Author Archive for McLing

Special talk, 10/23 – David Barner

Speaker: Dr. David Barner, UCSD
Place: Room 461, 2001 McGill College
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 NELS 49

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

MCQLL Meeting October, 10/3

This week, MCQLL meeting will be meeting Wednesday from 5:30pm to 7:30 in room 117. Greg Theos will present about his work in analyzing data from lexical decision tasks.

Symposium in Honour of Lydia White

The department hosted a reunion of some of Lydia White’s students at Thomson House, August 31stSeptember 1st. Lydia officially retired August 31st but will still continue doing research. Congratulations Lydia!

Symposium on Second Language Acquisition in Honour of Lydia White

We are pleased to announce that the Department of Linguistics will be hosting the Symposium on Second Language Acquisition in Honour of Lydia White, August 31–September 1, 2018. The program is attached. Everyone is invited to attend. You can find the program here.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of our McGill sponsors: Provost’s Research Fund, Dean of Arts’ Development Fund, as well as the Department of Linguistics.

Alonso-Ovalle, Shimoyama,and Schwarz Awarded Insight Grant

Congratulations to Luis Alonso-Ovalle, Junko Shimoyama, and Bernhard Schwarz who have been awarded an SSHRC Insight grant for their application Modality across Categories: Modal Indefinites and the Projection of Possibilities!

Semantics Reading Group, Friday April 6th

Bernhard Schwarz and Mathieu Paillé will be giving a practice talk for
WCCFL, on the subject of wh-complements with ‘know’. We will be meeting
on Friday, April 6th at 3pm in room 117.

Colloquium: Susana Béjar, 23/02

Susana Béjar from the University of Toronto will giving a talk entitled “Person, Agree, and Derived Predicates” as part of the McGill Linguistics Colloquium Series on Friday, February 23th at 3:30pm in room 433 of the Education Building. All are welcome to attend! For the abstract and for any other colloquium information, please visit the Colloquium Series web page:

Goodhue published in Semantics & Pragmatics, and Goodhue & Wagner published in Glossa

Daniel Goodhue’s paper “Must p is felicitous only if p is not known” has recently been published in Semantics & Pragmatics.
Daniel Goodhue and Michael Wagner’s paper “Intonation, yes and no” has recently been published in Glossa. Both papers are open access.
Congratulations to both!

Jessica Coon Receives National Geographic Explorers Grant

Jessica Coon received a National Geographic Explorers Grant to fund research and documentation on Ch’ol (Mayan) during her time in Mexico this year. The title of her project is “Documenting word order variation in Mayan languages: A collection of Ch’ol narratives.” The project will involve training workshops on language documentation in several Ch’ol communities in collaboration with Ch’ol-speaking linguists; recording, transcription and publication of Ch’ol narratives; and analysis of word order variation.

Linguists at Arts Undergraduate Research Event

Linguistics undergraduates presented the results of their summer work at the Arts Annual Undergraduate Research Event, January 18th. The five students who won summer internships to conduct research with linguistics faculty members in 2017 were:

“Documentation and Revitalization of the Chuj Language”
Paulina Elias, Linguistics
Prof. Jessica Coon, Linguistics
PDF icon Paulina Elias [.pdf]

“Perceptual Discrimination of /s/ in Hearing Impaired Children”
Fiona Higgins, Linguistics
Prof. Heather Goad, Linguistics
PDF icon Fiona Higgins [.pdf]

“Understanding high adverbs in Malagasy and the nature of clefts”
Clea Stuart, Linguistics
Prof. Lisa Travis, Linguistics
PDF icon Clea Stuart [.pdf]

“How does structured variability help talker adaption?”
Claire Suh, Linguistics
Prof. Meghan Clayards, Linguistics
PDF icon Claire Suh [.pdf]

“Syntactic Representation and Processing in L2 Acquisition”
Yunxiao (Vera) Xia, Linguistics
Prof. Lydia White, Linguistics
PDF icon Yunxiao (Vera) Xia [.pdf]

Colloquium: Sharon Goldwater, 01/12

Sharon Goldwater from the University of Edinburgh will be giving a talk entitled Bootstrapping Language Acquisition as part of the McGill Linguistics Colloquium Series on Friday, January 12th at 3:30pm in room 433 of the Education Building. All are welcome to attend! For the abstract and for any other colloquium information, please clear here to visit the Colloquium Series web page.

McGill at the 21st Amsterdam Colloquium

The bi-annual Amsterdam Colloquium ( brings together linguists, philosophers, logicians, cognitive scientists and computer scientists who share an interest in the formal study of the semantics and pragmatics of natural and formal languages. The 2017 edition, which took place December 20-22, featured four presentations by current and former Department members:
  1. Brian Buccola (PhD 2015, (with Andreas Haida): “Expressing agent indifference in German”
  2. Mitcho Erlewine (Postdoc 2014-15; (with Hadas Kotek, Postdoc 2014-15, “Intervention tracks scope-rigidity in Japanese”
  3. Bernhard Schwarz: “On question exhaustivity and NPI licensing”
  4. Alexandra (Sasha) Simonenko (PhD 2014, “Towards a semantic typology of specifi city markers”
Group picture, from left to right: Bernhard, Mitcho,  Sasha, Brian

Alonso-Ovalle and Menéndez-Benito published in Journal of Semantics

Congratulations to Luis Alonso-Ovalle who together with Paula Menéndez-Benito have a new paper, “Projecting Possibilities in the Nominal Domain: Spanish Uno Cualquiera” appearing in the Journal of Semantics!

Kim and Clayards at Acoustical Society of America Meeting

Donghyun Kim, Meghan Clayards, and Sarah Colby (SCSD) just returned from the Acoustical Society of America meeting in New Orleans where they each presented posters on their work:

Kim, D., Clayards, M., Kong, E. Individual differences in perceptual adaptation to phonetic categories: Categorization gradiency and cognitive abilities. Poster presentation at the Acoustical Society of America, New Orleans, LA.

Clayards, M.. Individual differences in cue weights are correlated across contrasts. Poster presentation at the Acoustical Society of America, New Orleans, LA.

Colby, S., Poulton, V., Clayards, M.  Inhibitory and lexical frequency effects in younger and older adults’ spoken word recognition. Poster presentation at the Acoustical Society of America, New Orleans, LA.

Kim, Clayards, and Goad published in Journal of Phonetics

Congratulations to Donghyun Kim, Meghan Clayards, and Heather Goad  whose new paper, “A longitudinal study of individual differences in the acquisition of new vowel contrasts” has just been published in the Journal of Phonetics!

Jessica Coon at headless relatives workshop

Professor Jessica Coon spent last week at the first workshop on The Morphosyntax and Semantics of Headless Relative Clauses in Mesoamerican Languages, at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS), in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico. She heads back to CIESAS in January, where she’ll spend the second half of her sabbatical as a visiting researcher.

SSHRC Insight Grants Awarded

SSHRC recently released the official announcement of this year’s Insight Grants competition, and two McGill linguists were successful.

Jessica Coon received funding for her project titled “Agreement and anti-agreement” across languages.
Morgan Sonderegger was funded for “Uncovering the structure and sources of speech variability through large-scale studies”. Meghan Clayards and Tim O’Donnell are team members on this project.

Paulina Elias and Justin Royer at TOMILLA

BA student Paulina Elias and PhD student Justin Royer traveled to Toronto to present their work on Chuj at the first Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal Indigenous Languages of Latin America (TOMILLA) workshop at the University of Toronto. Paulina’s talk was “Positionals and directionals in Chuj” and Justin’s was “Noun classifiers, (in)definiteness, and pronouns in Chuj”.

Kim, Clayards, and Goad to be published in the Journal of Phonetics

Congratulations to Donghyun Kim, Meghan Clayards, and Heather Goad for the acceptance of their paper “A longitudinal study of individual differences in the acquisition of new vowel contrasts” by the Journal of Phonetics.

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