Monthly Archive for December, 2011

Field workers return from Listuguj

Happy Holidays from McLing!

This will be the last issue of McLing until the New Year––please continue to send us your news and we’ll publish it when we’re back!

FREE review sessions brought to you by SLUM

SLUM is offering free review sessions for all undergraduate linguistics classes! This is a great way for students to get together and go over course materials before an exam. Here is the schedule for all upcoming review sessions this semester:

LING 390: December 12 (Monday). Noon-2pm. Room 212
LING 331: December 13 (Tuesday). 4-6pm. Room 212
LING 355: December 19 (Monday). Noon-2pm. Room 212
LING 200: December 19 (Monday). 4-6pm. Room 002
LING 425: December 20 (Tuesday). 4-6pm. Room 212

All review sessions take place in the linguistics building (1085 Dr. Penfield).

Field methods class travels to Listuguj

As this week’s McLing goes to press, a group of students from Jessica Coon and Michael Wagner‘s Field Methods class will be driving to meet up with the class’ language consultant––McGill Education PhD student Janine Metallic––in the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation, on the Québec/New Brunswick border. They will spend Tuesday visiting Mi’gmaq language classes (taught by Janine’s mother, Mary Ann Metallic), meeting community members and language teachers, and presenting the work they have done during the course. The group includes graduate students Michael Hamilton, Jenny Loughran, Gretchen McCulloch, and Lance Williams, and undergrads Hyuna Ku, Carol LittleElise McClay, Di Mo, and Erin Olson.

Alonso-Ovalle Colloquium at Carleton

Luis Alonso-Ovalle gave a colloquium talk at the School of Linguistics and Language Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa on December 2nd. The title of the talk, which reports on joint work with Paula Menéndez-Benito, was “Agent Indifference: The Case of Spanish Un NP Cualquiera.”



Welcome Galit Agmon!

We are pleased to (belatedly) welcome Galit Agmon, a visiting student who came to McGill for the year from the Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she is a 3rd year graduate student. She will be visiting the neurolinguistics lab and working with Yosef Grodzinsky. Galit earned an undergraduate degree in Linguistics and Cognitive Science from the same university, and is generally interested in brain modeling of linguistic knowledge. Currently, she is getting her hands wet with the analysis of fMRI results.

SLUMwear has arrived!

If you ordered SLUMwear this semester, please come to the lounge (rm. 212) on Monday Dec. 12 or Tuesday Dec. 13 between 10am and 3pm to pick it up.

If you are unable to come at these times, please contact us at

Syn/Sem Group, 12/16 – Edwin Howard and Alan Bale

The syntax-semantics research group presents a double-header on Friday, December 16, 2011 in room 117

Edwin Howard (McGill BA 2009, now MIT) will present his recent work on NPI licensing in superlatives.

3:00-4:30 pm
Alan Bale will talk about Roni Katzir (2007) “Structurally-defined alternatives”, Linguistics and Philosophy 30:660-690.

Bale colloquium at Brown

Last week Mcgill Faculty Lecturer Alan Bale gave an invited talk in the Colloquium Series at Brown University. The presentation was titled: Adjectives and Context Sensitivity. An abstract is below:

Model theoretic semantics seeks to understand how syntactic categories and subcategories of words are mapped to certain types of meanings. This relationship between syntax and semantics is particularly relevant for theories of language acquisition (viz., syntactic bootstrapping) and category coercions (e.g., using nouns as verbs or verbs as nouns). This talk discusses not only how facts concerning syntactic bootstrapping and category coercion might influence our semantic theories, but also how our semantic theories might lead to new hypotheses about language acquisition. Both of these issues are explored through an analysis of gradable adjectives.

Gradable adjectives such as `tall’ often presuppose that the elements in their domain are linearly ordered with respect to some gradable property (such as height). For example, competent speakers know that if (1a) is true then (1b) must also be true.

(1) a. John isn’t taller than Bill and Bill isn’t taller than John.
b. John is as tall as Bill and vice versa.

Such conclusions can be reached without knowing anything about the context of utterance, indicating that this entailment relationship follows, at least partly, from the meaning of `tall’ rather than from world knowledge. Interestingly, this presumption of linearity influences how people treat unknown words and even partly determines the interpretation of non-gradable adjectives when they appear with gradable syntax (such as `very,’ as in `Mary is very pregnant’). Generally, new or coerced words that appear in gradable syntax are assumed to linearly order their domains.

In contrast to `tall,’ certain gradable adjectives — such as `successful,’ `good,’ and `smart’ — do not imply that the elements in their domain are linearly ordered. The challenge for an adequate semantic theory is to explain why some adjectives require linear orders and others do not, yet also explain why novel words and usages are presumed to linearly order elements in their domain.

The theory presented in this talk attempts to meet this challenge by hypothesizing a link between context sensitivity and linear orders. It is argued that non-linear orders are derived from gradable adjectives that are underspecified in terms of how they compare and rank individuals on a scale. However, if this hypothesis is correct, then it must be assumed that children and adults presuppose that novel words are not context sensitive (until positive evidence indicates otherwise).

Grodzinsky to present in Jerusalem

Yosef Grodzinsky will be giving two presentations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in December, one in the newly formed Experimental Syntax and Semantics Group of the Language, Logic and Cognition Center, and the second at the Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation.

Dissertation defense 12/5 – Jennifer Mah

Candidate: Jennifer Mah
When: Monday 12/5, 12:15pm
Where: Education Building, 431
Title: Segmental representations in interlanguage grammars: the case of francophones and English /h/

The concept that knowledge is transferred from a speaker’s first language grammar into the interlanguage grammar being constructed for his second language makes testable predictions for how learners should behave given certain combinations of first and second language. This thesis examines the perceptual and productive abilities of francophones in order to gain insight into why francophones encounter such persistent difficulty in their acquisition of English /h/. We will see that although the target representation of English /h/ is not a structure that can be acquired by francophones, there are a  number of representational options for the phonetic segment [h] that will yield the same acoustic result, and (at least) one of these is predicted to be acquirable. The observation that francophones do not seem to have access to any representation for this segment in the grammar these is therefore puzzling.

The experimental work reported in this thesis begins by refuting the possibility that the acoustic properties of [h] are such that francophones cannot reliably detect this segment in the speech stream. We then go on to show that the problem is indeed a matter of linguistic representation in the grammar: francophones are unable to construct phonological representations containing /h/ in lexical entries. Finally, evidence from a production task is examined, showing that francophones’ behaviour in supplying aspiration on voiceless stops matches the profile for suppliance of /h/, supporting the proposal of a common representational problem. Further, francophone productions of /h/ are examined and argued to shed light on the question of why alternate representations for /h/ are unavailable to the interlanguage grammar: it is not being analyzed as a consonant, but as a partially devoiced vowel.

Coon and Travis to present at MIT Conference

Jessica Coon and Lisa Travis will each be presenting work at 50 Years of Linguistics at MIT, which will take place at MIT this weekend, December 9–11. Jessica will present “The Impact of Native Speaker Linguists: A Mayan Case Study” in the special session on Endangered Languages. Lisa will present a poster titled “X/XP Movement Parameter”.

Wagner to attend Masayuki Gibson’s defense at Cornell

Michael Wagner will travel to Cornell University this week for the dissertation defense of Masayuki Gibson. The defense, titled “A Rise Is Not a Rise Is Not a Rise: The interaction of lexical tone and sentential intonation”, will take place Tuesday, December 6 at 4:00pm. The dissertation abstract is below.

There is still much to be learned regarding the nature of the interaction between lexical tone and sentence-level intonation.  Previous studies in individual languages tend to be too narrow, focusing on ways to model the final F0 output without regard to cross-linguistic implications; studies mainly concerned with phonological patterns across languages tend to over-generalize, missing or glossing over many language-specific and category-specific phenomena.  This dissertation attempts to address the gap left by these previous studies.

The first part of the dissertation presents results from a series of production and perception experiments conducted for a handful of tone languages, including Standard Mandarin, Henan Mandarin, Hong Kong Cantonese, North Kyeongsang Korean, and Kansai Japanese (a family of dialects including Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe Japanese).   The production experiments were designed to elicit multiple renditions of various lexical tones in declarative and echo question contexts, and the perceptual experiments were designed to test the degree of recoverability for each communicative function (tone and intonation) in the various conditions.

The second part of the dissertation considers the implications of the experimental results for building a comprehensive model of speech melody.  First, by examining the behavior of intonation across tonal categories within each language, I show that there is evidence for unpredictable tone-dependent intonation implementation, suggesting that our model must allow for some interaction between the two at some level before phonetic implementation.  In addition, I assess the results cross-linguistically, characterizing the ways in which the model must be parameterized.  Finally, I propose a model that meets both of the above demands.  The phonological component of this model includes an autosegmental geometry that captures tone in languages like Mandarin and Cantonese as tones associated with syllables and so-called “accentual melodies” in languages like Kansai Japanese and NKK as tones that associate with words.

Graduate seminar presentations – 12/8

Presenters: Grad seminar students (see below)
When: Thursday 12/8 2pm–5pm
Where: 1085 Dr. Penfield, room 002

All department members are invited to attend work-in-progress presentations from the Grad Seminar students. Please come hear what students are working on and be ready to give feedback. Snacks will be served! The line-up of talks (in alphabetical order):

  • 2.00-2.20 Brian Buccola: The role of implicatures in entailment inference
  • 2.20-2.40 Mike Hamilton: Prosody-syntax mapping in Japanese
  • 2.40-3.00 Laura Harder: Half-Rhyme and Feature Mismatch
  • 3.00-3.10 Break
  • 3.10-3.30 Jeffrey Klassen: Focus Theory and Prominence Assignment
  • 3.30-3.50 Jenny Loughran: Universal Functional Categories, Parametric Variation and Algonquian
  • 3.50-4.10 Alanah McKillen: Processing Quantified Expressions: Evidence for QR?
  • 4.10-4.20 Break
  • 4.20-4.40  Tokiko Okuma: The L2 acquisition of Japanese compound accents by L1 English learners
  • 4.40-5.00 Lance Williams: Describing the Southern Vowel Shift Phonologically

Movember team collects $845 for prostate cancer research

Did you notice all those guys with mustaches in our department last month? No, it wasn’t a Tom Selleck lookalike contest. That was the Movember team growing mo’s for prostate cancer research. The linguistics Movember team managed to collect a whopping $845, which will go directly to Prostate Cancer Canada and the Movember Foundation. Congratulations to them, and many thanks to everyone who contributed!

top row: Brian Buccola, Tobin Skinner, Mike Hamilton, David-Étienne Bouchard
bottom row: Jamie Findlay, Alan Bale, Moti Lieberman
not pictured: Dan Goodhue, David Fleischer, Jenny Loughran, Lance Williams, Stephan Hurtubise

There will be a Mo’-get-together to celebrate and to collect any last-minute donations. Date & time to be determined, but possibly Thursday after the grad seminar talks. Contact Mike for more details.

McCCLU 2012: Call for undergraduate abstracts

The sixth annual McGill Canadian Conference for Linguistics Undergraduates will be hosted by the Society of Linguistics Undergrads at McGill. The aim of this conference is to encourage new endeavors into the world of research as well as to enrich the present academic undergraduate community within the field of linguistics. We are now calling for undergraduate students to submit abstracts for presentation at the conference on any subject matter within the domain of linguistics. Each abstract should detail material for a 20-minute presentation, a maximum of one page in length (12 point font, 1 inch margins, with an extra page for references).

The meeting URL is

Meeting location: McGill University

Contact information: Jessica Cooper (

Meeting dates: 09-Mar-2012 to 11-Mar-2012

Abstract submission information: abstracts can be submitted until 06-Jan-2012 here

McGill to host Linguistics Olympiad

McGill will host a regional portion of the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad this spring. What does this mean? Here’s a quote from the NACLO website:

This olympiad is a contest in which high-school students solve linguistic puzzles. In solving the problems, students learn about the diversity and consistency of language, while exercising logic skills. No prior knowledge of linguistics or second languages is necessary. Professionals in linguistics, computational linguistics and language technologies use dozens of languages to create engaging problems that represent cutting edge issues in their fields. The competition has attracted top students to study and work in those same fields. It is truly an opportunity for young people to experience a taste of natural-language processing in the 21st century.

Please pass the call below on to anyone who might be interested!

  • Are you a high school student in grade 6-12?
  • Ever wondered whether you could decipher an ancient script, decode Swahili, or count in Indonesian?
  • Now you can find out! No prior knowledge of linguistics required, just some curiosity and basic problem-solving skills.
  • Compete for a chance to go to the international competition and meet participants from all over the world.
  • And it’s free!

Participate in the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad. It is a fun and educational contest, in which you will solve linguistics problems from a variety of languages (natural and artificial). No prior knowledge of linguistics or any particular language is required.  All you need to bring is your curiosity and enthusiasm.

The first round of the contest will take place on Thursday, February 2, from 10am to 1pm at McGill University (sign in starting at 9:15am; room to be announced on our website).  Students who perform well on the first round will be invited back for a second round, to take place on March 13. The winners of the invitational round will be eligible to represent North America at the International Linguistics Olympiad in Slovenia.

Check out the McGill site at or the general NACLO site for more information, or contact us at

There will be an information and training session at McGill on January 19th 5-7pm. Pizza will be served. Please RVSP if you’re interested at, and we’ll send you more information.

Local Montréal Organization team (from McGill & UQAM):
Faculty team: Luis Alonso-Ovalle, Heather Newell, Junko Shimoyama,  Lisa Travis, Michael Wagner
Student team: Aron Hirsch, Jeff Klassen, Elise McClay, Gretchen McCulloch, Jozina vander Klok

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