Big and small data in ancient languages

by Nicholas Zair (University of Cambridge)

Back in November I gave a talk at the Society’s round table on ‘Sources of evidence for linguistic analysis’ on ‘Big and small data in ancient languages’. Here I’m going to focus on one of the case studies I considered under the heading of ‘small data’, which is based on an article that I and Katherine McDonald and I have written (more details below) about a particular document from ancient Italy known as the Tabula Bantina.


It comes from Bantia, modern day Banzi in Basilicata and is written in Oscan, a language which was spoken in Southern Italy in the second half of the first millennium BC, including in Pompeii prior to a switch to speaking Latin towards the end of that period. Since Oscan did not survive as a spoken language, we know it almost entirely from inscriptions written on non-perishable materials such as stone, metal and clay. There aren’t very many of these inscriptions: perhaps a few hundred, depending on definitions (for instance, do you include control marks consisting of a single letter?). We are lucky that Oscan is an Indo-European language, and, along with a number of other languages from ancient Italy, quite closely related to Latin, so we can make good headway with it. Nonetheless, our knowledge of Oscan and its speakers is fairly limited: it is certainly a language that comes under the heading of ‘small data’.



One of the ways scholars have addressed the problem of so-called corpus languages like Oscan, and even better-attested but still limited ones like Latin has been to combine as many relevant sources of information, from ancient historians to the insights of modern sociolinguistic theory as a way of squeezing as much information from what we have – and trying to fill in the blanks where information is lacking. This has been a huge success, but this approach can also be dangerous, especially when it comes to studying language death. Given that we know a language will die out in the end, it is very tempting to see every piece of evidence as a staging post in the process, and try to fit it into our narrative of language death. Often this provides very plausible histories, but we must remember that, while in hindsight history can look teleological, things are rarely so clear at the time.

The Tabula Bantina is a bronze tablet with a Latin law on one side and an Oscan law on the other side. It is generally agreed that the Latin text was written before the Oscan one, but the Oscan is not a translation of the Latin: the writer of the Oscan text simply used the conveniently blank side of the tablet to write the new material on. The striking things about the Oscan text are that it is written in the Latin alphabet, and there are lots of mistakes. It also strongly resembles Latin legal language. The date of this side is probably between about 100-90 BC, just before Rome’s ‘allies’, which is to say conquered peoples and cities in Italy, rose up against it in a rebellion generally known as the Social War. Continue reading “Big and small data in ancient languages”

The Faces of PhilSoc: Karen Corrigan



Name: Karen Corrigan

Position: Professor of Linguistics and English Language

Institution: Newcastle University

Role in PhilSoc: Council Member

About You

How did you become a linguist – was there a decisive event, or was it a gradual development?

Even as a child I was fascinated by all things linguistic. I grew up in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles and the arrival of the British Army was my first exposure to accents and dialects that were not native to the region since Northern Ireland back then was synonymous with emigration rather than immigration. My younger sister and me – despite being teenagers – didn’t get out much on account of the security situation and used to entertain ourselves confined to quarters by challenging each other to mimic the English and Scottish accents we had begun to hear around us. I suppose that was our way of trying to make light of the threat which the army represented in our lives. When I went to University as an undergraduate, opting for English, Irish and Linguistics was thus a no-brainer for me.

What was the topic of your doctoral thesis? Do you still believe in your conclusions?

“The Syntax of South Armagh English in its Socio-Historical Perspective.” Amongst my conclusions, were the ideas that:

  1. Irish English needed to be investigated from a contact linguistic perspective since it did after all develop from the L2 acquisition of English on a massive scale by L1 speakers of Irish;
  2. Taking a mixed Sociolinguistic and Biolinguistic approach to syntactic variation and change can be more illuminating than viewing it through a single lens.

I still believe in both of these conclusions and the latter, in particular, has become associated with a new sub-discipline in linguistics known as ‘Socio-Syntax’ which I have continued to work in since and which is being further supported by the research of other scholars too.

On what project / topic are you currently working?

Research on language in Northern Ireland (including my own prior to 2014) tends to focus on the varieties spoken by the major ethnicities. Their linguistic heritages have been hotly disputed and scholarship reflects the socio-political conflict of ‘The Troubles’. The Peace Process has ensured greater protection for Irish and Ulster Scots and has also made the region more attractive, resulting in unprecedented immigration. New ethnicities have become increasingly visible and audible. The project I am currently investigating was supported by an AHRC Research Leadership Fellowship and explores these connected communities in the light of historical emigration.
The project addresses the following issues arising from these inward and outward migratory trends:

  1. How can a cross-disciplinary approach to migration and language contribute to our knowledge of the ways in which socially meaningful spaces are constructed by human agents?
  2. How do speakers make use of linguistic variation to express local belonging and/or dissonance therefore developing, and displaying to each other, ‘a sense of place’ (Convery, Corsane and Davis 2012)?
    In other words:

    • Do ethnic minorities maintain their community languages to assert social distance?
    • What are the constraints on linguistic variation amongst indigenous young people?
    • Are new inward migrants acquiring the same constraints as their local peers?
    • Are there differences between the constraints discernible amongst the Northern Irish English varieties used by newer and older minority ethnic groups?
  3. Do diverse NI social groups hold similar or different attitudes towards minority and regional languages and their speakers?
  4. To what extent are the migratory experiences of the Irish Diaspora and inward migrants to NI similar and can historical records of emigration by the majority ethnic groups be used to promote tolerance towards ethnic minority communities now living in NI?
  5. What ‘best practice’ educational support is there for regional and minority languages in NI?

What directions in the future do you see your research taking?

I will continue to work on language and dialect issues in Ireland alongside keeping up my interests in the ‘Diachronic Electronic Corpus of Tyneside English‘ project which I have been developing there since joining Newcastle University in the 1990s.

How did you get involved with the Philological Society?

I became a member of the society though communications with Prof. Keith Brown, former Honorary Secretary for Publications of the Society, who I first met as an undergraduate. Keith was the external examiner of our Linguistics programme at University College, Dublin and the practice there was to have a viva with the external as part of the examination process from the First Year onwards.

‘Personal’ Questions

Do you have a favourite language – and if so, why?

It has to be Irish because it is a minority language and could do with the support!

Minimalism or LFG?

Minimalism but with a Sociolinguistic twist.

Teaching or Research?

I have to say I really enjoy both.

Do you have a linguistic pet peeve?

Approaches to contact varieties that do not consider Mufwene’s wonderful ‘Founder Principle’

What’s your (main) guilty pleasure?


Looking to the Future

Is there something that you would like to change in academia / HE?

I think HE should be free to all.

(How) Do you manage to have a reasonable work-life balance?

If I am honest, I’m afraid that I don’t …

What is your prime tip for younger colleagues?

Learn to be collaborative and collegiate.

The Morphological-to-Analytic Causative Continuum in Hausa: New Insights and Analyses in a Typological Perspective

by Philip J. Jaggar (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)

Over the last few decades, linguists have devoted considerable attention to both homogeneity and variation in the expression of causal events across languages. However, most studies, whether typological or language-specific, have focused on the category of morphologically overt (e.g., ‘lie/lay X down’) causatives, to the relative neglect of complex periphrastic (e.g., ‘get X to lie down’) formations.

The present study addresses this imbalance by elucidating a wide spectrum of causative expressions in Hausa (Chadic/Afroasiatic), supported by a strong cross-linguistic perspective. In line with contemporary approaches located within a general typology of causation, the analysis invokes the widely-accepted dichotomy between direct and indirect causative constructions. Direct causation associates with morphological causatives, indirect causation with periphrastic expressions—compare morphological ‘I lay X down’ (direct, with no intermediary) with periphrastic ‘I got X to lie down’ (indirect, where X also functions as an intervening actor/cause).

Hausa uses an indirect periphrastic causative usually formed with sâa ‘cause’ (lit. ‘put’) as the higher causal verb, e.g., nâs taa sâa yaaròn yaa kwântaa ‘the nurse got the boy to lie down’ (= intransitive kwântaa ‘lie down’). Direct morphological causatives, in contrast, associate with a specific derivational formation, known as “Grade 5” (Parsons 1960/61), e.g., nâs zaa tà kwantar̃ dà yaaròn ‘the nurse will lay the boy down’.

The monograph systematically explores, for the first time in an African language to our knowledge, the key design-features that distinguish the two mechanisms, in addition to demonstrating that Hausa periphrastic causatives can also differ from each other, e.g., in implicational strength, depending on the modal (TAM) properties of the lower clause. In so doing, it provides a rare account of how the two types are used to describe pragmatically different causal events and participant roles.

Jaggar, Philip J. (2017) The Morphological-to-Analytic Causative Continuum in Hausa: New Insights and Analyses in a Typological Perspective. (Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes, Band 109). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Available from 1 June 2017.

TPS 115(2) – Abstract 5

The Sanskrit (Pseudo-)Periphrastic Future

by John Lowe (University of Oxford)

The paradigmatic status of the Sanskrit periphrastic future is widely taken for granted. I argue that all the criteria for distinguishing the periphrastic future as a paradigmatic tense formation from a syntactic collocation of agent noun plus copula are problematic, except in one small set of Sanskrit texts. The evidence requires a nuanced diachronic approach: in early Vedic Prose we may reasonably speak of a paradigmatic ‘periphrastic future’ (though it may not be periphrastic), but outside this period the formation is merely a special use of the agent noun.


TPS 115(2) – Abstract 4

The ‘fiver’: Germanic ‘finger’, Balto-Slavic de-numeral adjectives in *-ero- and their Indo-European background

by Marek Majer (Harvard University)

Proto-Germanic *fingraz ‘finger’ – long connected to PIE *penkʷe ‘5’, but without a convincing derivational scenario – can be interpreted as *pēnkʷ‑ró‑, a genitival R(V̄)‑ó‑ vr̥ddhi derivative to *penkʷerom ‘set of 5’. This latter form is the substantivization of *penkʷero‑ ‘5‑fold, counting 5’ – a form belonging to a series of de-numeral adjectives which, it is argued, is the single type underlying the Baltic pluralia tantum numerals (Lith. penkerì ‘’) and the Slavic collectives and distributives (PSl. *pętero ‘group of 5’, *pęterъ ‘5‑fold’).
It is further hypothesized that (Post-)PIE forms like *penkʷero‑, *sweḱsero‑, *septm̥mero‑ need not rest upon false segmentation of a thematic derivative of ‘4’ (*kʷetwer‑o-), as is most commonly assumed; rather, they can be explained as simple thematic derivatives of an *‑er locative of the type *penkʷer ‘in/on/at 5’ = ‘in a group of 5’ (a close parallel of this semantic relationship is provided by Lith. trisè ‘3.loc’ = ‘in a group of 3’, or even by French à trois). The posited type *penkʷer also yields a back-formed substantive *penkʷōr ‘set of 5‑s’, a possible source of the Tocharian B distributive numerals in ‑ār (piśār ‘by 5‑s’ << *penkʷōr‑en, *penkʷōr‑i or similar), which – being athematic, cannot be explained via the standard theory starting from *kʷetwer‑o-.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12099

TPS 115(2) – Abstract 3

Dative alternation and dative case syncretism in Greek: the use of dative, accusative and prepositional phrases in documentary papyri

by Joanne Vera Stolk (University of Oslo / Ghent University)

This article explores the evidence for dative case syncretism with personal pronouns in post-Classical Greek based on documentary papyri (300BCE-800CE). Three alternative encodings are examined for the animate goal of transfer verbs: the prepositions prós and eis (with accusative) and the bare accusative case. It is shown that the dative case and the preposition prós are in complementary distribution dependent on the animacy of the object and the conceptualization of the event. The preposition eis is only used for animate goals in the specialized meaning ‘on account of’. The bare accusative case is occasionally found as a replacement for the dative case, but not in the same constructions in which the prepositions are attested. Therefore, based on the encoding of the animate goal in Greek papyrus letters, there is no reason to assume that a change in the use of these prepositions led to the merger of dative and accusative cases.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12098

TPS 115(2) – Abstract 2

Accented Clitics in Hittite?

by Andrei Sideltsev (Institute of Linguistics, Russian Academy of Sciences)

Hittite attests two distinct second positions, occupied by (a) Wackernagel enclitics; (b) non-Wackernagel enclitics -(m)a, -(y)a as well as stressed indefinite and correlative pronouns. I argue that Hittite provides novel data on the syntax-prosody interface as reflected in the operation of the second position constraint: the words belonging to group (b) combine properties which are typically ascribed to stressed and unstressed second position constituents. These findings show that the boundary between the stressed, syntactically conditioned second position exemplified by Germanic verb-second and the unstressed, phonologically conditioned second position of Wackernagel enclitics is much more blurred than is commonly acknowledged.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12097