The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, September 24th, 2018

LingPhil Reading Group 9/24 - on Rothschild and Spectre (2016)

Nathaniel Schwartz will be presenting a very recent paper by Rothschild and Spectre (2016) on knowing conditionals. The meeting will take place on Monday 24th  in the 8th floor seminar room, i.e. the usual time & place.

Title : A Puzzle about Knowing Conditionals

Authors : Daniel Rothschild and Levi Spectre

Abstract :

We present a puzzle about knowledge, probability and conditionals. We show that in certain cases some basic and plausible principles governing our reasoning come into conflict. In particular, we show that there is a simple argument that a person may be in a position to know a conditional the consequent of which has a low probability conditional on its antecedent, contra Adams’ thesis. We suggest that the puzzle motivates a very strong restriction on the inference of a conditional from a disjunction.


MorPhun 9/24: Boer on Old Chinese Morphology

Speaker: Boer Fu (MIT)
Title: Sagart & Baxter’s book on Old Chinese
Date and time: Monday 9/24, 5-6pm
Location: 32-D831

Chinese has been known as a language that does not employ any morphology apart from compounds. Each monosyllabic morpheme can stand as a word on its own, and interact with each other syntactically. But the language has not always been like this. Derivational prefixes, suffixes, and infixes have once been productive in Old Chinese. In this talk, I will draw examples from Sagart & Baxter’s 2014 phonological reconstruction of Old Chinese to illustrate their variety and relations to the writing system. I will also discuss the loss of affixation and its role in the emergence of tonal contrast in Middle Chinese. The implication on the reconstruction of Proto-Sino-Tibetan will be discussed briefly as well.

Syntax Square 9/25 - Ljiljana Progovac (Wayne State University/MIT)

Speaker: Ljiljana Progovac (Wayne State University/MIT)
Title: The absolutive vP-less basis of se “middles” in Serbian: A split accusative language?
Date and time: Tuesday September 25, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

 I pursue a unified account of se in its various manifestations in Serbian, including, but not limited to, passive-like, middle-like, reflexive, reciprocal (all of them referred to as “middles”), given that coordination tests establish that these various readings are not syntactically distinct. The idea is that these middle se structures in Serbian (1) avail themselves of only one syntactic argument, a proto-participant in the event (2), often giving rise to massive vagueness, especially when not pragmatically constrained. The only argument in se middles is further proposed to be absolutive-like, in the sense that it does not grammatically discriminate subjects from objects, or agents from patients, the pattern also found with absolutives in syntactically ergative languages such as Tongan, as will be illustrated.

(1) Deca se tuku/grle/prskaju!
children SE hit/hug/sprinkle
‘The children are hitting/hugging/sprinkling each other.’ ‘?The children are hitting/ hugging/ sprinkling themselves.’ ‘The children are hitting/hugging/sprinkling somebody (else.)’ ‘The children are hitting/hugging/sprinkling me!’ ‘One spanks/hugs/?sprinkles children.’

(2) ∃e [H(e) ∧ Participant (Children,e)]

This analysis ties into my work on language evolution (e.g. Progovac 2015, 2016), where I have reconstructed a vP-less and TP-less (intransitive and tenseless) small clause stage in the evolution of language/syntax, with only one (absolutive-like) argument per verb/clause. Arguably, this absolutive-like proto-layer provides a common foundation/denominator for building transitivity, either by adding an ergative argument on the top, or an accusative argument on the bottom, not inconsistent with the postulates of Dependent Case Theory (e.g. Yip et al. 1987; Marantz 1991; McFadden 2004; Baker 2015).
Previous proposals have noted that se in Serbian can be analyzed as neither an argument, nor a reflexive pronoun, but is instead some kind of grammatical marker (e.g. Franks 1995; Marelj 2004; Progovac 2005). A unified account of se in Serbian requires seeing se as flagging a different, parallel type of grammar in a language whose dominant grammar is accsative, suggesting that Serbian may be a split accusative language, on analogy with split ergative languages. Finally, this approach makes some specific testable predictions regarding the processing of se middles, in contrast to their transitive (vP) counterparts, and the fMRI experiments we conducted have yielded some promising initial results (Progovac et al. 2018). 


Phonology Circle 9/26 - Erin Olson (MIT)

Speaker: Erin Olson (MIT)
Title: Pitch and vowel duration make schwa invisible to Passamaquoddy stress
Date/Time: Wednesday, September 26, 5:00-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

This is a practice presentation for a poster to be presented at AMP.


Ling Lunch 9/27 - Itai Bassi (MIT); Keny Chatain (MIT)
We again have 2 presentations as practice talks for NELS: 
Speaker: Itai Bassi (MIT)
Title: Fake Indexicals: the grammar of variable binding
Date and time: Thursday, 9/27, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

In (1), ’my’ can function as a bound variable and doesn’t have to refer to the speaker - it is a “Fake Indexical”. Fake Indexicality has been used in recent decades as a probe into investigating how the logical mechanism of variable binding interacts with syntactic and morphological mechanisms in natural language. In the first part of the talk I will motivate and present an analysis of (1) (building on Bassi and Longenbaugh 2017) on which the “fake” indexical is a true indexical, and more generally that bound-variable pronouns always have their phi-features interpreted in this construction. I will show new evidence from English that supports this analysis over existing accounts within the “minimal pronoun” approach (Kratzer 2009, Wurmbrand 2017) which take bound pronouns to have features only on the surface, without being interpreted. 

(1) I am the only one who takes care of my children (based on Partee 1989)
     bound reading: for every x other than me, x can’t take care of x’s children
In the second part of the talk I will turn to some cross-linguistic variation in this domain. In German a bound indexical reading analogous to (1) is not available, (2); but it is available if the pronoun is embedded deeply enough, (3) (Kratzer 2009). Following insights by Wurmbrand and Kratzer, I suggest that the difference between English (1) and German (2) lies in the absence or presence of gender marking on relative pronouns. I’ll propose that variable-binding obligatorily translates to agreement between the binder and the bindee, which leads to a spell-out crash in (2) but not in (1) because of a ban on realizing 1st person on gender-marked (relative) pronouns. This agreement operates only locally, stopping at a CP boundary, which explains the difference between (2) and (3). Cross-linguistic predictions will emerge from the details of the analysis which I will try to substantiate using novel data from French and Hebrew.
(2) Ich bin die   einzige  die  meine Kinder  versorgt    (bound reading impossible)
        I   am the.F  only   who.F my     children  takes.care.of 
(3) Ich bin die    einzige die     [jemand    kennt  [der meine Kinder versorgt]]   (bound reading possible)
        I   am the.F  only   who.F [someone knows  [who  my      children takes.care.of]]
Speaker: Keny Chatain (MIT)
Title: Wide-scope distributivity
Date and time: Thursday, 9/27, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, I analyse data of the form (1-3), where a referential expression is interpreted with wide scope and a distributive interpretation. This data is mysterious under the standard assumption that distributive readings arise from a covert element D operating on predicates, since the relevant predicate in (1-3) can only be formed by an island-escaping movement.

1. Context: I just got the results from our new experimental drug on the 17 participants we recruited.
Sentence: Either the drug made them sick or it made them sleepy (but it didn’t cure anyone).
Reading: Each of the participants was either made sick or sleepy by the drug

2. Context: Four 3D printers are currently working. They are printing different objects and my therefore finish at different times.
Sentence: When the printers are done, they will emit a loud screeching noise.
Reading: for each of the printers, when it is done, it will emit a loud screeching noise.

3. Sentence: Unless Clinton and Trump don’t want me to, I will give them a mic.
Reading: for each of Clinton and Trump, unless he or she wants me to, I won’t give him or her a mic.

I argue that this data motivates the existence of an index-based covert “all”-operator. Since it is based on indices, this operator can be remote from the plurality it distributes over, even separated from it by a scope island, accounting for (1-3). Further evidence for this operator will come from its ability to license dependent plurals (up to intervention effects). Finally, I will show how we can make sense of the restriction on the type of expressions that can show this wide-scope distributivity (i.e. referential expressions), tying it to their anaphoric nature.


MIT Colloquium 9/28: Pavel Caha (Masaryk University)

Speaker: Pavel Caha (Masaryk University)
Title: Phrasal spellout, multiple exponence and bracketing paradoxes
Date and time: Friday 9/28, 3:30-5pm
Location: 32-155 

The talk explores a view on the syntax-phonology interface, where every non-terminal that arises by Merge F must be assigned phonological interpretation, or the derivation fails (Starke, 2018).  Focusing on comparatives, I compare such an architecture to the standard view proposed in Distributed Morphology (Halle and Marantz 1993), where only terminals are subject to phonological interpretation. I also address the concerns raised against the phrasal-spellout model in Embick (2016).

Sylvain Bromberger (1924-2018)

We join our colleagues in the Philosophy side of our department in expressing our sadness at the passing of Sylvain Bromberger last Sunday, September 16. Sylvain was a philosopher with a deep interest in linguistics and linguistic questions. The high-school friend, co-author, and lifelong colleague of Morris Halle, Sylvain was the dedicatee of a linguistics Festschrift from our side of the department (“The View from Building Twenty”, MIT Press), and a constant lively presence at linguistics talks and events as recently as last Spring. He will be greatly missed.