at https://stellar.mit.edu/S/course/24/fa19/24.964/materials.html

From the syllabus: 

We explore three issues in the representation of stress:

 i. The evidence for metrical constituents (feet, higher units); for grids; and the sw relation

  ii. Gradient evaluations of inter-stress distance, including weight

 iii. Other forms of prominence (quantitative, tonal) and their relation to stress

More on (i): recent work on stress reports over- and under-generation problems posed by foot-based constraint inventories, and proposes to remedy them by adding more foot types and more foot-based constraints. Most of this work does not experiment with foot-free solutions or the idea that stress assignment proceeds independently of the need to group syllables into rhythmic units. 

We will give several foot-free alternatives a try, after Prince (1983) and Gordon (2002). We will revisit Liberman and Prince’s (1977) arguments for representing stress as the stronger-than (sw) relation; and for grid structure. If there’s time, we look for evidence of nested metrical constituents in poetic meter.

 More on (ii): constraints on stress clash and lapse evaluate the distance between stresses or between stresses and boundaries. There is some evidence that this distance is measured not in categorical terms (counting syllables or rhyme slots) but in a gradient way that’s sensitive to the phonetic duration of individual segments. A parallel question arises in the classification of individual syllables as heavy or light.

 On (iii): quantitative rhythm, the periodic succession of longer and shorter rhythmic units, exists independently of stress. This thing is attested in quantitative meters, but it’s not clear if it exists in spoken language. We’ll examine evidence that it does. We’ll ask what quantitative rhythm means for the typology of prominence in spoken language: is there such a thing as tonal rhythm or tonal prominence? What are the dimensions on which rhythm can be expressed, and why those?

 The course opens with a unit on background issues: how we can tell where stress is, a question made urgent by reports of rampant inaccuracies in the stress data; how stress can be inferred based on the segmental traces it leaves; what is the typology of stress-on-segment effects.

24.979 Topics in Semantics: The only seminar

  • Instructors: Kai von Fintel & Sabine Iatridou
  • Schedule: Thursdays 2-5pm
  • Room: 32-D461 


This semester, we’ll work through classic and recent work on exclusives and exceptives. Along the way, we’ll talk about alternative semantics, scalarity, mirativity, sufficiency, quantificational force, and many other thrilling topics and ideas.

To receive credit for the seminar, you need to attend, participate, read, send two or three comments or questions before each class, and submit a final term paper. If the paper focuses on syntactic issues, the seminar can count as a syntax seminar. Listeners are welcome, as always.

24.943: Aspects of Haitian Creole syntax and related issues in the diachrony & synchrony of other languages


Course Description:

2019 is a special year, and August 2019 is a special month.  Four hundred years ago, on August 20, 1619, the British transatlantic slave trade was introduced in what is now the U.S.  That’s when some 20 enslaved Africans from Angola disembarked in a colonial port in Virginia called … “Point Comfort.”  This brutal transatlantic slave trade had already started in Latin America and the Caribbean more than 100 years before that—in the early 16th century.

This infamous triangular traffic linking Europe, Africa and the Americas is among the key historical events that triggered the emergence of Creole languages.  Some of my papers have analyzed how the hierarchies of power embedded in this colonial, then neo-colonial, history have shaped certain scientific claims around Creole languages, from the onset of Creole studies, as early as the very first description of Creole languages by European scholars in the 17th century.

Now, four centuries after “Point Comfort,” the field of Creole studies is still discomforted by debates around the proper characterization of Creole languages and their formation—debates around a host of questions such as: Are Creole languages “normal” / “regular” languages?  Do Creole languages arise through “abnormal” processes of language evolution?  Are Creole languages (part of) a family? In the case of Caribbean Creole languages, are they genetically related to the Indo-European or Niger-Congo languages that were in contact during Creole formation?  Do Creoles belong to an “exceptional” typology? Can Creole languages be used to teach and learn science and other complex concepts?
Etc, etc…

I mention these questions because they are part of the larger socio-historical and biographical backdrop of this seminar. But in this seminar we won’t spend too much time on these centuries-old debates about the development, structures and viability of Creole languages, even though these debates still infect most linguistic textbooks—as a banal reflex of (neo-)colonial power/knowledge cycles in the human sciences and the unbroken transmission of biases therein.  After a brief overview of these debates, we’ll focus on my native Haitian Creole (“Kreyòl”) as a perfectly “normal” language, and we’ll study it with “uniformitarian” lenses—that is, we’ll enlist the toolbox of contemporary syntactic theory in order to examine Kreyòl as a language that is as “exceptional” as every other language.  More generally, I’d like to assume that whatever tools linguistic theory gives us to understand the synchrony and diachrony of any non-Creole language will also help us understand the synchrony and diachrony of any Creole language.  That is, our seminar will assume that there’s absolutely no need for a sui generis theory of Creole formation. 

It is with these caveats in mind that I’ll invite course participants to take a stab at various puzzles in the diachrony and synchrony of Haitian Creole and other Creole and non-Creole languages.  For starters, we’ll examine some of the data and proposals in my and related publications on Haitian Creole, with initial focus on: clause structure, (non-verbal) predication, clefts, negation, noun-phrase structure, bare noun phrases, prepositional phrases, serial verbs, etc.  My analyses will serve as jumping points into related data and analyses for other (Creole and non-Creole) languages, including Romance and Germanic. We’ll be inspired by work of colleagues such as Enoch Aboh, Marlyse Baptista, Viviane Déprez, Jacqueline Guéron, Herby Glaude, Daniel Harbour, Salikoko Mufwene, Pieter Muysken, Tonjes Veenstra, Anne Zribi-Hertz, etc.

We’ll invite participants to present and lead discussion on topics of their liking that connect with the afore-mentioned areas of syntax and that include relevant (Haitian) Creole data.  So the formal course requirements will include regular weekly participation, questions and comments before each session, in-class presentations and a short paper  (~10 pages) which may well be a draft of something publishable.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, September 4, we’ll begin the seminar with a discussion of (very) basic issues, in order to clear up some muddy issues around general terminological and conceptual background about “Creole” languages and their history.  So we’ll begin with my and Enoch Aboh’s views about “a null theory of Creole formation based on Universal Grammar”.  The relevant paper for that, of the same title, is available at:


You may also want to look at another paper of mine that gives a general survey of Haitian Creole—from John Holm’s 2007 book _Comparative Creole Syntax_:


Course Requirements:

1.     Regular weekly class participation

2.     Questions & comments on relevant readings before each session

3.     Presentation in class

4.     Short paper

Experimentalist Meeting 9/6

Next week Friday 09/06 we will be meeting from 2:00 to 3:00 pm in 32-D8461. 

This meeting will be focused on the Language Acquisition Lab. In this meeting we will introduce our new Lab space and our new Lab people, and we will discuss some of the ongoing language acquisition projects we have going on in the Lab right now. 

Please contact Leo Rosenstein if you have any questions.

Richards @ Workshop on Approaches to Wh-Intervention

Norvin spent June 5-7 in Singapore at a workshop on Approaches to wh-Intervention at National University of Singapore, organized by mitcho Erlewine ‘14 and Kenyon Branan ‘18. Other participants included Jessica Coon ‘10 and Hadas Kotek ‘14.

Program and abstracts are found here.

Richards @ AFLA 26

Norvin spent May 24-26 at 26th meeting of the Austronesian Formal Linguistics Association, at the University of Western Ontario, where he gave a talk on “Association with lang ‘only’ in Tagalog”. Other speakers included TC Chen ‘18, Mitcho Erlewine ‘14, and Lisa Travis ‘84. The program can be found here.

MIT @ mfm

The 27th Manchester Phonology Meeting (mfm) was held in Manchester, England, from May 23th to May 25th. Two members from MIT participated this year.

  • Adam Albright : Are phonotactically unusual words exceptions?
  • Boer Fu (2nd year) : Contrast Preservation and Maximization in Mandarin R-suffixation

Several alums were also present, including Juliet Stanton, Ezer Rasin, Steven Lulich (SHBT), Eulàlia Bonet, and Joan Mascaró.

All abstracts are found here.

Photo of MIT participants at 27mfm


The 55th meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society happened from May 16th to 18th. Some of our students presented:

Prof. Shigeru Miyagawa’s monograph available on Open access

Shigeru Miyagawa’s 2017 LI monograph, Agreement Beyond Phi, is now available under Open Access. It can be downloaded for free from the MIT Press website.

Stan @ CRAFF

Stanislao Zompi (2nd year), together with Christos Christopoulos (UConn/Harvard), gave a talk at the “Connecting roots and allomorphy” (CRAFF) workshop in Brno (Czech Republic). Their talk was titled “How to avoid disjunctions in describing Indo-European stem-allomorphy”.


The 19th conference on Semantics and Linguistic Theory happened at UCLA from May 17th to May 19th. The following members of our community presented:

Richards @ Parameters Workshop in Honour of Lisa Travis

Norvin Richards spent May 17-18th at the Parameters Workshop in Honour of Lisa Travis at McGill University, where he spoke about how to detect Contiguity-prominence in his talk titled Contiguity-prominence: a prosodic parameter with syntactic consequences.

Whamit! Summer Hiatus

Whamit! will be on hiatus during the summer. We will continue to publish breaking MIT Linguistics news as it happens. Weekly posts will resume in the Fall 2019.

Much thanks to the editors, all readers, and contributors. See you all in the Fall!

GLOW42 @ University of Oslo

The 42nd GLOW conference (GLOW = “Generative Linguistics in the Old World”) took place at the University of Oslo from May 7th to May 9th. Rafael Abramovitz (4th year) presented at the workshop on “Anaphora at the syntax-semantics-pragmatics interface in endangered and understudied languages”. The title of his talk was What can agreeing anaphors tell us about the Anaphor Agreement Effect?.

Gregor Williamson (University College London), a current visitor at MIT, also prented at the main session (Adverbial Adjunct Clauses and their LFs). Recent alumni Benjamin Storme and Coppe van Urk also presented.

LF Reading Group 5/15 - Gregor Williamson (UCL/MIT) & Jacopo Romoli (Ulster)

Two presenters at LFRG this week: Gregor Williamson (UCL/MIT) and Jacopo Romoli (Ulster University, joint work with Lyn Tieu and Cory Bill). The details of their presentations are below.

Speaker: Gregor Williamson (UCL/MIT)
Title: Conditional Antecedents as Polar Free Relatives
Time: Wednesday, May 15th, 1-2PM
Location: 32-D461

Kratzer (1986, 2012), building on Lewis (1975), develops one of the most successful accounts of conditionals to date: the if-clause-as-restrictor account. It maintains that if contributes no meaning to a conditional construction. Rather, the antecedent of a conditional simply denotes a proposition, which may act as a restrictor for a (covert) modal operator in the consequent. A popular alternative to this account, the if-clause-as-a-definite-description-of-worlds account (Schlenker, 2001), has been argued by Bhatt & Pancheva (2006) to be supported by syntactic facts which suggest that if-clauses are free relatives which denote a definite description of worlds. We propose a syntax-semantics for if-clauses which treats them as free relatives formed via a polar question operator (see also Arsenijević, 2009). We show that such an account provides a more transparent syntax-semantics mapping than that of Bhatt & Pancheva. The proposed account maintains a Kratzerian semantics, while nonetheless capturing the well-established syntactic behavior of if-clauses.


Speaker: Jacopo Romoli (Ulster, joint work with Lyn Tieu and Cory Bill)
Title: Homogeneity or implicature: An experimental study of free choice

A sentence containing disjunction in the scope of a possibility modal, such as (1a), gives rise to the free choice inference in (1b). This inference presents a well-known puzzle in light of standard treatments of modals and disjunction (Kamp 1974 and much subsequent work). To complicate things further, free choice tends to disappear under negation: (2a) doesn’t merely convey the negation of (1a), but rather the stronger dual prohibition reading in (2b). There are two main approaches to the free choice-dual prohibition pattern in the literature, based on implicature and homogeneity. We present experimental findings that favour the homogeneity approach, and further discuss how the implicature approach could be developed to account for the results.

(1) a. Sue is allowed to buy the boat or the car. b.Sue is allowed to buy the boat and is allowed to buy the car

(2) a. Sue is not allowed to buy the boat or the car. b. Sue is not allowed to buy the boat and is not allowed to buy the car

Phonology Circle 5/15 - Boer Fu (MIT)

Speaker: Boer Fu (MIT)
Title: Contrast Preservation in Mandarin R-suffixation
Time: Wednesday (5/15), 5:00pm-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Abstract: The low vowel /a/ has three surface forms in Mandarin, a front [a] when followed by an alveolar nasal, a back [ɑ] before a velar nasal, and a central [ɑ̟] in an open syllable. This variation is called the rhyme harmony. My project looks into how these three stem forms change, respectively, in r-suffixation, where a diminutive suffix /-r/ is attached to the stem. In the two vowel-nasal forms, the nasal stop is dropped before the /-r/ coda. However, the back [ɑ] retains its nasalization, while the front [a] is loses its nasalization. Zhang (2000) suggests that this is to maximize the contrast in degree of nasalization that is already in place in the stem forms. He also argues against a contrast preservation account because the front [a] and central [ɑ̟] are neutralized, now that the nasalization on [a] has disappeared. This is indeed true in the Beijing dialect, which the standard Mandarin is closest to. However, I have found that in the Liaoning dialect, such a neutralization does not happen. And [a] and [ɑ̟] are still distinguished from each other by the difference in the quality of the /-r/ coda. I argue that this is contrast preservation, and can be analyzed using MinDist constraints.

CompLang 5/13 - Ethan Wilcox (Harvard)

Speaker: Ethan Wilcox (Harvard University)
Title: Neural Network Language Models as Psycholinguistic Subjects: The Case of Filler—Gap Dependencies
Time: Thursday, 5/13, 5-6pm
Location: 46-5165

Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs) are one type of neural model that has been able to achieve state-of-the-art scores on a variety of natural language tasks, including translation and language modeling (which is used in, for example, text prediction). However, the nature of the representations that these ‘black boxes’ learn is poorly understood, raising issues of accountability and controllability of the NLP system. In this talk, I will argue that one way to assess what these networks are learning is to treat like subjects in a psycholinguistic experiment. By feeding them hand-crafted sentences that belie the model’s underlying knowledge of language I will demonstrate that they are able to learn the filler—gap dependency, and are even sensitive to the hierarchical constraints implicated in the dependency. Next, I turn to “island effects”, or structural configurations that block the filler—-gap dependency, which have been theorized to be unlearnable. I demonstrate that RNNs are able to learn some of the “island” constraints and even recover some of their pre-island gap expectation. These experiments demonstrate that linear statistical models are able to learn some fine-grained syntactic rules, however their behavior remains un-humanlike in many cases.

6th TripleA workshop @ MIT

The TripleA workshop will take place at MIT from May 31st to June 2nd. Invited speakers are Diti Bhadra (Harvard), Sandra Chung (UC Santa Cruz), Virginia Dawson (UC Berkeley) and Ken Safir (Rutgers). Registration is open until May 18 and the program can be found here: http://triplea6.mit.edu/program. Frank Stanizweski (3rd year) will be presenting his work on Wolof, with title Wolof (non) polarity sensitive item dara.


The 28th Workshop on Formal Approaches to Slavic Languages took place at Stony Brook University from May 3rd to May 5th. Several of our students presented:

The Fourth American International Morphology Meeting (AIMM4) was also held at Stony Brook University on the same dates. Colin Davis gave a talk titled Plural suppletion in Barguzin Buryat: Case containment versus *ABA.

MIT Joint Ling-Phil Colloquium: David Beaver (The University of Texas at Austin)

Speaker: David Beaver (University of Texas)
Title: How to do even more things with words
Time: Friday, May 10, 3:30 - 5:00pm
Room: 32-141


Material drawn from:
David Beaver and Jason Stanley (to appear), “Hustle: the politics of Language”, Princeton University Press

The notion of a language as primarily a representational system is natural when you think of the words laid out on the page of an encyclopedia, or even a talk abstract. It’s less natural when you watch some guy ranting angrily in the supermarket, or at an academic talk. This leads to the Wittgensteinian and Austinian thought that language consists in the first place of things you do, not things that sit passively on the page or screen. Grammars, then are practices, and those practices consist of conventions for performing communicative actions. But how far can this program be taken, and how far should it be taken? Is there value to focusing on the actions of, say, uttering nouns and verbs and relative clauses, rather than limiting linguistic study to the corresponding classes of strings and the things they symbolize? 

First things first: is it even possible to formulate a grammar in terms of actions? Yes. I will show that formulating grammars in terms of actions does not necessitate much alteration to the technical machinery of formal linguistics, albeit that the change invites further innovation. I introduce Action Grammar, a way of looking at what language is that centers on the actions that a speaker performs. While the target of the approach is ultimately an account of the place of language in social interaction, the proposed paradigm can also be seen as making formally explicit the idea in contemporary linguistic theory that grammatical representations are “instructions for the interface systems”. In Action Grammar, it is not merely combinatorial operations like “merge” that are actions, but the merged objects themselves. 

As regards semantics, Action Grammar conservatively maintains insights of modern post-Montagovian compositional grammar, while providing a new way of cutting up semantic/pragmatic space that might be thought of as a precisification of the Relevance Theoretic distinction between conceptual and procedural aspects of meaning. Crucially, although it appears mysterious how one expression can simultaneously mean multiple things, there is no mystery at all in the fact that a speaker can use an expression to do several things (of which describing the world is just one). I will sketch how the approach offers the possibility of simplifying aspects of grammatical composition and the semantics-pragmatics interface, and suggest that it offers insights into both sentence level markers of speech acts, such as performatives, and subsentential speech acts, which may include uses of expressives, politeness markers, and parentheticals. Among other things, I will argue not merely that modern analyses of “conventional implicature” are in error, but that the term itself is a misnomer.

Noam Chomsky’s lectures now online

Noam Chomsky gave two lectures on April 10th and 12th. You can watch the first lecture here and the second lecture here.

MorPhun 5/6: Neil Banerjee on negative allomorphy in Bengali

Speakers: Neil Banerjee (MIT)
Title: Negative allomorphy in Bengali
Time: Monday, May 6th, 5-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Abstract: Bengali (Eastern Indic) has two morphemes for sentential negation: ni is used to negate finite perfect verbs, while na is used for all other constructions. In this project, I investigate the distribution of these two morphemes, present new data from the antecedents of conditionals and from TP ellipsis, and propose a morphological analysis with implications for the mechanism of ellipsis. 

   In both antecedents and with ellipsis, perfect verbs occur with the ‘wrong’ negation, namely na. I argue that this strongly supports a morphological account of the distribution, rather than the semantic account proposed in Ramchand (2004). I present a morphological account of the facts based on Trommer’s (1999) proposal for portmanteau and a modification of Adger et al’s (2003) proposal for a labelling algorithm. I demonstrate that within a Distributed Morphology framework, inward sensitivity to morphosyntactic features is required for this account to succeed. Issues of locality of triggers and directionality of allomorphy will be discussed. Finally, based on the new evidence from ellipsis bleeding allomorphy, I argue that at least in Bengali, ellipsis must be realised as featural obliteration prior to vocabulary insertion.

Syntax Square 5/7 - Filipe Kobayashi (MIT) on Keine 2018

Speaker: Filipe Kobayashi (MIT) on Keine 2018
Title: Keine (2018) Selective Opacity
Time: Tuesday, May 7, 1pm-2pm
Location: 32-D461

(Keine 2018) This article develops a general theory of selective opacity effects, configurations in which the same constituent is opaque for some operations but transparent for others. Classical observations of selective opacity lie in the realm of movement. Finite clauses, for instance, are opaque for A-movement but transparent for Ā-extraction, a pattern that generalizes beyond the A/Ā distinction. Using novel evidence from movement-agreement interactions in Hindi-Urdu, I argue that selective opacity also encompasses ϕ-agreement and I propose that the underlying constraint applies, not to movement itself, but to Agree. I develop the novel concept of horizons, which delimit search spaces in probe specific ways by terminating search. They thereby prevent particular probes from searching into them, inducing selective opacity. The horizons account derives an otherwise surprising property of selective opacity effects noted previously: the higher the structural position of a probe in the clausal spine, the more structures are transparent to it. The analysis proposed here unifies improper movement and related selective opacity restrictions, mismatches in the locality of movement and agreement, and intricate interactions between movement types and agreement.

LF Reading Group 5/8 - Tanya Bondarenko (MIT)

Speaker: Tanya Bondarenko (MIT)
Title: From think to remember: the case of Buryat’s verb hanaxa
Time: Wednesday, May 8th, 1-2PM
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Barguzin Buryat has an attitude verb hanaxa, which is naturally translated as “think” when it takes CP clauses and as “remember” when it takes nominalized clauses. I show that this difference in translation correlates with a presence of a factive presupposition, (1)-(2), and argue that this factivity alternation arises not due to lexical ambiguity or nominal/definite status of the complement, but rather due to the interaction between the argument structure of the verb and different ways of it composing with CPs and with NPs.

Phonology Circle 5/8 - Aleksei Nazarov (University of Toronto)

Speaker: Aleksei Nazarov (University of Toronto)
Title: Connecting opacity and exceptionality: “alphabet features” in constraints
Time: Wednesday (5/8), 5:00pm-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Some analyses of phonological opacity in OT maintain that opaque generalizations are encoded in the lexicon (e.g., Mielke et al. 2003, Sanders 2006), or result from language-specific constraints (Pater 2014). Developing these ideas, I propose that systematic opaque generalizations may arise from rankings of lexically indexed constraints (Kraska-Szlenk 1995, Pater 2000). This perspective has consequences for models of phonological learning, since it allows us to view both exceptionality and opacity as part of the same hidden structure learning problem.
In order to allow constraint indexation to be relevant to opacity, indexation must be binary (cf. Becker 2009) and local to particular segments (cf. Temkin-Martínez 2010, Rubach 2013, 2016, Round 2017) – ideas that had been proposed separately, but not brought together within OT, although SPE (Chomsky and Halle 1968) did originally propose local and binary indices in the form of “alphabet features” (see also Zonneveld 1978). Given such indices, different rankings of indexed markedness constraints allow for exceptionless or exceptionful opaque interactions, which will be illustrated with an analysis of Canadian Raising (Chambers 1973, Bermúdez-Otero 2003).

Swenson to MTSU

We are delighted to report that our alum Amanda Swenson (PhD 2017) has accepted a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in the Department of English at Middle Tennessee State University where she will be teaching linguistics. Amanda wrote her dissertation on “The morphosemantics and morphosyntax of the Malayalam verb”, and has been a lecturer at Gordon College.

MorPhun 4/29 (at 12:30!): Hagen Blix (NYU) on Arabic agreement

Speakers: Hagen Blix (NYU)
Title: (Dis)continuous Bleeding: Cyclicity and Spans
Time: Monday, April 29th, 12:30-2pm (note the unusual time)
Location: 32-D831

Abstract: Modern Standard Arabic verbal agreement shows two properties that I argue to have important implications for the theory of interpretative/post-syntactic morphology. Firstly, it shows affixes whose distribution cannot be described as natural classes in the SPE-style subset principle of Distributed Morphology (Halle & Marantz 1993). In example (1), we see that the prefixal y/tencodes a gender contrast in the third person singular of the subjunctive.

(1) a. 3m.sg: y-aktub-a 
b. 3f.sgt-aktub-a

While this clearly suggests that at least one of the affixes spells out gender, both affixes occur in both genders if we look beyond the third person singular. In the third person plural, both genders occur with y (2), whereas the second person plural shows both genders with t (3), with both forms marking the gender distinction at the suffixal position.

(2) a. 3m.pl: y-aktub-uu
b. 3f.pl: y-aktub-na

(3) a. 2m.pl: t-aktub-uu
b. 2f.pl: t-aktub-na

This rules out an analysis of the initial contrast in (1) in terms of the subset principle alone. Halle (2000) offers an analysis in terms of impoverishment, with t as an elsewhere marker and neither affix spelling out gender, but these impoverishment rules violate otherwise established markedness constraints (Noyer 1992, Nevins 2011). In particular, Noyer (1992) argued that in case of a “feature clash”, only the feature lower on the hierarchy in (4) can be impoverished:

(4) Person > Number > Gender

Secondly, various affixes, including the aforementioned t occur either as prefixes or as suffixes on the verb, depending on the Tense/Aspect configuration (5-7). Puzzlingly, while the prefixal forms of 2m.sg and 3f.sg are identical (6a), (7a), their suffixal counterparts in the perfect are distinguished not by different affixes, but rather by the order in which they occur (6b), (7b).

(5) a. 1pl.sbjv: n-aktub-a
b. 1pl.perf: katab-n-aa(6) a. 2m.sg.sbjv: t-aktub-ab. 2m.sg.perf: katab-t-a(7) 3f.sg.sbjv: t-aktub-a3f.sg.perf: katab-a-t

This is unexpected from the perspective of any theory that argues that prefixhood and suffixhood are part of the vocabulary item/rule itself (Halle & Marantz 1993, Noyer 1992, Halle 2000).
In this talk, I will argue that the hierarchy Noyer (1992) described as governing Impoverishment actually describes an inverse of the f-seq of Arabic agreement, and that spellout operating on spans, regulated by a superset principle (Starke 2009), can capture the distribution of these affixes without recourse to Impoverishment. I then show that a movement-based, antisymmetry approach to linear order can derive the positional effects at PF (Kayne 1994, Kayne 2017, Koopman 2018, Julien 2002, Blix under review) in a way that characterizes the affixes that may appear in prefixal position as a uniform set (as opposed to an arbitrary collection of affixes, as in previous work), and allows us to connect their paradigmatic distribution with their linear one.

Syntax Square 4/30 - Elise Newman (MIT)

Speaker: Elise Newman (MIT)
Title: Revisiting the Rich Agreement Hypothesis (RAH)
Time: Tuesday, April 30, 1pm-2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: In this week’s syntax square, I will lead an informal discussion about the Rich Agreement Hypothesis (henceforth RAH). RAH is an early approach to V to T movement, which argues that rich subject agreement on the finite verb conditions V to T movement in a language (Kosmeijer 1986, Pollock 1989, Platzack & Holmberg 1989, Holmberg & Platzack 1991, 1995, Roberts 1993, Rohrbacher 1994, Vikner 1995, 1997, Bobaljik 1995, Bobaljik & Thráinsson 1998, Koeneman 2000, Koeneman & Zeijlstra 2014, and others). I plan to discuss 1) how RAH has influenced theories of head movement (featuring Bobaljik & Thráinsson most prominently), 2) empirical claims about which languages have head movement and which do not, and 3) what value can be derived from this enterprise and what questions we should reformulate moving forward. One of the recalcitrant problems for RAH is the English auxiliary system, so we will (time permitting) touch on how to include English into the picture as well.

LF Reading Group 5/1 - Shumian Ye (MIT/Peking University)

Speaker: Shumian Ye (MIT/Peking University)
Title: Negated disjunctions in Mandarin revisited
Time: Wednesday, May 1st, 1-2PM
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: In this talk, I will argue that OR in Mandarin is neither an NPI nor a PPI, contra Crain (2012). First, when embedded by negations, certain disjunctions obligatorily take the narrow scope, while Hurford disjunctions obligatorily take the wide scope. Compare (1) with (2).

(1) ta mei quguo Beijing huo qita chengshi.
she NEG have.been Beijing OR other cities
Unique reading: She hasn’t been to Beijing or any other cities. (¬ > ∨)

(2) zhe ping jiu de jiage bu chaoguo shi kuai huo ershi kuai.
this CL wine DE price NEG exceed ten dollars OR twenty dollars
Unique reading: The price of this wine doesn’t exceed $10, or doesn’t exceed $20. (∨ > ¬)

Second, most negated disjunctions are ambiguous in Mandarin. Which reading is salient seems to depend on the higher modals and the contexts. Compare (3) with (4).

(3) ta kending mei quguo Beijing huo Shanghai.
she definitely NEG have.been Beijing OR Shanghai
Salient reading: She definitely hasn’t been to Beijing, nor to Shanghai. (¬ > ∨)

(4) ta keneng mei quguo Beijing huo Shanghai.
she maybe NEG have.been Beijing OR Shanghai
Salient reading: She maybe hasn’t been to Beijing, or hasn’t been to Shanghai. (∨ > ¬)

More crucially, the disjunctions can still take wide scope when the negated disjunctions are in the scope of a downward entailing operator, that is, OR in Mandarin cannot be rescued as a PPI (Szabolcsi 2004). After going through these arguments, I will take other modals into consideration and give a preliminary explanation for the contrast between (3) and (4), which mainly relies on two factors: 1) Interaction between different modals and ignorance/uncertainty inferences, 2) Competition between OR and AND.

Phonology Circle 5/1 - Michael Kenstowicz (MIT)

Speaker: Michael Kenstowicz (MIT)
Title: Phonetic Correlates of the Stop Voicing Contrast in Javanese
Time: Wednesday (5/1), 5:00pm-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Previous studies of the Javanese [±voice] distinction find that in word-initial position the contrast is realized not in virtue of stop closure voicing or VOT but rather in the quality and pitch of the following vowel. Correlates include differences in the first and second formants as well as fundamental frequency and voice quality. In this study we extend this line of research by looking at the realization of the voicing contrast in a wider variety of contexts (word-initial, medial, and final) and tests of statistical significance of the data. The implications of our findings for the phonology of the language are also considered.

Ling-Lunch 5/2 - Kyongjoon Kwon (Sungkyunkwan University)

Speaker: Kyongjoon Kwon (Sungkyunkwan University)
Title: A phonologically null verb give in the Russian threat dative construction
Time: Thursday, 5/2, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

The central goal of this talk is to argue that the so-called Russian threat dative construction contains a phonologically null verb give. In the proposed ditransitive structure, the theme is an event denoted by a pronominalized verb that anaphorically refers to the verb phrase in the immediately previous speech. The pronominalized verb stem is phonologically realized through the incorporation of the null verb after a series of head movements. Under this proposal, the seemingly unmotivated or stipulated at the least dative case marked pronoun is well accounted for, i.e., as a recipient in the predication denoted by the ApplP. And the sentential meaning “I will give you/him/her/them back X ”, where X repeats a part of the previous speech, gives rise by implication to the threat effect. Finally, I propose that the posited null verb give, alongside overt forms, should be termed as “retortative” give, which expresses the idea of paying the interlocutor back with a similar response by retaliation.

LF Reading Group 4/24 - Keny Chatain (MIT)

Speaker: Keny Chatain (MIT)
Title: What is wrong with doubles?
Time: Wednesday, April 24th, 1-2PM
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: In this talk, I show that for a sizeable class of adjectival operators (including comparatives, superlatives, excessives, samedifferent), standard and otherwise perfectly adequate denotations and LFs deliver problematic truth-conditions in sentences where two such operators occur, e.g. (1-2). This happens even though speakers recognize such sentences as well-formed and have consistent intuitions about their truth-conditions. These problems have been partially tackled in the literature (von Stechow (1984) under the label multihead comparatives, Meier (2000) for degree result clauses, and refs therein), but a one-size-fits-all solution, if it exists, remains to be found.

(1) Amelia carried the biggest elephant over the longest distance (relative reading)
(2) Every suspect read the same book at the same time.

After presenting the problem, I will explore three solutions: 1) an extension of von Stechow (1984), 2) a solution exploiting polyadic quantification inspired in spirit by Fox & Johnson (2016), 3) a postsuppositional account following Brasoveanu (2012). I will show that the challenges faced by all three solutions are daunting, if not insurmountable. I will suggest a revision of 1) but will mainly leave the puzzle open for the audience’s insights to express themselves freely.

Phonology Circle 4/24 - Jonathan Bobaljik (Harvard)

Speaker: Jonathan Bobaljik (Harvard University), joint work with David Koester (University of Alaska Fairbanks), Chikako Ono (Chiba University), and G. D. Zaporotskij
Title: Text setting in an Itelmen khodila (song)
Time: Wednesday (4/24), 5:30pm-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

available here

Ling-Lunch 4/25 - Tatiana Bondarenko and Stanislao Zompi (MIT)

Speaker: Tatiana Bondarenko & Stanislao Zompí (MIT)
Title: Leftover Agreement in Kartvelian
Time: Thursday, 4/25, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk we argue that some instances of agreement result from probes interacting with unspelled-out features of lower agreement probes. We call such agreement Leftover Agreement, and show how it can account for the observed variation in number agreement across the four Kartvelian languages.

(1) a.  Georgian                      
‘She/he saw us.’
(Aronson 1990: 172)         

b.  Svan
‘She/he is killing us.’
 (Testelets 1989: 9) (2)

a.  Laz
‘She/he sees us.’
(Lacroix 2009: 294)

b.  Megrelian
‘She/he writes us.’
 (Kipshidze 1914: 076)

In Georgian and Svan, (1), the lower probe (the prefix) spells out both first-person and plural features of the object, so the higher probe (the suffix) does not find anything left over to agree with. In Laz and Megrelian, (2), however, the lower probe has spelled out only the person, but not the number feature of the object. This leftover feature is being agreed with and spelled out by a higher probe (the suffix -an / -a(n)). 
            In our talk, we will spell out our assumptions about the Kartvelian agreement system and discuss our implementation of Leftover Agreement, compare our proposal to other approaches (Halle & Marantz 1993, Harley & Lomashvili 2011, Blix 2016, Foley 2017, Thivierge 2018, a.o.), and show how it can be extended to the “inverse” agreement alignment with minimal changes.

Noam Chomsky’s 90th birthday celebration

Last Saturday evening, over 200 MIT Linguistics alums, colleagues, and friends gathered to celebrate Noam Chomsky’s spectacular 90th year. Here he is, blowing out his candles (not 90 of them, however):

photo credit: Eulalia Bonet

Bassi @ Workshop on Dependency in Syntactic Co-variance

Itai Bassi (4th year) presented his work on Fake Indexicals in the workshop on Dependency in Syntactic Co-variance that took place last week in Leipzig University. His handout can be found here.

Colloquium 4/26 - Aynat Rubinstein (HUJI)

Speaker: Aynat Rubinstein (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Title: Desire in motion
Time: Friday, April 26, 3:30-5:00pm
Room: 32-141

Motion verbs are famous for their tendency to undergo language change. Across languages, verbs meaning ‘come’ and ‘go’ become future markers, aspectual markers, modals expressing necessity, and more. Tracing the development of ‘come’ in Hebrew during its revival, this talk highlights yet another diachronic pathway that stems from motion: the pathway from motion to desire. Using goal-orientation as the essential meaning component of directed motion, I offer an analysis of the internally-motivated changes in the verb’s meaning, as well as changes instigated by language contact. The investigation supports the idea that meaning change is driven not by conventionalization of pragmatic inferences but by re-distribution of semantic content in possibly innovative syntactic configurations (Beck 2012, Beck & Gergel 2015, Condoravdi & Deo 2014).

LF Reading Group 4/17 - Qi Hao (Harvard/Pekin University)

Speaker: Qi Hao (Harvard/Peking University)
Title: The Syntax/Semantics of Numeral Classifiers in Mandarin Chinese and Numeral Mapping Parameter
Time: Wednesday, April 17th, 1-2PM
Location: 32-D461

It is a well-known fact that classifiers are needed for grammatical counting in classifier languages such as Mandarin Chinese.

(1) a. yi ge xiaohai
one CLGENERAL child

b. san ben shu
three CLVOLUME book

c. liang ping shui
two CLBOTTLE water

There are three basic and related questions we want to ask about the Num-Cl-N Construction:

A. What is the internal constituency, [Num-Cl]-N or Num-[Cl-N]?
B. What is the function/semantics of classifiers?
C. How to account for the presence/absence of the classifier system among languages?

The mainstream analysis in generative framework is that classifiers are functional morphemes on the extended projection of nominals, functioning as divider heads (Borer 2005), type shifters from kinds to predicates (Chierchia 1998, Jiang 2012) or the syntactic counterpart of COUNT operation (Rothstein 2010, X.P. Li 2013) to make mass/kind-denoting nouns countable with numerals. That is to say, classifiers take nouns as complements and Cl-Ns further combine with numerals, structured as [Num-[Cl-N]]. And the presence of a classifier system is correlated with the absence of plural morphology as well as the absence of articles (see Chierchia 1998). However, analyses within this tradition will face difficulties when it comes to languages like Old Chinese. Old Chinese lacks both plural morphology and articles, but classifiers do not show up, as in (2).

(2) san ren xing, bi you wo shi yan. (The Analects)
three person walk must have my teacher at-there
‘If three people walk together, there must be a teacher of mine among them.’

Furthermore, it would be very hard to explain the fact for the former treatments that numerals can stand alone in predicate and argument positions in English (as in (3)) as well as in Old Chinese (as in (5)), but not in Modern Mandarin (as in (4)).

(3) a. Apples on the table are three.
b. As for apples, I bought three.

(4) a. Zhuozi-shang de pingguo shi *san/san-ge.
Table-LOCTOP MOD apple COP three/three-CLGEN. (same intended meaning as in 3a)
b. Pingguo ma, wo mai-le *san/san-ge
Apple PART, I buy-ASPT three/three-CLGEN. (same intended meaning as in 3b)

(5) a. Shi you bu ke zhi zhe san. (Records of the Grand Historian)
Thing have not can know NOM three
‘Things which cannot be known are three.’

b. Zheng yue, zuo san jun, san fen gongshi er ge you qi yi. (Zuo Zhuan)
First month, form three army, three divide country CONJ each have its one
“In the first month, (Jiwuzi) formed three armies, and divided the country into three parts and then each (of the three people) had one of them.”

Following the spirit of Semantic Parameter in Chierchia (1998), I propose that a parameter for different semantics of numerals is required to account for above facts, which can be called “Numeral Mapping Parameter”. It can be represented as follows:

(6) a. Numerals map to type in non-classifier languages such as English and Old Chinese.
b. Numerals map to type n (numbers/cardinals) in classifier languages such as Chinese.

Precisely, we should say that numerals in all languages start as individual expressions of type n denoting numbers. And the et-type use is derived from the number expression by following processes (Landman 2004, Rothstein 2009):

(7) a. three: 3 (type n)
b. IDENT(three): λn. n = 3 (raised to a predicate by IDENT)
c. function composition: λn. n = 3 °| | (composed with cardinality function)

                    = λx. |x| = 3

The derivation in (7) is a lexical rule in English, and numerals are type-et as syntactic primitives. However, Mandarin lacks such a rule in the lexicon, and hence numerals are type n when they come into syntax. Such semantic deficiency of numerals is the genuine reason why we see classifiers in Mandarin. Classifiers are of type which turns n-type numerals into et-type numerals. The semantics for classifiers can be represented as follows:

(8) a. [[Cl]] = λP λn λx [PUNIT(x) & |x|P = n] if PUNIT(x) is defined, else
[[Cl]] = λP λn λx [|x|P = n] (the case for kilos, liters)
(P stands for classifier roots)

b. [[san-Cl-ben]] = λx BENUNIT (x) & |x|BEN = 3
(paraphrase: x comes in the naturals units of volumes and the cardinality of x is three measured by the units of volumes)

Then we can say the “classifier” is a built-in semantics of English numerals (with very abstract meaning as ‘object unit’), while such a category must be independently encoded in Mandarin syntax due to Numeral Mapping Parameter. And the internal structure of the Num-Cl-N sequence is [Num-Cl]-N, contrary to most of the former treatments. Further evidence will be given to support this.

We will also make a reply to the structural ambiguity analysis for individuating readings and measuring readings of classifier construction by X.P. Li (2013) and argue that we can get the two different readings from a unified syntax. And we will make a preliminary attempt to answer the question whether the mass-count distinction really exists in classifier languages such as Mandarin.

Phonology Circle 4/17 - Anton Kukhto (MIT) presents Shih & Zuraw (2017)

In this week’s meeting of Phonology Circle, Anton Kukhto (MIT) will lead a discussion of Shih & Zuraw’s 2017 paper: Phonological conditions on variable adjective and noun word order in Tagalog. You can download the paper here.

Discussion leader: Anton Kukhto (MIT)
Paper: Shih, S. S., & Zuraw, K. (2017). Phonological conditions on variable adjective and noun word order in Tagalog. Language, 93(4), 317-352 (available here).
Time: Wednesday (4/17), 5:00-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Tagalog adjectives and nouns variably occur in two word orders, separated by an intermediary linker: adjective-linker-noun versus noun-linker-adjective. The linker has two phonologically conditioned surface forms, -ng and na. This article presents a large-scale corpus study of adjective/ noun order variation in Tagalog, focusing in particular on phonological conditions. Results show that word-order variation in adjective/noun pairs optimizes for phonological structure, abiding by phonotactic, syllabic, and morphophonological well-formedness preferences that are also found elsewhere in Tagalog grammar. The results indicate that surface phonological information is accessible for word-order choice.

Ling-Lunch 4/18 - Conor McDonough Quinn (University of Southern Maine)

Speaker: Conor McDonough Quinn (University of Southern Maine)
Title: Animacy, obviation, inverse, and delightful phonological subtleties: a call to look more at Passamaquoddy-Wolastoqew(Maliseet) and relatives, and helps for formal theory from endangered language pedagogy
Time: Thursday, 4/18, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461


Starting with core discussions of three traditionally thorny phenomena Algonquian morphosyntax:

  • Algonquian grammatical animate status as formal “mission creep” from semantic animacy, via highly constrained analogical “families” that shift over time and space, but are reliably productive for any given speaker.
  • Proximate-obviative as marking referential entailment dependency: in 3rd+3rd Goal-Theme configurations (verbal-ditransitive or nominal-possessive), the Theme cannot be proximate relative to the obviative Goal; only the reverse. E.g. in [HER MOTHER], [MOTHER] must always be obviative. This restriction seems tied crucially to the observation that knowing the complete reference of [MOTHER] in [HER MOTHER] entails knowing the reference of HER.
  • Inverse for 3→{1,2} configurations in Algonquian languages being only strictly required for clause-types realized morphosyntactically as possessed nominals: in them, core transitive arguments are introduced via a Goal-Theme (Possessor-Possessee) configuration, and so are subject to a Person-Case Constraint effect.

We then briefly note three other features in desperate need of in-depth research: (a) head-marking for oblique (spatial, manner, temporal, etc.) arguments; (b) nominal tense; (c) standalone Secondary Objects (= morphosyntactically same as ditransitive Themes, but with no overt/interpreted Goal argument). Also briefly sketched are three under-researched phonetic-phonological phenomena: (a) iambic weak/strong-schwa alternations + related rich initial/final consonant clusters; (b) contrastive pitch-accent + final vowel deletion alternations; (c) preaspiration and gemination in a voicing-noncontrasting phonational system. Finally, we observe how being “reduced to” minimalist, non-technical, and pragmatic-communicatively-grounded presentations of these kinds of unfamiliar linguistic phenomena—namely, doing what it takes to teach them genuinely effectively to adult learners—creates fertile ground for innovative rethinking.

A longer version of the abstract can be found here.

CompLang 4/18 - Tal Linzen (John Hopkins University)

Speaker: Tal Linzen (Johns Hopkins University)
Title: Linguistics in the age of deep learning
Time: Thursday, 4/18, 5-6pm
Location: 32-141


Deep learning systems with minimal or no explicit linguistic structure have recently proved to be surprisingly successful in language technologies. What, then, is the role of linguistics in language technologies in the deep learning age? I will argue that the widespread use of these “black box” models provides an opportunity for a new type of contribution: characterizing the desired behavior of the system along interpretable axes of generalization from the training set, and identifying the areas in which the system falls short of that standard.

I will illustrate this approach in word prediction (language models) and natural language inference. I will show that recurrent neural network language models are able to process many syntactic dependencies in typical sentences with considerable success, but when evaluated on carefully controlled materials, their error rate increases sharply. Perhaps more strikingly, neural inference systems (including ones based on the widely popular BERT model), which appear to be quite accurate according to the standard evaluation criteria used in the NLP community, perform very poorly in controlled experiments; for example, they universally infer from “the judge chastised the lawyer” that “the lawyer chastised the judge”. Finally, if time permits, I will show how neural network models can be used to address classic questions in linguistics, in particular by providing a platform for testing for the necessity and sufficiency of explicit structural biases in the acquisition of syntactic transformations.

MIT Colloquium 4/19- Dan Lassiter (Stanford)

Speaker: Dan Lassiter (Stanford University)
Title: Mathematical Counterfactuals
Time and Place: Friday, April 19, 3:30-5:00pm, room 32-141

Counterfactual reasoning about mathematical truths (“If 7 + 5 were 11, I’d have gotten a perfect score on the math test”) presents an important challenge to standard accounts of the semantics of conditionals. I describe a semantics based on Pearl-style interventions on generative models and show that it provides a simple account of mathematical counterfactuals that also coheres well with research on mathematical cognition. The approach is related to the possible worlds theory in that the models are recipes for generating descriptions of possible worlds, but their procedural character is crucial in supporting interventions and the kind of partiality that I argue we need to render mathematical counterfactuals meaningful.

Syntax Square 4/9 - Danfeng Wu (MIT)

Speaker: Danfeng Wu (MIT)
Title: Prefer the less specified form: Evidence from Lebanese Arabic
Time: Tuesday, 4/9, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

For languages with resumptive pronouns (RPs), an Economy principle has been proposed that prefers gap realization whenever possible (e.g. Shlonsky 1992, Pesetsky 1998, McDaniel and Cowart 1999, Sichel 2014, and Rasin 2016). In Hebrew, for instance, the A’-trace in a raising relative clause is realized as a gap, unless an island blocks the movement, in which case an RP is inserted in the trace position. Because an RP has more internal structure than a gap, this Economy principle can then be stated either as a preference for the leastspecified form or the preference for the less specified form.

In this preliminary and informal discussion I argue that the latter formulation of the Economy principle is correct. I present evidence from Lebanese Arabic, which has a richer resumption strategy than Hebrew and can use an independent morpheme (“strong” pronouns), a clitic (“weak” pronoun), or an epithet in resumption (Aoun et al. 2001). The strong pronoun and the epithet have more morphological complexity than the weak pronoun. When coindexed with a quantificational antecedent (a wh-phrase or a quantifier), the strong pronoun and the epithet have the same distribution on the one hand, while the weak pronoun and the gap pattern together and have a wider distribution on the other hand. Strikingly, a weak pronoun alternates with a wh-gap in non-island contexts, and the wh-antecedent can be reconstructed to the position of the weak pronoun (Aoun and Benmamoun 1998). Based on these facts I argue that the Economy principle is a comparative one rather than a superlative one, preferring the less specified form whenever possible. In the case of Lebanese Arabic, it prefers a gap and a weak pronoun rather than a strong pronoun and an epithet.

LF Reading Group 4/10 - Christopher Baron (MIT)

Speaker: Christopher Baron (MIT)
Title: Entailments, implicatures, and absolute adjectives
Time: Wednesday, April 10th, 1-2PM
Location: 32-D461

Absolute adjectives like straight and bent give rise to interesting entailments and implicatures when they occur in degree constructions; the [a] and [b] examples below are comparatives, and the [c] examples are degree achievements.

  1. [a] Bar A is straighter than it was before.
    [b] Bar A is straighter than Bar B is.
    [c] Bar A straightened.
  2. [a] Bar C is more bent than it was before.
    [b] Bar C is more bent than Bar B is.
    [c] Bar C bent

(1a) and (1c) entail that Bar A wasn’t completely straight before; (1b) entail that Bar B isn’t completely straight. However, (1a) and (1b) seem to imply that Bar A isn’t completely straight, whereas (1c) seems to imply that it is completely straight (now). The examples in (2) are similar. All three entail that Bar C is bent (now). (2a) seems to imply that Bar C was already bent, and (2b) seems to imply that Bar B is also bent. However, (2c) seems to imply that Bar C wasn’t bent before. 

I’ll argue that this implied content really is implicature, rather than entailment or presupposition, and explore and expand on accounts of some (but not all) of these implicatures (e.g. Kennedy 2007). Furthermore, I’ll explore various possibilities for the apparent reversal in implicature with degree achievements, and argue that none of the obvious solutions are quite appealing. I leave open for now, however, a positive account of these data. 

Phonology Circle 4/10 - Jonathan Bobaljik (Harvard)

Speaker: Jonathan Bobaljik (Harvard University), joint work with David Koester (University of Alaska Fairbanks), Chikako Ono (Chiba University), and G. D. Zaporotskij
Title: Text setting in an Itelmen khodila (song)
Time: Wednesday 10th, 5:00pm-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Abstract: available here

CompLang 4/11 - Yadav Gowda (MIT)

Presenter: Yadav Gowda (MIT Linguistics)
Paper to read: Tanenhaus et. al (1995)
Time: Thursday, 4/11, 5-6pm
Location: 46-5165

Tanenhaus et. al 1995 is an influential paper arguing that language processing is (a) incremental and (b) provides us with an argument against the modularity of syntax. I will review their arguments and explore related questions, including, but not limited to: What defines a module? Why should/shouldn’t cognitive scientists propose modules? What should we take to be neurological/psychological evidence of a module?

Lectures by Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky will be giving two lectures at MIT this week.

Location : 37-212
Times : Wednesday 10th of April & Friday 12th of April

Hoping to see you there!

Newell Lewey accepts position at University of Maine at Machias

Our alum Newell Lewey has accepted a position of adjunct instructor at the University of Maine at Machias, where he will teach Intro to Passamaquoddy and Public Speaking. Congratulations, Newell! Kuli-kiseht!