The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 5th, 2020

Experimentalist Meeting 10/9 - Jad Wehbe (MIT)

Speaker: Jad Wehbe (MIT)
Title: Preschoolers’ comprehension of the interaction of intonation and illocutionary force (work with Daniel Goodhue, Valentine Hacquard and Jeffrey Lidz):

Time: Friday, October 9th, 2pm - 3:30pm


This study investigates preschoolers’ ability to infer the force of speakers’ intended speech acts when they don’t match the clause type uttered, by focusing on rising declaratives in English. Prior work shows that infants are sensitive to clause type and intonational distinctions, but doesn’t address speech act interpretation. We show that children deploy a sophisticated understanding of pragmatics and prosody to uncover the intended illocutionary force of speakers’ utterances. This is done via the results of a comprehension task in which children helped a puppet place animals in workplaces throughout a village. In each trial, the puppet either made a statement about where an animal works, in which case the child had to place the animal in the corresponding location, or the puppet forgot and asked a question, in which case the child had to check a book containing information about each animal’s workplace.


LingLunch 10/8 - Elise Newman (MIT)

Speaker: Elise Newman (MIT)
Title: On wh-movement and transitivity in Mayan
Time: Thursday, October 8th, 12:30pm - 1:50pm

Abstract: It is often claimed that for some languages, A’-extraction of a transitive subject corresponds to a need to intransitivize the clause. While many analyses argue that this represents a ban on subject extraction in these languages, I argue in this talk that the ‘intransitive’ properties of these clauses are only apparent, and are derivable from general conditions on the order of merge operations at Spec vP. Evidence for this view comes from the profile of anti-agreement in Mayan subject extraction. In high absolutive Mayan languages, A’-movement of a transitive subject results in a loss of phi agreement with that argument, and the insertion of a supposedly intransitivizing morpheme, resulting in the so-called `agent focus’ construction. A’-movement of objects, by contrast, shows the same agreement profile as a transitive clause.

I argue that the this effect can be reduced to the fact that Spec vP serves two different functions: 1) to host an argument, and 2) to host an A’-moving constituent. I propose that both of these two functions have the capacity to be satisfied by Merge of any kind, which includes both internal and external merge. This proposal gives rise to the following possibilities: 1) argument is externally merged, A’-phrase is internally merged, or 2) argument is internally merged, A’-phrase is externally merged. The result is that when the A’-phrase is the object, it must internally merge to get to Spec vP. The argument-introducing feature of v is therefore satisfied by external merge of the subject (like a regular transitive clause). By contrast, when the subject is a wh-phrase, it can satisfy the wh-hosting feature of v by external merge, leaving the argument introducing property to be satisfied by the internal argument (i.e. subject wh can cause A-movement of the object). In summary, languages are predicted in which two arguments occupy Spec vP whenever one of them is a wh-phrase.

The order in which internal and external merge apply in each case does not affect whether the result is a transitive clause, but has consequences for the scopal relationship between these two merged phrases, and their accessibility to Agree. I propose that the constituent that satisfies v’s argument introducing feature always ends up c-commanding the wh-phrase in high absolutive Mayan languages, because of economy conditions on how these features are satisfied. In other words, object wh-questions have the order SO_wh at the edge of vP, while subject wh-questions have the order OS_wh. This results in the subject being accessible to a higher phi probe when it is not a wh-phrase, but inaccessible to phi-Agree when it is a wh-phrase, c-commanded by the object. When agreement with the subject is blocked, I propose that an elsewhere morpheme appears, which is what is known as the agent focus morpheme.

Prof. John Baugh’s Colloquium Talk [with video]

On Friday, October 2, 2020, we heard an unusual and excellent (virtual) colloquium talk by Prof. John Baugh of Washington University in St. Louis entitled “Linguistics for Legal Purposes”. With Prof Baugh’s permission, we are delighted to share the video of his talk, including an introduction by our colleague Prof. Michel DeGraff: https://www.facebook.com/MITLinguistics/posts/3507551895931529