One Language, Two Grammars: the ‘Plight’ of Classical Armenian

by Robin Meyer (University of Oxford; Hon. Secretary for Student Associate Members)

Armenian is one of those Indo-European languages that very rarely gets much attention from students of historical linguistics or comparative philology; most frequently, it crops up only in discussions of the augment, laryngeals, and the Glottalic Theory. This, alas, is unlikely to change.
Yet, Armenian can serve as an interesting case study for a number of fields within linguistics, not least language contact and corpus linguistics. With these two topics in mind, allow me to introduce you to Armenian – albeit in extreme brevity –, and to illustrate one of its more curious traits: its two grammars.

Map_Armenia_BCE
Map of Armenia in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE
An exceedingly short introduction: Iranian, Greek, and the Armenian language(s)

Armenian, attested in its Classical form (called գրաբար |grabar|) since the 5th century CE, is a language with a couple of twists. Until a ground-breaking paper by Heinrich Hübschmann (1875), Armenian was thought to belong to the Iranian language family. In fact, Armenian is most closely related to Greek – and even that not all that closely (Clackson 1994). For the most part, this relationship is not immediately obvious at the surface, particularly if compared to the similarities between, for instance, Vedic and Old Avestan, or Latin and Oscan.
The reason for its historical allocation to the Iranian family lies in the inordinate amount of Iranian loan words and calques, both lexical and phraseological, in Armenian. These are mostly taken from Parthian (North West Middle Iranian; Meillet 1911–12, Schmitt 1983). Less obviously, even certain Iranian syntactic structures and patterns have been replicated (Meyer 2013, 2016). These borrowings are, without doubt, owed to long-lasting contact between Armenian and Parthian speakers. Since the 5th century BCE, Armenia was under Iranian rule in one form or another: Achaemenid, Artaxiad, Arsacid Parthian, and later Sasanian Persian. For the most part, an Armenian king of Iranian origin ruled as primus inter pares among other Armenian and Iranian noble families. The history and ethnic composition of Armenia is, of course, far more complex than can be described in one sentence; excellent summaries can be found in Hovannisian (1997).

So far, so good. Continue reading “One Language, Two Grammars: the ‘Plight’ of Classical Armenian”

Faces of PhilSoc: George Walkden


Name:
George Walkden
Position: Lecturer in English Linguistics
Institution: University of Manchester
Role in PhilSoc: Council member; member of the Publications Committee

 


About You

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

My favourite subjects at school were languages and maths, and I was always torn between them. During my first degree I gradually realized I could combine the two! I think my desire to continue in academia was born during my year abroad, during which I was clocking in and out every day to translate documents for a pharmaceutical company. I wanted to do a job that rewarded results, not a 9-to-5, and a job that allowed me to keep on learning (and studying language) until I keeled over. After that I was more or less hooked!

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

My doctoral thesis was about reconstructing the syntax of Proto-Germanic. The general conclusions – in particular that syntactic reconstruction is feasible and interesting – I would stand by. I did make at least one major mistake in interpreting results for Old English verb-late clauses, though, and I gave a talk about this at PhilSoc in 2015, retracting my earlier claim.

On what project / topic are you currently working?

Lots of different things! Negation in Middle English, preposition stranding in early Germanic, how to derive and understand Constant Rate Effects in syntactic change… I’m an obsessive collaborator and tangent-taker. I’m also looking to expand my parsed corpus of Old Saxon.

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

I’m keen to expand my knowledge of computational and mathematical approaches to language change, and am aggressively reading up in this area. Combining this with corpus-based research and predictive theories of acquisition and use is what I’d aim to achieve. One of the things I love about historical syntax is how many different skills you need to develop: philology, syntactic theory, corpus methodology, the general theory of language change, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

How did you get involved with the Philological Society?

Two events aimed specifically at postgrads and early career researchers: one in Cambridge in 2010, and another in Oxford in 2012.


‘Personal’ Questions

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

Old Saxon! It’s the underappreciated sibling of Old High German, and has been unjustifiably ignored, especially within Germany.

Minimalism or LFG?

Minimalism. But I wish we had something like XLE.

 


Looking to the Future

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

Gold Open Access should be the norm, not the exception. Academic publishing should be scholar-led.

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

Honestly, I find it hard to distinguish between the two.

What is your prime tip for younger colleagues?

Don’t be afraid to put your ideas out there! Senior academics are (mostly) not out to get you.

Transitive nouns and adjectives: evidence from Early Indo-Aryan

by John J. Lowe (University of Oxford)

LoweTransNomsTransitivity is typically thought of as a property of verbs, and perhaps of adpositions, but it is not a typical property of nouns or adjectives. In the influential cross-classification of syntactic categories developed by Chomsky (e.g. 1981: 48), nouns and adjectives are actually defined in opposition to adpositions and verbs by their inability to govern objects, that is by their inability to be transitive. A few authors have discussed exceptions to this generalization, but they tend to be rare and non-productive; for example in English there may be only a single transitive adjective, near, which is a historically explicable exception to an otherwise consistent synchronic rule that nouns and adjectives cannot govern ‘bare’ noun phrase complements (Maling, 1983). As a second example, in early Latin there are a few nouns and adjectives which may govern accusative case objects, but the process is not productive and is entirely eliminated by Classical Latin.

gnaruris                          vos                    volo                esse        hanc                 rem
acquainted.ACC.PL     you.ACC.PL    wish.1PL       be.INF   this.ACC          matter.ACC
‘I wish you to be acquainted with this matter.’ (Latin: Plautus Most. 100)

In the early Indo-Aryan languages, however, there is a relative wealth of transitive noun and adjective categories. In my forthcoming monograph Transitive Nouns and Adjectives: evidence from early Indo-Aryan (OUP, July 2017), I investigate the evidence from four periods of early Indo-Aryan, discussing the synchronic and diachronic explanation for this unusual phenomenon.

The majority of transitive noun/adjective categories in early Indo-Aryan fall under the traditional heading of ‘agent noun’ (including agentive adjectives, used in the same way); these are the categories whose transitivity is most clear, and most common. For example, in the sentence below the ‘agent adjective’ kāmin- ‘desirous, desiring’ governs an accusative object ‘drink’.

kāmī                                   hi       vīraḥ                            sadam    asya        pītim
desirous.NOM.SG.M   for      hero.NOM.SG.M     always    it.GEN    drink.ACC
‘For the hero (is) always desirous (of) a drink of it.’ (Sanskrit: RV 2.14.1c)

Superficially, kāmī here looks similar to a participle, i.e. to a word category which, as a non-finite verbal category, could unproblematically govern an object. However, I show that the majority of transitive nouns and adjectives attested in early Indo-Aryan cannot be analysed as non-finite verb forms, but must be acknowledged as part of a distinct constructional type in early Indo-Aryan.

Other transitive nouns fall under the traditional heading of ‘action nouns’; I show that for the most part action nouns are transitive only when used as infinitives, and hence their transitivity can be explained as the unexceptional transitivity of non-finite verb forms. There are also nouns and adjectives whose transitivity is adpositional, rather than verbal.

Crucially, I show that there is a statistical correlation between transitivity of nouns and adjectives and the syntactic context of predication: nouns and adjectives which are used as the primary predicate in a (perhaps null) copular construction are statistically more likely to be transitive than those which are used in other ways. This correlation is unique to transitive nouns and adjectives and securely distinguishes this formation from transitivity with non-finite verb categories.

The book provides a detailed introduction to transitivity (verbal and adpositional), to the categories of agent and action noun, and to early Indo-Aryan. The four periods of early Indo-Aryan selected for study are: Rigvedic Sanskrit, the earliest Indo-Aryan; Vedic Prose, a slightly later form of Sanskrit; Epic Sanskrit, a form of Sanskrit close to the standardized ‘Classical’ Sanskrit; and Pali, the early Middle Indo-Aryan language of the Buddhist scriptures. I show that while each linguistic stage is different, there are shared features of transitive nouns and adjectives which apply throughout the history of early Indo-Aryan.

The data is set in the wider historical context, from Proto-Indo-European to Modern Indo-Aryan, and a formal linguistic analysis of transitive nouns and adjectives is provided in the framework of Lexical-Functional Grammar.


References:

Chomsky, Noam (1981), Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures, Dordrecht: Foris.

Lowe, John J. (2017), Transitive Nouns and Adjectives: Evidence from Early Indo-Aryan, volume 25 in the series Oxford Studies in Diachronic and Historical Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. c. 400 pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-879357-1.

Maling, Joan (1983), ‘Transitive adjectives: a case of categorial reanalysis’, in Frank Heny & Barry Richard (eds.), Linguistic Categories: Auxiliaries and Related Puzzles, volume 1. Dordrecht: Reidel. 253–289.

The Faces of PhilSoc: Nicola McLelland


Name:
Nicola McLelland
Position: Professor of German and History of Linguistics
Institution: University of Nottingham
Role in PhilSoc: Council Member

 


About You

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

I remember sitting among a sea of undergraduates and realizing that not everyone in the room thought Middle High German was even more interesting than modern German. So the question to me is not why want to be a linguist, but the mystery of why not everyone else does. I still don’t really understand why not everyone finds language analysis completely absorbing and fascinating. It’s like breathing – what’s not to like?

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

My thesis was on an early 13th-century Middle High German version of the Lancelot story (where he’s not in love with Guinevere and has multiple other liaisons instead, before finally settling down to married life). It was a literary study, but one of my main arguments was that the mix of narrative styles – coded in the lexis and pragmatics as well as in the content – was deliberate and not just incompetence, as others had assumed. I still think that’s true.

On what project / topic are you currently working?

I’m just wrapping up various projects on the history of language learning and teaching in the UK and in Europe more widely – it’s definitely at the very ‘soft’ end of linguistics, although my entry into it was the history of grammar-writing and realizing that many of the first successful accounts of the rules of a language came from those teaching it as a foreign language, not from its native speakers. That’s certainly the case for German.

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

I’ve been working on an article about women in the history of German linguistics. That’s made me realize there is much more to be said about women’s voices in German language history as a whole, so that’s something I’m keen to pursue.

How did you get involved with the Philological Society?

When I was in my first post at Trinity College Dublin. David Singleton told me about it, told me how cheap it was to join, and said he could nominate me to join. So I did.


‘Personal’ Questions

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

No, I love them all. I can’t stop learning them.

Minimalism or LFG?

LFG. Just don’t ask me why.

Teaching or Research?

Jein, as we say in German. Both.

Do you have a linguistic pet peeve?

I find it unsettling that as I become older (and I’m really not that old yet), things that were definitely wrong become right. At what point does correcting something in a student’s essay cease to be helpful feedback on a tricky point, and instead prove you’re an out-of-touch dinosaur who doesn’t even grasp ordinary modern English? One thing I LIKE is being able to say “What even is that?” which was definitely ungrammatical for me until very recently, but which is totally acceptable for my children and their friends, and – I now find – very handy in many contexts. I used to use it with ironic distance, now I think I probably just use it.

What’s your (main) guilty pleasure?

Learning Mandarin Chinese. I spend a ridiculous amount of my spare time making very little progress on it. Its now the Concorde fallacy – having put this much effort in, I must continue. And I want to – it is addictive once you start to crack the code. And I’m sure there is much, much more to say about its grammar than has been said. Whether I’ll ever be able to is another question.


Looking to the Future

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

I wish the talk about internationalization and global experience for students translated into an expectation of learning another language to a high level, and that university structures made that more readily achievable for all students. That is one of many, many things I wish were different. For everyone else around the world beyond Anglophone countries, global experience means being able to operate outside your comfort zone, in another language. I think we massively underestimate how much that add to the value of the experience.

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

Nearly always, though I find as I get older that reading a book about linguistics is moving from the ‘work’ category to the ‘relaxation’ category.

What is your prime tip for younger colleagues?

I’m not sure I have any great advice for younger colleagues, who – luckily – seem much better equipped to face the world than I was at their stage. But I would say: don’t let time pressures (or natural introversion) stop you from getting out and meeting other people in your field and getting new ideas. I’ve gone to many conferences wishing I’d never signed up – but I’ve ALWAYS come away delighted I was there, my head buzzing with new inspirations from totally unexpected quarters.

New Series: The Faces of PhilSoc

The Philological Society has hundreds of members all over the globe, and it is sheer impossible for all members to know or be acquainted with one another – especially if they abroad. Yet, for those who (more or less) regularly attend PhilSoc talks, the Society quickly develops a personal side as well.

It is this personal side that we hope to engage with on another level with a new series of blog posts: The Faces of PhilSoc.

In the style of (by now probably somewhat old-fashioned) magazines, we have asked members of Council and the Society’s officers a set of questions, the answers to which will allow members to gain a better idea about the people behind the Philological Society: who they are, what they do, how they came to be linguists and PhilSoc members, and a few other things.

So, watch this space and/or subscribe to our blog. Any suggestions for questions or other ideas for new series of blog posts? Let us know in the comments!

‘The Word Detective’ serialised on BBC Radio 4

by John Simpson (Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary, 1993–2017)

Picture1
John Simpson
(© Bloomington Photography)

A generation ago, my colleagues and I at the OED were starting to become increasingly aware that the dictionary was in danger of drifting away from its audience. Or, to put it more accurately, the dictionary was standing still while its audience moved into the twentieth and then the twenty-first centuries.

Historical lexicography is demanding. There are few short cuts; standards are exacting. The editors of the First Edition of the OED had laboured for many years to capture the history of our language, and its format reflected nineteenth-century expectations about how knowledge should be presented. Nowadays the level of scholarship at the OED is the same – it has to be. But a wider audience expects to be able to access and understand the dictionary in radically new ways.  One of the challenges of the last few decades has been how to present the content of the OED to a new readership in the digital age.

Picture2I wrote The Word Detective to give readers an informal, behind-the-scenes look at the OED and the extraordinary things it has set out to achieve over the last forty years. In addition, I wanted to convey to readers the excitement of researching and defining the language – because that’s what we all felt as editors.

The Word Detective will be broadcast at 7.45 p.m. this Monday to Friday (13–17 March), on BBC Radio 4. See if I achieved it!

 

 


John Simpson’s ‘The Word Detective’ is published by Little Brown in the UK, and Basic Books in the USA.

‘Counting’: quality and quantity in literary language and tools for investigating it

by Jonathan Hope (Strathclyde University, Glasgow)

The transcription of a substantial proportion of Early Modern English books by the Text Creation Partnership has placed more than 60,000 digital texts in the hands of literary and linguistic researchers. Linguists are in many cases used to dealing with large electronic corpora, but for literary scholars this is a new experience. Used to arguing from the quality, rather than quantity of evidence, literary scholars have a new set of norms and procedures to learn, and are faced with the exciting, or perhaps depressing, prospect that their object of study has changed.

 In this talk I’ll look at some specific case studies that illustrate the potential, and the problems, of quantity-based studies – and will highlight key areas where literary scholars need to reassess their expectations of ‘evidence’, and the texts we use. A possible alternative title might be ‘Learning to live with error: gappy texts and crappy metadata’.

A screencast of the talk can be found below.

This paper was read at the Philological Society meeting in Oxford, Wolfson College, on Saturday, 11 March, 4.15pm.