The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, April 9th, 2012

Syntax Square 4/9 - Coppe van Urk and Hadas Kotek

Syntax Square will meet on Monday this week due to the meeting with the Visiting Committee. The presenters will be giving WCCFL practice talks.

Date/Time: Monday, Apr 9, 12-1p (Note special date/time)
Location: 32-D461

Speaker: Coppe van Urk
Title: Aspect-based agreement reversal in Neo-Aramaic

In this talk, we discuss an unusual aspect split in dialects of Neo-Aramaic, in which the function of subject and object agreement markers switches completely between aspects. We propose that agreement reversal is driven by the fact that imperfective aspect introduces an additional phi-probe. This account provides support for the hypothesis, developed in recent work on split ergativity (Laka 2006; Coon 2010; Coon & Preminger 2011), that aspect splits arise because nonperfective aspects may be associated with additional prepositional structure (Demirdache & Uribe-Etxebarria 2000; Coon 2010), since this hypothesis allows for the apparently disparate patterns of agreement reversal and split ergativity to be given a unified treatment.

Speaker: Hadas Kotek
Title: WH-Fronting in a Two-Probe System

The study of wh-movement has distinguished among several types of wh-fronting languages that permit distinct patterns of overt and covert movement, instantiated for example by the Slavic languages, English and German. This talk extends the cross-linguistic typology of multiple questions by arguing that Hebrew instantiates a new kind of wh-fronting language, unlike any that are presently discussed in the literature. It will show that Hebrew distinguishes between two kinds of interrogative phrases: those that are headed by a wh-word (wh-headed phrases: what, who, [DP which X], where, how …) and those that contain a wh-word but are headed by some other element (wh-containing phrases: [NP N of wh], [PP P wh]). We observe the special status of wh-headed phrases when one occurs structurally lower in a question than a wh-containing phrase. In that case, the wh-headed phrase can be targeted by an Agree/Attract operation that ignores the presence of the c-commanding wh-containing phrase.

The talk develops an account of the sensitivity of interrogative probing operations to the head of the interrogative phrase within Q-particle theory. It proposes that the Hebrew Q has an EPP feature which can trigger head-movement of wh to Q and that a wh-probe exists alongside the more familiar Q-probe, and shows how these two modifications to the theory can account for the intricate data that emerge from the paper. The emerging picture is one in which interrogative probing does not occur wholesale but rather can be sensitive to particular interrogative features on potential goals.

ESSL Meeting 4/9 - Yasutada Sudo and Jeremy Hartman

Speakers: Yasutada Sudo and Jeremy Hartman
Title: Principle B and Phonologically Reduced Pronouns in Child English
Date/Time: Monday, Apr 9, 5:30-7p
Location: 32-D461

The full abstract is available (PDF).

Phonology Circle 4/11 - Suyeon Yun

Speaker: Suyeon Yun
Date/Time: 11 April (Wed), 5 pm
Location: 32D-831
Title: Epenthesis Positioning in Loan Adaptation: Phonetics, Phonology, Typology

In loan adaptation, vowel epenthesis frequently occurs as a repair, when a cluster of a source language is phonotactically illegal in the borrowing language. The most notable previous finding has been that the position of epenthetic vowels differs depending on the type of cluster; sonority- rising clusters, especially stop-sonorant (TR), are more likely to be split by an epenthetic vowel than sonority-falling clusters, especially sibilant-stop (ST), e.g., ‘plastic’ > [bilastik] (internal epenthesis) vs. ‘study’ > [istadi] (external epenthesis) (Egyptian Arabic; Broselow 1992).

This study investigates epenthesis patterns in all possible types of clusters, both in word-initial and in word-final positions, from a cross-linguistic survey of loanwords. From the results, I propose new generalizations about the preferred site of epenthesis: (i) if a cluster contains an obstruent, a vowel is epenthesized after the obstruent, e.g., ‘camp’ > [khɛmphɨ] (Korean); (ii) if a cluster contains a sonorant, a vowel is epenthesized before the sonorant, e.g., rubl (Russian) > [rubɯl] (Kirgiz).

By focusing only on initial clusters (Gouskova 2003, Steriade 2006) or on ST and TR clusters (Broselow 1992, Fleischhacker 2001, 2005), previous work has failed to identify the current broad generalizations and cannot uniformly explain the cases where the epenthesis patterns are different word-initially and word-finally, e.g., mnemonicheskij (Russ.) > [ymnemonicheskij] ‘mnemonic’ (Kirghiz) with external epenthesis vs. gimn (Russian) > [gimun] ‘hymn’ (Kirghiz) with internal epenthesis. My hypothesis is that the typology results from perceptual similarity between a consonant and its epenthesized form. Specifically, an obstruent is perceptually more similar to an obstruent-vowel sequence than to a vowel-obstruent, and a sonorant is perceptually more similar to a vowel-sonorant sequence than to a sonorant-vowel. I will show relevant phonetic bases and experimental results supporting this hypothesis. Based on this, the typology will be analyzed based on the P-map hypothesis (Steriade 2001/2009).

LFRG 4/12 - Igor Yanovich

Speaker: Igor Yanovich
Date/Time: Thursday April 12, 10 am
Location: 32-D831
Title: Modal hopes and fears: A diachronic study


In Modern English, may and might are generally modals of epistemic possibility and permission. That, however, cannot explain its uses in sentences like (1) or (2) (from BNC).

(1) The contrast illustrates that music moves on, the NME moves on, grudges don’t last forever, and I hope this may be so for at least another 40 years.
(2) Omar learnt that he was related to the Sultan, and we hoped that we might persuade him to provide us with a guide to Aussa.

One possible explanation of such facts is to say that may/might in such examples is a mood indicator rather than a full-fledged modal, cf. Portner 1997. But, as Portner notes, the mood-indicating may is not productive in the present-day English. If the mood analysis is correct, then it should be possible to explain the present-day distribution of may in historical terms.

In this talk, I will discuss how may/might first started to appear in the complements of verbs hope and fear, and what consequences that has for our understanding of modal meaning development in general, and of the ‘mood hypothesis’ concerning today’s distribution in particular.

Ling-Lunch 4/12 - Meghan Sumner

Speaker: Meghan Sumner (Stanford)
Date/Time: Thursday, Apr 12, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

Phonetic variation in speech is often considered a barrier to understanding spoken words. In this talk, I present data that phonetic variation is necessary and beneficial to understanding accented speech. Within the perceptual learning paradigm, listeners are exposed to p- initial words in English produced by a native speaker of French. Critically, listeners are either trained on these words with an invariant VOT based on the speaker’s mean VOT, or with variant VOTs including native English-like to native French-like examples. While a gross boundary shift is made for participants exposed to the variable VOTs, no such shift is observed for the invariant stimuli. These data run counter to models that predict consistent exposure to an invariant stimulus should ultimately result in perceptual learning, and suggest that when adjusting to accented speech, invariance is an obstacle.

Preminger to Syracuse!

Omer Preminger, PhD 2011, has accepted a tenure-track Assistant Professor position at Syracuse University. Omer is spending the current academic year as a a Post-Doctoral Teaching Associate in our department, and as Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Polinsky Language Sciences Lab at Harvard. As we reported in 2010, Omer won the Levitan Teaching Award awarded by the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at MIT for “outstanding success in teaching undergraduate and graduate students” - so Syracuse linguistics is in for a treat.

Congratulations Omer!

Linguistics Colloquium 4/13 - Meghan Sumner

Speaker: Meghan Sumner, Stanford University
Date/Time: Friday 4/13, 3:30 PM
Location: 32-141
Title: Effects of indexical variation on the perception and recognition of spoken words within and across accents


As listeners, we face a speech signal that is riddled with variation. We are exposed to words, but a single word is produced differently each time it is uttered. These words stream by listeners at a rate of about 5 – 7 syllables per second, further complicating the listeners’ task. How listeners map a speech signal onto meaning despite massive variation is an issue central to linguistic theory. One problem we currently face is that the vast majority of these different realizations of words are understood equally well by listeners.

While speech is variable, it is also informative. In any window of speech, listeners are presented with cues to sounds, sound patterns, words, speakers and their intentions, emotions, accents and other social characteristics. In this talk, I suggest that in order to understand how listeners take all the individual parts of a word that often vary drastically and understand them as quickly and adeptly as they do, we must understand the influence of these different types of information in speech perception.

In this talk, I begin with an assumption that listeners, by default, use these ever-present cues together. I examine the perception of phonological variants sensitive to typically co-present phonetic and social cues. First, I present data from phoneme categorization tasks designed to examine the effects of different phonological variants across different modes of speech (careful vs. casual). Rather than comparing the responses to words with a frequent phonological variant (e.g., tap) to those with a less frequent member of a variant pair (e.g., [t]) embedded in controlled word-frame, I examine the perception of these variants in phonetic and social contexts in which they are typically heard by listeners. Second, I present data from priming tasks designed to examine the recognition of words with different phonological variants across accents. In this case, I show that an out-of-accent variant results in different behavioral responses dependent on the accent of the speaker. From these data, I argue that many effects attributed to phonological variants are illusory and that the emphasis on the variants hides important patterns linking acoustic variation and social representations.

I suggest that the data from these experiments support a view in which cued social attributes influence perception and recognition at a low-level. This work helps explain effects of phonological variants that are oftentimes conflicting, highlights the effects of social factors independent of the rich lexicon, and has implications for how linguistic units are stored and recalled by listeners.