Theories of features, continued

As we’re still digesting two in-depth presentations by Omer Preminger against abstract Agree as a way to analyze anaphora and other predicate-argument relations, the discussion from the Thirty Million Theories of Features workshop continues unabated in various venues — Gillian has a new blog entry entitled Define semantics, and I have one on the question of whether plural properly contains singular. And now Thomas Graf has posted a lengthy response to my blog post on his own blog, Outdex, entitled Omnivorous number and Kiowa inverse marking: Monotonicity trumps features?

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More than thirty million theories of features

The implicit complaint in McCawley’s book title, Thirty Million Theories of Grammar, was that having many theories of something is a less satisfactory state of affairs than having few (viable) theories of it — to paraphrase Thomas Graf’s characterization of that position, if you have more than one viable description of something, you don’t fully understand it. At the Thirty Million Theories of Features workshop, I was indeed hoping we would be left with fewer than we started from. I’m not sure we are (see Gillian’s blog posts for some summaries). But Thomas Graf articulated the opposite perspective, that it can be better to have more theories of a complex object of study — in his words, if you only have one viable description, you don’t fully understand the object you’re describing.

Now we segue into Omer Preminger week, with two additional talks and discussion with Omer Preminger (Wednesday and Friday).

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Thirty Million Theories of Features

The Thirty Million Theories of Features workshop is upon us! The hope is that by the end of the workshop, there will be fewer theories of features than we started with — as Gillian put it in her blog post, there will be blood on the floor.

Today we start off with Thomas Graf, who will ask (and perhaps answer) the question of whether features are more trouble than they’re worth!

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OASIS – Ontology As Structured by the Interfaces with Semantics –

is a CNRS-based interdisciplinary network project connecting CASTL to linguistic centers in Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, London, and the US to study formal semantic ontology.
The first OASIS meeting, OASIS 0, took place in Tromsø;
OASIS 1 was in Paris, and the third meeting, OASIS 2, will
take place in Nantes, France, on October 16-18, 2019.

Invited speakers:

Sudha Arunachalam (New York University)
Rose-Marie Déchaine (University of British Columbia)
Nicola Guarino (ISTC – CNR)
Angelika Kratzer (UMass Amherst)
Brent Strickland (IJN – CNRS)


The OASIS conference series aims to promote conversation and
cross-fertilization across different disciplines, using ontological
questions as shared reference points. The broad questions in the
background are these:
1. What basic ontological building blocks do we use to talk and think
about the world?
2. How do these building blocks get combined?
3. How do grammatical and cognitive phenomena motivate the answers to the
first two questions?
We welcome contributions from semanticists as well as from researchers in
domains of cognition that interface with semantics.  We would like the
OASIS conferences to help foster new perspectives and to provide a forum
around which a new research community can coalesce.
OASIS 1 (Paris, November 2018)
brought together researchers from formal semantics, natural language
syntax, philosophy, psychology/psycholinguistics, language development,
neuroscience/neurolinguistics, and computational linguistics.  Some
aspects of the exchanges at OASIS 1 are summarized on the OASIS 1 site
( and on Gillian Ramchand’s blog
( ).  The range of talks at OASIS 1
gives an indication of the kinds of topics that we welcome at OASIS
conferences.  There were, for instance, talks about flexible aspects of
linguistic meaning, about categorization in verbal vs. nonverbal
populations, about the acquisition of counterfactuality and its linguistic
expression, and about the format of syntactic structure from an embodied
cognition perspective.  The OASIS credo at
lists a variety of topics relevant to the broad questions that interest

Call for submissions:

We invite submissions of abstracts for 30-minute oral presentations (+ 10
minutes discussion) on any topic pertaining to the shared interests and
assumptions of the OASIS network, as well as for poster presentations with
lightning talks. Abstracts should be submitted via the EasyChair page
submissions is 9am GMT on Saturday June 15 2019.
Abstracts must be anonymous and should be at most 2 pages (A4 or US
Letter) in length, including examples and references, using a 12pt font
with 1 inch (2.5 cm) margins on all four sides. These limitations will be
strictly enforced. A single author can send no more than one
singly-authored and one co-authored abstract, or two co-authored
abstracts. Your submission should specify whether it is to be considered
for an oral presentation or a poster. We will not accept papers that at
the time of the conference have been published or have been accepted for
Please keep in mind that this is an interdisciplinary conference, and
write your abstract accordingly. This means that the broad goals of the
research (e.g. to understand language architecture, to understand brain
architecture) and any subgoals should be mentioned. We very much welcome
work that brings attention to data from less-familiar languages; if you
propose such an abstract, keep the dataset as streamlined as possible to
give the audience a chance to understand the issues at stake. Finally, if
you work in a formal framework, your proposal must be explained in words
as well as in your formal framework.

Contact address: oasis2-info AT .

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Strong representation by CASTL at GLOW in Oslo

The program for GLOW 42 (Oslo, May 7-11) is out, and CASTL is well represented!

On the main program, there’s a talk by Michal Starke together with CASTL alumnus Pavel Caha along with Karen de Clercq and Guido Vanden Wyngaerd, entitled ‘How to be positive’.

In addition, there are posters by Martin Krämer together with Chris Golston (‘Diphthongs as microfeet: Deriving a typological asymmetry’) and Serge Minor and Natalia Mitrofanova (‘A competition-based account of locative modification in Russian’). Maybe we’ll be hearing practice runs for those here soon?

Furthermore, CASTL alumna Sandhya Sundaresan and former CASTL colleague Thomas McFadden have a poster together with Hedde Zeijlstra (‘Deriving selective opacity in adjuncts’). Our colleague from long ago, Anders Holmberg, has a poster with Murdhy Alshamari (‘Topic particles, agreement and movement in an Arabic dialect’).

Congratulations to all of the above on having their abstracts accepted. Have a look at the full program to see many additional exciting talks and posters.

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A major new project at CASTL, led by Jason Rothman

Jason Rothman has been awarded a huge grant by Tromsø Forskningsstiftelse to conduct research into bilingualism in Tromsø. The project is called HELPING, which is an acronym for ‘Heritage-Bilingual Linguistic Proficiency In the Native Grammar’, and the project has a subtitle, ‘Charting and Explaining Differences’.

The project will run from August 2019 until August 2023, and has a budget of over 25 million kroner (about 3 million euros), and is bundled together with a permanent full-time position in Tromsø for Jason.

The following text comes from the project description:

The primary objective of HeLPiNG is to answer one of the most perplexing questions in bilingualism research today: Why is HLB characterized by such variation in grammatical knowledge and language use when this is not the case for monolinguals? by addressing these equally fundamental secondary objective questions:

  • (Aim 1when and why do developing monolinguals and HSs begin to diverge for the same language?
  •  (Aim 2) at what levels (under what modalities of testing) do HSs truly differ (introducing neuro (EEG/ERP) methods to this question)?
  •  (Aim 3what is the role of the (lack of) HL literacy in explaining (some) observed HS outcomes?

There are three work packages:

  • WP1 addresses the dearth of late childhood data issue, namely that most heritage bilingual research is conducted with young adults at an end-state of acquisition as opposed to development in real time.
    • It is the first methodology to address the developmental angle of heritage grammars with a unique  method that combines cross-sections tested over a 4 year period, capturing at the end data representing 15 years of development.
  • WP2 and WP3 use psycho-/neuro- linguistic methodologies (the very first brain study of its kind).
    • These methods will reveal the depth of “difference” by looking directly at how the heritage language is processed in real time and if predictive processing is qualitative similar in HSs.


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Comparative Germanic Syntax Workshop 34 in Konstanz, June 2019

The Comparative Germanic Syntax Workshop (CGSW) is a storied conference dating all the way back to 1984, when it was first held in Trondheim. Many a scholar young and old has presented there. In my first ever international conference presentation, I (Peter Svenonius) presented at the seventh meeting, in Stuttgart, in 1991, with a DP analysis of the Norwegian noun phrase. Tarald Taraldsen, who I had never met, had already worked out a DP analysis of the Norwegian noun phrase, and was in the audience. My first encounter with him was in the question period, when he challenged me to account for the double possessor in something like “Olavs faens kjerring” (literally “Olav’s devil’s old.lady”, but conveying something like “Olav’s damned wife”). That is the only question I remember as stumping me. (Marit Westergaard was there too, less scarily since she didn’t have a competing analysis of the Norwegian noun phrase.)

Since then, CGSW has been held in Tromsø twice, in 1992 (with Chomsky, Cinque, and Engdahl as invited speakers, and a parasession on Comparative Germanic Phonology) and in 2010 (with Kayne, Alexiadou, and Adger as invited speakers, and a special session on NORMS – Nordic dialect syntax).

Originally a European conference, in 1994 it started alternating between Europe and North America, and in 2016 it was held in South Africa.

It has been held on average once a year, and next year will be the 34th installment, taking place on June 14–15, 2019 in Konstanz (once known in English as Constance; still on Lake Constance, and the Rhine). Terje Lohndal (NTNU/UiT), Jon Sprouse (UConn), and Elly van Gelderen (Arizona) are invited speakers.

Two page abstracts are due by January 15th.

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GLOW in Oslo in 2019

GLOW will be coming to Oslo next year, and the abstract deadline is Friday!

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A whirlwind of activity

This week CASTL is hosting not one but two mini-courses! One on using software in OT analysis, and the other on experimental methods in the pragmatics-syntax interface. Each will be taught by an international team of guest experts.

For the OT software course, organized by Martin Krämer, our regular collaborator from Verona Birgit Alber will be back, along with recent guest Naz Merchant, and they will be joined by the legendary Alan Prince.

For the pragmatics-syntax interface course, organized by our Adjunct Professors Tanja Kupisch and Jason Rothman, we are lucky to welcome Petra Schumacher of Köln and Andreas Trotzke of Konstanz.

Naz Merchant, as you will recall, treated us to a colloquium talk on May 12th of last year, but the other four teachers will present colloquium talks in a colloquium talk madness session on Friday (madness in this case meaning four talks in one day). See the Events page for details.

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Linguistics and Poetry and speaking in someone else’s voice

Roman Jakobson wrote eloquently about the insights which linguistic analysis could bring to our understanding of poetry and of the importance of poetry to a full understanding of language (Jakobson 1960, apparently his most cited article ever).

These days many working linguists stick to analyzing more prosaic utterances, but a few still keep their hand in the game.

There was a recent kerfuffle at the American progressive political periodical The Nation when they published a short poem by a poet named Anders Carlson-Wee which imagines a homeless person in the first person, and uses turns of vernacular closely associated with African Americans (such as copula drop—as in, “if you a girl” for ‘if you are a girl’). Pockets of the internet erupted in indignation that a white poet was appropriating a black voice and the The Nation’s poetry editors prostrated themselves before the mob, disavowing the poem and appending a “trigger warning” to it for “giv[ing] offense and caus[ing] harm to members of several communities.” The poet apologized for the offense and harm caused.

John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Columbia University, has published a thoughtful defense of the writer’s use of language in the poem in the periodical The Atlantic which seems to me to be very much in the spirit of Jakobson 1960. McWhorter trains a linguist’s eye on the poet’s use of African American Vernacular English or Black English, and comments on it in the broader social context. I think it’s a nice example of how linguistics can provide an informed perspective on matters of current public interest.

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