Author Archive for McLing

Colloquium, 12/1 – Jackie Cheung

Speaker:  Jackie Cheung (McGill University)
Date & Time: December 2nd at 3:30 pm
Place:  Education Bldg. rm. 624
Title:  Generalized Natural Language Generation


In popular language generation tasks such as machine translation, automatic systems are typically given pairs of expected input and output (e.g., a sentence in some source language and its translation in the target language). A single task-specific model is then learned from these samples using statistical techniques. However, such training data exists in sufficient quantity and quality for only a small number of high-profile, standardized generation tasks. In this talk, I argue for the need for generic tools in natural language generation, and discuss my lab’s work on developing generic generation tasks and methods to solve them. First, I discuss progress on defining a task in sentence aggregation, which involves predicting whether units of semantic content can be meaningfully expressed in the same sentence. Then, I present a system for predicting noun phrase definiteness, and show that an artificial neural network model achieves state-of-the-art performance on this task, learning relevant syntactic and semantic constraints.

More Arrival news

McGill Linguistics continues to make headlines with the recent release of ArrivalJessica Coon and Morgan Sonderegger both appeared on CTV National News last week, and Jessica was interviewed on CBC’s The Current last Friday. A full list of recent press, along with resources by McGill MA alum and internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch, can be found here.

Arrival arrives

Arrival, the new sci-fi movie with a world-saving linguist protagonist, premiered Friday. The Washington Post recently said it’s made linguistics look “almost cool,” and Science Magazine adds that this will our field’s “chance to set the record straight” about linguistics as a science.

Filmed in Montreal and directed by Denis Villeneuve, Arrival filmmakers worked with McGill linguists Jessica Coon, Morgan Sonderegger, and Lisa Travis. A group of Montreal-based linguists got to attend a special pre-release screening in downtown Montreal last Wednesday:

Linguists at Arrival

Linguists at Arrival

Jessica spent the last couple of weeks doing a lot of press interviews. You can read about some of them in the The Wall Street Journal, The New York ObserverThe Montreal Gazette, Wired, PCMag, Metro News, and McGill’s Alumni Magazine.

Jessica also wrote a piece for Museum of the Moving Image on aliens, fieldwork, and Universal Grammar.

You’ll notice an uncanny resemblance between Lisa’s office and the office of Dr. Louise Banks, documented on LanguageLog.

The Banks/Travis office

The Banks/Travis office

And you’ll see Morgan’s spectograms and Heptapod sounds throughout the film.


Ling-Tea, 11/4 – Francisco Torreira

Join us this week for Ling-Tea at its regular time, 12–1 in room 117.

Speaker: Francisco Torreira
Title: “Melodic constructions in Spanish and their implication for intonational phonology”


In this presentation I will explore the structure of intonation, arguing for the existence of melodic constructions, which I define as meaningful sequences of tonal targets with association properties that may be melody-specific and dependent on the metrical structure utterance. Following a qualitative description of several melodic constructions in English, Catalan, and Spanish, I provide data from two imitation-and-completion experiments, each carried out on a Spanish melodic construction: the low-rise-fall and the circumflex contour. I show that a high tonal target in each of these melodies is realized either at the right edge of the phrase (i.e. with a delimitative function) in phrases of one prosodic word (e.g. Manolo), or on a stressed syllable (i.e. with a culminative function) in longer phrases (e.g. El hermano de Manolo ‘Manolo’s brother’). To account for this alternation in contour shape, I argue for a stricter separation between tonal targets and metrical structure in intonational phonology, allowing melodic constructions in the intonational lexicon-grammar of a language to have tonal targets without an intrinsic culminative function (i.e. as pitch accents)  or delimitative function (i.e. as edge tones). More generally, the data support the existence of meaningful intonational units larger than those traditionally discussed in the intonational phonology literature (e.g. pitch accents, edge tones, prenuclear and nuclear contours).”

Colloquium, 11/4 – Judith Degen

Please join us for the next colloquium in our fall colloquium series.

Speaker:  Judith Degen (Stanford University)
Date & Time: November 4th at 3:30 pm
Place:  Education Bldg. rm. 433
Title:  Beyond “overinformativeness”: rationally redundant referring expressions

Abstract: What guides the choice of a referring expression like “the box”, “the big box”, or “the big red box”? Speakers have a well-documented tendency to add redundant modifiers in referring expressions (e.g., “the big red box” when “the big box” would suffice for uniquely picking out the intended object). This “overinformativeness” poses a challenge for theories of language production, especially those positing rational language use (e.g., in the Gricean tradition). We present a novel production model of referring expressions in the Rational Speech Act framework. Speakers are modeled as rationally trading off the cost of additional modifiers with the amount of information added about the intended referent. The innovation is assuming that truth functions are probabilistic rather than deterministic.

This model captures a number of production phenomena in the realm of overinformativeness, including the color-size asymmetry in probability of overmodification (speakers overmodify more with color than size adjectives); visual scene variation effects on probability of overmodification (increased visual scene variation increases the probability of overmodifying with color); and color typicality effects on probability of overmodification (speakers overmodify less with more typical colors). In addition to demonstrating how the model accounts for these qualitative effects, we present fine-grained quantitative predictions that are beautifully borne out in data from interactive free production reference game experiments.

We conclude that the systematicity with which speakers redundantly use modifiers implicates a system geared towards communicative efficiency rather than towards wasteful overinformativeness.

Jessica Coon in Language and Linguistics Compass

A special “Mayan Linguistics” issue of Language and Linguistics Compass has just been published. The volume includes an “Introduction to Mayan Linguistics”, co-authored by Ryan Bennett, Jessica Coon, and former McGill post-doc Robert Henderson, as well as an article on “Mayan Morphosyntax” by Coon.

Michael Wagner in Tromsø

Michael Wagner recently returned from giving an invited lecture at the Workshop on Hierarchical Structures in Phonology, Morphology and Syntax which took place October 27–38th at UiT in Tromsø, Norway.
The title of his talk was: “Allophonic variation and the locality of production planning”, which reported on joint work with Meghan Clayards, Oriana Kilbourn-Ceron, Morgan Sonderegger and James Tanner.  The abstract can be found here.

Colloquium, 10/28 – Yvan Rose

We are pleased to announce the second talk in our 2016-2017 McGill Linguistics Colloquium Series will be given by Yvan Rose (Memorial University Newfoundland). For more information on upcoming events in the McGill Linguistics department, please see our website (

Who: Yvan Rose

When: Friday 10/28 at 3:30pm

Where: Education room 433

Title: “Perceptual-Articulatory Relationships in Phonological Development: Implications for Feature Theory”


In this presentation, I discuss a series of asymmetries in phonological development, the nature of which is difficult to address from a strictly phonological perspective. In particular, I focus on transitional periods between developmental stages. I show that these transitions are best interpreted in terms of phonological categories at both prosodic and segmental levels of representation, including segmental features. Using computer-assisted methods of data classification, I describe the detail of these transitions, highlighting both perceptual and articulatory pressures on the child’s developing system of phonological representation. I discuss implications of these findings for Phonological Theory, in particular for traditional models of segmental representation relying on phonological features. While the data support the need for sub-segmental units of phonological representation, these units do not appear to match fully the set of features typically used in the analysis of adult phonological systems.

McGill at NELS 47

McGill linguists presented at the 47th Annual Meeting of North East Linguistic Society (NELS 47), which was hosted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst October 14–16. Presentations by current McGill affiliates included:

McGill affiliates of past and present gathered for a photo at the dinner:

Gui Garcia, Laura Kalin, Michael Wagner, Jessica Coon, Aron Hirsch, Cora Lesure, Bernhard Schwarz, Hadas Kotek

Gui Garcia, Laura Kalin, Michael Wagner, Jessica Coon, Aron Hirsch, Cora Lesure, Bernhard Schwarz, Hadas Kotek

Jessica Coon in Arezzo

Jessica Coon is just returning from Arezzo, Italy, where she gave an invited talk at the workshop: “What’s in a Label?”. The title of her presentation was “What’s in Pred? Functional categories and the parameterization of predication.’

Ergativity Lab/Fieldwork Lab organizational meeting, 9/26

This semester, Ergativity Lab and Fieldwork Lab will have alternating meetings on Mondays from 12:00–1:00 in room 002 (lunch welcome). Ergativity Lab will continue discussion relating to ergativity, case, and agreement from last semester, and welcomes new participants. Fieldwork Lab meetings will be a mix of focussed practical meetings related to fieldwork, perhaps with some guest presenters (e.g. “how to use ELAN”, “semantic fieldwork”, “navigating REB”…), along with discussions of ongoing research and trouble-shooting.

The first organizational meeting takes place today at noon, and anyone is welcome to attend.

Welcome new grad student editor, Jurij Božič

McLing welcomes incoming graduate student editor, Jurij Bočič, and thanks outgoing editor Dejan Milačić for his year of editing!

Colloquium, 9/23 – Michael McAuliffe

We are pleased to announce that the first talk in our 2016-2017 McGill Linguistics Colloquium Series will be given by our own Michael McAuliffe. For more information on upcoming events in the McGill Linguistics department, please see our website (

Who: Michael McAuliffe

When: Friday 9/23 at 3:30pm

Where: Education room 433

Title: “Dual nature of perceptual learning: Robustness and specificity”

Abstract: “In perceiving speech and language, listeners need to both perceive specific, highly variable utterances, and generalize to larger linguistic categories. One large source of the variability is in how individual speakers produce sounds, but another source of variation is the way in which speech and language are used in a particular task to accomplish a goal. Perceptual learning is a phenomenon in which listeners update their perceptual sound categories when exposed to a novel speaker. Perceptual learning is robust in the sense that most listeners show perceptual learning effects, most sound categories can be easily updated, and most tasks involving speech facilitate perceptual learning. In this talk, I focus more on the ways that perceptual learning can be task-specific. I present a series of perceptual learning experiments for exposing listeners to a novel talker through single words or longer sentences, varying tasks and the linguistic context. The instructions and goals of the task exert a size-able influence over the amount of perceptual learning that listeners exhibit. In general, listeners adapt less in the course of an experiment if they do not have to rely on the acoustic signal as much. For instance, if listeners are presented the orthography of the word along with the audio, they will not learn as much as if they had heard the audio alone. In sentence tasks, listeners matching pictures to a word at the end of a predictable sentence (i.e., A deep moat protected the old castle) will not learn as much from the final word as from an unpredictable sentence (i.e., He dreaded the long walk to the castle). However, the inverse is true for sentence transcription tasks, with larger perceptual learning effects from predictable sentences than unpredictable. Perceptual learning effects can generally be seen for all listeners and all tasks, but the size of the effects are dependent on the exposure task and how the linguistic system is engaged.”

Meaghan Fowlie to Saarbrücken

Congratulations to recent McGill research fellow (and ’07 BA alumna) Meaghan Fowlie, who has accepted a post-doctoral position this fall at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany. There she will continue her work on computational syntax and semantics with Professor Alexander Koller in the department of Computational Linguistics and Phonetics. Congratulations Meaghan!

McGill at GALANA-7

GALANA-7 took place last week at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Guilherme Garcia presented a talk titled “Second Language Acquisition of Stress in Second Language Portuguese: Extrametricality and Default Stress.” Roumyana Slabakova (PhD ’97), Öner Özçelik (PhD ’12), and Silvina Montrul (’97) also presented.

Roumyana Slabakova (PhD, 1997), Guilherme Garcia, Öner Özçelik (PhD, 2012) and Silvina Montrul (PhD, 1997)

Roumyana Slabakova (PhD, 1997), Guilherme Garcia, Öner Özçelik (PhD, 2012) and Silvina Montrul (PhD, 1997)


Yosef Grodzinsky talk, 9/16

Yosef Grodzinsky (Hebrew University Jerusalem) will be giving a talk this Friday, 3:30-5 in EDUC 434. Title and abstract below. All are welcome!

The neural dynamics of Verification Procedures: neurological and linguistic implications

Yosef Grodzinsky HUJI, FZ Jülich

At the heart of this talk will be results from a set of complex, multi-modal, Reaction Time and fMRI experiments in healthy adult subjects and in patients with Broca’s aphasia, that deployed a verification task with quantificational sentences and quantity-containing scenarios. I will report recent work that had 2 goals:

1. to study the relation between linguistic and numerical processes in the brain (anatomical localization, and the neural dynamics of verification).

2. to distinguish between semantic analyses (theoretical adjudication). This was made possible as among other things, we studied the temporal and neural dynamics of the verification of comparatives, with the hope of distinguishing between different analyses of less-comparatives.

Relevant reading:

Deschamps, I, Agmon G, Loewenstein Y, Grodzinsky Y.  2015.  The Processing of Polar Quantifiers, and Numerosity Perception. Cognition. 143:115-128

McGill at Sinn und Bedeutung

McGill linguists of past and present were well represented at Sinn und Bedeutung 21, which took place this past weekend in Edinburgh. Presentations and posters included:

Latex Tutorial announcement

Chris, Gui, and Henrison are hosting a series of informal LaTeX tutorials for the department. These tutorials will be appropriate for those with little to no experience, but they are also planning on covering some non-introductory topics, for those who want to supplement their current knowledge. If you are interested in attending, please email Henrison for any future news.
Sessions will be every Thursday over 4 weeks starting next week (September 15, 22, 29, and October 6) in Room 002 from 2:00 to 3:30. Here’s roughly what each session will cover:
  1. LaTeX basics and getting started, document structure, common formatting
  2. In-depth topics useful for managing larger/multiple projects: bibliographies, custom commands and environments, custom packages and class files, handling larger projects
  3. Creating presentations
  4. Linguistics-specific: Example sentences, trees and tree-like figures, tableaux, mathematical/semantics formulae

Welcome back!

McLing hopes everyone had a great summer! As always, we invite you to send us your news: presentations, publications, fieldwork, courses, workshops, departmental events, student projects, jobs, etc., for presentation in upcoming newsletters. Know of a friend, colleague, or student who did something newsworthy? Send us a report and we will follow up.

Welcome new graduate students!

Welcome to this year’s incoming class of graduate students!

Emily Kellison-Linn is interested in phonology, historical linguistics, and language change, and computational methods of studying these. She completed her B.A. in computer science at MIT.

Gouming Martens received his bachelor and master’s degree in Linguistics at Leiden University. For his master’s thesis he examined Dutch exclamative constructions and its relationship to ego-evidentiality. His main interests lie in the syntax-phonology interface and more specifically the interaction between syntax and prosody, and exclamative constructions across languages. Besides that, he is very interested in many other fields of linguistics, such as, the connection between music and language, the diachronic development of the Sino-Tibetan languages and the tonal system of Limburgish (Dutch/German dialect).

Yeong Woo Park‘s main interests lie in prosody and phonetics-phonology interface. He completed his B.A. in Linguistics at University of California, Los Angeles.

Clint Parker‘s research interests include syntax, morphosyntactic alignment systems, fieldwork, and endangered languages.  He completed a B.A. in linguistics and Chinese at the University of Kentucky.

James Tanner is interested in phonological and phonetic variation, sociophonetics, and psycholinguistics. He completed his B.A. in linguistics at the University of Kent, and his M.A. in linguistics at McGill University.

Jiaer Tao’s main research interests lie in phonetics. Particularly interested in the phonetic implementation of phonological patterns, Jiaer is mostly familiar with the acoustics and production aspects. But she also wants to discover more in her graduate study. Jiaer completed her B.A. in Chinese linguistics at Fudan University. She is looking forward to a lively research life in McGill.


Back: James Tanner, Yeong Woo Park, Clint Parker,
Front: Guoming Martens, Emily Kellison-Linn, Jiaer Tao

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