The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, November 1st, 2010

MIT Linguistics major featured in the Tech

In case you missed it, the Tech recently featured an article highlighting the linguistics major, including interviews with David Pesetsky and several current majors.


Syntax Square 11/2 - Kirill Shklovsky

Please join us for Syntax Square this week. Kirill Shklovsky will discuss a part of the Algonquian agreement system and one of the proposed ways of accounting for it within the minimalist framework, namely Bejar and Rezac’s Cyclic Agree.

Speaker: Kirill Shklovsky
Title: Algonquian Direct/Inverse
Time: Tuesday, 11/2, 1-2PM
Place: 32-D461

BCS Cog Lunch 11/2 - Hal Tily

Speaker: Hal Tily
Title: Linguistic representations are probabilistic: evidence from production choices, articulation, visual attention and reading times
Time: Tues 11/2, 12pm
Location: 46-3189

Comprehenders are sensitive to the probability of linguistic material: they read more predictable words faster, resolve ambiguities to a more likely outcome, and complete sentences in ways similar to actual speakers’ productions. However, this does not necessarily mean that our knowledge of language includes knowledge about the probability of linguistic material, since we could simply be sensitive to the probability of events in the world (plausibility), which is typically confounded with the probability of the words used to describe them. Luckily, languages sometimes give multiple ways of expressing a single event which may differ in their probability, such as the English ditransitive: “give the princess the necklace” means the same thing as “give the necklace to the princess”. I present work showing that these constructions are indeed used by speakers with different probabilities depending on the linguistic environment. Those probabilities even influence the realization of the utterance in speech: using the more probable construction in a given situation leads to shorter word durations and improved fluency. Using eyetracking, we next show that comprehenders are sensitive to linguistic probabilities and use them to anticipate the order that referents will be mentioned. Finally, in online self paced reading, I show that low probability construction choices lead to difficulty in comprehension. These results suggest that linguistic forms which do not differ in meaning nevertheless have associated probabilistic usage patterns which are fundamental to both production and comprehension.

MIT Linguistics Colloquium 11/5 - Valentine Hacquard

Speaker: Valentine Hacquard, University of Maryland
Title: Epistemics, mood and attitudes
Date: Friday, November 05, 2010
Time: 3:30-5:00PM
Place: 32-155 (PLEASE NOTE ROOM)

Epistemic modals are notoriously difficult to embed. This talk will focus on epistemic modals in complements of attitudes verbs. I will show that epistemics can appear in the complements of some, but not all attitudes. A rough generalization is that they are prohibited in complements of verbs that select for subjunctive mood in Romance. I will present joint work with Pranav Anand that aims at explaining this generalization: why is the distribution of epistemics restricted, and what role, if any, does mood plays?

Phonology Circle 11/1 - Sverre Stausland Johnsen

Speaker:Sverre Stausland Johnsen (Harvard)
Title: Phonetic naturalness in Norwegian retroflexion
Time: Monday 11/1, 5pm, 32-D831

In some approaches to phonology, phonetically motivated processes are given a special status within the grammar. Under this view, phonetically motivated processes are cross-linguistically common because the synchronic grammar favors it.

In other approaches, these processes are not granted such a status. Under this view, phonetically motivated processes are common because they emerge more easily over time due to errors in perception and articulation. The presence of a certain pattern is therefore caused by its diachronic development.

Since these approaches make the same predictions about phonetically motivated processes (i.e. they should be common), one place to evaluate them against each other is within the domain of phonetically unmotivated processes.

In this talk, I present data from several dialects in Norway in support of the diachronic perspective, since it is able to make correct predictions about how phonological processes behave in these dialects.

I end the talk with a discussion of experimental support, or lack thereof, for positing phonetic naturalness in grammar.

Upcoming talks:
Nov 8: Natalie Boll-Avetisyan (Potsdam)
Nov 15: Michael Kenstowicz (MIT)
Nov 29: RUMMIT Practice talks
Dec 6: Suyeon Yun (MIT)

You can view the current, up-to-date version of the schedule here (click ‘agenda’ to see the schedule as a list), or subscribe via iCal here.

Ling Lunch 11/4 - Tania Ionin

Speaker: Tania Ionin
Title: Long-distance indefinites: an experimental perspective
Time: Thursday, November 4, 12:30-1:45pm
Location: 32-D461

It is well-known that English indefinites are able to escape scope islands such as relative clauses (as in (1)), obtaining widest scope readings (WSR, (2a)), and intermediate scope readings (ISR, (2b)), in addition to narrow-scope readings (NSR, (2c)) (Farkas 1981, Fodor & Sag 1982, and much subsequent literature). Theories of long-distance scope of indefinites include the choice-function approach (Reinhart 1997, Winter 1997, Kratzer 1998, among others), the implicit domain restriction approach (Schwarzschild 2002, among others), and the topicality approach (Endriss 2009, among others).

(1) Every student read every book that a professor assigned.
(2) a. WSR: a professor>every student>every book: There is a specific professor such that every student read every book that this professor assigned.
b. ISR: every student>a professor>every book: For every student, there is a (potentially different) professor such that the student read every book that this professor assigned.
c. NSR: every student>every book>a professor: Every student read every book that was assigned by any professor.

While many theoretical points rely on rather subtle judgments, there has been very little experimental investigation into native English speakers judgments’ of indefinite long-distance scope. The present work aims to fill this gap, by experimentally testing the availability of long-distance scope readings, using truth-value judgment tasks with adult, linguistically naive native English speakers. The goals of this research program are (i) to collect empirical data on which factors facilitate long-distance scope readings; and (ii) to test the predictions of specific semantic theories of indefinite scope. This talk will report on four studies testing indefinites in relative clause island configurations such as (1). Study 1 compares the availability of long-distance scope for ‘a’ indefinites vs. ‘a certain’ indefinites. Study 2 examines whether modification inside ‘a’ indefinites facilitates long-distance scope. Study 3 examines the avability of functional vs. non-functional ISRs for both ‘a’ and ‘a certain’ indefinites. Study 4 compares bare and modified numeral indefinites, as well as considering collective and distributive long-distance readings. Taken together, the findings across the four studies pose problems for the choice function approaches while offering tentative support for the topicality approach. More work remains to be done, and planned future studies will be discussed.