Monthly Archive for November, 2016

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.

Clayards, Kilbourn-Ceron, Sonderegger, Tanner and Wagner – Colloquia at Princeton and Johns Hopkins University

Michael Wagner gave talks at colloquia at Princeton University (16th November) and Johns Hopkins University (17th November), in which he reported on his joint work with Meghan Clayards, Oriana Kilbourn-Ceron, Morgan Sonderegger and James Tanner with the title “Allophonic variation and the locality of production planning“. The abstract is given below.


The application of allophonic processes across word boundaries (processes such as flapping (cf. De Jong, 1998; Patterson and Connine, 2001) and sibilant assimilation (cf. Holst and Nolan, 1995) in English, or liaison in French (Durand and Lyche, 2008)) is known to be subject to locality conditions. The same processes are also known to be variable. While a correlation between the locality of cross word processes on the one hand and their inherent variability is often observed (e.g. Kaisse, 1985), existing theories of either aspect usually do not make any predictions about the other. In this paper we report on several projects that pursue the hypothesis that the locality and variability of cross-word allophonic processes are tightly linked, and can be both be understood as a consequence of the locality of production planning.

The basic idea is that flapping, sibilant assimilation, liaison and related processes are sensitive to the segmental environment in a following word, but the following segmental environment can only exert its effect of the relevant information is already available when the phonetic detail of the current word is being planned. Under this view, effects of syntax and prosody on the application of these processes are reducible to their indirect effects on production planning: For example, a speaker is less likely to plan ahead across a sentence boundary, and less likely to plan ahead across a prosodic juncture. This hypothesis makes specific predictions that all factors affecting planning should affect the likelihood of cross-word allophonic processes (such as the predictability of the following word, the # syllables of the following word, etc.). We report evidence from several experimental and corpus studies that test our hypothesis, which makes different predictions than accounts that tie allophonic processes to particular phonological domains. It also makes different predictions than accounts that try to explain sandhi processes as an effect of gestural overlap, or than currently popular accounts in terms of probabilistic reduction.

An account of the the locality of sandhi processes in terms of the locality of production planning removes some of the motivation for categorically distinct phonological domains as they are assumed in the theory of the prosodic hierarchy. It also makes new predictions about what types of processes will necessarily have to be local and variable, and also about the degree of locality/variability depending on which information their application relies on.

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.

LingTea, 11/24 – Junko Shimoyama & Keir Moulton

In this week’s LingTea, on Thursday (Nov. 24th) 12-1pm in room 117, Junko Shimoyama and Keir Moulton (who will be present through Skype) will give a talk with the title “On inverse trace conversion in Japanese internally-headed relative clauses“.


We report on our ongoing project that examines a recent analysis of various types of relative clauses in Japanese (Erlewine and Gould 2014, 2015). Our focus will be on the use of Inverse Trace Conversion and a maximal informativeness analysis of internally-headed relative clauses.

Semantics Research Group

This Friday the 25th, Alan Bale will present on his recent paper “Sentential Oddities and the Mass-Count Distinction“, which can be found via the link. The meeting will be at 3pm in room 117 as always. Hope to see you there!

Report of McGill at Mo-MOT 1

McGill’s linguists attended the The First Annual Morphology in Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto Workshop (Mo-MOT 1) on 18th-20th November, 2016, which took place at Carleton University. Presentations of current affiliates included the following:

  • Jurij Bozic: “Two Loci of Morphological Neutralization“
  • Lydia Felice & Lisa Travis: “The realization of gender morphemes and the articulation of K in Kabyle“
  • Maire Noonan: “The trouble with German lefties“

Current and past McGill affiliates gathered for a photo on Sunday:



Left to right: Gabriel Daitzchman, Jurij Bozic, Lydia Felice, Heather Newell (PhD, 2008), Lisa Travis, Bronwyn Bjorkman (BA, 2006), Elizabeth Cowper (BA, 1972), Kumiko Murasugi (PostDoc, 1993-1994), Maire Noonan.

LingTea, 11/17 – Lydia Felice & Lisa Travis

In this week’s LingTea, on Thursday (Nov. 17th) 12-1pm in room 117, Lydia Felice & Lisa Travis will give a talk on the topic of Kabyle morphology.


Some researchers have observed the prefixes are more loosely connected to the stems that they attach to than are suffixes (e.g. Hyman 2008, Bobaljik and Wurmbrand 2001). This asymmetry can be accounted for if one assumes (a) that syntax is the generative system that creates complex morphological structure and (b) morpheme order is determined by the syntax. In one version of this view, suffixes are attached to the stem via head movement and prefixes through some mechanism of morphological merger (e.g. Kayne 2015). We use these ideas to account for the realization of gender morphemes in Kabyle, a dialect of Berber and to further relate this account to the nano-syntax of Case (Caha 2009).

Selected references:

Bobaljik, J. and Wurmbrand, S. (2001). Seven prefix-suffix asymmetries in Itelmen. In Proceedings of CLS.Caha, P. (2009). The Nanosyntax of Case. PhD thesis, University of Tromsø.Hyman, L. M. (2008). Directional asymmetries in the morphology and phonology of words, with special reference to Bantu. Linguistics, 46(2):309{350.Kayne, R. S. (2015). Antisymmetry and morphology. prefixes and suffixes. unpublished ms, NYU.

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.


LingTea, 11/10 – Justin Royer

In this week’s LingTea, on Thursday (Nov. 10th) 12-1pm in room 117, Justin Royer will give a talk with the title “Classifier systems in Chuj (Mayan)“.


Chuj, a Mayan language, has a robust system of classification. On the one hand, it features over 15 nominal classifiers which classify nouns according to their physical and social attributes. On the other, it possesses a set of numeral classifiers which obligatorily accompany nouns after certain numerals. Both types of classifiers can surface within the same utterance.    This talk will consist in presenting an overview of the environments in which nominal and numeral classifiers are licensed in Chuj. Data from ongoing fieldwork will be put forward in order to describe and discuss the theoretical implications of these systems and their interaction. Regarding nominal classifiers, I will follow Craig (1986) in arguing that nominal classifiers mark nouns that are referential or salient. This contrasts with prior analyses, which have described them as definite determiners (see e.g. Domingo Pascual 2007). Moving on to numeral classifiers, I will provide substantial evidence in support of Krifka (1995), and Bale and Coon’s (2014) claims that numeral classifiers result from the deficiency of certain quantifying expressions, rather than from the deficiency of certain nouns (Cherchia 1998). Finally, I will establish the importance of treating these two classifying systems as separate systems, governed by separate linguistic properties.

Semantics Reading Group, 11/11

On Friday November 11th, Roni Katzir will present at the Semantics Research Group. The meeting will be held at 3 pm in room 117. Title and abstract are below. Hope to see you there!

Abstract: The roles of questions, answers, and anaphoricity in focus

The placement of accent on elements in sentences interacts both with felicity — so-called free focus (FF) — and, in the presence of certain operators, with truth conditions and presuppositions — so-called association with focus (AF). This interaction is often taken to be anaphoric: in FF, the focus alternatives of a sentence are required to have a contextually salient element or subset (Jackendoff 1972, Rooth 1992, Schwarzschild 1999); and in AF, focus alternatives are matched against an anaphoric element that determines domain restriction (Rooth 1992, von Fintel 1994).My goal in this talk is to argue that the role of anaphoricity in focus is more limited than commonly thought and that questions are central to both FF and AF. In FF, I present evidence that suggests that focus is more discriminating than under the theories of Rooth 1992 and Schwarzschild 1999 and that it must target questions rather than arbitrary discourse antecedents. Moreover, I use an extension of Wagner 2005’s ‘convertible’ paradigm to argue that FF depends not just on questions but also on the ability of sentences to answer them. For AF, I present evidence that challenges the idea that the effect of focus alternatives on domain restriction is ever anaphoric. Instead, I will suggest that some AF operators access focus alternatives directly, while others have their domain restriction constrained by a derived question.

WORDS Group, 11/11

The WORDS Group will be meeting on Friday 11th November at 1-2.30pm (location and room tba). This week’s meeting is dedicated to practice talks for the upcoming Mo-MOT 1 meeting. The following is a tentative list of presentations:

  • Lydia Felice & Lisa Travis: “The realization of gender morphemes in Kabyle and the Syntax/PF interface”
  • Ievgeniia Kybalchych (UQAM): “The trimorphemic structure of Japanese deictic expressions within a two-dimensional reference system”
  • Thomas Leu (UQAM): “Dividing the definite article up between verbal inflection and  personal pronoun”
  • Maire Noonan: “The irksome nature of left members of German compounds”

Everyone is welcome to attend!

McGill at Mo-MOT 1

Carleton University is hosting the The First Annual Morphology in Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto Workshop (Mo-MOT 1) on 18th-20th November, 2016. McGill linguists will attend the meeting to present their work:

The entire program can be found here.

McGill at BUCLD 41

McGill linguists presented at the 41st Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD 41), which was hosted at Boston UNiversity on 4-6th November, 2016. Presentations by current McGill affiliates included:

  • G. Garcia, H. Goad, N. Guzzo: “L2 Acquisition of High Vowel Deletion in Quebec French”
  • J. Klassen, A. Tremblay, M. Wagner, H. Goad: “Prominence Shifts in Second Language English and Spanish: Learning versus Unlearning”
  • L. Smeets: “Ultimate Attainment at the Syntax-Discourse Interface: the acquisition of object movement in Dutch”
  • L. White, H. Goad, J. Su, L. Smeets, M. Mortazavinia, G. Garcia, N. Guzzo: “Prosodic Effects on Pronoun Interpretation in Italian”

Past and present McGill affiliates gathered for a photo:



Sepideh Mortazavinia, Liz Smeets, Shanley Allen, Lydia White, Silvina Montrul, Alan Bale, Theres Grüter, Jeffrey Klassen, Makiko Hirakawa, Guilherme Garcia.

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