Category Archives: News

Pragmatics and Semantics of Adjectives, etc. (Guest Speaker Michael McCourt, 5/28/13)

Michael McCourt, a grad student in the UMD philosophy department, spoke to us about the semantics of adjectives (e.g. “why a blue diamond is a diamond but a fake diamond is not a diamond”), and gave us a general overview of different approaches to semantics.

Slideshow is available here.

NOTES (thanks to Megan Chao):

  • Truth and meaning
    • Truth conditional semantics
      • On one conception of semantics, a theory of meaning pairs sentences with their truth conditions, version of truth conditional semantics (TCS)
      • Know meaning of sentence -> know truth conditions and vice versa
    • Truth conditions
      • A sentence S is true iff p
      • Tarski biconditional
    • Compositionality
      • Competent speakers can understand sentences they have never heard b4
      • Limited # of lexical meanings and modes of composition -> infinite # of sentences
      • TCS has to respect principle of compositionality
    • Frege on compositionality
      • Saturated meaning are complete, while unsaturated ones are not
      • Unsaturated meanings as functions
      • When you apply an unsaturated meaning, you produce one meaning from the function, which is the saturated meaning.
    • First pass at a theory of semantic composition
      • Take the sentence “Ann swims”
      • [[Ann]] (the semantic value of Ann) is clearly the person called Ann
      • According to Frege, [[swims]] is a function from objects to truth values (It’s true if the object it applies to actually does swim)
    • Adjectives
      • What is [[gray]]? It really just combines with the meanings of nouns.
      • Adjectives like that are intersective. The set of grey cats is the intersection of the set of grey things and the set of cats.
      • Adjectives like ‘gray’ are also subsective. The set of gray cats is a subset of gray things. Most adjectives appear to be like this.
      • Some adjectives are subsective but not intersective. For example, “Sally is a beautiful dancer” could still be true even if Sally isn’t that great of a dancer, if you read it the right way.
      • Non-intersective, non-subsective adjectives do exist: For example, ‘fake’, ‘alleged’, etc.
      • ‘Fake’ is a privative adjective, since a ‘fake’ something is not that something.
      • Some argue that ‘Fake’ is not privative, since it just broadens the denotation of whatever it is applying to in that use only. This kind of respects our intuition more.
      • Consider: A fake diamond1 is not a diamond2.
      • In fact, we may need this to explain sentences like “A small elephant isn’t small”
      • So maybe all adjectives are intersective.
    • Not all sentences are complete in and of themselves:
      • Ned is ready. (for what? We need to know to give a truth value)
      • John is tall. (compared to what?)
      • Bill noticed. (noticed what?)
      • Sue might be in Boston (how do you give a truth value to ‘might’?)
      • Etc
      • We may need some mind-reading or something to get the correct meaning, since it can vary depending on the context
    • Frege’s solution to the puzzles
      • Sinn (sense) vs. Bedetung (reference)
      • (29) The first sentence here is not true.
        • Basically “This sentence is true iff it is false.” à PARADOX

2013 Elections

Elections 2013 are coming soon! If you’re interested in running, please send in an email with your (brief) spiel by 3:00 on May 28th, and we’ll post it here. You can also just comment on this post.

Voting will take place during the end-of-year party on June 4th. If you won’t be able to make that meeting, you may vote between 3:00 on May 28th and 3:00 on June 4th by emailing your name and choice for each position.

The positions are:

President/Co-President (currently Alan Du and Daniela Ganelin)

  • organizes meetings and special events (guest speakers, UMD trip, NACLO, etc.)
  • provides NACLO practice problems and backup lectures if necessary
  • works with Secretary to communicate with club and keep site updated

PR (currently RN)

  • recruits new members of the club, especially younger students
  • advertises through club fairs, InfoFlow, posters, class presentations, etc.

Secretary (currently de facto Megan Chao)

  • takes notes on presentations
  • works with President to communicate with club and keep site updated

If desired, candidates can run as panels of more than one member, and share work as they wish. Each person would then take the title of Co-[Position].




Alan Du and Daniela Ganelin: We plan to keep inviting guest visitors (from UMD, Georgetown, possibly MIT), practicing for NACLO, visiting UMD, and having student lectures. Baking frequency may increase.


RN and MN: [RN] will advertise for Linguistics Club, recruit and retain new members, and enthusiastically support it everywhere [RN] go[es]. [RN] will also visit classes of freshmen/sophomores to spread the word and invite them to join. [MN] promise[s] not to scare underclassmen away and will do everything (within normal reason) that authorities, including [RN], tell [her] to do. [MN is] also taking a lot of classes next year that current sophomores are going to take (bad decision) so that may help in underclassmen accessibility.


Hannah Tsai and Megan Chao: [Hannah] will type very fast. There will be so many notes you’ll swear [Hannah] actually understand[s] the presentation. Yours truly [Megan] will attempt to take twice as many notes as this past year and make them a lot more coherent than they were this year. [Megan] might even take notes on questions that people ask, if they’re particularly enlightening and/or amusing. Also, notes will be completely electronic next year, so they should be up on the website the day of the lecture instead of several weeks afterwards, due to problems with paper and general inefficiency with typing up written notes. On another note, [Megan] double[s] as the honorary Linguistics food truck.

Prosody and Research (Guest Speaker Chris Heffner, 5/21/13)

Chris Heffner, a NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the Program in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science at UMD, spoke about prosody and about the undergraduate research process.

Slideshow available here.

NOTES (thanks to Megan Chao):

  • IPA system, phonetics, and different sounds

    • Jay asked about Chinese sounds on the IPA system

    • X-sound is “c with a loopy thing”

    • Keep in mind that it is an international system, so it works for Chinese, too

  • Lots of transcription ambiguity

    • Punctuation

    • Reading IPA sounds

      • No spaces between words

  • PROSODY – the ~variations~

    • Suprasegmental traits

    • Also, there are TREES

    • Not quite like syntactic trees, can’t just take part of the tree and know what it means?

    • Various way to transcribe

  • Sound pressure graphs of speech

    • How to segment the graph and decode into words

    • Amplitudes correspond to going up and down really fast (like vocal cords)

      • Bigger = louder

    • People don’t actually pause in between every word

      • Where do they stop/start?

  • Throw things into the Prosody Box and don’t worry about it

  • Preserve proximal context and slow down distal context

    • John said he would obey a rebel.

    • Slowed context causes people to report hearing fewer words in a sentence

    • Proximal cuts should be weighted more heavily than distal cues

  • Research is a long and arduous journey, kids (917 days)

  • Make money! Mechanical Turks (sp?)

  • Phoneticians are more likely to have an extra fold in brain

    • Which came first? The phonetician or the fold?

Second Language Testing (Guest Speakers Abbas Mousavi and Jill Robbins, 4/30/13)

Jill Robbins and Abbas Mousavi from Second Language Testing, Inc spoke to us about second language testing and assessment. Dr. Robbins has worked on developing approaches to teach language, and Dr. Mousavi specializes in proficiency assessment (and is somewhat of an expert in Arabic calligraphy).

Their slideshows are available here.

NOTES (thanks to Megan Chao):

Language Testing

  • Field in applied linguistics

  • Determine growth/achievement by which success of a student can be evaluated

  • Way of quantifying an unobservable ability

  • Measure of usefulness of a particular teaching methodology, curriculum, approach, etc

  • Example: assessments

    • Formative (during study)

    • Summative (at the end of study)

  • Humongous tree showing purposes of language testing

    • Attainment (past)

      • Achievement

        • General

        • Progress

        • Mastery

        • Diagnostic

      • Proficiency

      • Knowledge

    • Prognostic (future)

      • Selection

        • Entrance

        • Readiness

        • Aptitude

        • Competition

      • Placement

  • Scoring is either criterion or norm-referenced

    • Criterion-referenced: Marking/interpreting test based on a well-defined criterion level of ability

    • Norm-referenced: Compare students against each other (i.e. on a curve)


    • Practicality: includes financial/logistic aspects, enough room/time/money, etc

    • Reliability: consistency of test scores across different times, test forms, graders, and other measurements

      • Taking the time on a different day

      • Different version of test

      • Different types of questions (multiple choice, essay, short answer, etc)

      • Different graders (grading on different days)

  • Validity: appropriateness of test/parts as measure of what purported to measure

    • A test may be valid for one purpose but not for other: it must “defend its name”

    • A math test should test math and not english

  • Using arrows + targets as an example!

    • Arrows go everywhere and wildly miss the center of the target, scattering in various degrees of horribly wrong -> test is neither reliable nor valid, and therefore irrelevant

    • Arrows all converge on one point which is decidedly not the center of the target -> test is reliable but invalid

    • Arrows all hit the center of the target -> reliable and valid

    • A test must be reliable before it can be valid

    • A valid test is by definition at least sort of reliable


Applying Native Language Learning Standards to Development of Assessments

  • First, some background on the Choctaw Language:

    • only 1% of speakers are actually fluent at the elementary school level

  • Five “goals” of SLTI (Second Language Testing, Inc) program:

    • Communication

      • Interpretive: listening/reading/viewing

      • Interpersonal: speaking/writing

      • Presentational

    • Culture

    • Connections

      • Transfer/apply knowledge to other disciplines of learning

    • Comparisons

      • Developing insights into the nature of language/culture

    • Communities

      • Participate in bilingual communities

  • What can be observed in testing context?

  • Miccosukee: only tribe w/o peace treaty w/ United States

    • SLTI worked on

      • Revision of Standards

      • Standards-based Assessments

      • Curriculum Maps Aligned to Standards

    • Didn’t encourage writing, so mostly oral standards

      • Can identify/say/segment/blend various units of speech sounds to make multi-syllable words

      • Follow simple directions

      • Sing the color song

      • Compare past/current culture

  • Where will Native languages be in 20 years??

UMD Trip Summary

Lots of ling happened! Notes (big thanks to Megan Chao) available here.

At Marie Mount Hall
At Marie Mount Hall

Thanks to all our presenters:

Yakov Kronrod Introduction (and general organization)
Phillip Resnik Machine Translation (history)
Josh Falk Sentiment Analysis (movie reviews)
Mike Fetters Minimalism
Tara Mease Infant Language (Baby Lab tour)
Alix Kowalski and Chris Heffner Aphasia
Josh Falk (again) Phono-Poetry (stress patterns of Finnish)
Alexander Williams Semantics (implicitness)
Ellen Lau EEG and MEG (lab tour and discussion)

Linguistics of ASL (Guest Speaker Pamela Toman, 4/23/13)

Pamela Toman, a data scientist at Booz Allen Hamilton with training in linguistics, spoke to us this Tuesday about the linguistics of American Sign Language, including its phonological, syntactical, and social aspects.


Pamela’s posted a resource page/outline of her lecture here (note that we did not discuss everything). Here’s a summary of stuff we talked about not on her site:

Oralism – belief that deaf people should learn to function in a hearing world. That means making them learn lip reading and speaking. Back in the 1960s and earlier, people even believed that sign language would harm one’s spoken language, and so they banned signing in schools. On a side note, people didn’t ban signing in black schools, which is why Black Sign Language is significantly different and older than American Sign Language.

Sapir-Worf Hypothesis – may be in play here, although probably not. Because of sign language’s emphasis on space, maybe deaf people have better spatial reasoning?

Sociolinguistics – We talked about how hearing parents raising deaf children can be a problem, starving children of language.

UMD Visit Details

UMD permission slips are ready at last! Please print out the slip, fill it in, and give it to me by this Friday (the sooner the better). Mr. Ostrander has asked me to point out that, although your absence will be excused, this is not a field trip or school-sponsored activity – e.g., if you trip and break your leg, you’re responsible.

We will meet at the attendance office at 7:35 – so just check in with your first period teacher. Please do not be late, otherwise we miss the bus and bad things ensue.

We’ll take the C2 to UMD (7:49 – 8:15) and back (2:25 – 2:56). Please bring school ID, and money/SmarTrip just in case. Our stop is University and Colesville (we’ll walk over together from the attendance office), and the other is just north of Marie Mount Hall, which houses the linguistics department.

Lunch will be provided.

Time permitting, we’ll very quickly run over to the dairy (also nearby) after the lectures, grab some ice cream, and be back at the bus stop by 2:20. Bring money if you want ice cream, of course.

Please bring your phones, and wear red! A notepad and an umbrella might also be useful.

Tentative schedule for the day (check later post for updated version):
Time Topic Speaker
8:30 – 8:45 Introduction Yakov Kronrod
8:45 – 9:15 Minimalism Mike Fetters
9:15 – 9:45 Machine Translation Philip Resnik
9:45 – 10:15 Sentiment Analysis John Falk
10:15 – 11:00 Infant Language Tara Mease
11:00 – 11:00 Aphasia Alix Kowalski and Chris Heffner
11:30 – 12:00 Lunch and Psycholinguistics Colin Phillips
12:00 – 1:00 Phonology Mike Key and Josh Falk
1:00 – 1:30 Semantics Alexander Williams
1:30 – 2:00 EEG and MEG Ellen Lau

NACLO Round II Results

NACLO Round II results are out! Congratulations to Samuel Zbarsky, who’s an alternate for the US team, and Michelle Noh, who received an award for best solution of problem 1. Sam was on the US team last year, and received an honorable mention at the IOL.

We had six Round II qualifiers from Blair. In order of final ranking: Sam Zbarsky (#11), Victor Xu (#15), Alan Du (#24), Michelle Noh (#78), Daniela Ganelin (#82), and Daniel Amir (#115). Combined with a homeschooled student who qualified from our site, Blair was 5th in the nation for number of qualifiers.

Check back next year for 2014 NACLO information!

Linguistic Illusions (Guest Speaker Colin Phillips, 4/9/13)

Colin Phillips, a professor at the UMD Linguistics Department spoke to us about linguistic illusions. He specializes in psycholinguistics and is “an authority on diverse topics such as sentence processing, pronoun/anaphora resolution, real-time language processing, and many others.”

He asked that we read a paper that introduces some grammatical illusions and selective fallibility of the brain’s language processor. It was accurate several years ago, but “some more recent findings undermine certain conclusions”. Partial outline available here, thanks to Alan. To see some grammatical illusions explained in nontechnical language, look here.

Slideshow is available here – note that we did not get to everything.

NOTES (thanks to Megan Chao):

  • There is often ambiguity in language (e.g. HISTORIC CHURCH + TOILETS sign)
  • Examples of visual illusions: we are inclined to see a certain effect (e.g. curved instead of straight lines); of course this can also occur in language
  • Ideally, language should be robust even in noisy environments
  • This leads to examples of confusing japanese sentences where verbs come at the end:
    • ジョンが マリーに トムが お店で ミルクを 買ったと 言った
      • John-nom / Mary-dat / Tom-nom / store-at / milk-acc / buy-decl / told
      • Translation: “John told Mary that Tom bought milk at the store.”
    • ジョンが マリーに りんごを 食べた 犬を あげた
      • John-nom / Mary-dat / apple-acc / ate / dog-acc / gave
      • [Did not catch the translation in time]
  • Electrical/magnetic brain activity
    • It takes us about 250-400 milliseconds to access words in language
    • That makes about 3-5 word accessed per second
    • At each word, the brain does the following to understand the language
      • Visual/acoustic processing
      • Phoneme recognition
      • Word recognition
      • Syntactic analysis
      • Semantic interpretation
    • But, there is a computational bottleneck: updating interpretation at each word requires much more time than is available
  • Models
    • Iron chef model
    • McDonalds’ model (quality may have to be sacrificed)
    • Julia Child’s cooking show model
  • Tower of Pisa: visual illusion where identical pictures look misaligned side-by-side