Category Archives: Semantics

Jelly Hill Presents Talk at ILLC Workshop on Causation & Modality

PhD Student Jelly Hill recently presented an invited talk at the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Logic, Language, and Computation, as part of their Workshop on Causation and Modality in Logic and Language. Titled “Two Peas in a Causal Pod: Testing the Relationship Between Modals and Causatives”, this talk highlighted the research that forms Jelly’s recent (second) Generals Paper.

Congratulations Jelly!

Kimberly Johnson Accepts Full Time Position at Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program

Please join us in congratulating alum Kimberly Johnson, who has just accepted a full time position as the Lead Transcriptionist for the Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program.

Starting this May, Kimberly will be working alongside Dr. Samantha Cornelius and Dr. Juliet Morgan, to advance the documentation of the Chickasaw language, including the development of a searchable database of Chickasaw.

Congratulations, Kimberly!

Mariam Asatryan gives talk at Theoretical Linguistics and Languages of the Caucasus (TLLC), in Istanbul

On June 18th, Mariam Asatryan presented her research in a talk at Theoretical Linguistics and Languages of the Caucasus (TLLC), held at Istanbul Bilgi University.

The talk, titled “Inq: An Uncompetitive Pronoun in Eastern Armenian and Its Challenges to Binding Principles”, is a development of her first Generals Paper. She will also present this work again later this summer, as a flash talk at GLOW in Asia XIII (details to be announced later).

Kimberly Johnson in Natural Language Semantics

A paper by our own Kimberly Johnson appears in the newest issue of Natural Language Semantics. Based upon her recent doctoral dissertation, “Time and Evidence in the Graded Tense System of Mvskoke (Creek)“, provides a detailed description and analysis of the evidential meaning of tense & aspect morphology in the Mvskoke language. The abstract is copied below.

Congratulations, Kimberly!

Abstract: “In recent years, much attention has been given to the puzzling relationship between tense and evidence type found in languages where a single morpheme appears to encode both reference to time and to the evidential source for the assertion. In natural language, tense has long been understood as serving to locate the time at which the proposition expressed by the sentence holds. The two main theories of evidentials both agree that these morphemes serve to identify the type of evidence the speaker has for their assertion. In languages with evidential-tense morphology, these two categories of meaning are intertwined in ways that are unexpected given our understanding of both phenomena. Specifically, these evidential-tense morphemes appear to encode reference to a time that is linked to the situation in which the speaker gains evidence for their assertion. Two competing approaches have emerged in the literature as to whether these evidential-tense morphemes make crucial reference to the time evidence was acquired (Lee 2013; Smirnova 2013) or to the time and place of the speaker with respect to the event (Faller 2004; Chung 2007). This paper examines the temporal and evidential properties of the Mvskoke (or Creek) graded past tense system and finds novel support for the view in which evidential-tenses encode Evidence Acquisition Time (EAT). Mvskoke is shown to have three evidential-tenses which form part of its graded tense system, comprising recent, middle, and distant past. The main proposal is a formalization of EAT as a moment of belief-state change, i.e., the moment the speaker comes to believe the proposition. It is shown that Mvskoke’s evidential-tenses are compatible with a range of evidence types, and this distribution is explained through interactions with viewpoint aspect.”

Angelika Kratzer is this year’s John Locke Lecturer (April 27- June 1)

Angelika Kratzer will give this year’s John Locke Lectures at Oxford University:

As the website explains, “most of the greatest philosophers of the last half century have been Locke Lecturers”. Looking back over the years, it seems that Angelika is the second linguist(philosopher) who has been invited (the last one was in 1968-69). There will be a total of six lectures (April 27-June 1) and the overall title is ‘Reports of what we say, know, or believe’.

Lecture 1 ‘The puzzles: What we are trying to understand’ 

Lecture 2 ‘Reporting what we say’

Lecture 3 ‘Modal building blocks’

Lecture 4 ‘Reporting what we know’

Lecture 5 ‘Reporting what we believe’

Lecture 6 ‘Towards a typology’ 

For those of us unfortunately not in Oxford at that time, note that the website includes links to recordings of past lectures and handouts. Hopefully, we will be able to virtually enjoy Angelika’s presentation.

Paper by Kimberly Johnson Published in Natural Language Semantics

Kimberly Johnson’s paper “Time and evidence in the graded tense system of Mvskoke (Creek)”  has just been published in Natural Language Semantics. Based upon portions of her recently defended dissertation, this paper explores the direct and indirect evidence inferences associated with four past tenses in Mvskoke (Creek), an indigenous language spoken in Oklahoma. Access the full text of her article here:

Kimberly Johnson Successfully Defends Dissertation

We’re delighted to share the news that Kimberly Johnson has successfully defended her dissertation, “On the Semantics of Verbal and Nominal Tense in Mvskoke (Creek)”.

The defense, which took place on Friday March 11th, was held remotely. Noteworthy among the participants were her two committee members from outside of UMass, Daniel Altshuler (University of Oxford) and Jack Martin (College of William and Mary). The other members of her committee are Ana Arregui and Seth Cable (Chair).

Dr. Johnson’s dissertation concerns the semantics of graded, evidential, and nominal tenses in Mvskoke (Creek), an endangered Muskogean language of North America. It is the first in-depth formal and empirical treatment of this system, and greatly advances our understanding of both verbal and nominal tenses across languages.

Please join us in congratulating Dr. Kimberly Johnson!

A screenshot of Dr. Kimberly Johnson with her committee members, classmates, and the UMass Dissertation Fish (held by Seth Cable).

Gouskova colloquium Friday Feb 18 at 3:30

Maria Gouskova (New York University) will present “Morpheme Structure Constraints Revisited” in the Linguistics colloquium series at 3:30 Friday February 18, by Zoom. An abstract follows. All are welcome!

Most constraint-based frameworks embrace Richness of the Base: the assumption that no interesting generalizations are stated as constraints on the lexicon (a.k.a. Morpheme Structure Constraints, or MSCs). The main argument against MSCs is that they introduce duplication into the theory. When the same constraints define the shapes of morphemes and restrict derived words, the latter, surface-oriented constraints should be sufficient. Unlike MSCs, surface-oriented constraints are less abstract, and are independently necessary. This echoes earlier criticisms of MSCs: they are redundant, abstract, and unlearnable.

In this talk, I revisit MSCs in the context of Russian voicing. Russian voicing was Morris Halle’s (1959) original battleground against structuralism—which he, incidentally, also criticized for having a duplication problem. By treating contrastive oppositions differently from non-contrastive ones, structuralism fails to capture the generalization that Russian voicing assimilation works on all obstruents alike, whether they contrast for voicing phonemically (/b/ vs. /p/) or are obligatorily voiceless (e.g., /tʃ/). My concern is not the undergoers; rather, it is the lack of certain contrasts predicted by the popular Positional Faithfulness account of voicing neutralization in Optimality Theory (Lombardi 1999 and many others). I will show that even though this account captures the phonetics and typology of voicing contrasts, it has a problem with Russian. There are several alternatives, but all encounter some kind of a duplication problem. I will argue for MSCs against consonants such as the affricate /dʒ/ in the lexicon. Another alternative would include a host of markedness constraints covering positions where [dʒ] does not occur, but this move introduces a duplication into the analysis: the phonology of certain consonants must be handled twice. These constraints, moreover, are neither phonetically grounded nor formally sensible; all they do is plug the holes in the analysis.

My account, like everyone else’s, has a duplication problem. But unlike other analyses, it explains facts such as the handling of loanword [dʒ], which is borrowed as a CC cluster in Russian, and which behaves as though it is never represented as an affricate in the system. I conclude with a discussion of a learnability proposal for MSCs within a constraint-based framework, Minimum Description Length (Rasin & Katzir 2016). I discuss some complications that arise in applying Minimum Description Length to learning certain kinds of hidden structure, especially structure that allows words to be shorter and grammars to be simpler

Buccola colloquium Friday November 19 at 3:30

Brian Buccola (Michigan State University) will present “Higher-order plurality without conjunction” in the Linguistics colloquium series at 3:30 Friday November 19, in ILC S331. An abstract follows. All are welcome!

A simple DP like “the animals” refers to a plurality, while a DP conjunction like “the cats and the dogs” refers, at least prima facie, to a structured, or higher-order, plurality — that is, a plurality of pluralities. A great deal of debate has focused on how to model this additional structure (Link 1984; Landman 1989; Krifka 1991; Schwarzschild 1996), with renewed interest in the typology of readings that DP conjunctions may give rise to (Grimau 2020). In this talk, I will present data indicating that higher-order pluralities can sometimes, but not always, arise even in the absence of conjunction, a result that challenges two longstanding theories of plurality. I will sketch how these two theories can be extended to capture the data, and the diverging predictions they make. Time permitting, I will also discuss how these findings bear on recent work on higher-order readings of questions (Xiang 2021; Fox 2020; Gentile and Schwarz 2020). (Based on joint work with Jeremy Kuhn and David Nicolas.)


Fox, Danny (2020). “Partition by Exhaustification: Towards a Solution to Gentile and Schwarz’s Puzzle”. Cambridge, MA. url:

Gentile, Francesco and Bernhard Schwarz (2020). “Higher-Order Quantification and Free Choice in How Many-Questions”. In: Sinn und Bedeutung. Vol. 24. Osnabrück, Germany, pp. 205–222. url:

Grimau, Berta (2020). “Structured Plurality Reconsidered”. In: Journal of Semantics 38.1, pp. 145–193. doi:

Krifka, Manfred (1991). “How to Get Rid of Groups, Using DRT: A Case for Discourse-Oriented Semantics”. In: Texas Linguistics Forum. Vol. 32, pp. 71–109.

Landman, Fred (1989). “Groups, I”. In: Linguistics and Philosophy 12.5, pp. 559–605. doi: BF00627774.

Link, Godehard (1984). “Hydras: On the Logic of Relative Constructions with Multiple Heads”. In: Varieties of Formal Semantics: Proceedings of the Fourth Amsterdam Colloquium. Dordrecht, Holland: Foris Publications. Reprinted in Link 1998, pp. 77–88.

Link, Godehard (1998). Algebraic Semantics in Language and Philosophy. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.

Schwarzschild, Roger (1996). Pluralities. Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer.

Xiang, Yimei (2021). “Higher-Order Readings of Wh-Questions”. In: Natural Language Semantics 29, pp. 1–45. doi:

Mirrazi to UCLA

Zahra Mirrazi has accepted a Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali post-doctoral fellowship to continue her research at the Department of Linguistics at UCLA. Starting September 2022, she will join the department there, working with Yael Sharvit and Ethan Poole. Congratulations Zahra! تبریک!