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MIT Linguistics: Department of Linguistics & Philosophy

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Syntax-Semantics Reading Group
Fall 2015

The primary aim of LFRG is to give you an opportunity to have informal discussions of your own and other people's ideas without having to worry about saying something wrong. Thus, practice talks and presentations of works in progress (or in regress) or papers that you find interesting are especially welcome.

The range of possible topics include semantics, syntax, their interface, and whatnot having a connection to either syntax or semantics. The idea is that a lot of research does not fit into the straight jacket of a narrow area - though it is by no means required to have any interdisciplinary interests to attend LFRG.

Meetings this semester are:

Fridays, 2-3:30pm in 32-D461 unless noted

There are basically four main kinds of meetings: 1) presentations of one's own work, including in progress and in regress; 2) a genuine reading group meeting: everyone reads, or at least browses, some interesting paper, and we discuss it; 3) a tutorial-like meeting where the persons in charge tell everyone something about not so widely known things - like cool experimental techniques, math tools, new empirical results, etc., and then optionally people say what they think about that; and 4) brainstorming sessions: the persons in charge provide a topic and the necessary background, and the point is to generate some ideas about what one can do about the topic.

Meetings and changes in the schedule are announced here and by email to interested people. If you want to receive the email announcements, want to be in charge of a meeting, or have any other comments about the Syntax-Semantics Reading Group, email either Aron Hirsch, Daniel Margulis or Paul Marty. An incomplete list of previous meetings: Spring 2015 Fall 2014 Fall 2013 Fall 2012 Spring 2012 Fall 2011 Spring 2011 Fall 2010 Spring 2010 Fall 2009, Spring 2009, Fall 2008, Spring 2008, Fall 2007, Spring 2007, Fall 2006.

Claiming an LFRG slot is not scary at all - so don't hesitate to do that!

September 18:

Naomi Francis
Positive polarity items and scope in negative inversion constructions

Abstract: Negative inversion is a construction that involves the preposing of a negative expression and obligatory subject-auxiliary inversion (e.g. Never have I seen such a majestic giraffe!). Collins and Postal (2014) claim that the preposed negative element takes scope over everything else in the clause. However, I show that, while the negative expression does take scope over quantificational DPs, deontic modals should, must, and to be to, which have been argued to be positive polarity items (Iatridou and Zeijlstra 2013), are able to outscope it. I explore ways of capturing this fact and argue that several initially appealing explanations turn out to be problematic.

September 23:

Roger Levy (UCSD)
Bayesian pragmatics: lexical uncertainty, compositionality, and the typology of conversational implicature
Date: Wednesday, September 23rd
Time: 3:00p
Place: 32-D831

please note special day, time and location!

October 6:

Patrick Grosz (Tuebingen)
On the syntax and semantics of God knows what – a scalar epistemic indefinite
Date: Tuesday, October 6
Time: 1-2:30pm
Place: 32-D831

please note special day, time and location!

This talk investigates phrases such as ‘weiß Gott w-’ (‘God knows wh-‘) in German, in (1). Similar constructions are attested in a wide range of European languages (Haspelmath 1997:131).

(1) Der muss gedacht haben, wir seien weiß Gott wer. [DeReKo corpus, U03/AUG.02157]
intended: ‘He must have thought that we are someone important.’
literal: ‘He must have thought that we are God knows who.’

While ‘weiß Gott w-’ phrases originate as separate clauses (CPs) that are parenthetically inserted into a host clause (so-called “Andrews amalgams”, Lakoff 1974), I argue that ‘weiß Gott’ (‘God knows’) in Present Day German (PDG) has fully grammaticalized into an indefinite particle (like German ‘irgend’ [‘any, some’]); it combines with a wh-element to form a complex word of category D (an indefinite determiner/pronoun). I argue that ‘weiß Gott w-’ indefinites are scalar in that they [i.] existentially quantify over a subset X of the alternatives that the wh-element introduces, [ii.] and the alternatives in this subset X are high on a salient scale. This scalar effect is illustrated in (1), where ‘weiß Gott wer’ (‘God knows who’) is understood to mean ‘someone important’ (i.e. someone who is high on a scale of importance). I argue that the scalarity of ‘weiß Gott w-’ is part of the truth-functional at-issue content of a sentence (cf. Potts 2015), due to semantic reanalysis of what used to be a conversational implicature (cf. Eckardt 2006).

October 23:

Matt Mandelkern (MIT)
A Note on the Architecture of Semantic Presupposition

The Proviso Problem is the problem of accounting for the discrepancy between the predictions of nearly every major theory of semantic presupposition about what is semantically presupposed by conditionals, disjunctions, and conjunctions, versus observations about what speakers of certain sentences are felt to be presupposing. I argue that the Proviso Problem is a more serious problem than has been recognized in much of the current literature. After briefly describing the problem and a set of standard responses to the problem, I give a number of examples which, I argue, the standard responses are unable to account for. I argue that not only are the details of those responses inadequate, but so is the more general theoretical architecture that they instantiate. I conclude by briefly exploring alternate approaches to presupposition that avoid this problem