Archive for the 'Faculty news' Category

McGill at TOM Workshop on Semantics

McGill Linguistics was well represented at the 10th Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal Workshop on Semantics, held this year at the University of Toronto on April 22nd. Presentations included:
  • Vincent Rouillard – Minimize Restrictors! Beyond Definite Descriptions
  • Francesco Gentile – A new presuppositional semantics for how many-questions
  • Chris Bruno – Contrastive negation and alternatives
  • Invited speaker: Prof. Junko Shimoyama – On Inverse Trace Conversion and the maximal informativeness analysis of Japanese internally-headed relative clauses (joint work with Keir Moulton, Simon Fraser University)
  • Invited speaker: Prof. Luis Alonso-Ovalle – Against the Odds: On the Modal Component of the Ability/Involuntary Action Verbal Inflection in Tagalog (joint work with Henrison Hsieh (McGill University)

Junko, Chris, Luis, Henrison, and Francesco at TOM

Meghan Clayards to London

Meghan will be traveling to London to give three presentations at the Workshop on Speech Perception and Production across the Lifespan, held at University College London April 26–27th. These include:

  • Sarah Colby, Meghan Clayards & Shari Baum: “Top-down and bottom-up perceptual learning for speech is maintained in older adults”
  • Elizabeth Wonnacott, Anastasia Giannakopoulou, Helen Brown & Meghan Clayards:  “High or Low? Comparing high- and low variability phonetic training in adult and child second-language learners”
  • Sarah Colby, Victoria Poulton & Meghan Clayards:  “Inhibition predicts lexical competition in older adults’ spoken word recognition”

The full program is available here.

Digging Into Data grant to Morgan Sonderegger

Morgan Sonderegger was part of one of 14 teams internationally receive funding through the Trans-Atlantic Platform Digging into Data Challenge. Charles Boberg and Michael Wagner are also also collaborators on the project. You can learn more about the project in the McGill Reporter:

The project, SPeech Across Dialects of English (SPADE): large-scale digital analysis of a spoken language across space and time, is led by an international team: Jane Stuart-Smith, University of Glasgow, Sonderegger, and Jeffrey Mielke, North Carolina State University, and will analyze 43 existing datasets of both Old World (British Isles) and New World (North American) English, including many private datasets held by “data guardians.”

Congratulations team!

Jessica Coon at Silicon Valley Comic Con

Jessica is returning this week from San Jose, where she spent the weekend at Silicon Valley Comic Con. She gave a public lecture, “The Linguistics of Arrival: Aliens, Fieldwork, and Universal Grammar”, and participated on a panel for women in STEM. She also met some interesting characters:

Recently, she was featured on the BBC Radio 4’s “The Film Programme”. Up-to-date Arrival-related media is on her website.

Henrison Hsieh and Luis Alonso-Ovalle at AFLA

Henrison Hsieh presented collaborative work with Luis Alonso-Ovalle at the 24th meeting of the Austronesian Formal Linguistics Association (AFLA 24), which took place this past weekend at the University of Washington in Seattle. The title of their talk was “Anchored implicatives: Tagalog ability/involuntary action“.


McGillians at AFLA: Ileana Paul (PhD ’00), Jozina vander Klok (PhD ’12), Tingchun Chen (BA ’10), Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine (Post Doc ’14-15), Henrison Hsieh (current PhD)



Jessica Coon to UMass

Jessica travels to Amherst later this week to give a colloquium talk at UMass. The title of her talk is: “Building verbs in Chuj: Consequences for the nature of roots”.


Tim O’Donnell in Leiden

Tim O’Donnell was in Leiden last week for the The Comparative Biology of Language Learning workshop, held at the Lorentz Center April 3–7. He gave a talk Thursday, title and abstract below:

Bayesian Program Learning of Morphophonological Rules
Both children and linguists confront a similar problem of inference:
given utterances produced by speakers, together with aspects of the
meaning of those utterances, discover the grammatical principles that
relate form to meaning. We study this abstract computational problem
within the domain of morphophonology, contributing a computational
model that learns phenomena from many natural languages and
generalizes in humanlike ways from data used in behavioral studies of
artificial grammar learning.
Our work draws on two analogies. The child-as-linguist analogy holds
that both children and linguists must solve the same abstract
inductive reasoning problem, even though the nature of the input data
and underlying mental algorithms are surely different in precise
detail. Accordingly we isolate the problem of learning
morphophonological systems, and show that a single solution to this
problem can capture both linguistic analyses from natural languages
and infant rule learning of artificial languages. We adopt the
framework of “Bayesian Program learning” (BPL) – in which learning is
formulated a synthesizing a program which compactly describes the
input data. This learning-as-programming analogy lets us exploit
recent techniques from the field of program synthesis to induce
morphophonological rules from data. While child-as-linguist poses the
computational problem, learning-as-programming offers a solution.

Coon and Carolan article in Glossa

This issue of the journal Glossa includes an article by Jessica Coon and Lizzie Carolan (BA ’14): ‘Nominalization and the structure of the progressives in Chuj Mayan’. The full article is available on the Glossa page.

Michael Wagner to Amsterdam

Michael served as an ‘opponent’ on Matthijs Westera‘s thesis defense in Amsterdam last week at the  Institute for Logic, Language and Computation  Universiteit van Amsterdam. The thesis is titled “Exhaustivity and Intonation. A Uni fed Theory“. While there, Michael also presented a paper on “Prosodically marking focus and givenness: What a purely pragmatic account needs to account for” in a satellite workshop to the event.

Jessica at Public Astro Night

Jessica will be giving a public lecture this week as part of the Astrophysics & Cosmology Public Astro Nights series. The talk will be Thursday, March 17th at 7pm in McIntyre Medical room 522. Weather-permitting, the talk will be followed by night-sky observations.

The Linguistics of Arrival: Aliens, Fieldwork, and Universal Grammar

If aliens arrived, could we communicate with them? How would we do it? What are the tools linguists use to decipher unknown languages? How different can human languages be from one another? Do these differences have bigger consequences for how we see the world?

The recent science-fiction film Arrival touches on these and other real questions in the field of linguistics. In Arrival, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to translate the language of the newly-arrived Heptapods in order to answer the question everyone wants to know: why are they here? Language, it turns out, is a crucial piece of the answer.

Jessica Coon, science consultant for the linguistics in Arrival, has never worked with an alien, but will discuss her own fieldwork on Mayan languages, and what these languages can tell us about linguistic diversity and Universal Grammar.

Henderson and Coon in NLLT

McLing is pleased to report that Jessica Coon’s paper with Robert Henderson (Post-doc ’12-’13), “Adverbs and Variability in Kaqchikel Agent Focus: A Reply to Erlewine (2016)”, has been accepted for publication in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory.

The paper is available here.

In many languages with ergative morphology, transitive subjects (i.e. ergatives) are unable to undergo A’-extraction. This extraction asymmetry is a common hallmark of “syntactic ergativity,” and is found in a range of typologically diverse languages (see e.g. Deal 2016; Polinsky to appear, and works cited there). In Kaqchikel, the A’-extraction of transitive subjects requires a special verb form, known in Mayanist literature as Agent Focus (AF). In a recent paper, Erlewine (2016) argues the restriction on A’-extracting transitive subjects in Kaqchikel is the result of an Anti-Locality effect: transitive subjects are not permitted to extract because they are too close to C. This analysis relies crucially on Erlewine’s proposal that transitive subjects undergo movement to Spec,IP while intransitive subjects remain low. For Erlewine, this derives the fact that transitive (ergative) subjects, but not intransitive (absolutive) subjects are subject to extraction restrictions. Furthermore, it makes the strong prediction that phrasal material intervening between IP and CP should obviate the need for AF in clauses with subject extraction. In this paper, we argue against the Anti-Locality analysis of ergative A’-extraction restrictions along two lines. First, we raise concerns with the proposal that transitive, but not intransitive subjects, move to Spec,IP. Our second, and main focus, is to show that there is variation in whether AF is observed in configurations intervening phrasal material, with a primary focus on intervening adverbs. We propose an alternative account for the variation in whether AF is observed in the presence of adverbs and discuss consequences for accounts of ergative extraction asymmetries more generally.

Jessica Coon at UQAM’s “Midis autochtones”

Jessica will present this Wednesday at Midis autochtones, Organized by the Association modulaire étudiante de linguistique at UQAM and the Département de linguistique at UQAM.

February 22, 2017
room DS-1950 at UQAM (
coffee and snacks provided
Abstract: This talk will discuss the Mayan language family, a family of thirty languages currently spoken by more than six million people in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Topics will include the socio-political context in which the languages are spoken, grammatical properties of the languages, as well as language endangerment and revitalization efforts.

Presentations at Toronto Intonation workshop

McGill linguists will participate in the Second Intonation Workshop at the University of Toronto February 16-17, giving two papers:

“The continuation contour in French: Realisation and representation”
Jeffrey Lamontagne, Heather Goad & Morgan Sonderegger

“Melodic alternations in Spanish, and their implications for intonational phonology”
Francisco Torreira (McGill University and Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics) &
Martine Grice (University of Cologne)

Welcome Tim O’Donnell

McLing would like to (belatedly) welcome Tim O’Donnell, who  joined the McGill Linguistics faculty this January.

Tim O’Donnell develops mathematical and computational models of language  learning, processing, and generalization. One area of special interest is how language users strike a balance between the ability to creatively express new meanings, on one hand, and conservatively reuse existing words, idioms, and other constructions, on the other. His research draws on experimental methods from psychology, formal modeling techniques from natural language processing and computational linguistics, theoretical tools from linguistics, and problems from all three domains. Recent projects include work on lexicon learning from speech input, morphological productivity, phonotactics, syntactic structure building, and the meaning of verbs.


McGill at LSA/SSILA/ADS 2017

McGill linguists past and present attended the 91st Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, and the associated meeetings of the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas (SSILA) and the American Dialect Society(ADS), which took place 5–8 January 2017 in Austin, Texas. Their many presentations included:

  • George Aaron Broadwell, Lauren Eby Clemens (Postdoc ’14-’15): “Inflectional change in Copala Triqui”
  • Lauren Clemens (Postdoc ’14-’15), Jessica Coon, Carol-Rose Little (BA ’12), Morelia Vázquez Martínez: “Encoding focus in Ch’ol spontaneous speech”
  • Lauren Clemens (Postdoc ’14-’15): “Prosody, pseudo noun incorporation, and V1 syntax: VP-fronting or Vo-raising?”
  • Emily Elfner (Postdoc ’12-’14), Patricia A. Shaw: “Game-based methodology for the study of intonational contours in Kwak’wala”
  • Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine (Postdoc ’14-’15), Theodore Levin: “On the unavailability of argument ellipsis in Kaqchikel”
  • Michael Yoshitaka Erlewine (Postdoc ’14-’15): “C-T head-splitting: evidence from Toba Batak”
  • Guilherme Garcia: “Adapting inconsistent lexical patterns: a Bayesian approach to weight and stress”
  • Daniel Goodhue: “Biased polar questions: VERUM focus is semantic focus, high negation is a distinct phenomenon”
  • Natália Brambatti Guzzo, Heather Goad: “Overriding default interpretations through prosody: depictive predicates in Brazilian Portuguese”
  • Aron Hirsch (BA ’12): “Fragments, pseudo-clefts, and ellipsis”
  • Thomas Kettig (BA ’13): “One hundred years of stability: the case of the BAD-LAD split”
  • Hadas Kotek (Postdoc ’14-’16): “Movement and alternatives don’t mix: a new look at intervention effects”
  • Jeffrey Lamontagne, Heather Goad, Morgan Sonderegger: “Penultimate prominence in Québec French: internal motivations or English influence?”
  • Jeffrey Lamontagne and Gretchen McCulloch (MA ’13): “Wayyy longgg: orthotactics and phonology in lengthening on Twitter”
  • Cora Lesure (BA ’15): “Phonologically null morphemes and templatic morphology: the case of Chuj (Mayan)”
  • Moti Liberman and Gretchen McCulloch (MA ’13) organized a symposium entitled “Datablitz: Getting High School Students Into Linguistics”
  • Michael McAuliffe, Michaela Socolof (BA ’16), Sarah Mihuc, Michael Wagner, Morgan Sonderegger: “Montreal Forced Aligner: an accurate and trainable forced aligner using Kaldi”
  • Michaela Socolof (BA ’16): “The position of the negative particle ara and NPIs in Kabyle negation”
  • Morgan Sonderegger, Michael McAuliffeJurij BozicChristopher BrunoSeptember CowleyBing’er JiangJeffrey LamontagneMartha SchwarzJiajia Su: “Laryngeal timing across seven languages: phonetic data and their relationship to phonological features”
  • Lisa Travis: “A typology of VP-fronting”
  • Jozina Vander Klok (PhD ’12) and Vera Hohaus: “Building Blocks of Weak Necessity Modality: The View from Paciran Javanese”

Some current and past McGill affiliates gathered for a photo:



Coon and Carolan to appear in Glossa

Jessica Coon and Lizzie Carolan’s (BA ’14) paper “Nominalizations and the structure of the progressive in Chuj Mayan” will appear in the journal Glossa. A draft of the paper is available here. Congrats both!

Carrier-Bordeleau and Travis at ABLT-BWTL

McGill BA student Sara Carrier-Bordeleau and Lisa Travis represented McGill Linguistics at the Atelier bilingue en linguistique théorique -Bilingual Workshop in Theoretical Linguistics  (ABLT-BWTL) at Concordia University, which took place December 12th and 13th.  Their talks were Orphan prepositions as surface anaphora (Sara) and  Little words – big consequences (Lisa).

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).”

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