The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, November 16th, 2020

Syntax Square 11/17 - Cater Chen (MIT)

Speaker: Cater Chen (MIT)
Title: The tough path to passive
Time: Tuesday, November 17th, 1pm - 2pm

Abstract: The Mandarin BEI-construction, where BEI introduces an eventuality proposition that the subject of BEI undergoes, is known to show mixed A-/Aʹ-behavior similar to the English tough-construction. An analysis of the BEI-construction that has been widely accepted involves base-generation of the subject of BEI and Aʹ-movement of a null operator to the left periphery of the eventuality complement, akin to Chomsky’s treatment of the tough-construction. In this talk, I argue that a different derivation of the BEI-construction must be possible (and the default), due to its distinct behaviour when interacting with IP-external topicalization (that shows Aʹ-behavior under the standard diagnostics) and IP-internal topicalization and focalization (that shows mixed A-/Aʹ-behavior), which have also been proposed to involve null operator movement. Specifically, I use the subject-oriented long-distance reflexive ziji as a diagnostic for subjecthood to reveal that two moved objects must conform to a nesting path when BEI-construction and IP-external topicalization are involved, but they must conform to a crossing path when BEI-construction and IP-internal topicalization/focalization are involved. By comparison, when two objects undergo IP-external topicalization and/or IP-internal topicalization/focalization, no systematic nesting/crossing asymmetry is found.

LF Reading Group 11/18 - Frank Staniszewski (MIT)

Speaker: Frank Staniszewski (MIT)
Title: Polarity sensitive weak necessity modals
Time: Wednesday, November 18th, 1pm - 2pm

Abstract: I develop a new analysis of ‘weak necessity’ modals ‘should’ and ‘supposed to’ that is motivated by novel observations of weaker than expected meanings in some environments. For example, ’supposed to’ in (1a) gives rise to a meaning that can be paraphrased as the weaker modal statement in (1b).

(1) A: Can you please pick up a book for me at the office?
      B: I don’t know… Are we supposed to be back on campus without a Covid test?
      B′: I don’t know… Are we allowed to be back on campus without a Covid test?

I argue that this and other evidence of weak readings shows that these modal verbs exhibit a type of variable force. They express universal force in positive sentences and existential force under negation. The analysis will build on an analogy with free-choice disjunction that assumes a basic weak meaning that strengthens in upward-entailing environments (Fox 2007; Bassi & Bar-Lev 2016).  I hypothesize that the precise distribution of the strengthened readings is governed by the polarity-sensitive nature of the modals (cf. Iatridou Zeijlstra 2013; Homer 2015).  In particular, I argue that the polarity sensitivity of the modals is the result of the association of their domains with a covert even-like operator (cf. Lahiri 1998; Crnič 2014, 2019  for NPI ‘any’).

This hypothesis makes intricate predictions about the range of readings that should be observed in various logical environments that I show to be borne out. It predicts that the modals should receive strong interpretations in positive sentences, and weak readings in negative sentences. For environments that contain both negative and positive components, such as the question in (1), and in the scope of non-monotonic quantifiers, two possible readings are predicted: one in which the positive component strengthens, and the negative component remains weak, and another in which both components remain weak, and the contribution of the covert ’even’ results in strong constraints on the discourse context. I discuss the logic of these predictions, and also argue that the analysis provides a natural link between polarity sensitivity and ‘weak necessity’ modals.

Phonology Circle 11/16 - Trevor Driscoll (MIT)

Speaker: Trevor Driscoll (MIT)
Title: Crow Palatal Coarticulation as Gradient Feature Spreading
Time: Monday, November 16th, 5pm - 6:30pm

Abstract: The literature on Crow phonology describes two palatalization processes; one changes alveolar obstruents to alveolopalatals before front vowels. The other is progressive where a k following a front vowel or an alveolopalatal is realized with palatal coarticulation. Using acoustic measurements of F2 transitions in VCV sequences, I show that palatal coarticulation interacts with all obstruents and that the place of the constriction determines how F2 transitions from front to back vowels. Further I argue that a GA feature spreading analysis with traditional L/R edges is insufficient to represent the Crow data. I propose adopting gestural landmarks as a domain to assign GA violations; gestural landmarks provide exactly the appropriate number of alignment positions needed to characterize F2’s transition from high to low through an intervening consonant.

MorPhun 11/18 - Tamisha Tan (Harvard University)

Speaker: Tamisha Tan (Harvard University)
Title: Two Cases of Doubled Pronouns in Amarasi
Time: Wednesday, November 18th, 5pm - 6:30pm

Abstract: This work in progress investigates an apparent case of typologically unusual full pronoun doubling in Amarasi (Austronesian: South-West Timor). Amarasi shows doubling in two contexts: copula constructions (1) and quantified (associative) arguments (2):

1) Au bifee kau.
1SG.NOM woman 1SG.OBL
‘I am a woman.’
2) Hai nua kai mi-mnei.
1PL.EX.NOM two 1PL.EX.OBL 1PL.EX-dream.
‘The two of us dream.’

In each case, a subject pronoun and its oblique counterpart bracket a nominal/adjectival predicate or numeral/quantifier respectively. Despite their surface similarity, I argue that these two constructions involve distinct underlying structures. In particular, I will provide novel evidence that these two surface-similar constructions have distinct derivations, as seen by their differing behaviour under negation, relativisation, and (default) agreement. Copular Pronoun Doubling (CPD) as in (1) will be shown to involve a pronominal copula, instantiating a Pred head which bears full φ-agreement with the subject, while Argument Pronoun Doubling (APD) as in (2) will be argued to involve a predicative (low) pronoun, doubled by a D head.

In all, this paper provides novel evidence for a fully-agreeing non-verbal copula that instantiates Pred (and not T or V) and connects this to other types of predicative agreement cross-linguistically and person splits therein (as with the SCOPA; cf. Baker 2008, Abramovitz 2020.) Furthermore, it explores an unusual type of adnominal pronoun construction in which the predicate is also pronominal (Höhn, 2017). Finally, it presents a potential expansion to the inventory of possible case competitors under Dependent Case Theory (Baker, 2015).

LingLunch 11/19 - Naomi Francis (University of Oslo)

Speaker: Naomi Francis (University of Oslo)
Title: Marking objections with gestures
Time: Thursday, November 19th, 12:30pm - 1:50pm

Abstract: This talk explores the role of a gesture, which I call WAYTA (for What Are You Talking About?!), in marking particularly strong objections. I argue that the distribution of this gesture is sensitive to properties of discourse that are also relevant for the distribution of elements of spoken language (e.g., actually, doch), and that this gesture can replace otherwise obligatory linguistic material. I also discuss crosslinguistic variation and the division of labour between gesture, prosody, and the material that they overlay.

DeGraff keynote talk at VocUM 2020

This Thursday, November 19, at 4PM (EDT) Michel DeGraff will deliver the keynote at the University of Montreal conference “VocUM 2020 – Language: Norm & Power.”

The title of the talk, which will be delivered in Kreyòl with French subtitles, is:

“Ann Ayiti, frankofoni se zam pou vyolans kolonyal epi se kreyolofoni ki ka sèvi kòm fondasyon pou edikasyon ak liberasyon”

(= In Haiti, Francophonie is a weapon for colonial violence while it’s Kreyòl that can be used as the linguistic foundation for education and liberation.)


More details about the conference at:


Elliott invited talk at LENLS 17

Patrick Elliott gave a talk as an invited speaker at the 17th Logic and Engineering of Natural Language Semantics conference (LENLS 17) under the title “Classical negation in a dynamic alternative semantics”.

Bi & Niedzielski teach at MIT Splash 2020

Agnes Bi and Patrick Niedzielski taught two Zoom sessions of their class “Make Your Own Language” at MIT Splash 2020, a yearly event in which MIT students hold classes for 9th-12th graders on any topic from “atomic chess to ancient Chinese literature to aerospace.”  In “Make Your Own Language,” students learn about the history of constructed languages, pick up some basic linguistics by making their own constructed language, and then teach fellow students their constructed languages well enough to complete translation challenge sentences. Their course description is below:

Glidis, O studans! When you pick up a fantasy or sci fi novel, do you flip to the back to look at the glossary for that alien language? Do you think the world would be a much better place if there were one, neutral, easy-to-learn language that we all could speak? Maybe you’ve made a code or cypher for you and your friends. Or maybe you think language is too imprecise and really wish there were some unambiguous way of communicating. If any of these statements describe you, congratulations! You might just have what it takes to be a conlanger, someone who makes languages, for fun (and for profit!). In this practicum, we’ll create our own language, for fun (not for profit!), learning some interesting facts about conlangs and linguistics along the way.

Wu to talk in Goethe University Frankfurt Syntax Colloquium

Danfeng Wu will be giving an invited talk next Monday, November 23 (10:15 EST) at the Syntax Colloquium at Goethe University Frankfurt on “Syntax and prosody of either…or… sentences”.  Here is her abstract:

Prosodic structure largely reflects syntactic structure, but there are also mismatches. If we follow the intuition that prosodic structure is matched to pronounced material, an obvious place to study the syntax-prosody mismatch is syntactic structure involving non-pronounced material, such as ellipsis. In this talk I will present prosodic evidence of elided material in a phonetic experiment, where I show that the presence or absence of elided structure has an effect on the prosodic realization. Not only does this result provide a new source of evidence for ellipsis, but it also informs the question of what sort of syntactic information is accessible to prosody. 

The construction where I examine the prosodic effects of ellipsis is English either…or… coordination because it provides a suitable environment for the experiment, and allows me to design materials where ellipsis size could be parametrically varied. The prosodic work requires careful syntactic and semantic arguments that there is ellipsis in this coordination in the first place. As background, I will present evidence showing that there is ellipsis in either…or… coordination (following Schwarz 1999), and the size of the elided material is correlated with the position of either (as in 1a-d). These arguments rely on constituency tests, diagnostics involving elided pronouns and referring expressions, antecedent-contained deletion, and verb particle constructions.

(1) a. Lillian will look for either Lauren or Bella.
    b. Lillian will either look for Lauren or look for Bella.
    c. Lillian either will look for Lauren or will look for Bella.
    d. Either Lillian will look for Lauren or she will look for Bella.

After showing evidence for the analysis of ellipsis for (1a-d), I will move on to the prosodic part of the talk. The difference in ellipsis among (1a-d) might lead to a difference in prosody, specifically in phrasing. Consider (1d), which involves coordination of two clauses in syntax. If prosodic structure is built from a structure that contains elided material, and furthermore, if large syntactic constituents correspond to large prosodic constituents, we would have two large prosodic constituents, as can be observed by a large boundary (of intonational phrase, IP) between Lauren and or (2a). On the other hand, if prosody only considers surface structure, it might group Lauren or Bella as a single prosodic constituent even though they are not a constituent underlyingly, creating a small boundary (intermediate phrase, iP) between Lauren and or (2b).

(2) a. Either Lillian will look for Lauren IP) or she will look for Bella IP).
    b. Either Lillian will look for Lauren iP) or Bella IP).

If prosody is built from a structure containing hidden material, the boundary between Lauren and or would increase as we move from (1a) to (1d), since the amount of elided structure increases. In contrast, if prosody only considers surface structure, that boundary between Lauren and or would be the same for (1a-d). Preliminary results based on transcriptions of tones and breaks in the productions suggest speakers’ strong preference for (2a): the boundary between Lauren and or does increase as the elided material increases, suggesting that prosody tracks syntax closely. These results also bear on the question of timing: the non-pronunciation of material must occur after the creation of prosodic phrasing.