In Memoriam Matti Rissanen

by Sylvia Adamson (University of Sheffield)

It is with great sadness that the Society has received news of the death of Matti Rissanen, Professor Emeritus of English Philology at the University of Helsinki, at the age of 80 on 24 January 2018.


A long-time member and supporter of the Philological Society, Matti Rissanen was a pioneer in English historical corpus linguistics, and the director of the project that produced the Helsinki Corpus of English Texts, which covers a thousand years of the history of English and has been used widely since its publication in 1991.

Matti Rissanen was one of the rare scholars to command the history of the English language from its early stages to the present, beginning with his PhD thesis (1967) on the Old English numeral ONE. His wide range of publications includes a number of original articles and several co-edited volumes of corpus-based research, such as Early English in the Computer Age (1993), English in Transition and Grammaticalization at Work (1997), as well as the much cited chapter on ‘Early Modern English syntax’ in The Cambridge History of the English Language (vol. 3, 1999). Also taking an active interest in early American English, he was one of the international team that re-edited the Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt (2009).

His retirement in 2001 did not mark an end to his research activities. His philological expertise made an important contribution to the publication project that resulted in a new Finnish translation of all Shakespeare’s works. One of his long-lasting research interests was the history of English connectives, on which he was working to the very last days of his life.

Active in numerous professional organizations, Matti Rissanen served as president of the Societas Linguistica Europaea and chaired the Board of the International Computer Archive of Modern and Medieval English (ICAME). He was the founder and first director of the Research Unit for Variation, Contacts and Change in English (VARIENG), an Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence from 2000 to 2011. He was also a driving force in the foundation of the Finnish Institute in London and the Language Centre of the University of Helsinki. In recognition of his achievements Matti Rissanen received many awards, including an honorary doctorate of the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and being elected to the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters. He was an Honorary member of the Modern Language Society, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, and the Japan Association for English Corpus Studies.

On the personal level, Matti was supervisor to several generations of undergraduate and doctoral students in Helsinki, while providing unfailing encouragement and support to many more students and colleagues both in Finland and abroad. He will be greatly missed by his wide circle of friends.

Anyone who would like to share their memories and recollections of him is invited to do so by adding them as comments (in English or Finnish) to this VARIENG blog post.

This notice has been adapted, with permission, from the notice posted by Matti’s colleagues in Helsinki.

Language, learning and usage-based theory: tackling nominal and verbal morphology in Slavic

by Dagmar Divjak (University of Sheffield)

Usage-based theories of language are built on the assumption that our ability to extract and entrench the distributional patterns available in the input enables learners to build a grammar from the ground up. This circumvents the needs for an innate universal grammar. But it does not tell us which patterns are relevant. And it remains customary for linguists to approach the data using linguistic categories—such as Case or Tense, Aspect and Mood—categories that were never intended to reflect the workings of the mind. In this talk, I will argue that it might be better to take the input as starting point and derive categories that resemble those native speakers might derive. Models from Learning Theory can help with this. I will present two case studies that capitalize on a merger of cognitive linguistics and cognitive psychology, and aim to infuse Usage-Based linguistics with insights from Learning Theory … with a little help from computational engineering.

The first case study uses insights from Learning Theory to challenge the idea that theoretical linguistic constructs such as tense, aspect and mood (TAM) predict best how native speakers of Russian read sentences containing verbs meaning to try in real time. Discrimination learning, as implemented in the NDL algorithm, proposes simple 3-letter usage-patterns and predicts the time it takes subjects to read and integrate these verbs into a sentence significantly better than all TAM markers combined.


Contrary to what mainstream (psycho)linguistic models assume, speakers do not (and do not need to) analyse verb forms in terms of abstract linguistic concepts such as tense, aspect and mood when they process language. Instead, they can rely on simple letter sequences that are linked directly to an experience and embed crucial information about that experience (i.e., is it over, ongoing, or coming up; was it something that they completed, or simply did for a while; was it an order). This demonstrates that honouring parsimony (naivety and simplicity) in the structures that are hypothesized to exist, and in the way in which behaviour is explained, is a powerful research stance, in particular for designing cognitively realistic accounts of language knowledge and representation.

The second case study demonstrates how biologically inspired machine learning techniques can pinpoint the essence of native speaker intuitions. Polish boasts fascinating examples of seemingly unmotivated allomorphy, and the genitive singular of masculine inanimate nouns (which can be -a or -u) is its prime example. Criteria for choice have been proposed that are semantic, morphological or phonological in nature, but most of these are unreliable, yielding conflicting predictions (Dąbrowska 2005). Furthermore, although -u occurs with at least twice as many nouns, -a is the default ending for new words entering the language. The NDL algorithm, that implements discrimination learning, predicts the choice between -a and -u better using simple sequences of 3 letters (letter triplets or trigraphs) than models running on richly annotated corpus data. In addition, it explains the unexpected preference of -a as genitive ending for new words in terms of the learnability of words taking the -a ending, their phonological predictability and their contextual (semantic) typicality.

On their own, linguists and psychologists would have approached these questions rather differently and, from within their disciplinary cages, would have arrived at answers that would necessarily have remained partial. Integrative interdisciplinarity, on the other hand, relies on a simultaneous, interspersed methodological endeavour to arrive at more encompassing answers that combine depth of analysis with breadth of explanation. It presupposes mutually complementary theories, shared testable hypotheses as well as compatibility of research methodologies. But what wins the game is a good dose of willingness to question your customary ways of doing things.

This paper will be read at the Philological Society meeting in London, SOAS Main Building, Room 116, on Friday, 9 February, 4.15pm.

Conference announcement: mFiL 2018

by Sarah Mahmood (University of Manchester)

The Manchester Forum in Linguistics (mFiL) is an annual conference for early career researchers in all fields of linguistics. The aim of the conference, to take place on 26-27 April 2018 at the University of Manchester, is to share current work, results and problems and to provide information and advice for postgraduate students, post-doctoral scholars and others in the early stages of their scientific career. This includes the presentation of papers and posters, plenary talks and a careers panel, as well as a social programme including a conference dinner and informal drinks.

The mFiL, which is being organised now for the sixth time (last held in April 2017), is the successor of a postgraduate linguistics conference that ran in Manchester from 1992 until 2011 almost annually. The conference adheres to strict standards of scientific rigour: all abstract submissions are double-blind peer-reviewed by two experts, mostly professors and lecturers from various UK universities, and only submissions with a solid scientific contribution are accepted for presentation at the conference. Submissions that have implications for linguistic theory generally or that employ novel empirical methods are especially encouraged.

Submissions for oral and poster presentations in all areas of linguistics are welcomed.

Oral presentations should be no more than 20 minutes in length with an additional 10 minutes allocated for questions, comments and discussion. Poster presentations will be presented during a dedicated session on the schedule.

The deadline for submissions is 11 February 2018 (midnight GMT).

See the conference websitefor more details.

Syntactic microvariation in Romance – bridging synchrony and diachrony: the case of SI

by Sam Wolfe (University of Oxford)

Major syntactic differences between the medieval Romance languages and their modern counterparts have been noted for well over a century (Tobler 1875; Diez 1882; Thurneysen 1892; Meyer-Lübke 1889), with a body of more recent work highlighting important synchronic variation amongst the medieval languages (Vance, Donaldson & Steiner 2009; Wolfe 2015, forthcoming), and diachronic variation observable in texts from different stages of the medieval period (Ledgeway 2009; Labelle & Hirschbühler 2017; Galves forthcoming). In this talk, I focus on a particular aspect of the syntax of Medieval Romance: the grammar of the particle SI, which abounds across the early textual records, but eludes a satisfying analysis.

Based on a new hand-annotated corpus of seven Old French texts, I show that the numerous and frequently contradictory claims in the literature regarding SI (Marchello-Nizia 1985; Reenen & Schøsler 2000; Ledgeway 2008) can often be reconciled under an account where its formal characterisation, discourse-pragmatic value, and interaction with other areas of core clausal syntax varies markedly, both synchronically and diachronically, within the period conventionally referred to as ‘Old French’. Specifically, I sketch a grammaticalisation pathway where SI becomes progressively bleached through a process of upwards reanalysis (Roberts & Roussou 2002). This entails a change from SI (>SIC) as an adverbial encoding temporal succession, to topic continuity marker (Fleischman 2000), then two distinct expletive stages, where SI acts as a last-resort mechanism to satisfy the Verb Second constraint. The core empirical observation is that there is large-scale variation between SI in 12th-century and 13th-century texts and, furthermore, small-scale variation in the syntax of SI across texts which are conventionally considered contemporaneous.

In the second part of the talk I bring in data from a range of Medieval Italo-Romance varieties, showing that SI in Sicilian, Florentine, Piedmontese and Venetian texts mirrors almost exactly the distribution of SI in 12th-century French, but does not show the distributional properties of the highly grammaticalised element found in 13th-century French.

The core intuition behind the analysis of Medieval Romance SI is that the element in question can occupy distinct positions within an articulated left periphery (on which see Rizzi 1997, Benincà & Poletto 2004 and Ledgeway 2010) during different stages of the grammaticalisation process. Furthermore, throughout its history, SI cannot be understood in isolation from ongoing changes in the Medieval Romance Verb Second property and its correlates (Wolfe 2016), but may also have a previously overlooked role in shaping a number of the morphosyntactic isoglosses observable within Romance-speaking Europe today. In particular, I suggest that differences in the syntax of Old French SI and its Old Italo-Romance counterparts may account for major contemporary Italo- vs. Gallo-Romance differences in the syntax of topicalisation, focus and the null subject property.

Overall, although SI may seem like a small and parochial area of Medieval Romance syntax, its synchronic and diachronic significance for an understanding of the evolution of Romance grammar cannot be underestimated.


Fleischman, Suzanne. 2000. Methodologies and Ideologies in Historical Linguistics: On Working with Older Languages. In Susan C. Herring, Pieter Th. van Reenen & Lene Schøsler (eds.), Textual parameters in older languages. Amsterdam; Philadelphia, Pa.: John Benjamins. 33–58.

Galves, Charlotte. Forthcoming. Partial V2 in Classical Portuguese. In Theresa Biberauer, Sam Wolfe & Rebecca Woods (eds.), Rethinking Verb Second. (Rethinking Comparative Syntax). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Labelle, Marie & Paul Hirschbühler. 2017. Leftward Stylistic Displacement in Medieval French. In Eric Mathieu & Robert Truswell (eds.), Micro-change and Macro-change in Diachronic Syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ledgeway, Adam. 2008. Satisfying V2 in early Romance: Merge vs. Move. Journal of Linguistics 44(2).

Marchello-Nizia, Christiane. 1985. Dire le vrai: L’adverbe «si» en français médieval: Essai de linguistique historique. (Publications Romanes et Françaises CLXVIII). Geneva: Droz.

Roberts, Ian & Anna Roussou. 2002. Syntactic change a minimalist approach to grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vance, Barbara, Bryan Donaldson & B. Devan Steiner. 2009. V2 loss in Old French and Old Occitan: The role of fronted clauses. In Sonia Colina, Antxon Olarrea & Ana Maria Carvalho (eds.), Romance Linguistics 2009. Selected papers from the 39th Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages (LSRL), Tuscon, Arizona. (Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 315). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 301–320.

Wolfe, Sam. Forthcoming. Redefining the V2 Typology: The View from Medieval Romance and Beyond. (Ed.) Christine M. Salvesen. Linguistic Variation (Special Issue: A Micro-Perspective on V2 in Germanic and Romance).

Wolfe, Sam. 2015. The Old Sardinian Condaghes. A Syntactic Study. Transactions of the Philological Society 113(2). 177–205.

A video of the talk can be found below. The accompanying handout is available here.

This paper was read at the Philological Society meeting in London, SOAS Main Building, Room 116, on Friday, 12 January, 4.15pm.

Obituary: Professor Randolph Quirk

by Ruth Kempson (King’s College, London)

Members of the Philological Society might like to record the death on 20 December of Professor Randolph Quirk, whose international reputation as a major linguist expert on the modern English language has been secured ever since his setting up of the survey of English Usage during the 1960s and 70s. This survey was, at the time, a unique annotated corpus collection of over 1 million words of both spoken and written English across a vast variety of styles, all text in each file classified with detailed category labelling, and in the spoken cases accompanied by annotations for intonation. It was then on the basis of these data that he and a group of colleagues wrote a considerable number of immense descriptive grammars of English, starting with A Grammar of contemporary English (1972), and culminating in the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985). During that period he became Quain Professor of English Language and Literature, and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. Subsequently, he became vice-chancellor of the University of London, received a knighthood for services to higher education in 1985 and became President of the British Academy (1985-1989). He joined the Upper House as Baron Quirk of Bloomsbury in 1994, from which position he contributed in a wide-ranging way to education debates.

On a more personal note, he was a man who combined immense energy and speed with unstinting giving of his time in encouraging and helping junior colleagues, in ways to which he characteristically never drew attention. Witness to this generosity was his encouragement to myself, a young graduate who had become his secretary, to take his MA in linguistics, supposedly part-time but in fact in a registration which he backdated by one year so that I was able to complete the degree within a year, scampering between lectures and back to my secretarial duties. One year later I found that my life had been changed out of all recognition into an academic life with all the professional pleasures I have subsequently enjoyed. This generosity of his, both amazing in the first instance and sustained ever thereafter, has provided me with a role model for how to support graduate students and co-researchers I have tried to live up to ever since. The fact that we didn’t agree on all things was never a difficulty for either of us, not even as he accumulated titles and dignities, which he carried very lightly. He was a person one feels hugely honoured to have known.

The Survey of English Usage at University College London has created a facility for colleagues to write a tribute to Randolph Quirk.
Members’ memories of Randolph if they ever met him, worked with him, were taught by him, or attended one of his lectures across the world are also very welcome.

The moment of truth: Testing the Matrix Language Frame model in English–Vietnamese bilingual speech

by Li Nguyen (University of Cambridge)

Over the last few decades, there has been burgeoning interest in the study of code-switching in the research of bilingualism. Despite various definitions of what the phenomenon might entail, it is generally agreed in the literature that code-switching broadly refers to bilinguals’ ability to effortlessly alternate between two different languages in their daily speech (Bullock and Toribio 2008:1). This ability enables speakers’ behaviour of language mixing, which, as researchers have come to realise, is far from random but rather governed by specific structural constraints (Poplack 1980; Bullock & Toribio 2009). The nature of such constraints has inspired the search for a ‘universal pattern’, resulting in new investigations involving a number of language pairs, such as English–Spanish (Poplack 1980; Travis & Torres Cacoullos 2013; Aaron 2015), English–Welsh (Stammers & Deuchar 2012), Ukrainian–English (Budzhak-Jones & Poplack 1997), Igbo–English (Eze 1997), or Acadian French–English (Turpin 1998).

One of the most influential theoretical accounts in code-switching literature is Myers-Scotton (2002)‘s Matrix Language Frame model (MLF), which assumes an asymmetrical relationship between the two languages in bilingual discourse. As the MLF goes, ‘speakers and hearers generally agree on which language the mixed sentence is “coming from”’ (Joshi 1985:190–191), and it is this language that constitutes the ‘matrix language’ (ML) of the conversation. In a code-switched clause, the MLF predicts that the ML (i) supplies closed-class system morphemes such as finite verbs or function words, and (ii) determines word order. Although the need and the practicality of identifying a ML in some language pairs are debatable (Sankoff & Poplack 1981; Clyne 1987), the asymmetrical relationship between two languages involved is borne out in many existing datasets. Most often, the asymmetry is more obvious in pairs that are structurally different, with existing evidence heavily involving an Indo-European language and an Asian or African language (see Chan 2009:184 for an exhaustive list). The question is then: does the MLF actually generate accurate predictions in spontaneous speech?

In this project, I am testing the applicability of the MLF in English–Vietnamese code-switching data. This pair provides an interesting testing platform, since they share a similar surface word order (SVO) despite other typological differences. In other words, at a clausal level, the word-order morpheme principle is not applicable to determining the Matrix Language. The focus of the study thus lies on the so-called ‘conflict sites’, points at which the word order of the participating languages differs. These conflicts involve the sequence head-modifier within NPs and Possessive Phrases. Specifically, modifier and possessors precede head nouns in English, but follow head nouns in Vietnamese. When bilingual speakers are presented with such a conflict, MLF predicts that the matrix language (i.e. language of the finite verbs or function words) should determine the word order. Furthermore, as an isolating language, Vietnamese has virtually no overt morphology. This adds an extra layer to the complexity of determining the Matrix Language at the clausal level, which is traditionally is assigned by the language of the finite verb, thereby testing the MLF predictions when these two languages come into contact.

Thanks to fieldwork funding support from the Philological Society, I was able to carry out my fieldwork in Canberra, Australia, where I had existing connections with the Vietnamese bilingual community. Data collection took place between June and September 2017. My principle in building the corpus was drawn from Labov’s emphasis on the vernacular, where ‘minimum attention is paid to speech’ (Labov 1984:29).  This approach was chosen because the vernacular reflects the most natural, systematic form of the language acquired by the speaker ‘before any subsequent efforts at (hyper-) correction or style shifting are made’ (Poplack 1993:252). Recruited speakers were thus free to choose their own interlocutors, in an environment that they were most comfortable with. They were asked to self-record a conversation on their personal mobile phone device, of a minimum of 30 minutes. After the recording was returned, speakers were asked to fill in a questionnaire to obtain information on extra-linguistic variables. The questionnaire consists of 18 questions, available both in English and Vietnamese.

The data collection process was successfully completed, resulting in a corpus of 10 hours of spontaneous speech. Results from this research should offer concrete, empirical evidence for or against the applicability of the MLF in language contact situations in which the participating languages are typologically disparate. If found non-applicable, it is hoped that the patterns found will form the foundation of a new theoretical framework accounting for the data in question. Methodologically, the study demonstrates a systematic approach to determining the ML, especially in problematic situations where the overarching word order of the participating languages converge, and one of the languages lacks overt morphology. When made publicly available, the data will also constitute the first digitalised English–Vietnamese bilingual corpus, providing a valuable resource for future research on this language pair in particular, and in bilingualism research as a whole.


Aaron, J. E. (2015). Lone English-origin nouns in Spanish: The precedence of community norms. International Journal of Bilingualism 19(4), 429–480.

Budzhak-Jones, S. & Poplack, S. (1997). Two generations, two strategies: the fate of bare English-origin nouns in Ukrainian. Journal of Sociolinguistics 1(2), 225-258.

Bullock, B. & Toribio, J. (2008). Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Code-switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chan, B. (2009). Code-switching between typologically distinct languages. In B. Bullock & A. Toribio (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Code-switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 182-198.

Clyne, M. (1987). Constraints on code-switching: How universal are they? Linguistics 25, 739–76.

Eze, E. (1997). Aspects of language contact: A varionatist perspective on codeswitching and borrowing in Igbo-English bilingual discourse. PhD dissertation. Ottawa: University of Ottawa.

Joshi, K. (1985). Processing of sentences with intrasentential code switching. In D. R. Dowty, L. Karttunen and A. Zwicky (eds.) Natural language parsing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 190–205.

Labov, W. (1984). Field methods of the project on linguistic change and variation. In J. Baugh & J. Sherzer (eds.), Language in use: Readings in sociolinguistics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 28–53.

Myers-Scotton, C. (2002). Contact Linguistics: Bilingual Encounters and Grammatical Outcomes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Poplack, S. (1980). Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en español: Toward a typology of codeswitching. Linguistics 18(7–8), 581–618. 

Poplack, S. (1993). Variation theory and language contact. In D. Preston (ed.), American dialect research: An anthology celebrating the 100th anniversary of the American Dialect Society. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 251–268.

Sankoff, D. & Poplack, S. (1981). A formal grammar for code-switching. Papers in Linguistics 14(1), 3-46.

Stammers J., & Deuchar M. (2012). Testing the nonce borrowing hypothesis: Counter-evidence from English-origin verbs in Welsh. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 15(3), 630–664.

Travis, C., & Torres Cacoullos, R. (2013). Making voices count: Corpus compilation in bilingual communities. Australian Journal of Linguistics 33(2), 170-194.

Turpin, D. (1998). ‘Le francais, c’est le last frontier’: The status of English-origin nouns in Acadian French. International Journal of Bilingualism 2(2), 221–233.

Trilingual families in bilingual capital cities

by Kaisa Pankakoski (Cardiff University)

Open borders, superdiversity and globalisation have enabled the formation of a large amount of families where children are potentially multilingual and may have more than one native language. The parents of multilingual children have different strategies, methods and principles in place to promote intergenerational language transmission or passing a non-native language to their offspring.

What principles and other factors influence bringing up a trilingual child? How do the potentially multilingual children feel about their complex language repertoires? Is there a link between a certain method and the children’s attitudes towards their languages?

CardiffandHelsinkiIn my thesis I investigate trilingual families; the factors influencing language transmission; and the perspectives of the multilingual children in my two home cities: Helsinki and Cardiff. The reason why these two capital cities are compared is that they have very different approaches to bilingual education and heritage language promotion while having several similarities from a visible minority language population to substantial support from the governments for the minority languages. The two countries are also officially bilingual, which offers a different foundation for trilingual language transmission than for instance monolingual countries.

Previous research
There are various aspects influencing the transmission of minority languages in the home. These consist of linguistic environment factors such as families’ language strategies and methods of transmission; sociocultural factors including parental and societal attitudes, the roles of the languages or parental and societal support; and finally familial factors that may involve siblings, extended family and possible family mobility.

The most recent research strand of multilingualism, Family Language Policy (FLP), looks at the importance of parental strategies which are fluid and may change over time. Much like any multilingualism research most of FLP and language transmission research is based on bilingual context rather than multilingual context.

Previous work has not looked at trilingual children’s perceptions or the link between perceptions and language strategies. Furthermore, most multilingualism studies fall into the category of linguistics and language acquisition rather than sociolinguistics. There is no transmission research in contexts with a community majority and minority language.

Funding from PhilSoc to carry out fieldwork in Helsinki
IMG_9916From April 2017 until August 2017 I was based in Finland at the University of Helsinki, Department of Modern Languages. This enabled me to interview seven multilingual case study families living in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. The families were settled in the country and each had at least one trilingual primary school aged child speaking two official languages of the country (Swedish and Finnish) and one or more additional language(s).

The methodological approach draws from qualitative, mixed-methods approach to data collection and analysis. First the parents filled in an online questionnaire to clarify the family’s language pattern. Then semi-structured interviews and observations within the family homes explored issues that affect language acquisition within families. Both parents and children aged five to twelve were interviewed.

I spent three to six hours with each family in their homes. The data collected includes fourteen filled in questionnaires, fifteen hours of audio recorded interviews, seven hours of recorded audio and/or video observation as well as photographs and notes of each family participating in the research.

IMG_1084This winter possible extended family members will be sent an online questionnaire which will hopefully reveal their perspectives. After completing the fieldwork in Helsinki I will carry out the interviews and observations in Cardiff.

The PhilSoc Travel and Fieldwork bursary covered a part of the expenses of the fieldwork allowing me to take time off work while I concentrated full-time on my PhD research.


More information about the research
There is a news item on the Cardiff University website as well as a Welsh-language BBC article about my research and fieldwork in Helsinki. For more information about my research questions and methods, see my Cardiff University page.

Read more
Braun, A., 2006. The effect of sociocultural and linguistic factors on the language use of parents in trilingual families in England and Germany.
Bryman, A., 2015. Social research methods. Oxford university press.
Murrell, M. 1966. Language acquisition in a trilingual environment: notes from a case-study. Studia linguistica 20(1), pp. 9-34.
Ronjat, J., 1913. Le développement du langage observé chez un enfant bilingue.
Sṭavans, A. and Hoffman, C. 2015. Multilingualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Yamamoto, M. 2001. Language use in interlingual families: A Japanese-English sociolinguistic study. Multilingual Matters.