The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Course announcements, Fall 2016

Course announcements in this post:

  • Haitian Creole (“Kreyòl”) syntax (24.943)
  • Language Acquisition I (24.949/9.601)
  • Syntactic Models (24.960)
  • Topics in Phonology (24.964)
  • Topics in experimental phonology (24.967)
  • Topics in Semantics (24.979)
  • Computation and Linguistic Theory (24.S95)

24.943: Syntax of a Language (Family) — Haitian Creole (“Kreyòl”) syntax

  • Instructor: Michel DeGraff
  • Wednesdays 10AM—1PM
  • Room: 32-D461

I’d like to take as one starting point for this course this quote from a recent Facebook posting by our colleague Kai demystifying “stupidity”:

“… [Y]ou need to become used to feeling “stupid”. I mean this in an entirely non-disparaging sense: obviously, you’re not stupid. What it is is that you’re not completely understanding a complex topic. Of course, that is in fact the permanent condition of science. The whole point of science is to work at things we don’t understand and make some progress towards understanding, but that progress will then result in even more things we don’t understand….”


I’ve taken Kai’s caveat to heart while preparing materials for this class and feeling quite “stupid” about various puzzles of Haitian Creole syntax that beg for “progress toward understanding.”  So I’d like this seminar to take us through the memory lane of some puzzles that I’ve been thinking about for years, decades even. We’ll examine some the data and proposals in my and related publications on Haitian Creole, specifically on: clause structure, (non-verbal) predication, clefts, negation, noun-phrase structure, bare noun phrases, and serial verbs.  With the right questions, these old problems may well lead us to improved solutions, with their share of new questions…

We’ll invite participants to present and lead discussion on topics of their liking that may (indirectly) connect with the afore-mentioned areas of syntax and that can include relevant Haitian Creole data.  So the formal course requirements will include regular weekly participation, in-class presentations and a short paper  (~10 pages) which may well be a draft of something publishable.

My own papers for the course are already available on the “recent publications” section of my MIT website.  And we’ll assign readings from other authors as well, of course.  As we progress, I’ll make these papers available on the Stellar website for the course.

Toward the end of the semester, we’ll be getting help from a dear friend and co-author, Prof. dr. Enoch Aboh from the University of Amsterdam.  His most recent book is The Emergence of Hybrid Grammars: Language Contact and Change, from which we’ll read a couple of chapters—in time for Enoch’s visit, December 7–9.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, September 7, we’ll begin the seminar with a discussion of (very) basic issues, starting with general background about “Creole” languages, word order in Haitian Creole, etc.  The relevant paper for that is “Morphology and word order in ‘creolization’ and beyond” available here.

You may also want to look at another paper of mine that gives a general survey of the language—from John Holm’s 2007 book Comparative Creole Syntax.


24.949/9.601: Language Acquisition I

  • Instructor: Loes Koring
  • Mondays, 2—5
  • Room: 32-D461

The main goal of this course is to review a variety of topics in the acquisition (typical 1st language acquisition) of syntax and semantics. Throughout the course, we will survey various theories and examine their claims in light of empirical data and learnability theory. We will compare different methodologies to study language development and examine what type of information different types of data provide us with. More importantly, we will go over the cool, and puzzling, things children produce that are deviant from the target grammar, as well as interpretations that are available to children even though they are out for adult speakers of the target grammar, and, specifically, how these data inform linguistic theory and/or learnability theory. Apart from the topics I think are worth reviewing, there is room to discuss topics that participants of the class are particularly interested in.

As part of the course, you (registered students) will be working on your own language acquisition project, which requires you to think about theoretical proposals from an acquisition perspective (considering empirical data as well as learnability). An additional goal to the course is that you will acquire the skill of translating your research questions and related hypotheses into experimentally testable predictions. You will write a paper based on this, which can have the form of a well-developed research proposal (e.g. a way to test a prediction that follows from (your) analysis of a particular phenomenon), or an analysis of existing (production) data for instance, but many forms are imaginable. You will be guided through the process in individual meetings with the instructor at different stages.

Required for this course is that you:

  1. Attend and participate in the weekly lectures
  2. Prepare the lectures by reading the required materials (2-3 papers a week)
  3. Develop your own project and present your findings both as a paper and (briefly) in a presentation at the end of the course.

To prepare for the first class, please read Crain’s paper on language acquisition (pp. 597-612). You can download it via Stellar. There is no need to read all the commentaries to it, but you can, of course, if you like.

The required readings will be made available through the Stellar class website (some of them already are). To acquire the relevant background, I can recommend Guasti’s book on language acquisition (Guasti, M. T. (2004). Language acquisition: The growth of grammar. MIT Press.). Purchasing or reading this book is not obligatory for the course, but it is a great book to have as a reference if you’re interested in language acquisition.

The first class is on Monday September 12th.


24.960: Syntactic Models

  • Instructor: David Pesetsky
  • Tuesdays, 10—1
  • Room: 32‑D461

The course has twin goals:

First, it gives a quick introduction to at least two “frameworks” for syntactic research that compete with the Government-Binding/Principles & Parameters/Minimalist tradition in the current syntax world:  HPSG and Lexical-Functional Grammar (LFG).  We work speedily through much of the HPSG textbook by Sag, Wasow and Bender, and also look at the LFG textbook by Bresnan, Asudeh, Toivonen and Wechsler.

Next, the class turns historical, tracing the development of generative syntax from Syntactic Structures (1957) up to the early 1980s, when HPSG and LFG first separated themselves off from the research program that became GB/P&P/Minimalism.   An overarching theme of the course is the issue of derivational vs. representational views of syntax — a theme that offers some surprising observations about who said what at various points in the history of the field, but also gives the course a focus relevant to the most current work.For a demonstration that the issue is live (including the hotly debated question of whether there even is a question), you need look no further than a 2014 on Norbert Hornstein’s blog, featuring Omer Preminger (who taught this very class in 2011).  See this post, which begins with links to earlier discussion on the blog that prompted that posting, and continues with millions of comments.

You can get a good sense of what the class will be like from its old Stellar pages — for example here.  I plan to follow essentially the same structure — plus the possibility of a guest lecture on “Simpler Syntax” by Ray Jackendoff (date to be arranged, fingers crossed).

As you may have heard, the sole requirements for the class are:

  1. regular attendance and participation;
  2. a few straightforward problem sets (finger exercises) in the first half of the class; and
  3. three class presentations or co-presentations (depending on numbers): of an HPSG paper, an LFG paper, and a paper from the period of generative semantics/interpretive semantics debates.

There is no paper required! (A major attraction in the past.) Many students have reported finding this class both fun and enlightening (and not just because there is no required paper). Ask some of your predecessors for their reviews.

The most important book to order right now is the following one: Sag, Wasow and Bender, Syntactic Theory — second edition (this is crucial).

Please start reading it in advance of the first class. Get as far as you can in it, so you come to the first class already somewhat prepared. This book is intended as an introduction to syntax for undergraduates, so you will find the early chapters go quickly. But the syntax it introduces is HPSG, so fairly soon you will be learning new things and tripping over unfamiliar notations.

The books we will be using later in the semester are:

Bresnan et al., Lexical-Functional Grammar — please note that this too is a second edition, which we’re using for the first time.

Chomsky, Syntactic Structures

Other readings (papers and excerpts from books) will be downloadable from the Stellar website for the class.

Since this Tuesday is just registration day, the first meeting will be September 13, i.e. next week.


24.964: Topics in Phonology

  • Instructor: Donca Steriade
  • Topic: Syllables
  • Thursdays, 2—5
  • Room: 32-D461

The main goal of this course is to examine the evidence for syllable-based analyses of metrical weight, computed within and across words, and of segmental phonotactics. We compare these with analyses of metrical weight that rely on V-to-V intervals (units that go from the beginning of the nucleus to the beginning of the next nucleus or to the end of the domain, whichever comes first), supplementing the intervals with hypotheses about cue-based licensing of contrasts for the analysis of segmental phonotactics and correspondence phenomena. The focus is on the evidence, readily available or potential, that distinguishes syllables from intervals.

A secondary goal is to examine the history of earlier ideas about syllables and metrical quantity. Some less well-known earlier hypotheses have inherent interest and are supported empirically. I know of no accessible writings on the history of this subject. Anderson’s 1985 book on the history of phonology starts late (for syllables) and focuses on analyses of other phenomena. Goldsmith’s 2010 historically oriented handbook chapter on the syllable skips most significant writings before 1976 and lists claims without examining the content of arguments. The brief historical part of this course is an exercise in reconstructing linguistic arguments left implicit or formulated in unfamiliar styles, and an effort to avoid reinventing the wheel. It is also a partial answer to the request for a course in the history of phonology made by earlier generations.

Registered students do the readings, write a term paper or present the literature on some topic of interest to the class.

The schedule below is approximate. Participants interested in other syllable- or interval-related topics (e.g. articulatory realization or perception of  syllables; syllables in prosodic morphology; rhyming and alliteration and what they suggest about intervals) should let me know.

Current plan for what we do when appears below. Some of the readings, but not all, are up on the course website.

Sept 8
History of some of the older ideas about metrical quantity and syllables, from Dionysius Thrax to Kahn 1976
Sept 15
Sept 22
Categorical and gradient weight:  Broselow et al. 1997; Gordon 2007, Ryan 2011
Sept 29
Oct 6
Weight of onsets: Gordon 2005, Topintzi 2010, Ryan 2014
Oct 13
DS out of town – class moved to 12/15
Oct 20
Finer weight distinctions predicted by intervals
Oct 27
Intervals for weight categories (cont.): Hirsch 2014, Duarte-García 2014; Olejarczyk and Kapatsinski 2015
Nov 3
Weight and resyllabification: Hoenigswald 1949, Csér 2012
Nov 10
DS out of town – class moved to 12/22
Nov 17
Segmental consequences of resyllabification: TBA
Nov 24
Dec. 1
Phonotactics and syllables: weak codas, SSC, ambisyllabicity Kahn 1976, Lamontagne 1993; Wheeler 2005; Gerfen 2001; Howe and Pulleyblank 2001
Dec. 8
Phonotactics and syllables: syllable contact: Pons-Moll 2011
Dec. 15
Phonotactics and syllables: sesquisyllables: Kiparsky 2003, Watson
Dec. 22
Phonotactics and syllables: closed syllable shortening, syllables as domains for phonological processes: TBA



24.967: Topics in experimental phonology

  • Instructors: Adam Albright (albright@mit.edu), Edward Flemming (flemming@mit.edu)
  • Mondays 2—5pm
  • Room: 26-142

Course Description:

In the past decade, the field of phonology has increasingly looked to experimental results to confirm and extend its understanding of phonological patterns. In this course, we will examine some of the issues involved in deriving experimentally testable predictions from a theory, designing and running an experiment, and interpreting the results.

The class has several goals:

  • Consider the relation between phonological theory, empirical predictions, and experimental results
  • Gain practical knowledge in designing and carrying out experiments in the lab and on-line, and performing data analysis using R
  • Gain familiarity with some commonly used experimental paradigms, comparing what they can tell us about the linguistic system

The class will be organized around a set of phonological topics that have benefited from experimental investigation. These topics will serve to illustrate a variety of experimental and statistical techniques:

  • Perceptually-based biases for some alternations over others (The P-Map Hypothesis)
  • Generalization from the lexicon
  • Perceptual similarity
  • Phonetic underspecification


  • Readings and class participation
  • Regular assignments (modest and practical in nature)
  • Final project: designing (and perhaps piloting) an experiment


24.979: Topics in Semantics

  • Instructors: Danny Fox (fox@mit.edu), Roni Katzir (trifilij@mit.edu), Roger Schwarzschild (schild@mit.edu)
  • Tuesdays 2—5pm
  • Room: 32-D461

Course Description

The focus of this seminar will be on the semantics and pragmatics of intonational prominence with emphasis on these questions:

  • What are the mechanisms by which properties of surrounding discourse come to be reflected in the intonational contour of an utterance?
  • Do intonational prominences have a way of contributing to truth conditions independently of their interaction with surrounding discourse?

In the first part of the course we’ll discuss recent work on prosody and information structure, working together through chapters 6 and 7 of Meaning and Intonation by Daniel Büring (2016). Büring’s account has a constraint referring to givenness and a separate one for focus. We’ll look at works that aim to assimilate these two (eg. Rooth 1992, Schwarzschild 1999) to see how they integrate with Büring’s prosodic model.

Next, we’ll survey more recent evidence, both semantic-pragmatic and phonetic that argues that givenness and focus are irreducible one to the other. One  interpretation of this newer data views it as a species of association with focus, where the relevant operator is silent. We will devote some time to studying several species of association with focus and how it interacts with givenness.

From there, we will move on to contrastive topic which has been a fertile testing ground for theories of intonation and discourse.

  • Requirements
  • Readings and class participation
  • Final presentation and a final paper

Chapters 6 and 7 of Büring’s book are available on the course website.  If you are planning to take the course, please contact us to be added to the website and begin reading those chapters.


24.S95 Computation and Linguistic Theory

  • Instructor: Roni Katzir
  • Fridays 10—1
  • Room: 32-D461

In this class we will explore how the theory of computation helps us to understand language. We often rely on computational theories in building linguistic theories; here we will look at the broader framework of computation as well as a number of specific formalisms.

We begin with basic questions like: what is computation? what does a computational model look like? We start with decidability and the Chomsky Hierarchy of formal languages, as well as some parsing algorithms for regular and context-free grammars. We discuss the notions of weak and strong generative capacity, looking at context-sensitive node admissibility conditions, generalized phrase-structure grammar, and the Lambek calculus. We then turn to mildly context-sensitive formalisms, focusing on combinatory categorial grammars, tree-adjoining grammars, and minimalist grammars.

The second half of the class focuses on language processing. Drawing on the framework and formalisms from the first part of the class, we examine how the parser might work, starting with the classical proposals of Yngve and Miller & Chomsky and then proceeding to characterizations of the memory load on the processor in different parsing strategies. We also discuss approaches such as surprisal and entropy-reduction that relate processing difficulty to the information content of the current input element. Finally, we discuss the Strong Competence Hypothesis and its relation to representational questions such as whether non-canonical constituents should be part of the grammar.

Requirements: attendance and participation; reading; and a final paper.

Course website: http://piazza.com/mit/fall2016/24s95/home

Schedule (subject to change):

  • 9/9  Overview; Decidability
  • 9/16  Regular Languages I
  • 9/23  Regular Languages II; Context-Free Languages I
  • 9/30  Context-Free Languages II; Parsing I
  • 10/7  Parsing II;  Weak vs. Strong Generative Capacity
  • 10/14  Weakly Context-Free Models of Syntax I (Features)
  • 10/14  Weakly Context-Free Models of Syntax II (Lambek)
  • 10/21  Natural Language is not Context-Free; Mildly Context-Sensitive Models of Syntax I
  • 10/28  Mildly Context-Sensitive Models of Syntax II
  • 11/4  Mildly Context-Sensitive Models of Syntax III
  • 11/11  Early Computational Psycholinguistics
  • 11/18  Resource-Management Theories I
  • 11/25  Resource-Management Theories II; Experience-Based Theories I
  • 12/2  Experience-Based Theories II
  • 12/9  The (Strong) Competence Hypothesis