Skip to content

MIT Linguistics: Department of Linguistics & Philosophy

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Upcoming Colloquia: Fall 2012: Abstracts

All talks are from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. in room 32-141 unless otherwise noted.

September 21 in Singleton Auditorium:

Paul Kiparsky (Stanford)
UG-driven syntactic change: the word-order cycle

It has been claimed that head-final syntax changes to head-initial syntax, but not conversely. Indeed, major families like Niger-Congo, Afro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Indo-European, and Uralic, all with a significant proportion of SVO languages, are reconstructed on good evidence as proto-SOV. Wherever such changes can be tracked in the historical record, they can be seen to have the characteristic "drift" properties of proceeding in small but discrete steps in a constant direction over long periods of time, which are puzzling in many ways. Why not in shifting directions, or in a single big step? Why do different languages drift in the same direction? And how can the unidirectionality be reconciled with the persistence of typological diversity?

Arguing against accounts based on processing efficiency or representational economy, and against the historical hypothesis of Gell-Mann and Ruhlen 2011, I adopt the view that drift reflects biases in acquisition. I derive the headedness shift from a grounded and empirically improved version of the Final-Over-Final Constraint (Biberauer et al.), crucially in conjunction with the assumption that linearization is done in the syntax, and is sensitive to word structure, in particular to whether functional categories are expressed as syntactic heads or as morphological affixes. (Evidence for this comes from binding theory and from the lexicalist literature.) These principles generate biases which predict exactly the attested diachronic trajectories. I formalize this idea with a language acquisition model where learners favor the most probable language consistent with previously encountered data, definable in OT as the language with the greatest ranking volume (Riggle 2010).

My proposal makes a number of typological predictions, such as that languages with clause-final complementizers, and languages with no syntactically visible functional heads (such as Japanese) are uniformly V-final. A historical prediction of my proposal is that the word-order shift is in fact not unidirectional but cyclic. That is, it should also be the case that OV languages were once VO. For some head-final languages, there are morphological indications that this is correct (Trask 1977).

October 12:

Pranav Anand (UCSC)
Assessing the pragmatics of experiments: The case of scalar implicature

There is a growing impetus to examine pragmatic phenomena experimentally. Potentially complicating these investigations is the way in which the experimental environment itself shapes participants’ models of extra-linguistic context. A spate of recent results collectively suggest that the computation of scalar implicature may be sensitive to a host of factors: task structure, social norms, and type of response elicited. However, these results provide only a few points in a vast space of potential task parameters, thereby limiting our ability to systematically model the interaction between linguistic forms, context and pragmatic inference. This talk reports ongoing work to systematically investigate the parametric space of task design. We find that implicature calculation rates are sensitive to both the structure of the response elicited (e.g., scalar vs. unordered) as well as the task prompt (whether the participant judges "accuracy", "informativity", or "goodness"), and discuss the methodological lessons of this kind of work.

October 26:

Sun-Ah Jun (UCLA)
Prosodic Priming in Relative Clause Attachment

In a sentence such as “Someone shot the servant of the actress who was on the balcony”, the relative clause (RC) can modify NP1 the servant (i.e., high attachment) or NP2 the actress (low attachment). Although the details of attachment preference are language-specific (Fodor 1998, Fernández 2003) it is known that, cross-linguistically, attachment decisions are sensitive to the length of the RC. This fact has been used to support the Implicit Prosody Hypothesis (IPH; Fodor 1998, 2002), which claims that the implicit prosody associated with a syntactic structure influences attachment. It predicts that speakers and listeners favor low attachment when the RC forms a single prosodic phrase with NP2, but that they favor high attachment when there is a prosodic break before the RC. However, studies testing this prediction based on an out-of-the-blue reading (e.g., Jun 2010) suggest that examining overt prosody may not be a suitable way to evaluate implicit prosody.

In this talk, I will provide new evidence supporting the role of prosody in the resolution of RC attachment by showing that prosodic priming, varied in the location of prosodic boundary and played auditorily, influences attachment decisions in the silent reading of a target sentence. That is, auditory primes with late boundary, (NP1 NP2)//(RC), triggered more high attachment and auditory primes with early boundary triggered more low attachment compared to the those with no boundary (control). However, this pattern was found only for subjects with prominent “autistic”-like traits, in particular, those with poorer communication skills. This result is rather surprising given the prosodic deficits usually associated with autism spectrum conditions (e.g. Diehl & Berkovits 2010). I will explore the hypothesis that this finding is related to individual differences in prosodic strategies for disambiguating the relevant syntactic structures. The results of the study broadly support the IPH, but suggest a more complex picture of the relevant prosodic representations of the target structure and individual differences in interpreting their salience.

December 7:

Edith Aldridge (University of Washington)
Two Types of Ergativity and Where they Might Come from

Aldridge (2004), Legate (2008), and Coon et al. (2011) have demonstrated for several language families that there are at least two types of ergative language, one in which absolutive case is licensed solely by T and one in which v (also) plays a role. In this presentation, I propose an account of this variation in Austronesian languages as well as suggest a diachronic explanation for this variation. Specifically, I show that most Formosan languages like Seediq are T-type languages, while Philippine languages like Tagalog tend to be v-type. I then show how this distinction can result from two innovations in the reanalysis of a clausal nominalization as a finite root clause. The T-type system results from the first innovation. A reduced clausal nominalization nP is reanalyzed as verbal. Genitive case (which is identical to ergative in the modern languages) is assigned to the external argument in nP. Since n has no structural case feature to license the internal argument, this DP moves to the edge of nP to check case with T. This movement derives the well-known absolutive restriction on A’-extraction, since the object will come to occupy the outer specifier of the nP or vP phase. The ergative system arises when nP is reanalyzed as vP. Philippine languages, which constitute a lower-order subgroup in the Austronesian family, have undergone a second innovation which fully transitivized this vP, resulting in the acquisition of a structural case feature on transitive v.