The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, November 4th, 2019

Syntax Square 11/5 - Elise Newman (MIT)

Speaker: Elise Newman (MIT)
Title: Mayan agent focus and the interaction between merge and agree
Time: Tuesday, November 5th, 1pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: In this week’s edition of Syntax Square, I will discuss Mayan Agent Focus from the perspective of Coon, Baier, Levin 2019. In their paper, they propose that examples like (1), where a subject has been wh-extracted, are ungrammatical due to the so called Ergative Extraction Constraint (EEC).

(1) *Maktxel max y-il ix ix? who pfv A3s-see clf woman intended: ‘Who saw the woman?’

They propose that the EEC is active in some Mayan languages due to the fact that the object moves higher than the subject, and is a more local target for agree by a higher probe. While typically A’-movement is insensitive to intervening nominals, they argue that Mayan A’-probes are relativized to seek D features as well as wh/focus features (a mixed A/A’ probe). The result is that whenever a subject is marked with wh/focus features, the relevant probe searching for those features first agrees with the internal argument before finding the subject, and thus becomes gluttonous, which leads to a crash. The only way to pronounce (1) is to insert the agent focus morpheme in place of agreement with the moved subject.

(2) Maktxel max-ach il-on-i? who pfv-b2s see-AF-itv ‘Who saw you?’

On their approach, the agent focus morpheme licenses extraction of an ergative subject by blocking movement of the internal argument to a higher position, thus preventing the object from ever c-commanding the subject. In other words, the EEC is active in some Mayan languages, and agent focus appears in these languages only to prevent violations of the EEC.

This locality approach to the EEC and agent focus in Mayan is attractive because it builds on structural considerations that are well motivated by the Mayan literature and accounts for the fact that agent focus is sensitive to certain properties of the internal argument. However, their analysis of agent focus struggles to handle cases of multiple extraction where agent focus is present, thus suggesting that agent focus and the EEC may not be so tightly related. I will therefore propose the beginnings of a reanalysis of agent focus (very much still in progress) that builds off of their structural assumptions but disentangles agent focus from the EEC.

My proposal assumes a theory of merge and agree along the lines of Longenbaugh (2019), with the additional assumption that all merge tucks in (Richards 2005). These assumptions tightly constrain the order in which multiple specifiers may appear, given a head with particular selectional and EPP requirements. The result is that the subject is always the outer specifier of vP, unless it is more featurally specified than the internal argument, in which case the order of specifiers becomes reversed. In exactly these cases of reversal, both v and T end up agreeing with the same DP, namely the internal argument. I argue that these cases co-occur with the presence of agent focus because the morphology rejects haplology.

LF Reading Group 11/6 - Enrico Flor (MIT) and Filipe Hisao Kobayashi (MIT)

Speaker: Enrico Flor (MIT) and Filipe Hisao Kobayashi (MIT)
Title: Jacobson (2016): The short answer
Time: Wednesday, November 6th, 1pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: We’ll be presenting Jacobson’s (2016) “The short answer: implications for direct compositionality (and vice versa)”. The paper abstract (as well as the paper itself) can be found in the following link: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/621187/summary.

LingLunch 11/7 - Patrick Elliott (MIT) and Uli Sauerland (Harvard/ZAS)

Speaker: Patrick Elliott (MIT) and Uli Sauerland (Harvard/ZAS)
Title: Nuclear intervention: towards a unified account of weak islands and Beck-effects
Time: Thursday, November 7th, 12:30pm - 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Cross-linguistically, negation gives rise to intervention effects with scope-marking and wh-in-situ. Prominent analyses attempt to explain this phenomenon in terms of alternative/inquisitive semantics (see, e.g., Beck 2006, Kotek 2017). This approach works well for intervenors which are clearly focus-sensitive, such as “only”, but for negation, it is stipulative (see, e.g., Mayr 2014 for critical discussion). In this talk we develop an alternative account which aims to unify intervention by negation with weak island effects. The analysis relies on the following assumptions: (i) scope-marking and wh-in-situ compose via the cyclic scope mechanisms proposed by, e.g., Dayal (1996) and Charlow (2017), (ii) Dayal’s Maximal Informativity presupposition (MaxInf) is checked locally at the question nucleus – crucially, it is blind to the wh-restrictor.

Colloquium 11/8 - Giorgio Magri (CNRS and University of Paris 8)

Speaker: Giorgio Magri (CNRS and University of Paris 8)
Title: What is the proper model of probabilistic phonology?​
Time: Friday, November 8th, 3:30pm - 5pm
Location: 32-155

Abstract: Phonology has traditionally focused on categorical alternations. More recently, phonology has extended its empirical coverage to quantitative data such as gradient judgements and phonologically conditioned variation. This empirical extension requires a corresponding theoretical extension from categorical to probabilistic models of phonology. Perhaps the main open question in phonological theory in the next decade is how to properly characterize the probabilistic model underlying natural language phonology. This talk makes three contributions towards addressing this question. Part I provides a derivation of MaxEnt phonology from first principles. Part II (based on joint work with Arto Anttila) argues that MaxEnt nonetheless makes no sense as a model of probabilistic phonology because it severely over-generates. If even the best is not good enough, we better try something different. Part III starts to explore the alternative strategy of defining probabilistic phonological grammars by sampling from an underlying typology of categorical grammars. This class of models (which includes stochastic HG and OT) is shown to provide tight linguistic predictions and to have learnability properties comparable to those of MaxEnt. The talk is a commercial for a forthcoming textbook on categorical and probabilistic constraint-based phonology.​

NELS 50 a success!

The 50th Annual Meeting of North East Linguistic Society (NELS 50) was held at MIT. Here are some pictures:
People coming in for Kiparsky’s keynote (p.c. Kai von Fintel)
Paul Kiparsky giving a special plenary reflecting on the last 50 years in linguistics (p.c. David Pesetsky)
Thanks to all presenters and attendees, the main organizers, Neil Banerjee (4th year), Christopher Baron (4th year) and Dóra Kata Takács (3rd year), among other organizers, and the people in the main office, in particular, Mary Grenham and Aggie Fernandes, for making NELS 50 such a success!

WAFL 16 in Mongolia!

Workshop on Altaic Formal Linguistics (WAFL) 16 will be hosted by the National University of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, September 24, 25, 26, 2020. Our colleague Shigeru Miyagawa is one of the main organizers.

Abstracts are invited for 20-minute talks (plus 10-minute discussions) and for posters on topics dealing with formal aspects of any area of theoretical Altaic linguistics, including phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, or pragmatics. The term ‘Altaic’ is understood to include Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic languages, as well as Korean, Japanese, Ryukyuan, and Ainu.

Deadline for abstracts: April 2, 2020

Swenson book published!

Congratulations to our alum Amanda Swenson (PhD 2017) on the publication of her book “Malayalam Verbs: Functional Structure and Morphosemantics” by Mouton De Gruyter!