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Mathieu Paillé’s PhD defence

Congratulations to Mathieu Paillé, who successfully defended his dissertation, “Strengthening Predicates” August 3rd, supervised by Bernhard Schwarz and Luis Alonso-Ovalle.

Mathieu will be heading to the University of Calgary this fall for a post-doctoral fellowship. He received postdoctoral funding from the University of Calgary’s Eyes High Postdoctoral Match-Funding Program. This program matches funds from postdoctoral fellows’ faculty supervisors for up to two years. Congratulations Mathieu!

picture-moving ceremony

the defence audience, in person and virtual

Abstract: Sentences in natural language are routinely interpreted as stronger than would be expected from the lexical meanings of the overt lexical items alone. This has led to the postulation of exhaustification (strengthening) mechanisms in pragmatics and semantics. Such exhaustivity effects have largely been discussed for logical vocabulary, focused expressions, and predicates forming entailment scales with other predicates. Relying on recent work on additive particles, I argue that exhaustivity is at play in a significantly broader array of meanings than previously appreciated: all predicates are exhaustified, in all sentences. That is, the intuited meanings of predicates in sentences are stronger than their lexical–conceptual meanings. I focus on ‘taxonomic’ predicates, which do not form entailment scales with other predicates. I make this case first and foremost based on apparently banal contradictions like This comedy is a tragedy or The white flag is green. While these contradictions are intuitively due to the meanings of the predicates, the interaction of these predicates with additive particles (This comedy is also a tragedy) and conjunction (This play is both a comedy and a tragedy) is argued to show that the predicates are underlyingly consistent. As such, the contradiction observed in the basic case must result from exhaustification.

In addition to demonstrating the existence of exhaustification in the meaning of taxonomic predicates, I also show that this exhaustification behaves in a hitherto undescribed way. The exhaustification of a given predicate is not only obligatory, but it is also obligatorily local to the predicate. Modelling exhaustification through an Exh(aust) operator, roughly equivalent to a covert only, predicates are claimed to ‘control’ Exh: they both require its presence and roughly dictate its syntactic locus. These constraints on Exh give its semantic output the flavour of lexical meaning. I argue that the locality requirement on Exh is best understood as it needing to be in the predicate’s maximal projection, and I model this by postulating an Agree relation between derivational morphemes (n, a, etc.) and Exh.

For Exh to exhaustify predicates in a non-trivial way, predicates must come with alternatives; similarly to expressions like some or or, they bear alternatives even without being focused. I make two claims about alternatives. First, concerning the alternatives borne by predicates, I suggest as a first approximation that these are the sisters of the predicate in a given conceptual taxonomy. I then propose a notion of ‘predicational jurisdiction’—the kind of information provided by a predicate—to suggest that predicates are alternatives iff they share a jurisdiction. For example, green and table are not interpreted as mutually exclusive (i.e., are not alternatives for controlled exhaustivity) because they contribute different kinds of information; but table and chair, comedy and tragedy, and green and white are alternatives because they share a jurisdiction. This both explains why taxonomic sisters are alternatives, and, as I will show, manages to capture a broader range of data. The second claim about alternatives pertains to how Exh and additive particles interact. One of the key datapoints motivating the view that taxonomic predicates undergo exhaustification is their interaction with additive particles. Building on work suggesting that additives serve to avoid unwanted exhaustivity effects, I suggest that additives are directly involved in pruning alternatives from the domain of Exh. They do not prevent exhaustification by removing Exh, but can weaken Exh by making it exclude fewer alternatives.

The claim that there is a systematic and principled mismatch between the lexical–conceptual meaning of taxonomic vocabulary items and the meaning intuited from these expressions in actual sentences challenges what appears to be a tacit consensus in linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy. Work on concepts takes for granted that the nature of concepts can be researched from the meanings of predicates in natural-language sentences. This thesis shows that this is not straightforwardly the case, because grammar systematically interferes with the basic meanings of predicates.

Justin Royer’s PhD defence

Congratulations to Justin Royer, who successfully defended his dissertation, “Elements of (in)definteness and binding: A Mayan perspective”, supervised by Luis Alonso-Ovalle, Jessica Coon, and Aron Hirsch (full abstract below) in June.  Justin is heading to Berkeley this fall to take up a Banting post-doctoral fellowship with Peter Jenks. Congratulations Justin!

Justin and Jessica in post-defense photo-moving ceremony (not pictured: co-supervisors Luis Alonso-Ovalle and Aron Hirsch)


This thesis explores topics pertaining to the syntax and semantics of nominal expressions, with a focus on definite, indefinite, demonstrative, and pronominal elements. The data are drawn from original work on Mayan languages, especially Chuj, an under-documented language predominantly spoken in Guatemala and Mexico.

The first part zooms in on the elements that play a role in the syntactic composition of the extended nominal domain, and the semantic and pragmatic contributions that result from combining these elements together. By showcasing great complexity within the extended nominal domain, I argue that Chuj is particularly illuminating for topics which have been at the core of debates in the syntax and semantics of DPs, such as the encoding of definiteness versus indefiniteness, the internal syntax and semantics of demonstratives, the nature of pronouns, and the ways in which the contextual domain of nominal expressions is implicitly or explicitly delimited. A recurring theme will be that, by virtue of being radically decompositional, Chuj often challenges pre-existing assumptions about the primitivity of certain linguistic expressions. Instead, the Chuj data align with an increasing number of work that argue that traditional notions, such as definiteness, come in different guises (e.g., Schwarz 2009; Arkoh and Matthewson 2013; Jenks 2018; Jenks and Konate to appear), or that these different notions arise as a result of a decomposition of functional heads within the nominal domain (e.g., Déchaine and Wiltschko 2002; Leu 2008; Simonenko 2014; Coppock and Beaver 2015; Hanink 2018; Ahn 2019).

The second part of this thesis zooms out of the internal syntax of nominal expressions and into the distribution of covalued nominals within sentences. This part will also provide data on Ch’ol, another Mayan language. I show that while Ch’ol behaves entirely as expected with regards to the Binding Conditions, Chuj appears to consistently tolerate violations of Condition C, often privileging linear precedence as the determining factor in the distribution of R-expressions and pronouns. The Chuj data thus initially seem to cast doubt on a long tradition to treat the Binding Conditions as universal. I argue that the difference between Chuj and Ch’ol can be largely explained if, contrary to Ch’ol, Chuj exhibits “high-absolutive” syntax, independently proposed to account for a number of morphosyntactic phenomena in a subset of Mayan languages (Coon, Mateo Pedro, and Preminger 2014; Coon, Baier, and Levin 2021). High-absolutive syntax creates configura- tions in which the internal argument asymmetrically c-commands the external argument, bleeding otherwise expected binding relations from the external argument into the inter- nal argument. The violations of Condition C in Chuj are thus only apparent. The outcome is that despite initial evidence to doubt the universality of the Binding Conditions, a universalist approach can not only be maintained, but is supported by Chuj.

Masashi Harada’s PhD defence and job news

Congratulations to Masashi Harada, who successfully defended his dissertation “Locality effects in composition with plurals and conjunctions” in July, supervised by Bernhard Schwarz and Michael Wagner. The abstract is below.

Masashi with co-supervisors, Michael and Bernhard

Masashi will start a position as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Grinnell College in Iowa in fall 2022, where he will be teaching Japanese language and linguistics. Congratulations Masashi!
Abstract: This dissertation investigates semantic composition of sentences with a conjunction and/or a non-conjunctive plural such as the boy typed the two recipes. While it is standardly assumed that plural nouns like the two recipes denote pluralities like { recipe1,recipe2 } , there is no consensus about the meanings of expressions including a plural like typed the two recipes. A traditional approach assumes that such expressions as typed the two recipes denote singularities like { type( { recipe1,recipe2 } ) } (e.g., Link 1983, Krifka 1989, Beck and Sauerland 2000). On the other hand, a more recent approach assumes that such expressions denote pluralities like { type(recipe1), type(recipe2) } (e.g., Gawron and Kehler 2004, Kubota and Levine 2016, Schmitt 2020). Note that under the second approach, the part structures of plural nouns ‘project’ to the meanings of the expressions including the plurals; typed the two recipes denotes a doubleton set just like the two recipes does. As a result, recipe1 and recipe2 in { type(recipe1), type(recipe2) } continue to be accessible in composition (as a part of a function) under the second approach. In this dissertation, I observe that this is why the second approach can capture some semantic ‘non-local’ interpretations unlike the first approach, but it is also more likely to fail to respect locality. After Section 1 introduces some background about the semantics of plurals, Section 2 first illustrates the second approach’s failure to respect locality in the so-called cumulativity phenomenon, i.e., a phenomenon in which sentences with multiple plurals like the two boys typed the two recipes have very weak truth conditions. Section 2 also develops an analysis of cumulativity under the first approach, in which the relevant sentences receive very weak truth conditions that are compatible with ‘cumulative scenarios’. It will be shown that the proposed analysis is independently needed to capture a different type of cumulativity with a singular DP and the so-called collectivity phenomenon. Thus, Section 2 supports the validity of the first approach. This being argued, however, Section 3 demonstrates that the second approach should be available sometimes. I will present some minimal pair sentences with either a conjunction or a non-conjunctive plural (e.g., Abe and Bert interviewed the runner who took the first spot and the second spot respectively vs. Abe and Bert interviewed the runner who took the first two spots respectively), and show that only the former allows non-local interpretations. Given this, Section 3 argues that the second approach should sometimes be available for composition with conjunctions. While it remains to be seen how exactly the second approach can be formalized and how it should be restricted, this dissertation sketches some possible analysis.

Alex Göbel to Princeton

Alex Göbel wrapped up a postdoc with Michael Wagner at McGill this past year, and is starting a new postdoc at Princeton this fall. Congratulations Alex!

Earlier this summer, he had a paper entitled “On the Role of Focus-sensitivity for a Typology of Presupposition Triggers” accepted for publication at Journal of Semantics. The paper argues based on experimental evidence that Focus-sensitivity is an important factor when analyzing presupposition triggers and should be distinguished from anaphoricity.

Mathieu Paillé to U Calgary

Congratulations to Mathieu Paillé, who will start a position as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Calgary in fall 2022. He will work with Elizabeth Ritter, Dimitrios Skordos, and Martina Wiltschko on a project called “How to do things with nominals.

Gui Garcia to Laval

McLing is very pleased to report that Gui Garcia (PhD ’17), currently a lecturer at Newcastle University, has accepted a tenure-track position in phonology in the Département de langues, linguistique et traduction at Université Laval in Québec City, starting this June. Welcome back to Canada Gui!


Banting post-doctoral fellowship to Justin Royer

McLing is thrilled to announce that 5th-year PhD student Justin Royer has been awarded a two-year Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship. Justin will spend the next two years at UC Berkeley Linguistics, working under the supervision of Peter Jenks. Justin’s project grows out of his dissertation research and is entitled: “Documentation of Chuj and Mam, two Mayan languages: Implications for a cross-linguistic theory of reference”. Congratulations Justin!

Congratulations Dr. Bing’er Jiang!

Congratulations to Bing’er Jiang, who successfully defended her PhD thesis, “Computational and behavioural approaches to understanding perception of speech variability”, in August.
Bing’er is currently doing an internship at Tencent AI, then will be starting a postdoc at KTH in Stockholm.

Liz Smeets to York University

McLing is very pleased to report that Liz Smeets (PhD ’19)  has accepted a tenure-track position in the Dept of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics at York University in Toronto, starting this July. Congratulations Liz!

Carol-Rose Little to University of Oklahoma

McLing is happy to announce that Carol-Rose Little (current postdoc; BA ’12) has accepted a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Linguistics position at the University of Oklahoma in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics. She will be joining their faculty this fall. Congratulations Carol-Rose!

Congratulations to Donghyun Kim

Donghyun Kim (PhD 2018) will soon be starting a tenure-track assistant professor position in English Education at Kumoh National Institute of Technology in South Korea. Congratulations Don!

Jeff LaMontagne accepts tenure-track position at Indiana University Bloomington

McLing is happy to report that PhD student Jeff LaMontagne has accepted a tenure-track position in the Department of French and Italian at Indiana University Bloomington, to begin this August. Congratulations Jeff!

Permanent position for Tokiko Okuma (PhD ’15)

Congratulations to Tokiko Okuma who was recently appointed Associate Professor at Mie University, Tsu City, Mie, Japan. Tokiko finished her PhD in Linguistics at McGill in 2015; her PhD thesis, supervised by Lydia White, was on Overt Pronoun Constraint effects in second language Japanese.

Brian Buccola to Michigan State University

McLing is happy to report that 2015 McGill Linguistics PhD Brian Buccola has accepted a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in the Linguistics Program at Michigan State University. Congratulations Brian!

Oriana Kilbourn-Ceron to Northwestern

Oriana Kilbourn-Ceron (PhD ’17) received a 2-year grant from the Fonds de recherche: Société et Culture to pursue a postdoctoral position at Northwestern University. The project is entitled “Penser avant de parler? L’effet de la planification de la production de la parole en temps réel sur les prononciations variables” and will be supervised by Professor Matt Goldrick. Congratulations Oriana!

Job talk by Suzi Lima, 2/5

This week, our department will be visited by a job candidate, Suzi Lima (UofT). Below, you can find the abstract for her talk, with details about location and time.

On the acquisition of object denoting nouns

Suzi Lima, University of Toronto, Wilson Hall WPRoom 3:30pm.

In classical theories of countability, the minimal elements in the extension of count nouns are atoms, and the material parts of these atoms are not themselves part of the extension of the nouns (cf. Link 1983, Chierchia 1998, 2010 among many others). According to these theories, grammatical atomicity (what counts as an atom for purposes of counting in language) is strongly associated with natural atomicity (what constitutes as an individual of the kind described by a noun). Against this view, Rothstein (2010) argues that natural atomicity is neither required nor necessary for grammatical counting. Rothstein (2010) argues that atoms can be contextually defined. That is, count nouns like fence, wall and bouquet denote “different sets of atoms depending on the context of interpretation”. For example, what counts as a wall-atom in a particular context (the four wall-sides of a castle that we can consider as ‘a wall’) might not count as a wall-atom in a different context (the north wall of a castle, which we can also name as ‘a wall’). Empirical facts across languages provide ample evidence that discrete individuals are not necessarily countable (see object mass nouns such as furniture in English) and that nouns that denote substances are not necessarily uncountable (cf. Mathieu 2012, Lima 2014 among many others). Such evidence suggests a strong dissociation between natural and semantic atomicity. Given this debate, the question we intend to address in this talk is whether the conceptual content of a noun and natural atomicity bias how units of individuation are determined. More specifically, we are investigating whether contextually determined individuals, more specifically, partitions of discrete individuals, can be considered as atoms.

Acquisition of countability The debate about whether the conceptual content of a noun determines how atoms are determined in grammar is a topic of interest for both formal semantics and developmental psychology studies. A series of studies in developmental psychology suggests that although the lexical content of nouns plays a role in the identification of atoms in their extensions (Carey, 2009; Macnamara, 1986; Xu, 2007), natural atomicity is not required for grammatical counting. Acquisition studies suggest that until 7 years of age children count parts of individuals of a certain kind (e.g. pieces of forks) as if they were themselves individuals of that kind (e.g. individual forks; cf. Shipley and Shepperson 1990). Srinivasan et al. (2013) replicate these results and in addition have shown that children cease to treat parts of individuals as whole individuals once they recognize that (pseudo)partitive constructions (e.g. “piece of”) and measure phrases are more informative descriptions for parts of objects.

Proposal First, we argue that a proper semantic analysis of aforementioned acquisition facts require the adoption of a theory of countability in which not only natural atoms but also their material parts belong to the extension of count nouns. To illustrate, both a whole banana and a piece of a banana belong to the extension of the noun “banana”. Secondly, we argue in favor of a blocking mechanism that prevents speakers to refer to parts of individuals using an unmodified count noun when pseudopartitive constructions or measure phrases are available to refer to these parts. Evidence for this mechanism will be based on three experimental studies with speakers of Yudja, a Tupi language spoken in Brazil that has low frequency (pseudo)partitive constructions and no measure phrases.

Two job talks this week

This week, our department will be visited by two job candidates, Athulya Aravind (MIT) and Stefan Keine (USC). Below, you can find the abstracts for their talks, with details about location and time.

The next candidates will give their talks on the following dates (details to follow):

  • Suzi Lima (University of Toronto): Monday February 5
  • Keir Moulton (Simon Fraser): Monday February 12
  • Shota Momma (UCSD): Monday February 19

All talks will be at 3:30pm in Wilson Hall WP Room.


Athulya Aravind, MIT, Monday January 29, 3:30pm, Wilson Hall WP Room

Principles of presupposition: The view from child language

To presuppose something is to take that information for granted in a way that contrasts with asserting it. The proper characterization of presupposition–the way it enters into the compositional semantics and the way it fits into the exchange of information in communicative situations–has been at the center of long-standing debate. One class of theories treat presuppositions as categorically imposing restrictions on the conversational common ground: presuppositions must signal information that is already mutually known by all conversation participants. While principled and elegant, these theories are often empirically inadequate, as the common ground requirement is not always met in everyday conversation. A second class of theories, therefore, adopt weaker and less categorical approaches to the phenomenon that are a better fit to the empirical facts. In this talk, I present arguments from child language for the categorical treatment of presuppositions advocated by the common ground theories. Children initially adopt a view of presuppositions as uniformly placing restrictions on the conversational common ground, even in situations where these requirements may be bent. Moreover, children initially lack the ability to use presuppositions in ways that violate the common ground requirement. The developmental patterns, therefore, vindicate some of the theoretical idealizations, whose empirical validity is often masked in part due to the pragmatic sophistication of adult language users.

Stefan Keine, USC, Wednesday January 31, 3:30pm, Wilson Hall WP Room

The ups and downs of agreement (joint work with Bhamati Dash)

Agreement phenomena (e.g., subject-verb agreement) have been a central topic in the syntactic literature over the past twenty-five or so years. Recently, much interest has been paid to the question of what structural relationship must hold for agreement to arise, in particular whether agreement is upward-oriented, downward-oriented, or bidirectional. In this talk, I will present novel evidence from Hindi-Urdu that contributes to this debate about agreement. Verb agreement in Hindi normally exhibits a top-down preference: agreement is controlled by the structurally highest accessible DP. However, under the right circumstances, this directionality flips to a bottom-up preference: agreement is then preferentially established with a structurally lower element. I will argue that this pattern can be given a principled explanation if (i) a head can agree both downward and upward and if (ii) downward agreement takes derivational precedence. Taken together, these conclusions provide novel evidence for cyclic Agree (Rezac 2003). Furthermore, there is a striking locality difference between the two directions of agreement: Agreement with a lower goal can be long-distance, but agreement with a higher goal is confined to Spec-head. This indicates that Agree is not genuinely bidirectional, but that apparent upward agreement has some other source. We propose that the syntactic operation Agree is strictly downward looking (as originally in Chomsky 2000), but that probes may project (Rezac 2003). Descriptive instances of upward agreement can then be unified with downward agreement. One broader implication is that comparing the directionality of agreement with that of other dependencies, like negative concord, suggests that not all long-distance dependencies involve Agree. We furthermore show that the account proposed here affords a new view on well-known differences between A- and A’-movement with respect to agreement.

Gui Garcia to Ball State University

McLing is thrilled to report that PhD student Guilherme Garcia has just accepted a tenure-track position in phonology and phonetics in the Linguistics Department at Ball State University. The position begins in January 2018. Congratulations Gui!

Emily Elfner to York University

McLing is pleased to report that Emily Elfner (McGill post-doc 2012–2014) has recently accepted a job as Asssistant Professor in Phonetics and Phonology at York University. Congratulations Emily!

Jozina vander Klok to University of Oslo

McLing is happy to report that PhD alumna Jozina vander Klok (’12) has just accepted a 3-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oslo, beginning this June. Jozina will be leaving UBC, where she has been a post-doctoral fellow since 2013. Congratulations Jozina!

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