On Writing « The Secret Life of Language »

by Simon Pulleyn (London)

Secret Life Language front cover-1

In September 2017, I was asked by Trevor Davies, Commissioning Editor at Octopus Books, whether I would write a book about language for the general reader. Octopus already had titles such as The Secret Life of the Periodic Table and The Secret Life of Equations. Now they wanted to try linguistic science. They had some general ideas about scope, but I was offered a free hand as to the text. Octopus specialize in illustrated books. This was quite new for me. My previous experience was that pictures cost money and, as the author must pay for them, they are best avoided. But Octopus has an entire department dedicated to sourcing images; the project also had a talented artist who produced drawings tailored to my ideas. PhilSoc readers will not be slow to spot anachronisms in cartoons depicting Cicero or Babylonian scribes. But the aim of the book is to appeal to the bright general reader, not the specialist; the designers thought that the drawings would have broader appeal if they did not incorporate my niggles about period costume and furniture.

Once I had been signed up as the author, I was in the unenviable position of being expected to know everything. Sadly, I don’t but I was able to consult knowledgeable friends who dug me out of some of my ignorance. I began with an almost blank sheet of A3 paper. It contained just a series of empty rectangles called spreads: these correspond to what you see when you open the book at any given point and look at the two pages in front of you. My job was to decide, in outline at first and then in detail, what would go onto each page or spread. What were the topics to cover and how many spreads should be devoted to each? All this was against the background that the number of pages for this series is fixed at 192 and not all of those are for the author: there must be titles, picture acknowledgements, and an index.

I began with evolution, looking at the anatomical apparatus needed for speech and how this developed. I am no expert in this field and those who specialize in primate evolution will probably find things that they would say otherwise. I went on to look in detail at the constituent elements of linguistics: two spreads on phonetics, three on phonology, four on morphology, two on lexicon and three on syntax. The book then moves on to proto-languages and the problems with arranging languages into families. The book has on its cover an attractive tree diagram of the Indo-European languages. Anyone familiar with the field will know how contentious a topic this is and will either want to draw the branches in a different way, change the labels or object altogether to the notion of trees. But I hope that the text of the book makes it clear that the enlightenment enthusiasm for genealogies, which also brought us Linnaean classification of plants and the periodic table of elements, is not taken by linguists today as the last word on the topic. The problems of areal influence are discussed in detail, particularly in respect of the Semitic languages and those of mainland Southeast Asia.

The deadline for the book was strict. Whereas those of us accustomed to academic publishing often have years in which to write a monograph, my brief from Octopus was to write 50,000 words in ten weeks. Furthermore, the text was to be delivered in three batches so that the design team could be getting on with the illustrative content for one part of the book whilst I was writing the text for the next. Because of the need to fit in illustrations, this meant that one had generally to write in units of 610, 1220 or 2440 words depending on the number of pages to be covered.

Because I wanted to give the reader the broadest immersion in the field, the book goes on to tour the world either by looking at language families or at the speech of large geographical areas. There are thus sections on the Celtic, Semitic, Turkic, and Iranian languages and others on the languages of India, the Caucasus, the Pacific and the Americas. On some days, this meant that my task was to write 610 words on the idea and reconstruction of the Indo-European family. This is a challenge in terms of choice and compression but also a wholesome discipline. Other days were much harder. It is not encouraging to wake up knowing that the business of the moment is to produce 1220 words on the languages of North and South America. Quite aside from problems of choice and compression, the greater challenge was that I knew so little about the topic and needed to educate myself before presuming to write a single word. By the end of the day, I had not written the required number of words but at least had read a great deal and mapped out the way forward.

Specialist readers will disagree over what ought to have been included, what left out and what emphasis ought to have been given to individual elements. But I hope that the general reader new to language and browsing in a high-street shop will be enthused and drawn in to our wonderful subject. If a person is motivated to start learning another language or to buy some books on linguistics (there is a select bibliography), that is a result. The cartoons are meant to allure. But that does not mean that the text is small beer. I asked my editor if I could discuss things like syllabic nuclei and sonority hierarchy. ‘Yes,’ he replied without missing a beat, ‘Of course!  Just make sure that you explain it all clearly.’ The diagrams help to do that and there is a full glossary at the back.


Simon Pulleyn’s The Secret Life of Language was published by Octopus Books on 30 August 2018 (Cassell, 192 pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781788400244).

CfP: Early Career Researcher Forum

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

As members will know, the Philological Society is the oldest learned society in Great Britain devoted to the scholarly study of language and languages, demonstrating its endeavour to promote the study and knowledge of the structure, the affinities, and the history of languages through regular talks, the publication of the Transactions of the Philological Society, and a monograph series.

ECR_logoTo further the engagement with languages and linguistics even more, the Society will host an Early Career Researcher Forum on 8–9 March 2019, and thus invites submissions of abstracts for 20-minute oral presentations or poster presentations on any topic of research within the Society’s interests from Early Career Researchers (late-stage doctoral students and post-docs) as well as from individuals conducting linguistic or philological research not ordinarily employed in an academic position or higher education.

jon_background_copyThe ECR Forum will take place at Wolfson College, Oxford.  Next to paper and poster sessions, there will be two workshops on journal and monograph publishing (led by Prof. James Clackson, Cambridge, and Prof. Susan Fitzmaurice, Sheffield) and on grant applications (led by Prof. Aditi Lahiri, Oxford). After the conclusion of the Research Forum, Prof. Rudolf Wachter (Basel) will give a paper at an ordinary meeting of the Society.

Anonymous abstracts of no more than one page (DIN A4 or US Letter, Times New Roman, 12pt, 2.5cm margin on all sides) including references, diagrams, and examples may be submitted electronically in PDF format to PhilSocECRF@gmail.com no later than 12.00pm GMT on Friday, 14 December 2018. Applicants should indicate whether they intend to give an oral or poster presentation, or are open to either. Submissions will be evaluated by the scientific committee and speakers informed about their success by 31 January 2019.

Speakers who join the Society at the student/ECR rate (£20 for 5 years) will be eligible to apply for a bursary to cover travel and accommodation in a College (or similar).

All queries and questions should be directed to the Society’s Hon. Secretary for Student Associate Members at: robin.meyer[at]ling-phil.ox.ac.uk.

A downloadable version of the Call for Papers is available here.

The latest from Austronesian historical linguistics

by Laura Arnold (University of Edinburgh)

LogoiCAL14The 14th International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics was held on 17–20 July 2018, at the campus of the Université d’Antananarivo in the capital of Madagascar, the westernmost outpost of the Austronesian world. With four keynote speakers and 176 participants, the conference brought together Austronesian researchers from all over the world to share their latest research on this huge and diverse language family. The four days of talks were followed by an excursion to the UNESCO world heritage site of the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, situated on a soaring hill above stunning landscapes and rice paddies, 24 km to the northeast of the city. Photographs of the conference by David Gil can be found here.

As ever, there were many talks that dealt with historical, comparative, and philological issues in Austronesian linguistics. The question of the the origin and movement of the pre-Austronesians and the subsequent expansion of Austronesian languages throughout insular Southeast Asia was the subject of lively debate throughout the conference. In his keynote speech, Waruno Mahdi—a proponent of the proto-Austric hypothesis, which links Austro-Tai to Austroasiatic—used genetic, archaeological, and linguistic data to argue that speakers of proto-Austronesian comprised two distinct population groups. One was a subtropical group (the ‘Deutero-Malays’), descended from the rice-cultivating Austro-Tai group; and the other was an equatorial group (the ‘Proto-Malays’), who migrated from the south towards the Proto-Austronesian homeland of Taiwan when the Sunda shelf was flooded, around 7000–4000 years BP. Laurent Sagart, on the other hand, who proposes that Austronesian is a sister of Sino-Tibetan, later argued that the pre-Austronesians originated from the Yellow Valley in north China, approximately 9000–7500 years BP. This conclusion is based on agricultural archaeological evidence regarding the spread of millet domestication; the spread of the ritual ablation of upper lateral incisors; and mtDNA and Y chromosome data showing a link between Sino-Tibetan- and Austronesian-speaking populations. Regarding the dispersal of the Malayo-Polynesians, Marian Klamer emphasised that the traditional farming dispersal model of Austronesian expansion throughout Island Southeast Asia is too simplistic, and cannot account for the linguistic and archaeological diversity found throughout the area – especially for the so-called Western Malayo-Polynesian and Central Malayo-Polynesian languages, which comprise over 600 languages across the majority of Island Southeast Asia. She reminded us that the Malayo-Polynesian expansion most likely did not occur in one fell swoop across the archipelago, but that there may have been hundreds or possibly thousands of migrations across the area; and that we need detailed, bottom-up micro-comparisons in order to work out the history of the linguistic dispersal of Malayo-Polynesian languages. This sentiment in particular appeared to strike a chord with the conference participants, and was something I heard echoed many times over coffee, lunch, and the cocktail party that closed the conference.

 

Photo
Credit: David Gil

Another topic of interest was the linguistic inferences that can be made about the history of Malagasy from 17th-century sources. One of the keynote speakers, Narivelo Rajaonarimanana, outlined his work on the Sorabe manuscripts and texts held in the National Library of Paris, which he has been transcribing and translating. He discussed the use of Qur’anic verses in these manuscripts in healing prayers, and as talismans for protection. He also sketched out some aspects of the grammar of the volañ’onjatsy dialect, spoken by a group living around the Matataña River, which is represented in these texts. Earlier in the conference, Alexander Adelaar (see also here) presented several speculations regarding the phonology of early Malagasy, using evidence from 17th-century Sorabe texts, and a 1603 textbook and wordlist of Malagasy compiled by Frederik de Houtman. First, he concluded that *y and *w in proto-Southeast Barito (the Bornean ancestor of Malagasy) were still vocoids at the point when Sorabe, a derivative of the Arabic script, was first adapted to transcribe Malagasy. Second, he established that the contraction of like vowels in originally disyllabic roots (e.g. *fu(h)u ‘heart’ > fu, *raa ‘blood’ > ra) had not yet taken place. Third, he discussed problems with the traditional identification of the Sorabe texts with the Taimoro dialect, providing linguistic evidence to show that the oldest Sorabe texts have features in common with the Tanosy dialect. Sorabe was originally practiced in a wider area, and its identification with the Taimoro dialect and region alone is too narrow and only reflects the current state of affairs. Finally, the orthography used in the wordlist, as well as comparison with cognate forms in other languages, suggests Malagasy still had a palatal nasal ñ at the time Houtman was compiling this wordlist.

My travel to the conference was funded in part by the Philological Society. In my presentation, I looked at a split in the tone system of a dialect of Ambel, a South Halmahera-West New Guinea language spoken in West Papua, Indonesia. This split was conditioned by vowel height, such that toneless syllables with non-high vowel nuclei *e, *a, and *o developed High tone, whereas toneless syllables with high vowel nuclei *i or *u remained toneless. There are two interesting points about this split. First, tone splits conditioned by vowel quality are very rare. Second, in all other cases of tone splits or tonogenesis conditioned by vowel quality that have been described in the literature so far, high vowels are associated with High tone. The conditioning of High tone by non-high vowels, as we find in Ambel, has not previously been attested. I went on to present a possible phonetic motivation for the split. This motivation makes reference to the complementary phenomena of intrinsic F0 and intrinsic pitch. All things being equal, higher vowels (e.g. /i/, /u/) are generally produced with a higher F0 than lower vowels (e.g. /a/). However, intrinsic pitch compensates for this, in that, when the F0 is identical, hearers perceive lower vowels as being higher in pitch than higher vowels. One important exception to intrinsic F0 is at the lower end of a speaker’s pitch range (e.g. in a tonal language, Low-toned syllables), where differences in F0 are reduced or completely neutralised. Toneless vowels in Ambel are realised with low pitch. I therefore suggested that, when proto-Ambel first developed tone, and toneless syllables came to be realised with low pitch, the intrinsic F0 of these toneless vowels was neutralised; however, the intrinsic pitch that formerly compensated for intrinsic F0 differences was maintained. This meant that speakers of Ambel came to perceive the toneless non-high vowels (*e, *a, and *o) as higher in pitch than the toneless high vowels (*i and *u). Eventually, this perceptual difference resulted in the merger of toneless syllables with non-high vowels with other High-toned syllables. Slides from this presentation can be found here.

Other talks that may be of interest to members and followers of the Philological Society are as follows (in order of presentation):

  • Owen Edwards explored the possible phonetic quality of proto-Austronesian *j. Three pieces of evidence lead him to the conclusion that the best reconstruction may be the affricate *dz. First, *dz is preserved as /dz/ in three primary branches of Austronesian, including Malayo-Polynesian; second, most of the reflexes in the present-day languages can be accounted for by making reference to natural and well-attested sound changes; and third, reconstructing *dz leads to a balanced and typologically-expected phonological inventory in proto-Austronesian.
  • Francesca Moro presented empirical data demonstrating that the morphological simplification of Alorese that has occurred since the most recent common ancestor with Lamaholot can be explained by the large number of L2 speakers of the language, which has historically been used as the lingua franca of the area.
  • Albert Davletshin looked at the diachrony of case marking in Nukeria, a Polynesian outlier – specifically, an agentive marker a, which is preposed only to singular personal and demonstrative pronouns, the question word ai ‘who?’, and personal names. He showed that the development and distribution of a can be explained by an interaction between semantics and phonology. On the semantic level, he discussed the phenomenon of differential agent marking, found elsewhere in Polynesian languages, in which highly-individuated NPs (such as pronouns, personal names, and definite NPs) are marked, whereas lower-individuated NPs are not. The distribution of a can be further explained by making reference to a phonological constraint in Nukeria which prevents the bimoraic singular pronouns and any bimoraic personal names from being realised without additional marking.
  • In a paper by Ritsuko Kikusawa(see also here), John Lowry, Paul Geraghty, Apolonia Tamata, Fumita Sano, Susuma Okamoto, and Hirofumi Teramura, results from a pilot project in Fiji combining linguistic and GIS data were discussed. In this project, the data are used to map different ‘communalects’, depending on how similar forms for a particular meaning are to Standard Fijian. This methodology can also be used to calculate the similarity of forms to a reconstructed ancestor form, and has the potential to be used in testing hypotheses with regards to historical population movements, for example where the ports of entry for a particular island may have been.
  • A paper by Juliette Huber and Antoinette Schapper looked at Austronesian borrowings into the non-Austronesian Eastern Timor languages. On the basis of sound changes in both the Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages, several layers of borrowing can be identified, indicating a complex and long-term history of contact. In addition, Austronesian borrowings from unidentified sources in the Eastern Timor languages suggests that there has been contact with a now-extinct Austronesian substrate in East Timor; and shared vocabulary throughout the languages of the area points to contact between the proto-languages of the Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages spoken today, although the source of these words is difficult to determine.
  • Kirsten Culhane and Owen Edwards presented data from the Meto dialect cluster, in which there are very diverse patterns of intervocalic consonant insertions. A diachronic perspective is necessary to understand this diversity – most of the consonants used in insertion can be easily explained by making reference to well-attested sound changes in each of the dialects. However, a structural analysis is insufficient to account for the synchronic state. Instead, a social perspective which makes reference to the distinct identity of each of the dialect communities is necessary to explain the observed differences.
  • Corinna Handschuh provided an overview of common and proprial articles in Austronesian. Various languages throughout the family have a system in which different articles are used to mark common and proper nouns: most notably in Oceanic, but also elsewhere, such as in Tagalog. The distinction has also been reconstructed to proto-Austronesian. This system is highly unusual, in that it has not so far been attested in any other language family. She thus focussed on the stability of such a typologically unusual system over such a great time depth, flagging up the similarities with nominal classification systems such as gender, which are typically stable over time.
  • Emily Gasser discussed a ‘crazy rule’ of /β/, /r/, and /k/ mutation, which is attested in the majority of the languages of the South Halmahera-West New Guinea (SHWNG) subbranch. While her presentation focussed on the synchrony of this mutation, in the question and answer session she proposed that it may be helpful in the subgrouping of SHWNG – specifically, that the mutation provides evidence for grouping the SHWNG languages spoken around Cenderawasih Bay into a single primary branch.
  • Tobias Weber discussed the typological profile of the languages of Sumatra and the Barrier Islands, investigating mostly structures mentioned in the WALS. He assumed that certain features of these languages—the larger-than-average vowel inventories, the denasalisation of consonants in Enggano and Mentawai, numeral classifiers, and clausal head-marking (indexing of arguments on the predicate)—may be explained by influence from a now-extinct pre-Austronesian substrate.
  • Peter Slomanson looked at the development of negation in the contact languages Sri Lankan Malay and Sri Lankan Portuguese. He showed that these two varieties are in some ways structurally closer to each other than they are to their co-territorial model languages, Tamil and Sinhala, yet the contact languages still differ from each other in their respective negation systems. The parallels that there are, for example in the ordering of functional markers, suggest that contact between what would become Sri Lankan Malay and Sri Lankan Portuguese may have begun in Java, before continuing in Sri Lanka.
  • Penelope Howe presented preliminary data from matched guise tests, showing that an emergent lexical tone contrast in the Central dialects of Malagasy additionally indexes social meaning. Her results suggest that the use of tone in these dialects is associated with more positive attributes (e.g. friendliness, honesty). However, when tone is absent, the speakers of these dialects are associated with more negative attributes (e.g. reticence, indifference).

For further information about any of these presentations, readers are encouraged to contact the relevant author(s).


The Philological Society offers numerous bursaries, travel and fieldwork grants to its members; for more information, please visit the PhilSoc website.

TPS 116(2) – Abstract 5

Syntax and semantics of modal predicates in Indo‐European

by Carlotta Viti (University of Zurich)

This paper discusses the syntactic variation of modal predicates between structures with a nominative primary argument and those with an oblique primary argument. In the literature, this variation is related to a change from deontic to epistemic meanings, whereby epistemicity seems to be more commonly expressed by highly grammaticalized impersonal constructions. After having shown the weakness of this relationship, I suggest a new explanation for the variation of modal predicates on the basis of diverse ancient Indo‐European languages, such as Vedic, Ancient Greek and Latin, as well as of some of their modern descendants, especially Hindi, Modern Greek, and standard and colloquial Italian. I argue that modal predicates with an oblique primary argument are favoured for functions of necessity, while modal predicates with a nominative primary argument preferably express functions of possibility. This reflects the different meanings of the lexical sources of these predicates, that is, capacity or power for predicates of possibility, and lack or obligation for predicates of necessity, which also imply different degrees of agentivity and control.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12116

TPS 116(2) – Abstract 4

Of Lambkins and Piglets in Old English and Beyond

by Patrick V. Stiles (University College London)

It is suggested that the Old English adjectives geēan and gecealf, each attested once in the same passage, could refer not only to pregnant livestock but also to mothers with their newborn young (as proposed by Osthoff in 1895). The twice occurring sequence gefearh sugu, which is usually taken to be a compound, is here analysed as consisting of a third such adjective used attributively before the noun; as the feminine nominative singular of a heavy‐syllabled adjective, it is endingless. This appears to be a return to an earlier view. A fourth example, gefol, recorded once, is also discussed. The formation of these adjectives is briefly treated, as is the PGmc noun *auna- “lamb” presupposed by the first adjective, together with its presumed relationship to Latin agnus and further cognates. Evidence for the derived class II weak verb *aunôn (reflected in OE *ēanian) in the Germanic languages is presented.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12121

TPS 116(2) – Abstract 3

Syntactic Echoes of Pronominal Cliticization and Grammaticalization: The Case of Old High German First‐Person Plural ‐mes

by Katerina Somers (Queen Mary University of London), Mary Allison, Matthew Boutilier, Robert Howell (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

The origin of first person plural (1PL) ‘long’ forms of the type faramês/‐mes ‘(we) go’ in Old High German (OHG) is one of the most intractable problems in the history of the Germanic languages. Because these forms are confined only to OHG and have no obvious parallel elsewhere in Germanic or Indo‐European, most of the tools of the comparative method are of little use, with the result that the many accounts put forward over the past two centuries rely on a series of unlikely and ad hoc assumptions. What is more, previous work has focused on the one aspect of the problem that scholars are least likely to solve given the array of texts we presently have at our disposal, while paying little attention to what we argue is the more promising line of inquiry. That is, existing studies discuss in detail the possible morphological sources of ‐mes and their phonological development and focus little on the syntactic environments in which verbs inflected with ‐mes occur. We intend to reverse this trend through a comprehensive examination of ‐mes across the OHG corpus, with a particular focus on two of its major monuments, the OHG Tatian and Otfrid’s Evangelienbuch; this analysis shows that the syntactic distribution of ‐mes‐inflected verbs point to the suffix being diachronically and synchronically pronominal. Thus, we conclude that ‐mes must have arisen as the result of pronominal cliticization, a suggestion first put forth by Kuhn (1869) and Paul (1877).

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12117

TPS 116(2) – Abstract 2

The Expression Of Progressive Aspect In Grico: Mapping Morphosyntactic Isoglosses In An Endangered Italo‐Greek Variety

by Adam Ledgeway, Norma Schifano, and Giuseppina Silvestri (University of Cambridge)

This article investigates the expression of progressive aspect by means of verbal periphrases in the Italo‐Greek variety known as Grico, spoken in Salento (southern Italy). Building on the extremely valuable, yet out‐dated, description of Rohlfs (1977), we first present an overview of the array of different patterns brought to light by our recent fieldwork and through a survey of a selection of both early and contemporary sources which include combinations of (non‐)inflected STAND with (non‐)finite forms of a lexical verb, optionally linked by functional elements. After describing the empirical picture, we assess the degree of grammaticalization of the patterns which are still productive today, reconstructing their evolution from earlier periphrases and paying particular attention to the grammaticalization of the ambiguous element pu ‘where; from; that’. Finally, we analyse a hybrid structure currently consistently produced by semi‐speakers from different villages, which seems to instantiate a new ‘third’ option within the local repertoire. The article concludes with of a number of observations about the role of this case study for our knowledge of diatopic morphosyntactic microvariation in Grico and for the nature of language contact and language change.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12118