The Circle is a weekly forum dedicated to discussion of the descriptive, experimental, and theoretical study of syntax and semantics, featuring presentations of ongoing research by members of the Berkeley Linguistics Department and other departments, as well as discussion of previously published works.


Fridays, 3:00-5:00pm


1303 Dwinelle Hall


Kenneth Baclawski

Virginia Dawson

Erik Hans Maier

previous semesters

spring 2015
fall 2014
spring 2014
fall 2013
spring 2013
fall 2012
spring 2012
fall 2011
spring 2011
fall 2010
spring 2010
fall 2009
spring 2009
fall 2008
spring 2008
fall 2007
spring 2007
fall 2006
spring 2006
fall 2005


University of California, Berkeley
Department of Linguistics


4 december
Boyoung Kim (UC Berkeley)
Sensitivity to Islands in Korean-English Bilinguals

The talk focuses on the learnability problem in island effects. While most accounts of island effects claim that the input is not directly involved and that islands stem from basic properties of grammar/processing that are available to all humans, another line of accounts claims that islands actually can be learned from the input. These different approaches to the learnability issue on islands would then predict different outcomes for bilinguals given their different linguistic environments from native speakers’. Through a series formal acceptability experiments on islands in Korean-English bilinguals in both Korean and English, we show that their results are basically native- like. The results lend support to the idea that island phenomena are largely immune to environmental influences and stem from deeper properties of the processor and/or grammar. Similarly, it casts some doubt on recent proposals that islands are learned from the input.


27 november
No Meeting (Thanksgiving Break)

20 november
The Round Robin Returns!

Everyone who wants to can have up to 5-10 minutes to discuss any topic related to syntax or semantics, whether an idea, a question, a problem, a controversy, an interesting theory, or a new analysis (however incomplete!). Names will be drawn from a hat, so the order of turns will be random. Share whatever's been on your mind and get valuable feedback for your term papers and other projects!

13 november
Jason Merchant (University of Chicago)
Roots, selection, and locality

Since Aspects, selection or strict subcategorization—both in syntax and morphology—has been restricted to complements or sisters. This fact follows as a theorem from recent formulations of Merge (and from its equivalents in other frameworks). In a theory where roots can select for their complements, the locality of selection can also provide a satisfying account of cross-categorial uniformity of selection (e.g. in “rely on, reliance on, reliant on”). This talk explores a set of data that are problematic for the claim that selection is always local; the data come from categorially nonuniform selection in English, Dutch, German, and Greek (e.g., “to pride oneself on, my pride in, proud of”, as well as historically divergent selectional properties of nominal vs. verbal “lust”), diptotic prepositions in German, and nonlocal contextual allomorphy in the Greek verb. I formulate a mechanism for joint selection, and argue that joint selectors must form a single span: any contiguous set of terminals in an extended projection. I conclude with a discussion of an apparent problem from pseudopassives and the systematic nonexistence of pseudomiddles.

6 november
Jessica Cleary-Kemp (UC Berkeley)
How to identify serial verb constructions: A case study from Koro

Serial verb constructions (SVCs) are mono-clausal constructions that include two or more main verbs in the predicate, and that describe a single event. Since their discovery in Niger-Congo languages of Africa (Stewart 1963, Bamgbose 1973, Awobuluyi 1973), SVCs have been recognized in an increasing number of typologically diverse languages. Given their seemingly unique morpho-syntactic properties, they have invited significant interest from syntacticians and typologists alike (e.g., Sebba 1987, Baker 1989, Crowley 1990, Lefebvre 1991, Aikhenvald and Dixon 2006, inter alia). However, due to its lack of clear defining criteria, the existing description of SVCs does not facilitate valid cross-linguistic comparison, and as a result a wide range of fairly heterogeneous constructions have been included under the umbrella of 'SVCs'. Consequently, the characterization of the structure and function of SVCs as a class remains somewhat murky and contentious. This talk introduces a refined set of criteria for identifying SVCs cross-linguistically, and demonstrates the principles underlying them. I then show, through a close examination of the directional construction in Koro, how applying these criteria allows us to definitively differentiate between true SVCs and other multi-verb constructions that closely resemble them.

30 october
Andreas Walker (University of Konstanz; UC Santa Cruz)
Two ways to catch a (counterfactual) donkey

In this talk, I briefly recapitulate some of the recent literature on counterfactual donkey sentences in dynamic semantics (van Rooij 2006, Wang 2009, Walker & Romero 2015). As it turns out, the predicted availability of two possible readings (which we call high and low) for these sentences relies on a variant of selective quantification that lets us optionally partialize the counterfactual's similarity ordering by assignments. I then explore the consequences of adopting a D-type account of donkey sentences instead (as, e.g., in Elbourne 2005): Since assignments don't play a role in this kind of analysis, we cannot rely on the same strategy for deriving the two readings. However, I will sketch how the independently motivated adoption of a counterpart relation between situations (as in, e.g., Arregui 2009) might provide a possible alternative explanation for the high/low alternation.

23 october
Gregory Scontras (Stanford)
Formalizing the role of context in ambiguity resolution

Plural predications (e.g., the boxes are heavy) are common sources of ambiguity in everyday language, allowing both distributive and collective interpretations (e.g., the boxes each are heavy vs. the boxes together are heavy). In this talk, I investigate the role of context in the disambiguation of plural predication. I address the key phenomenon of “stubborn distributivity,” whereby certain predicates (e.g., big, tall) are claimed to lack collective interpretations altogether. I first validate a new methodology for measuring the interpretation of plural predications. Using this method, I then analyze naturally-occurring plural predications from corpora. The results provide evidence of a clear role of context, but no evidence of a distinct class of predicates that resists collective interpretations. In the last experiment, I further explore the role of context, showing that both the predictability of properties and the knowledgeability of the speaker affect disambiguation. This suggests a pragmatic account of how ambiguous plural predications are interpreted. In particular, stubbornly distributive predicates are so because the collective properties they name are unpredictable, or unstable, in most contexts; this unpredictability results in a noisy collective interpretation, something speakers and listeners recognize as ineffective for communicating efficiently about their world. Finally, I formalize the pragmatics of utterance disambiguation within the Bayesian Rational Speech-Acts framework.

16 october
Peter Jenks (UC Berkeley)
Patterns of definiteness without articles

I show in this talk that numeral classifier languages distinguish different semantic varieties of definiteness in their morphosyntax, providing novel evidence for a three-way distinction in definites across languages. First, I demonstrate that languages such as Thai and Mandarin treat definite noun phrases licensed by uniqueness different those licensed by familiarity, as Schwarz (2009) has shown for German definite articles. In classifier languages, however, unique definites are expressed by bare nouns, while familiar definites are expressed by indexicals such as demonstrative descriptions or overt pronouns. I also show that Cantonese further distinguishes two varieties of uniqueness definites, where only uniqueness definites which do not include a contextual domain restriction allow bare nouns. I further identify the difference between uniqueness definites and familiar definites to the presence of a semantic index in the case of familiar definites. As familiar definites occur in most E-type contexts, including donkey anaphora, and uniqueness definites are not possible in these environments, these facts provide support to dynamic analyses of E-type anaphora and pose problems for uniqueness-based approaches.

9 october
Kenneth Baclawski (UC Berkeley)
Topic, Focus, and Wh-Phrases in Cham
Erik Hans Maier (UC Berkeley)
As Above but Below: Karuk Directional Suffixes as 'Low Applicatives'
Christine Sheil (UC Berkeley)
Information Focus and Identificational Focus at the Sentence Level
Practice Talks Triple Feature!

2 october
Discussion of Ramchand's Verb Meaning and the Lexicon: A First-Phase Syntax

25 september

18 september
Eric Potsdam (University of Florida)
Analyses of Extraposition: The View from Madagascar

There is no shortage of analyses of extraposition—the placement of various clause-internal constituents in a right-peripheral position. The Austronesian language Malagasy (Madagascar) shows wide use of extraposition. Canonical word order is VOXS but most constituents can optionally extrapose to a position to the right of the subject, yielding VOSX word order. In this talk I survey existing analyses of extraposition and evaluate the Malagasy patterns against them: A' movement (Ross 1967, others), base generation (Rochemont & Culicover 1990), Stranding (Kayne 1994, Sheehan 2010), PF movement (Göbbel 2007), Ellipsis (de Vries 2009), and Processing Efficiency (Hawkins 2014). Because Malagasy is strongly head-initial and shows unusual VOS word order, it allows us to decide between a number of the proposals. Data from a wide range of phenomena support a traditional A' movement approach (as defended in Büring & Hartmann 1997 for German).

11 september

4 september
Round Robin:

Everyone who wants to can have up to 5-10 minutes to discuss any topic related to syntax or semantics, whether an idea, a question, a problem, a controversy, or an interesting theory. Names will be drawn from a hat, so the order of turns will be random. Share whatever's been on your mind!

28 august
No Meeting