The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, March 5th, 2012

ESSL Meeting 3/5 - Yasu Sudo and Hadas Kotek

Speakers: Yasu Sudo and Hadas Kotek
Date/Time: Monday, Mar 5, 5:30p
Location: 32-D461

In this talk we will discuss our latest work on many and most. We will argue that the three readings of many that have been previously recognize in the literature, (1), can be detected for most as well.

(1) Many Scandinavians are Nobel prize winners
a. Cardinal: |Scandinavian Nobel prize winners| is largeC
b. Proportional: |Scandinavian Nobel prize winners| / |Scandinavians| is largeC
c. Reverse Proportional: |Scandinavian Nobel prize winners| / |Nobel prize winners| is largeC

In particular, we will show that most has a reverse-proportional reading, and in addition we identify a new reading of most which we call the fragile reading: a superlative reading which is sensitive to the number of comparisons that are made and to the distance between the numbers compared. The fragile reading prominently manifests itself in “strong” environments, for example in the subject position of individual-level predicates. These findings lend support to Hackl’s (2009) analysis of most as being composed of many and the superlative morpheme -est. We will suggest that the familiar proportional and superlative readings of most are derived from cardinal many; RP most is derived from RP many and fragile most is derived from proportional many. We will argue that proportional many is cardinally evaluative and discuss the implications of this suggestion.

Syntax Square 3/6 - Omer Preminger

Speaker: Omer Preminger
Title: Syntactic Ergativity in Q’anjob’al
Date/Time: Tuesday, Mar 6, 1-2p
Location: 32-D461

(Full paper available at LingBuzz.)

Many morphologically ergative languages show asymmetries in the extraction of core arguments: while absolutive arguments (transitive objects and intransitive subjects) extract freely, ergative arguments (transitive subjects) cannot. This falls under the label “syntactic ergativity” (see e.g. Dixon 1972, 1994; Manning 1996).

Extraction asymmetries of this sort are found in many languages of the Mayan family, where in order to extract transitive subjects (for focus, wh-questions, or relativization), a special construction known as “Agent Focus” (AF) must be used (Aissen 1999; Stiebels 2006, Preminger 2011). In this talk — which presents collaborative work with Jessica Coon and Pedro Mateo Pedro — we offer a proposal for (i) why some morphologically ergative languages exhibit these extraction asymmetries, while others do not; and (ii) how the Mayan AF construction circumvents this problem.

We adopt recent proposals that ergative languages vary in the locus of absolutive case assignment (Aldridge 2004, 2008a; Legate 2002, 2008), and demonstrate that the same variation can be found within the Mayan family itself. Based primarily on comparative data from Q’anjob’al and Chol, we argue (contra previous accounts) that the inability to extract ergative arguments is not due to properties of the ergative argument itself, but rather comes about as the result of the locality conditions on absolutive case assignment in the relevant languages.

We show how the AF morpheme “-on” circumvents this problem in Q’anjob’al, by assigning structural case of its own to the internal argument. Evidence for this approach comes from reflexive and extended reflexive constructions, incorporated objects, nominalized embedded clauses, and the distribution of so-called “hierarchy effects” in related Mayan languages.

Phonology Circle 3/7 - Peter Graff and Emad Taliep

This Wednesday’s installment of the Phonology Circle features a talk by Peter Graff and Emad Taliep. They will also be presenting the same talk earlier in the day, at Wednesday 10am in TedLab.

Speakers: Peter Graff and Emad Taliep
Title: English Speakers Track Absolute Frequency in Consonant Co-occurrence
Date: March 7 (Wednesday)
Time: 5:00–7:00
Location: 32D831

Phonotactic wellformedness has been shown to affect behavior in a variety of linguistic tasks such as word-likeness judgments (e.g., Coleman and Pierrehumbert 1997). However, different researchers have often employed rather different measures for phonotactic wellformedness. This is particularly evident in the literature on consonant co-occurrence where two distinct measures of the wellformedness of constellations of consonants separated by vowels (e.g., p_t in pat) have been hypothesized. The first measure is the joint probability (i.e., absolute frequency) of the constellation P(C1_C2). Studies have found, e.g., that the joint probability of labial-coronal constellations (e.g. pat) is greater than the joint probability of coronal-labial ones (e.g. tap) in many different languages (MacNeilage et. al 1999, Carrissimo-Bertola 2010) and children as young as 7 months have been shown to be sensitive to this phonotactic (Nazzi et al. 2009, Gonzalez Gomez and Nazzi 2012). The second measure of wellformedness often employed is the observed- overexpected ratio (O/E) also known as pointwise mutual information (PMI). The difference between PMI and joint probability is that PMI relativizes the joint probability of a constellation to the independent probabilities of its parts such that PMI(C1;C2) = log(P(C1_C2)/(P(C1)·P(C2))), i.e. log(O/E). PMI has been hypothesized as a measure of wellformedness in studies of OCP-Place type phenomena (e.g. Frisch et al. 2004, Coetzee and Pater 2008) and PMI-based generalizations have been shown to affect wordlikeness judgments in languages like Arabic (Frisch and Zawaydeh, 2001). In this study, we compare the patterning of PMI and joint probability in the English lexicon and show that English CVCs present an ideal test-case for disambiguating the two measures. We present results from an online wordlikeness judgment study (N=50) and find that speakers’ judgments are more accurately predicted by joint probability (i.e., absolute frequency) than PMI.

Paper co-authored by Graff in Science!

A new paper (a “technical comment”) has just appeared in Science, co-authored by Florian Jaeger (Rochester), Dan Pontillo (Rochester) and our own Peter Graff (5th-year grad student), entitled Comment on “Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa”. Congratulations, Peter (and all)!!

LFRG 3/8 - Guillaume Thomas

Speaker: Guillaume Thomas
Date/Time: Thursday Mar 8, 10:00AM-11:30AM
Location: 32-D831
Title: Mbyá tense


Since I didn’t have time to address the main point of my work on tense in Mbyá during my ling-lunch talk, I will do it during this LFRG session—although I won’t assume that you have been to my ling-lunch talk. (1) and (2) both entail that there is a time before the time of utterance (TU) at which Juan is a teacher, but (2) also entails that Juan is not a teacher at TU, while (1) only implicates it. I propose that -kue is interpreted as a simple past tense in both cases, and that both (1) and (2) implicate that Juan is not a teacher at TU, but that this implicature can be canceled only in (1). During this session, I want to discuss (a) how we can generate this implicature and (b) how we can make sure that it stays in place in (2).

(1) Juan o-iko va?e-kue ñombo?ea.
Juan 3-be REL-PAST teacher
Juan was a teacher.

(2) Juan ñombo?ea-kue
Juan teacher-PAST
Juan is an ex-teacher.

Ling-Lunch 3/8 - Cristiano Chesi

Speaker: Cristiano Chesi (NETS ‐ IUSS Pavia, CISCL ‐ University of Siena)
Title: Top‐Down, Left‐Right Derivations
Date/Time: Thursday, Mar 8, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

The full abstract is available here (PDF).

The goal of this talk is to provide empirical arguments in favor of a derivational view of the grammar in which structure building occurs, incrementally, top-down (Chesi 2004a, 2007) and from left to right (Phillips 1996, 2003).

Following the Minimalist research spirit (Chomsky 1995-2008), I will show that the bottom-to-top orientation of phrase structure building is not a “virtual conceptual necessity” and that we can gain in descriptive adequacy if we drift away from the idea that the basic recursive operation is a set formation operation like Merge.

Linguistics Colloquium 3/9 - Yosef Grodzinsky

Speaker: Yosef Grodzinsky — McGill University
Date/Time: Friday 3/9 3:30 pm
Location: 32-141
Title: The Analysis of Negative Quantifiers: Multi-modal Evidence


  Recent discussion of  negative  quantifiers  (see  Penka,  2011  and  references  therein) focuses  on  two  main  questions:  do  these  quantifiers  decompose,  and  if  so,  what  are the  mechanisms  for  decomposition?  In  this  talk,  I  will  describe  a  series  of  neuro-­  and psycholinguistic  experiments  my  colleagues  and  I  have  conducted  with  healthy  and   brain-damaged  participants  that  aim  to  provide  relevant  evidence.  These experiments  recorded  responses  from  several  modalities,  as  participants  were analyzing  sentences  with  positive  and  negative  proportional  and  degree  quantifiers   in  German  and  English  (e.g.,  mehr/weniger-­als-­die-­Hälfte  die  Kreise  sind  Gelb, many/few  of  the  circles  are  blue).


All  experiments  used  a  Parametric  Proportion  Paradigm  (PPP):  participants were  exposed  to  sentence-scenario  pairs,  and  were  requested  to  make  truth  value judgments.  Sentences  contained  a  quantifier  in  subject  position,  and  scenarios   depicted  a  proportion  between  2  types  of  objects.  Proportion  was  a  parameter, systematically  varied  across  images  that  were  presented  with  each  sentence  type.  

  Our  first  experiment  used  functional  MR  imaging  to  extract  a  signal  that represents  localized  brain  activity.  It  aimed  to  identify  brain  loci  that  evince  an intensity  differential  between  the  contrasting  stimuli.  Signal  intensity  for  sentences with  negative  quantifiers  was  higher  than  that  for  their  positive  counterparts  only  in Broca’s  region.  Importantly,  no  other  localizable  intensity  contrasts  were  found.  


A  second  experiment  (currently  only  a  pilot)  confronted  English  speaking, focally  brain  damaged,  Broca’s  aphasic  patients  with  the  same  task.  However  here, the  dependent  measure  was  error  rate.  The  results  suggest  a  remarkably  selective   deficit:  While  patients  performed  near-normally  on  the  positive  quantifiers,  their scores  were  drastically  reduced  when  the  stimuli  contained  negative  quantifiers.  

  A  third  experiment  attempted  to  take  a  deeper  look  at  the  behavioral signature  of  quantifier  analysis  through  a  study  of  complex  RT  functions  obtained from  healthy  participants.  Here,  too,  we  observed  that  the  signature  of  negative quantifiers  is  quite  distinct  from  that  of  their  positive  counterparts.  

  In  this  talk,  I  will  try  to  connect  these  results,  obtained  through  different modalities  from  different  populations,  to  previous  ones  that  come  from  parametric studies  of  overt  syntactic  movement  with  healthy  participants  in  fMRI,  and  with Broca’s  aphasic  patients.  I  will  propose  that  a  generalization  over  the  experimental results  supports  an  analysis  of  sentences  with  negative  quantifiers  that  assumes covert  movement.  I  will  then  try  to  situate  these  results  in  the  broader  context  of  a research  agenda  that  tries  to  create  a  brain  map  of  syntactic  and  semantic knowledge.