The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, May 14th, 2018

Memorial for Morris Halle

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

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

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

Phonology Circle 5/14 - Koichi Tateishi (Kobe College/MIT)

Speaker: Koichi Tateishi (Kobe College/MIT)
Title: Trimoraicity and Monomoraicity: Cases in Japanese
Date/Time: Monday, May 14, 2018, 5:00-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

This presentation is about Japanese syllables, which appear to be one of the best-studied areas in phonology, starting from McCawley (1968) and traditional Japanese linguistics papers preceding it. I will point out that /N/, a moraic nasal, which is never a nuclear component of a syllable and hence can never be accented according to McCawley and later works, actually stands out as an independent syllabic nucleus at some morphological peripheries. This syllabic /N/ can be accent-bearing and can undergo Initial Lowering, another signatory tonal phenomenon that is typically observed only with a syllabic nucleus. The presentation also points out that the syllabic /N/ is only for the borrowings and mimetics, while we find an independent phenomenon in the Yamato (native Japanese) stratum that derives a string that appears to derive a syllabic /Q/, moraic obstruent, and that this constitutes a counterargument to Ito and Mester’s (1995) strata-dependent reranking hypothesis.


Pesetsky ends term as Department Head

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

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

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

Thanks to Sze-Wing Tang for the photos.


Syntax Square 5/15 - Suzana Fong (MIT)

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

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

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

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

(2) Syntactic properties

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

(3) Semantic properties

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


The 25th Meeting of the Austronesian Formal Linguistics Association took place May 10-12 at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan.  TC Chen presented on Amis Case stacking. Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine (PhD ‘14) sends us this picture of TC standing next to an antique tea chest at the conference:


Whamit Summer Semi-Hiatus

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

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