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The McGill Linguistics Department Newsletter
Updated: 5 hours 43 min ago

Linguistics talk, today (10/22) – David Barner

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 09:30
Today David Barner (UCSD) will be giving a talk in the linguistics department. (He will also be giving a different talk tomorrow.) Time/Date: Monday, 22 October, 2018, 15:30 – 17:00 Place: McGill Campus, 1085 Dr. Penfield, Room 117 Title: Access to alternatives and the acquisition of logical language Abstract: Though children begin to use logical connectives and quantifiers earlier in acquisition, studies in both linguistics and psychology have documented surprising failures in children’s interpretation of expressions. Early accounts, beginning with Piaget, ascribed these failures to children’s still burgeoning semantic and conceptual representations, arguing that children acquire ever more powerful logical resources as they development and acquire language. But more recent accounts, drawing on a Gricean divide between semantics and pragmatics, have argued that certain of these failures might not reflect semantic incompetence, but instead changes in children’s pragmatic reasoning abilities. In particular, early studies argued that children might be more “logical” than adults, perhaps because of difficulties with Gricean reasoning, or theory of mind. In this talk, I investigate this question, and argue that neither pragmatic incompetence nor conceptual/semantic change can explain children’s behaviors, and that instead children’s judgments stem from difficulties with “access to alternatives”. I show this in two parts. First, I consider the case study of scalar implicature, and show that children when children hear an utterance like the one in (1) they fail to compute a scalar implicature like in (3) because they are unable to spontaneously generate the stronger alternative scale mate in (2). But when scalar alternatives are provided contextually or are “unique” alternatives, children no longer struggle with implicatures. I show that children easily compute “ad hoc” implicatures and ignorance implicatures (where all relevant alternatives are provided in the original utterances), as well as inferences that exhibit similar computational structure, like mutual exclusivity. Also, I show that children’s problems cannot be ascribed to difficulties with epistemic (theory of mind) reasoning, ruling out the idea that their problems are related to understanding other minds and intentions. (1) I ate some of the cake (2) I ate all of the cake (3) I ate some (but not all) of the cake In the second part, I discuss one variant of the “access to alternatives” hypothesis, that exploits Roberts’ (1996) notion of the Question Under Discussion. On this hypothesis, there is a symmetrical relation between a speaker’s intended QUD when uttering a statement, and the alternative statements are relevant to evaluating that QUD, such that (1) knowing a speaker’s intended QUD specifies which alternatives are relevant, and (2) knowing which alternatives are relevant specifies the speaker’s intended QUD. On this view, children’s ability to make logical inferences should be affected either by making alternatives available in context, or by narrowing the QUD. To explore this idea, I present data from three studies. First, I review evidence from a recent study by Skordos and Papafragou (2016) in which children’s rate of implicature can be improved by either means (alternatives or direct QUD narrowing). Second, I present data regarding quantifier spreading in (4). Like in past studies, I show that, in a context where three girls are riding 3 out of 4 available elephants (Context A), children judge (4) to be false (as though the intended question is, “Is every elephant is ridden by a girl?). However, when identical utterance is first probed in a context that renders it false (Context B), children subsequently judge (4) to be true in Context A (now understanding the question to be “Is every girl riding an elephant?). I argue that Context B provides a state of affairs providing what Crain calls “plausible dissent”, by making clear the speaker’s intended meaning (i.e., here, the QUD), which in absence of Context B children must infer from other contextual cues – e.g., “What is question is the speaker most likely to ask in this context?” (4) Every girl is riding an elephant. Context A: <g, e> <g, e> <g, e> <e> Context B: <g, e> <g, e> <g> <e> Also, I show that providing relevant states of affairs can likewise affect scalar implicature, and that when children are not provided with a context that makes the denial of a statement plausible (a la Crain), they fail to converge on the intended QUD, fail to generate relevant linguistic alternatives, and derive non-adult-like inferences – e.g., interpreting disjunction as conjunction. I show that, contrary to several recent reports, children do not interpret disjunction as conjunction if the context properly narrows the speaker’s intended QUD by providing states of affairs that render test statements deniable.

P* Reading Group, 10/23

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 02:50
P* Reading Group (Tuesday, 11 am) This week, Yeong will be leading a discussion on Garellek et al.’s (2013) “Voice quality and tone identification in White Hmong”. P* Group will take place in room 002 of the Linguistics Building, from 11 am until noon. All are welcome to attend!

MQLL Meeting, 10/24

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 02:40

At next week’s meeting, Seara will present her project on the inverse relation between size of inflectional classes and word frequency. Here is the abstract:

In this project, we attempt to quantitatively demonstrate the the inverse relation between size of inflectional classes and word frequency. I will go over the background behind productivity in inflections and word frequency, the stages in quantitatively demonstrating the relationship between word frequency and size of inflectional class. Then finally the next step of the project moving forward.

The meeting will be next Wednesday from 5:30pm to 7:30pm at room 117.

Syntax reading group, 10/24

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 02:40
This week, Jason Borga will be giving a practice talk for the upcoming BUCLD. The title of the presentation is “Parallels Between the Acquisition of French Causatives and English Passives”, and it is joint work with William Snyder (UConn). As usual, we are meeting Wed 1-2pm in Linguistics Room 117. All are welcome!

Jessica Coon to Liverpool Biennial

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 02:00

Jessica will give a public lecture at the UK Biennial of Contemporary Art in Liverpool later this week. The talk, “Aliens, Fieldwork, and Universal Grammar” is one of ten public lectures during the 15-week event.

Oriana Kilbourn-Ceron to Northwestern

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 02:00

Oriana Kilbourn-Ceron (PhD ’17) received a 2-year grant from the Fonds de recherche: Société et Culture to pursue a postdoctoral position at Northwestern University. The project is entitled “Penser avant de parler? L’effet de la planification de la production de la parole en temps réel sur les prononciations variables” and will be supervised by Professor Matt Goldrick. Congratulations Oriana!

Words Research Group, 10/15

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 03:00

Next meeting: Monday, 15 October, 3:30-5 PM at UQAM, room DS-3470, Pavillon J.-A.-DeSève, 320 Sainte-Catherine East

Topic: There are no Bracketing Paradoxes, or How to be a Modular Grammarian by (and presented by) Heather Newell.


P* Reading Group, 10/16

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 02:50
P* Reading Group (Tuesday, 11 am) This week, Jeff will be leading a discussion on Baumann and Winter’s (2018) “What makes a word prominent? Predicting untrained German listeners’ perceptual judgments”. P* Group will take place in room 002 of the Linguistics Building, from 11 am until noon. All are welcome to attend!

Syntax Reading Group, 10/17

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 02:40
At this week’s Syntax Reading Group meeting, Lisa Travis will be presenting some of her work investigating V(P)-movement within a feature-based movement typology. The following is some suggested background reading:
  • On local VP-movement: Pearson, M. (2000). Two types of VO languages. In The Derivation of VO and OV, pp. 327–363. (Sec. 2 in particular)
  • On A-type VP-movement: Massam, D. and Smallwood, C. (1997). Essential features of predication in English and Niuean. In Proceedings of NELS 27, pp 263–272.
  • On feature-based movement: Chapter 2 of Van Urk, C. (2015). A uniform syntax for phrasal movement: A case study of Dinka Bor. PhD thesis, MIT.
As usual, we will meet Wednesday 1-2pm in Linguistics Room 117. All are welcome!

MQLL Meeting, 10/17

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 02:40

At next week’s meeting, Wilfred will be presenting the following paper: “Learning Semantic Correspondence with Less Supervision” by Liang et al. (2009). Please find the abstract below:

A central problem in grounded language acquisition is learning the correspondences between a rich world state and a stream of text which references that world state. To deal with the high de- gree of ambiguity present in this setting, we present a generative model that simultaneously segments the text into utterances and maps each utterance to a meaning representation grounded in the world state. We show that our model generalizes across three domains of increasing difficulty—Robocup sportscasting, weather forecasts (a new domain), and NFL recaps.

Meeting will be Wednesday Oct 17 from 5:30pm to 7:30pm at room 117.

Semantics Group, 10/19

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 02:20

The Semantics Group will exceptionally meet this Friday from 2:30pm until 4:00pm in room 117, in order for a midterm to take place at 4:00pm in the same room. In this week’s meeting, Francesco Gentile will present his ongoing research on modal adjectives and non-local modification. All are welcome to attend!

Special talk, 10/23 – David Barner

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 02:00
Speaker: Dr. David Barner, UCSD Place: Room 461, 2001 McGill College Time/Date: 12:00-13:30, 23 October, 2018 Title: Linguistic origins of uniquely human abstract concepts Abstract: Humans have a unique ability to organize experience via formal systems for measuring time, space, and number. Many such concepts – like minute, meter, or liter – rely on arbitrary divisions of phenomena using a system of exact numerical quantification, which first emerges in development in the form of number words (e.g., one, two, three, etc). Critically, large exact numerical representations like “57” are neither universal among humans nor easy to acquire in childhood, raising significant questions as to their cognitive origins, both developmentally and in human cultural history. In this talk, I explore one significant source of such representations: Natural language. In Part 1, I draw on evidence from six language groups, including French/English and Spanish/English bilinguals, to argue that children learn small number words using the same linguistic representations that support learning singular, dual, and plural representations in many of the world’s languages. For example, I will argue that children’s initial meaning for the word “one” is not unlike their meaning for “a”. In Part 2, I investigate the idea that the logic of counting – and the intuition that numbers are infinite – also arises from a foundational property of language: Recursion. In particular, I will present a series of new studies from Cantonese, Hindi, Gujarati, English, and Slovenian. Some of these languages – like Cantonese and Slovenian – exhibit relatively transparent morphological rules in their counting systems, which may allow children to readily infer that number words – and therefore numbers – can be freely generated from rules, and therefore are infinite. Other languages, like Hindi and Gujarati, have highly opaque counting systems, and may make it harder for children to infer such rules. I conclude that the fundamental logical properties that support learning mathematics can also be found in natural language. I end by speculating about why number words are so difficult for children to acquire, and also why not all humans constructed count systems historically. Bio: Dr. Barner’s research program engages three fundamental problems that confront the cognitive sciences. The first problem is how we can explain the acquisition of concepts that do not transparently reflect properties of the physical world, whether these express time, number, or logical content found in language. What are the first assumptions that children make about such words when they hear them in language, and what kinds of evidence do they use to decode their meanings? Second, he is interested in how linguistic structure affects learning, and whether grammatical differences between languages cause differences in conceptual development. Are there concepts that are easier to learn in some languages than in others? Or do cross-linguistic differences have little effect on the rate at which concepts emerge in language development? Dr. Barner studies these case studies taking a cross-linguistic and cross-cultural developmental approach informed by methods in both psychology and linguistics, and studies children learning Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Arabic, Slovenian, Spanish, French, and English, among others.

McGill at Annual Meeting on Phonology

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 02:00
McGill linguists attended the Annual Meeting on Phonology that took place at UC San Diego on October 5-7. The following posters were presented by current members of the department:
  • “Native and non-native patterns in conflict: Lexicon vs. grammar in loanword adaptation in Brazilian Portuguese” — Natália Brambatti Guzzo
  • “Evidence for a pitch accent in Saguenay French” — Jeffrey Lamontagne, Heather Goad and Morgan Sonderegger
  • “Evidence of phonemicization: Lax vowels in Canadian French” — Jeffrey Lamontagne
In the picture, from left to right: Natália Guzzo, Marc Garellek (BA 2008), Sara Mackenzie (post-doc 2010-2011), Jeff Lamontagne, Erin Olson (BA 2012), Joe Pater (PhD 1997), Sharon Rose (PhD 1997)

P* Reading Group, 10/9

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 02:50
P* Reading Group (Tuesday, 11 am) This week, James will be leading a discussion on Rathke and Stuart-Smith’s (2016) “On the Tail of the Scottish Vowel Length Rule in Glasgow” ahead of Jane Stuart-Smith’s colloquium. P* Group will take place in room 002 of the Linguistics Building, from 11 am until noon. All are welcome to attend!

Syntax Reading Group, 10/10

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 02:40

This week, the Syntax Reading Group will be discussing a recent paper in Language by Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine entitled “Extraction and Licensing in Toba Batak”. The paper can be found at this link:

As usual, we will be meeting Wednesday 1-2pm in Linguistics Room 117. All are welcome!

MQLL Meeting, 10/10

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 02:40

For this week’s MQLL meeting, James Tanner will present new data of individual speaker variability in the Tokyo Japanese voicing contrast. The meeting will be Wednesday Oct 10 from 5:30pm to 7:30pm in room 117.

Colloquium, 10/12 – Jane Stuart-Smith

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 02:20

Jane Stuart-Smith from the University of Glasgow will be giving the first colloquium talk of the semester, titled “Sound perspectives? Speech and speaker dynamics over a century of Scottish English” on Friday, October 12th, at 3:30pm in Education Bldg. rm. 211. All are welcome to attend!


As in many disciplines, in linguistics too, perspective matters. Structured variability in language occurs at all linguistic levels and is governed by a large range of diverse factors. Viewed through a synchronic lens, such variation informs our understanding of linguistic and social-cognitive constraints on language at particular points in time; a diachronic lens expands the focus across time. And, as Weinreich et al (1968) pointed out, structured variability is integral to linguistic description and explanation as a whole, by being at once both the stuff of the present, the reflexes of the past, and the potential for changes in the future. There is a further dimension which is often not explicit, the role of analytical perspective on linguistic phenomena.

This paper considers a particular kind of structured variability, phonetic and phonological variation, within the sociolinguistic context of the recorded history of Glaswegian vernacular across the 20th century. Two aspects of perspective frame my key research questions:

1. What are the ‘things’ which we observe? How do different analytical perspectives on phonetic variation affect how we interpret that variation? Specifically, how do different kinds of observation — within segment/across a phonological contrast/even beyond segments — auditory/acoustic/articulatory phonetic — shape our interpretations?

2. How are these ‘things’ embedded in time and social space? Specifically, how is this variation linked to contextual perspective, shifts in social events and spaces over the history of the city of Glasgow? How do we know whether, or when, these ‘things’ might be sound changes (following Milroy 2003)?

I consider these questions by reviewing a series of studies (including some ongoing and still unpublished) on two segments in Glaswegian English, the first thought to be stable and not undergoing sound change (/s/), the second thought to be changing (postvocalic /r/).

McGill at NELS 49

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 02:00

The 49th meeting of the Northeast Linguistics Society (NELS 49) took place 5-7 October at Cornell. The following papers and posters were presented by current McGillians.

Number inflection, Spanish Bare Interrogatives, and Higher-Order Quantification
Luis Alonso-Ovalle and Vincent Rouillard

Feet are parametric – even in languages with stress
Guilherme D. Garcia and Heather Goad

Control-Forming Domains are Not Only Phases: Evidence for Probe Horizons
Jurij Božič (poster)

Domain restriction and noun classifiers in Chuj (Mayan)
Justin Royer (poster)

McGill affiliates of present and past gathered for a photo:

Carol-Rose Little (BA hon 2012), Luis Alonso-Ovalle, Vincent Rouillard (BA hon 2017), Mark Baker (McGill prof 1986-1998), Nico Baier, Justin Royer, Heather Goad

McGill at GALANA

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 02:00
Several papers by members of the Department were presented at GALANA (Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition North America) in Bloomington, Indiana, Sept. 27–30. Presentations included:
  • “Intervention effects in adult L2 processing of relative clauses” – Vera Xia and Lydia White
  • “Pronoun interpretation in L2 Italian: prosodic effects revisited” – Heather Goad, Lydia White, Guilherme Garcia, Natalia Guzzi, Sepideh Mortazavinia, Liz Smeets, and Jiajia Su
  • “Competence and performance in language acquisition revisited: drawing a fine line” – Keynote talk by Lydia White

Gui Garcia, Lydia White, Liz Smeets, Silvina Montrul, Alan Munn

Lydia White and Vera Xia also presented a poster at EUROSLA, Münster, Germany, Sept. 5-8. on “Intervention effects in L2 representation and processing”.

P* Reading Group, 10/2

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 02:50

The P* Reading Group will be meeting on Tuesday from 11 am until noon in room 002. This week’s meeting will be lead by Heather Goad, who will be giving a practice talk titled “Feet are parametric – even in languages with stress” (talk coathored with Gui Garcia). All are welcome to attend!