The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, February 5th, 2018

Welcome to Spring 2018!

Welcome to the first edition of Whamit! for Spring 2018! After our winter hiatus, Whamit! is back to regular weekly editions during the semester.

Whamit! is the MIT Linguistics newsletter, published every Monday (Tuesday if Monday is a holiday). The editorial staff consists of Adam Albright, Kai von Fintel, David Pesetsky, Elise Newman, Mitya Privoznov, Neil Banerjee, and Itai Bassi.

To submit items for inclusion in Whamit! please send an email to whamit@mit.edu by Sunday 6pm.

Best wishes for the new year!

New Visiting Scholars and Visiting Students for Spring 2018

A warm welcome to the new visitors in our department for this spring!
Visiting Scholars
  • Angelo Mercado (Grinnell College): “I am an Associate Professor of Classics at Grinnell College (Iowa) and participate in our interdepartmental Linguistics Concentration. My areas include Greek and Latin language, comparative Indo-European philology, and linguistic poetics and metrics. I continue to chip away at describing the metrical systems in Italic. Other work in progress pertain to the role of word stress in Classical Latin epic, and the development of Indo-European accent and meter, separately and together.”
Visiting Students
  • Emily Clem (University of California, Berkeley). Her research investigates the interactions between syntax, semantics, and morphology. She is currently working on case and switch-reference in Amahuaca, a Panoan language on which she conducts fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon.
  • Zhuo (Cindy) Chen (The Graduate Center, City University of New York). Her main research interest in semantics lies in wh-indefinites, and more generally, in what their behavior reveals about plurality, distributivity and polarity.’


In addition, the majority of Fall 2017 visiting scholars and students continue with us this semester. A full list of current visitors can be found here.

Winter news

We have several items of winter news from students and faculty:

  • As usual, many our faculty members, students and alumni participated in the Linguistic Society of America’s 2018 Annual Meeting (see detailed account at our other post).
  • In Berlin, Germany, MIT was represented at the Endpoints 2018 workshop at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. Tanya Bondarenko presented a poster “Results, Repetitives and Datives: towards an account of cross linguistic variation” and Malka Rappaport-Hovav (PhD’84) gave an invited talk “(Non)Causative and (non)scalar spatial states”.
  • Meanwhile in Paris, France, our second year student Keny Chatain talked about “Local contexts for anaphora” at the LANGUAGE seminar at his alma mater Ecole Normale Superieure.
  • Speaking of bringing linguistics to the masses, one of MIT undergraduate students, Jessica Sun (‘18, Course 3) posted a new, very short and very educational video on language evolution, mentioning some of our own. In particular it overviews in two minutes (for those who are too lazy to read about it) the integration hypothesis, proposed in Shigeru Miyagawa et al’s “The emergence of hierarchical structure in human language”.
  • As linguistic life goes on, the real life intervenes with all its brutal cruelty. Our first year student Tanya Bondarenko’s bag got stolen in Berlin with her passport and other documents. Tanya is safely back in Moscow now, but it is going to take time, before she gets a new passport and visa. We all hope that, despite all the childish rubbish that our international politicians love to play at, Tanya will get her documents back soon and will be with us, before we completely dive in the Spring semester (MIT linguistics and philosophy department, as well as ISO are going to help with that). As for Tanya’s bag, we wish it to land somewhere in good hands.
  • On the bright side, speaking of the harmony of good and evil, Tanya Bondarenko also received a young researchers’ grant from Russian Academy of Sciences for her master thesis from Moscow State University.

MIT @ LSA 2018

The Linguistic Society of America’s Annual Meeting for 2018 was held in Salt Lake City, Utah in January. As per usual, MIT was well represented. The following department members presented talks and posters:

Alumni who presented or organised symposia include: Karlos Arregi (PhD ‘02), Benjamin Bruening (PhD ‘01), Aniko Csirmaz (PhD ‘05), Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine (PhD ‘14), Clair Halpert (PhD ‘12), Bruce Hayes (PhD ‘80), Ezra Keshet (PhD ‘08), Paul Kiparsky (PhD ‘65), Hadas Kotek (PhD ‘14), Theodore Levin (PhD ‘15), Janet Pierrehumbert (PhD ‘80), and Coppe van Urk (PhD ‘15).



Course Announcements: Spring 2018

Course Announcements in this post:

  • 24.942 Topics in the grammar of a less familiar language
  • 24.954 Pragmatics in Linguistic Theory
  • 24.956 Topics in Syntax
  • 24.963 Linguistic Phonetics
  • 24.964 Topics in Phonology
  • 24.966J Laboratory on the Physiology, Acoustics, and Perception of Speech
  • 24.979 Topics in Semantics
  • 9.19/9.190 Computational Psycholinguistics


24.942 Topics in the grammar of a less familiar language

  • Instructors: Kenstowicz, Richards
  • Schedule: M 2-5pm
  • Room: 32-D831

This year’s Less-Familiar Language will be Wolof (Niger-Congo, Atlantic).  We’ll spend the semester learning about Wolof’s structure (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics), and practicing techniques for working with a native speaker of a language to learn about that language.


24.954 Pragmatics in Linguistic Theory

  • Instructor: Fox
  • Schedule: T 10am-1pm
  • Room: 32-D461

Formal theories of context-dependency, presupposition, implicature, context-change, focus and topic. Special emphasis on the division of labor between semantics and pragmatics. Applications to the analysis of quantification, definiteness, presupposition projection, conditionals and modality, anaphora, questions and answers. 


24.956 Topics in Syntax

  • Instructor: Richards
  • Schedule: T 2-5pm
  • Room: 32-D461

This course will be an exploration of the relation between syntax and phonology, in the framework of Contiguity Theory (Richards 2016).  We’ll start by familiarizing ourselves with the main claims of Contiguity Theory, both in the 2016 book and in work done since.  This is an approach that posits a different kind of relation between syntax and phonology than is usually assumed; in particular, the syntax can be motivated to perform operations by the need to create phonologically well-formed objects.  We’ll discuss the implications of this approach for the architecture of the grammar.  Other topics of discussion will include the distribution of overt movements of various kinds, EPP effects, intervention effects, and conditions on pied-piping.


24.963 Linguistic Phonetics

  • Instructor: Flemming
  • Schedule: MW 10-11:30am
  • Room: 56-180

The study of speech sounds: how we produce and perceive them and their acoustic properties. The influence of the production and perception systems on phonological patterns and sound change. Acoustic analysis and experimental techniques.

We will be considering three fundamental questions:

  • How do we produce speech?
  • How do we perceive speech?
  • How does the nature of these processes influence the sound patterns of languages?

We will also be learning experimental methods and analytical techniques that enable us to address these (and other) questions.


24.964 Topics in Phonology

  • Instructor: Feldman, Katzir, Levy
  • Schedule: TR 5-6:30pm
  • Room: T 32-D461, R 46-5165

Learning and Linguistic Representations

Models of unsupervised language learning are central to understanding human cognition and replicating it in machines.  Computational advances and the availability of large speech and text corpora make it more tractable than ever before to build and evaluate such models.  This seminar considers the rich latent structures that are present in human language, and recent computational work in unsupervised learning that can provide insight into what those structures are like and whether and how they might be learned.  Seminar participants will take turns leading discussions of original research papers.  The seminar is open to graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and well-prepared, highly-motivated undergraduates.  Participants should have a strong background in at least one of two areas: (i) linguistic representation; (ii) computational approaches to learning, and should have an interest in gaining expertise in the other area.  In addition to participating in and taking turns leading seminar discussions, registered students may be required to complete periodic homework assignments and will write a final paper, either individually or in a group, that relates to unsupervised learning of linguistic knowledge.


24.966J Laboratory on the Physiology, Acoustics, and Perception of Speech

  • Instructor: Braida, Shattuck-Hufnagel, Choi
  • Schedule: TR 11am-1pm
  • Room: 35-308

Experimental investigations of speech processes. Topics include computer-aided waveform analysis and spectral analysis of speech; synthesis of speech; perception and discrimination of speech-like sounds; speech prosody; models of speech recognition; speech development; analysis of atypical speech; and others. Recommended prerequisite: 6.002, 18.03, or 24.900. 


24.979 Topics in Semantics

  • Instructor: Fox, Heim, Schwarzschild
  • Schedule: R 2-5pm
  • Room: 32-D461

We will begin this seminar with a discussion of issues that arise in the semantics of plurality: when is a predicate true of a plural definite description and when is it false?, are there cases where it is neither true nor false (cases of homogeneity)?, Is there anything interesting to say about when a sentence which neither true nor false is taken to be true, how do answers to these questions bear on the semantics of various constituents dominating a plural definite description?, etc. We will then move to discuss other areas of grammar where similar questions have been raised (questions, generics, conditionals, neg-raising). This, as usual, will likely take us to problems that are not directly related to those with which we will start. 


9.19/9.190 Computational Psycholinguistics

  • Instructor: Levy
  • Schedule: MW 9:30-11am
  • Room: 46-4199

Over the last two and a half decades, computational linguistics has been revolutionized as a result of three closely related developments: increases in computing power, the advent of large linguistic datasets, and a paradigm shift toward probabilistic modeling. At the same time, similar theoretical developments in cognitive science have led to a view major aspects of human cognition as instances of rational statistical inference. These developments have set the stage for renewed interest in computational approaches to human language acquisition and use. Correspondingly, this course covers some of the most exciting developments in computational psycholinguistics over the past decade. The course spans human language comprehension, production, and acquisition, and covers key phenomena spanning phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Students will learn technical tools including probabilistic models, formal grammars, neural networks, and decision theory, and how theory, computational modeling, and data can be combined to advance our fundamental understanding of human language acquisition and use.

This course is open to undergraduate and graduate students in Brain & Cognitive Sciences, Linguistics, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, and any of a number of related disciplines. Enrollees should have (i) one semester of programing experience (ideally Python, fulfillable e.g. by 6.00), plus (ii) either (a) one semester of probability/statistics/machine learning (e.g., 6.041B or 9.40) or (b) one semester of linguistics. The undergraduate section is 9.19, the graduate section is 9.190. Required work will include problem sets, exams, and (for enrollees in 9.190) a final project.  Postdocs and faculty are also welcome to participate!

The course will meet twice a week; course format will be a combination of lecture, discussion, and in-class exercises as class size, structure, and interests permit.

MIT Linguistics Colloquium Schedule, Spring 2018

Colloquium talks will be held on Fridays from 3:30-5pm unless otherwise noted. Please visit the colloquium webpage for more details and updates. All questions should be directed to the colloquium organizers, Yadav Gowda and Danfeng Wu.

LingLunch 2/8: Petr Kusliy (UMass-Amherst)

Speaker: Petr Kusliy (UMass-Amherst)
Title: English Present tense is relative: evidence from VP-fronting
Date and time: Thursday, February 8, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

English Present-under-Past attitude reports are commonly believed to have only the so-called double-access reading (Smith 1978). Roughly, this means that the eventuality described in the embedded clause of the attitude report must overlap the time of the matrix eventuality as well as the utterance time. Present-under-Past attitude reports in languages like Japanese or Russian besides the double-access reading also allow for the so-called simultaneous reading (the embedded eventuality is contemporaneous with the matrix eventuality but not necessarily with the utterance time). The lack of the simultaneous reading in Present-under-Past attitude reports in English lead many researchers to believe that English Present tense is crucially different from Present tense in Japanese or Russian (e.g. Ogihara, 1989; von Stechow, 2003). According to this view, English Present is indexical (i.e. always indicates a time that overlaps the utterance time). Present tense in Japanese and Russian is relative because the time it indicates does not have to overlap the utterance time and can be simultaneous with a local temporal anchor.

In this talk, I focus on the interactions between simultaneous and double-access readings, on the one hand, and VP- and CP-fronting, on the other. To my knowledge, these interactions have never been examined in the literature on tense. I present new data showing that (i) fronted VP versions of Present-under-Past attitude reports allow for a simultaneous reading (together with a double-access reading); (ii) fronted CP versions of Present-under-Past attitude reports do not allow for a simultaneous reading and only have a double-access reading, (iii) in the fronted CP, as well as fronted VP versions of the famous Kamp-Abusch sentences, the most embedded Past does not have a simultaneous interpretation and has to backshift.

I discuss these data and propose an account that contains the following claims: (a) English Present tense has a relative interpretation just like Present tense in Japanese and in Russian; (b) if a tense in a complement CP has a relative interpretation, its temporal anchor is CP-external (not a lambda abstract in the left periphery of the CP); (iii) in a fronted construction, the highest tense cannot be vacuous.

Syntax Square 2/6 - Danfeng Wu (MIT)

Speaker: Danfeng Wu (MIT)
Title: A copy-based analysis of either in either…or… constructions
Date and time: Tuesday February 6, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

While it has been observed since Larson (1985) that either can occur in many different positions in either…or… constructions, no proposal successfully accounts for its various surface positions and restrictions on its distribution. In this talk I argue that the dual identity of either as both a disjunction marker and focus-sensitive operator requires it to c-command both the disjunction phrase and the focused elements. And I argue that it achieves this goal by origination in a c-commanding position relative to the focused constituent, followed by upward movement to c-command disjunction, and that the occurrences of either in different positions are copies in the same movement chain. Not only does this analysis successfully account for the distribution of either with respect to islands, but it also makes a few predictions. For instance, because these eithers are identical copies in a movement chain, when an independent restriction bans one of them, other copies can still surface to save the sentence.

Crete Summer School in Linguistics 2018

This summer, from July 16 to July 27, 2018, there will be the second Crete Summer School of Linguistics at the University of Crete, in the beautiful city of Rethymnon.

Many MIT folk are involved. Current MIT faculty teaching there: Adam Albright, Kai von Fintel, Sabine Iatridou, Shigeru Miyagawa, Donca Steriade. There are also some who have taught at MIT at some point in the past: Elena Anagnostopoulou, Rajesh Bhatt, Kyle Johnson, Paul Kiparsky, Hedde Zeijlstra. Other MIT graduates on the faculty: Joan Mascaro, Doug Pulleyblank, Tim Stowell, Michael Wagner.

Current MIT students who will be TAing: Rafael Abramovitz, Daniel Asherov, Tanya Bondarenko, Omer Demirok.

Full information (including details on the student application due April 1st), can be found on the summer school website.

Spring 2018 Reading groups

LingPhil Reading Group (LPRG) will be reprising this semester on Mondays, 1:00-2:00pm, in 32-D831 (the 8th floor conference room). Reading list and contact information can be found on the group’s website.

Phonology Circle will be meeting on Mondays, 5:00–6:30pm, in 32-D831 (the 8th floor conference room). Please contact Erin Olson and/or Rafael Abramovitz if you would like to reserve a slot.

Syntax Square will be held at the old time-slot: Tuesdays, 1:00-2:00pm, in 32-D461 (the 4th floor seminar room). As always, we welcome works in progress, presentation of papers on topics of interest, practice talks, etc. Please contact Suzana Fong and/or Mitya Privoznov if you would like to give a talk.

LF Reading Group meets on Wednesdays, 1:00-2:00pm in 32-D461. As always, rough ideas, work in progress, practice talks, and presentations of papers from the literature are all very welcome. To reserve a slot, contact Naomi Francis or Tanya Bondarenko.

Ling-Lunch is held on Thursdays, 12:30-1:50pm in 32-D461. Anyone who wishes to present their own linguistics-related research is welcome, although preference will be given to members of the MIT linguistics department. Please contact Cora Lesure or Ömer Demirok to reserve a date.