The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, March 16th, 2015

LFRG 3/16 - Benjamin Storme

Speaker: Benjamin Storme (MIT)
Title: Aspectual asymmetries across tenses
Time: Monday, 3/16, 12-1:30
Place: 32-D831

It has been observed that languages typically have a richer aspectual morphology (in particular, to express the perfective/progressive distinction shown in (1) in English) in the past than in the present (for instance, Comrie 1976).

(1) a. At 8 pm, I was jumping. (progressive)
b. At 8 pm, I jumped. (perfective)

In this talk, I discuss two approaches to this asymmetry, (i) a semantic approach, where the absence of a perfective/progressive distinction in the present tense corresponds to a semantic incompatibility between present tense and perfective aspect, and (ii) a syncretism approach, where the perfective/progressive distinction exists in the present tense, but only covertly. I argue in favor of the second option based on French data. I then propose an explanation of (i) why syncretism happens preferentially in the present tense and (ii) why the progressive is used as the underspecified form in case of syncretism.

Phonology Circle 3/16 - Lilla Magyar

Speaker: Lilla Magyar (MIT)
Title: The role of universal markedness in Hungarian gemination processes
Date: Monday, March 16th
Time: 5-6:30
Place: 32D-831

Gemination in loanwords is a cross-linguistically widespread phenomenon attested in such languages as Japanese (Kubozono et al. 2008), Finnish (Karvonen 2009), Italian (Passino 2004), Telugu (Krishnamurti & Gwynn 1985) and Hungarian (Nádasdy 1989; Törkenczy 1989 and Kertész 2006), amongst many others. The process involves lengthening of a singleton consonant which is preceded by a short (stressed) vowel in the source word, even when gemination does not have an orthographic reflex in the source word. None of the source languages allow phonetic geminates and all of the borrowing languages do. Furthermore, none of the borrowing languages require geminates phonotactically in the positions where lengthening happens in loanwords.

In Hungarian, borrowings from English and German (and occasionally, from French) participate in this process. The propensity of loanwords to undergo gemination depends on the position of the consonant. Gemination is most predictable in monosyllables (e.g. fitt (Eng. fit)). In other contexts, it primarily applies when the consonant in question is spelt with a double consonant letter in the source word (e.g. koffer (G. Koffer ‘suitcase’)) or when the word ends with -er (e.g. szvetter (Eng. sweater)).

Apart from position, consonant class also determines whether a consonant is likely to be geminated or not. Even though practically all consonants can be geminated in the native Hungarian phonology, not all consonants can undergo gemination in loanwords, and even those which can, do so to different degrees. The ranking of consonants undergoing gemination in loanwords lines up with hierarchies of universal geminate markedness, which potentially supports the hypothesis that Hungarian speakers are drawing on their knowledge of this universal hierarchy. However, before we can conclude this, we must ask whether a less direct mechanism could be at play: phonetic pressures shape the native lexicon, and learners learn the preference from that.

The goal of the present study is to test the following hypotheses: (1) Even native speakers of Hungarian (a language which allows all kinds of geminates) have some awareness of universal geminate markedness. (2) This knowledge comes from the native lexicon: the frequency distribution of geminates in the native phonology reflects patterns of universal markedness. (3) These patterns can be learned from the native Hungarian lexicon based on phonotactic generalisations.

Syntax Square 3/17 - Coppe van Urk

Speaker: Coppe van Urk (MIT)
Title:Pronoun copying in Dinka and the realization of copies
Time: Tuesday 3/17, 12:30-1:45
Place: 32-D461

In a number of cases, pronouns seem to be able to spell out more articulated copies of lexical DPs. This has been argued for resumptive pronouns in many languages (e.g. Aoun et al. 2001; Boeckx 2003; Sichel 2014) and also for clitic doubling, subject doubling, and wh-copying (e.g. Felser 2004; Bruening 2006; Holmberg and Nikanne 2008; Harizanov, to appear). In this talk, I present further evidence for this claim from a pattern of pronoun copying in the Nilotic language Dinka (South Sudan). In Dinka, long-distance extraction of any plural noun phrase, regardless of person or complexity, is accompanied by the appearance of a 3rd person plural pronoun at the edge of each verb phrase on the path of movement. I show that similar number asymmetries are attested in resumption and subject doubling. On the basis of this, I propose that copies may undergo partial spell-out, targeting just the phi-layer, resulting in a pronoun. This allows us to connect the asymmetry in Dinka pronoun copying to a general asymmetry in how number is spelled out in the language.

Ling Lunch 3/19 - Bradley Larson & Nicholas Longenbaugh

Speaker: Bradley Larson (Harvard) & Nicholas Longenbaugh (MIT)
Title: Subject/Object Parity in Niuean and the Labeling Algorithm
Time: Thurs 3/19, 12:30-1:45
Place: 32-D461

We present novel data from the Polynesian language Niuean, based on recent fieldwork, that shows a lack of many expected structural asymmetries between subjects and objects. This structural parity runs counter to traditional theoretical and empirical differences between subjects and objects. For example, languages like English show ECP effects such that operations over objects are generally freer than those over subjects, and languages like Chol specifically privilege operations over subjects (Coon 2010). In order to account for the Niuean in a way that does not make incorrect or ad hoc predictions for other types of languages, we develop notions from Chomsky’s (2013) labeling algorithm and argue for a lack of relevant labeling in the domain where subjects and objects are potential operands.

Linguistics for middle school students

This weekend, several of our graduate students taught linguistics classes to middle school students at Spark, a weekend-long program run by the MIT Educational Studies Program. Snejana Iovtcheva taught a class on Saturday about the writing systems of the world, and Chris O’Brien and Juliet Stanton taught two sections of introductory linguistics (focusing on syntax) on Sunday. They had a lot of fun, and the students did too!