January 31, 2014

Ailis Cournane in the journal Language Acquisition

Congratulations to PhD student Ailis Cournane for her just published article in the journal Language Acquisition!  The title of the article is "In Search of L1 Evidence for Diachronic Reanalysis: Mapping Modal Verbs".


The lexical mapping of abstract functional words like modal verbs is an open problem in acquisition (e.g., Gleitman et al. 2005). In diachronic linguistics it has been proposed that learner mapping errors are responsible for innovations in the historical record (see Kiparsky 1974; Roberts & Roussou 2003, among others). This suggests that child error patterns should be consistent with historical changes. I studied the acquisition of modal lexemes by flavor (e.g., ability, epistemic) in order to assess the validity of this proposal in relation to the mapping problem. A preference task and a sentence-repair task were designed to address the question: Do children make structural mapping errors that, if left unchecked, are compatible with the innovations we see in the historical record (e.g., deontic > epistemic)? This study provides experimental data on the acquisition of modal lexemes by flavor and some long-awaited preliminary support for the hypothesis that child learners drive historical change.

Old World Conference in Phonology

Two of our Ph.D. students had papers accepted for the 11th Old World Conference in Phonology (OCP), held in Leiden and Amsterdam. Radu Craioveanu presented "Spread glottis and [spread glottis]", and Christopher Spahr presented "Prosodic epenthesis and floating vowels in Estonian quantity".

Guest Speaker: Ted Gibson (MIT)

 This afternoon (Jan 31) Ted Gibson (MIT) will present his work entitled "Language for communication: Language as rational inference" -- see abstract below.

WHERE: The talk will take place in *Wilson Hall 524.* Wilson Hall is located at the corner of Huron and Wilcox, across the street from Sid Smith, and the room is in the basement.

WHEN: *Jan 31*, at *3:10pm*.

A reception in the LIN lounge will follow.


Language for communication: Language as rational inference
Ted Gibson, MIT

Perhaps the most obvious hypothesis for the function of human language is for use in communication. Chomsky has famously argued that this is a flawed hypothesis, because of the existence of such phenomena as ambiguity. Furthermore, he argues that the kinds of things that people tend to say are not short and simple, as would be predicted by communication theory. Contrary to Chomsky, my group applies information theory and communication theory from Shannon (1948) in order to attempt to explain the typical usage of language in comprehension and production, together with the structure of languages themselves. First, we show that ambiguity out of context is not only not a problem for an information-theoretic approach to language, it is a feature. Second, we show that language comprehension appears to function as a noisy channel process, in line with communication theory. Given si, the intended sentence, and sp, the perceived sentence we propose that people maximize P(s i | sp ), which is equivalent to maximizing the product of the prior P(si) and the likely noise processes P(si → sp ). We show that several predictions of this way of thinking of language are true: (1) the more noise that is needed to edit from one alternative to another leads to lower likelihood that the alternative will be considered; (2) in the noise process, deletions are more likely than insertions; (3) increasing the noise increases the reliance on the prior (semantics); and (4) increasing the likelihood of implausible events decreases the reliance on the prior. Third, we show that this way of thinking about language leads to a simple re-thinking of the P600 from the ERP literature. The P600 wave was originally proposed to be due to people's sensitivity to syntactic violations, but there have been many instances of problematic data in the literature for this interpretation. We show that the P600 can best be interpreted as sensitivity to an edit in the signal, in order to make it more easily interpretable. Finally, we discuss how thinking of language as communication can explain aspects of the origin of word order. Some recent evidence suggests that subject-object-verb (SOV) may be the default word order for human language. For example, SOV is the preferred word order in a task where participants gesture event meanings (Goldin-Meadow et al. 2008). Critically, SOV gesture production occurs not only for speakers of SOV languages, but also for speakers of SVO languages, such as English, Chinese, Spanish (Goldin-Meadow et al. 2008) and Italian (Langus & Nespor, 2010). The gesture-production task therefore plausibly reflects default word order independent of native language. However, this leaves open the question of why there are so many SVO languages (41.2% of languages; Dryer, 2005). We propose that the high percentage of SVO languages cross-linguistically is due to communication pressures over a noisy channel. We provide several gesture experiments consistent with this hypothesis, and we speculate how a noisy channel approach might explain several typical word order patterns that occur in the world's languages.

'Syntax Squib Section' (S3) Meeting (Jan 31)

There will be a meeting of the S3 group from 1:00 to 2:30 today (Jan 31). Attendees are invited to share short (5-10 minute) descriptions of data they are puzzling over these days.

Phonetics-Phonology Group Meeting (Jan 31)

Phon group meets today (January 31st) from 11am-1:30pm in SS 560A. Peter Jurgec will be giving a talk, titled "Schrödinger's Features". 


This talk analyzes incomplete neutralization as a phonological pattern. The main idea is that incomplete neutralization arises because it can satisfy both faithfulness AND markedness. (In contrast, complete neutralization satisfies a markedness constraint, but violates a faithfulness constraint.) The solution is representational. I propose that feature values can be ambiguous. In particular, a binary feature [F] can be simultaneously both [+F] and [-F]. The talk explores the consequences of allowing such representations. Two cases of incomplete neutralization are analyzed: final devoicing in German (with binary features) and vowel lengthening in Japanese (with privative features).

LVC Group Meeting (Jan 31)

The LVC Group meets  9:30 - 11:00 today (Jan 31) in SS 560A. Shayna Gardiner will present on sociolinguistic variation in ancient Egyptian texts.

January 27, 2014

Visiting Scholar: Karen Corrigan

We are very pleased to be able to welcome Karen Corrigan from Newcastle University in the UK. Karen's interests are centered on sociolinguistics and corpus linguistics. Much of her current research focuses on diachronic views of Irish English.

Karen will be here from February 7th to 12th, working with Sali, Chris Harvey, and visiting Ph.D. student Claire Childs (also from Newcastle) on variation in negation in multiple varieties of English (e.g. 'there wasn't anyone' versus 'there was no one').

She will be giving a talk on February 7th from 10 AM to 12 PM in SS 2114: "Craics, Gegs and Barszcz: The Linguistic Ecology of Northern Ireland Past and Present".

More details can be found at Karen's website.

Welcome to Karen (and to Claire)!

January 24, 2014

Congratulations, Keren!

Congratulations to Keren on becoming a grandmother! Here is a picture of Keren and baby Felix getting to know one another in Montreal last weekend. He is clearly intrigued!

Congratulations to Lyn Tieu!

Congratulations to Lyn Tieu (M.A. 2008)! She has just taken up a new position (starting January 2014) as Post-doctoral researcher, in the Laboratoires de Sciences Cognitives and Psycholinguistique at CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), in Paris, France at the École Normale Supérieure. She is working with PI Dr. Emmanuel Chernia on the project "Psycho-semantics: New data for formal semantic models, stronger frameworks for experimental studies". As well as completing her M.A. in Linguistics at U. of Toronto in 2008, Lyn also completed her B.Sc. here, majoring in French Language and Linguistics and Human Biology.
(Post courtesy of Diane Massam)

Field Methods Discussion Group (Jan 24)

Taking place today is the first meeting of a new discussion group dedicated to the discussion of linguistic fieldwork and field methodology. The hope is to be able to talk about both practical and theoretical questions related to linguistics in the field among people with different levels of experience, and from different subfields.

The meeting will take place at 2pm in SS560A, on alternating Fridays in accordance with the schedule Keren has circulated. This week will be a planning meeting: topics and issues will be set out for the following weeks.

Syntax-Semantics Project Meeting (Jan 24)

Syntax-semantics project will be taking place this Friday, January 24th, in SS560A from 12-2 pm. Ivona Kucerova and Susana Bejar will present "Presupposition and phi-features in the nominal domain: Evidence from dependent plurals"

Based on morpho-syntactic variation in the domain of dependent plurals in English, we argue that Agree and valuation do not need to happen simultaneously (Pesetsky and Torrego 2007), however, transfer strictly requires chains headed by the corresponding phase head to be valued. The consequence of the proposed model is that if there are morpho-semantic mismatches in a nominal domain (for instance in the number valuation), the higher phase must be grammatically congruent with D, while the lower phase may be mismatched.

NB: Future meetings of the group will begin at 11:30 am and end at 1 pm.

Psycholinguistics Group Meeting (Jan 24)

Danielle Moed (MA student, LIN) will present in preparation for her forum research. The presentation is entitled "Structure or Concept: What are people more willing to compromise in language production?". The group meets in Sid Smith 560A and will start at 10:15am.

NB: Future meetings of this group will start at 9:30 am (sharp) and end at 11:00 am.

January 20, 2014

Phil Howson at the Acoustical Society of America

Phil Howson was in San Francisco last month for the 166th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, where he gave a poster presentation entitled 'Electropalatography examination of groove width in Russian.'

Phonology Group Meeting (Jan 17)

The Phonetics-Phonology Group met on January 17th. There was a guest talk by Wendell Kimper from the University of Manchester. Title and abstract are below:

Trigger Competition and Locality Asymmetries in Harmony

This talk presents an analysis of locality asymmetries in vowel harmony. In languages with multiple segments which fail to undergo harmony, these segments may differ with respect to their ability to be treated as transparent. In Hungarian, for example, [i] is consistently transparent, but [e] exhibits variable behaviour and can be either transparent or opaque. What is responsible for these segments' diverging behaviour? I argue that locality asymmetries are best understood as an effect that emerges from the interaction between two general preferences in harmony --- the status of certain segments as privileged triggers, and the marked status of non-local interactions. I present an analysis in Serial Harmonic Grammar; harmony is driven by a positively-defined scalar constraint, with decreased rewards for non-local harmony and increased rewards for harmony originating from a preferred trigger.

LVC Group Meeting (Jan 17)

The LVC Group met on Friday Jan 17th. Yoonjung Kang gave a talk about variation in vowel length in Korean, looking at the vowel length contrast merger in Seoul Korean. The talk examined the effects of phonological conditions and frequency of use on the lexical diffusion of vowel length merge.

January 17, 2014

Field Methods 2013

This year's Field Methods class concluded last month with a party in the lounge. Here is a photo of the class with their consultant, Tamam Youssouf, a speaker of Oromo (Cushitic, Ethiopia). The food at the party included bacchoo (a mixture of roasted barley flour, honey, and clarified butter) and sambossas (Ethiopian samosas).

(apologies for the re-post... this post disappeared for some reason)

(Photo courtesy of Radu Craioveanu)

January 13, 2014

LSA Meeting 2014

This year's meeting of the Linguistic Society of America took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota from January 2nd to 5th. Several members of our department, and some alumni, braved the brutal cold sweeping through the middle of the continent in order to attend or present a talk or poster:

Bronwyn Bjorkman
"Multiple Agrees: Towards a non-unified theory of feature valuation."

LeAnn Brown
"Phonetic variation and social perception: Rhyme and /s/ COG effects on sex and sexual orientation percepts."

Derek Denis and Sali Tagliamonte
"Stability out of grammaticalization? Future temporal reference in North American English."

Kenji Oda
"On putative adjective fronting in Irish."

Nicholas Welch
"A tripartite agreement: classificatory verbs, animacy, and inflection in Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì."

Sali also presented a join paper with alumna Alexandra D'Arcy (University of Victoria) and their colleague Celeste Rodríguez Louro (University of Western Australia): "Outliers, impact, and rationalization in linguistic change."

Alumnus Michael Barrie (Sogang University) presented two talks: "Bare Nouns, Semantic Incorporation and Idiomaticization in Cantonese" and "Focusing on the left edge of the Onondaga sentence" (at the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas).

Here are some photos, courtesy of Kenji Oda.

Michael Barrie (Sogang U.), Keren Rice, Kenji Oda

Bettina Spreng (U Saskatchewan), Kenji Oda, Marina Scherkina-Lieber (Carleton U), Michael Barrie

Nicholas Welch's talk

Kenji Oda's poster

Derek Denis and Sali Tagliamonte present their joint paper.

Mike, Marina, Sali, and Derek after the conference.

The Minneapolis Hilton.  Not shown: the fact that on January 5 the high for the day was -25º C.

January 10, 2014

Syntax/Semantics Project (Jan 10)

The first meeting of the syntax-semantics project was held  Friday, January 10th from 12-2 pm in room SS560A.  Susana Bejar and Arsalan Kahnemuyiour presented "Agree and the (in)visibility of intensional NPs."

Psycholinguistics Group (Jan 10)

The first meeting of Psycholinguistics Group took place Jan 10. Ailis Cournane (PhD, LIN) presented a part of her dissertation in a talk entitled "A corpus-based study on root and epistemic modal strategies in L1 development."

January 9, 2014

Special phonology group talk by Nicholas Rolle

There will be a special meeting of the phonology group at 5pm today in the lounge, with a guest talk by alumnus Nicholas Rolle. Title and abstract follow.

Title: Nasal vowel systems in West Africa: Typological, areal, and perceptual perspectives

Contrastive nasal vowels are a common feature of West African phonological systems, and have contributed significantly to previous descriptively and theoretically oriented Africanist work - e.g. Hyman (1972), Williamson (1973), Maddieson (1984, 2007), Clements (2000), Clements & Rialland (2006), and Miehe (2013). There remain, however, a number of issues which are insufficiently addressed: (1) in which precise geographic areas and genetic groups do we find nasal vowels in West Africa, (2) what are the profiles of these nasal vowel inventories and how are they geographically and genetically distributed, and (3) how can we situate these patterns within larger typological-areal and phonetic-phonological literature?
To this end, we have created a typological database of 246 languages/language clusters in West Africa, covering all major families. This survey supports previous work which identifies an expansive areal zone stretching roughly south of the Sahel from Guinea to Nigeria, within which contrastive nasal vowels are nearly categorical. We refer to this area as the West African Nasal Vowel Zone. A novel component of our survey is that we also coded for vowel inventory type, focusing on identifying gaps in the nasal vowel inventory. We found that while the overwhelming majority of West African languages contrast oral /e o/ vs. /ɛ ɔ/ (epsilon and open o), a large continuum of languages stretching from Western Nigeria into Cote D'Ivoire lack nasal /ẽ õ/, constituting the core of the Nasal Vowel Zone. In contrast, languages which show the presence of contrastive /ẽ õ/ appear at the fringes of the West African Nasal Vowel Zone. We show that both of these patterns are subject to areal effects which cut across genetic group.
We conclude our discussion by situating these patterns more broadly, noting two major findings. The first is that a robust and areal constraint against /ẽ õ/ as found in West Africa is not mirrored in other nasal vowel zones, such as South America and Mesoamerica. In the second, we note that a gap of /ẽ õ/ can be understood as phonetically natural due to oral-nasal acoustic coupling effects on F1 perception (Ohala 1975, Wright 1986, Beddor et al. 1986, Beddor 1993, Maeda 1993), referred to as the Nasal Height-Centralization Effect. We present, however, a series of arguments against a "phonetic determinism” account, and understand these patterns as the result of an interplay of acoustic and areal pressures.