Building Meaning in Context: A Dynamic Approach to Bantu Clause Structure

by Hannah Gibson (University of Essex)

When I first started on my doctoral research, I had access to two sentences from the Tanzanian Bantu language Rangi which seemed to show that the language allowed for post-verbal auxiliary placement. This word order was unexpected given that Rangi has a dominant SVO order. It is also unusual in the context of East African Bantu languages where auxiliary-verb order dominates.

I subsequently spent a year spent in Tanzania working with Rangi-speakers and Rangi-speaking linguists, and gathering data. Luckily for me, the two sentences I had started off with were indeed representative of the language. And the picture was in fact more complicated than that. While verb-auxiliary order is obligatory in the two future tense constructions, this order is ‘reversed’ in a range of syntactically-conditioned contexts: wh-questions, sentential negation, relative clauses, after subordinators and in cleft constructions.

Fast forward several years, and at the end of 2018, my monograph Building meaning in context: a dynamic approach to Bantu clause structure was published as part of the Philological Society’s Monograph series. The book adopts a parsing/production-based approach to modelling Bantu clause structure, employing the tools and assumptions laid out in the Dynamic Syntax framework. It includes a chapter which looks at this auxiliary placement alternation in Rangi in more detail, as well as examining a number of other features of Bantu morphosyntax.

Dynamic Syntax (DS; Cann et al. 2005, Kempson et al. 2001, 2011) is a grammar formalism that aims to capture this real-time parsing process. Under the DS perspective, linguistic knowledge is considered to be the ability to parse language in context, whilst syntax is considered to be the constraint-based way in which representations of content can be built up from words encountered in a string.

The book presents an overview of the key tools and mechanisms adopted by the Dynamic Syntax framework (Chapter 2). It then goes on to show the application of these assumptions to modelling the Bantu clause, drawing primarily on data from the East African Bantu language Swahili (Chapter 3). A number of key phenomena relating to Bantu morphosyntax – inversion constructions and passives (Chapter 4) and negation (Chapter 5) – are also examined.

Chapter 6 presents an account of the word order alternation found in Rangi that I set out to examine after seeing those two sentences all those years ago. There is also a chapter which goes beyond data from the Bantu languages and explores cross-linguistic similarities that emerge as a result of the formal account presented (Chapter 7).

One of the contributions made by the study of auxiliaries in Rangi, is that it further supports the predictive power of the DS framework. The formal tools used in this account of Rangi auxiliaries show parallels with accounts of distinct phenomena in unrelated languages – clitic placement phenomena in Cypriot Greek and Medieval Spanish, as well as cleft constructions in Japanese and ‘scrambling’ in Korean.

The book will be of interest to those working on African languages, and particularly the languages of the Bantu family. But also those interested in word order phenomena, lexicon-based formal approaches to modelling language, as well as those wanting to find out more about Dynamic Syntax.

Opportunities for Linguistics in Modern Foreign Languages

by Michelle Sheehan (Anglia Ruskin University)

On 31 May, the ‘Linguistics in Modern Foreign Languages’ project held a conference at Anglia Ruskin University, funded by Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Anglia Ruskin University, the British Academy and the Philological Society.

The conference brought together exam boards, publishers, advocacy groups and academics and teachers to learn about findings from the project so far and to explore outcomes of comparable international initiatives. The ‘Linguistics in MFL’ project assesses the potential for the inclusion of linguistic topics in the secondary school languages curriculum. It aims to introduce students to linguistics and deepen their interest in language, including its historical, cultural and social reflexes.

Talks were given by Teresa Tinsley, author of the British Council’s Language Trends surveys and Chris Pountain, member of the A-level Content Advisory Board for MFL, amongst others. The full programme is available here.

Discussants at the event included Dora Alexopoulou, Editor of Language, Society and Policy, Victoria Dutchman-Smith, Commissioning Editor (MFL), OUP, Bernadette Holmes, Director of Speak to the Future, Rhona Thompson, Curriculum Manager for Languages at AQA, and four teachers: Sophie Hentschel, from Thirsk School and Sixth Form College, Olly Hopwood, from Westminster School, Susan Stewart, Head of Multilingualism at International School of London and Janette Swainton, Head of MFL at Longsands Academy, St Neots.

The PhilSoc grant allowed us to offer travel bursaries for teachers to attend the event, and they did so in great numbers from all over the UK. Many commented on how inspiring they had found the event and how it has made them think about their teaching practice.

Claire Robinson from Suffolk One (a state VI form college) said:

Just wanted to thank you rather in haste for a great day on Friday.  I really enjoyed it, and even though I wasn’t quite sure what to expect I found it very inspiring.  My particular take-aways were:

  1. Linguistics really delivers on equity – this came home to me as a really pressing need after Teresa Tinsley’s talk which showed how uptake is narrowing to become the preserve of elite schools, and again as a huge opportunity highlighted by the fact that anyone can ‘do’ linguistics in relation to their own L1, thus giving the lie to students who think it’s ‘posh’ to talk about language.
  2. Mary Wenham’s talk has inspired me to resurrect some materials I used to use years ago to introduce L2 teaching, as I’m offering a ‘Tongue Twisters’ session on our ‘Raising the Bar’ day when we invite Year 6 students from primary schools in Ipswich to join us for a taste of sixth form life – I’ll let you know how it goes!

For more information about the project, click here.

Oblique predicative constructions in English

by Bas Aarts (University College London)

English allows for a predicative phrase to occur after the prepositions for and as in constructions like the following:

(1) We took her for a friend.
(2) They left her for dead.

(3) I regarded her as a genius.
(4) She rates his work as excellent.

The phrases introduced by for and as in these constructions introduce either a noun phrase or adjective phrase constituent that is predicated of the postverbal noun phrase in each case. I will call the V + NP + [PP P+NP/AdjP] construction the oblique predicative construction, and the complement of the preposition an oblique predicative complement. The construction with for is the older one, and is found in many unrelated languages, including Gothic, Greek, Latin, Russian, Spanish, Dutch and German, as Jespersen (1909-49, IV: 386) has shown.

In this paper I will trace the history of predicative oblique constructions involving for and as and a number of additional prepositions from Old English onwards. I will then discuss the huge range of constructions in which predicative for appears, and how these differ from constructions with as, which gradually became dominant in Present-Day English. By looking at a range of data I will investigate whether the claim that for and as are interchangeable, made by the OED, Jespersen and Poutsma, is valid. I will argue that for a number of reasons it is unsustainable. I will look at one of these reasons in detail, namely the observation that for has acquired a subtly specialised meaning which has come to differentiate it from as.

This paper will be read at the Annual General Meeting of the Philological Society in Cambridge, Murray Edwards College, Buckingham House Seminar Room, on Saturday, 15 June 2019, 4.15pm.

Report on the 51st International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics

by Xiaolan Cao (University of Melbourne)

With the generous bursary from the Philological Society, I was able to present my research paper at the 51st International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics held at Kyoto University, Japan, 25–28 September 2018 .

During the conference, three posters and seventy-two papers of the most recent research on Sino-Tibetan languages and linguistics were presented, including various topics in the fields of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and diachrony. Professor Sun Jackson and Professor James Matissof gave the plenary talks. All the papers presented at the conference are freely available here.

On the second day of the conference, I presented my paper on the phonology of Southern Pinghua and phonological dialectal variances. In this paper, I first present the phonology of Southern Pinghua based on the Wucun dialect. I organized this section of my paper by the order of consonants, vowels, tones, and syllable structure. After going through the phonology and phonological features of the Wucun dialect, I presented my study on the phonological variances between 32 Southern Pinghua dialects. Based on variance analysis, I concluded that Southern Pinghua dialects are relatively diverse, which partly explains the low degree of mutual intelligibility between those dialects. Thus, it is neither prudent nor rigorous to use one dialect to represent the whole Southern Pinghua group without thorough comparative studies investigating dialectal variants.

After my presentation, I received valuable feedback on my paper and connected with researchers who share research interest in Sinitic languages. With all the feedback I received, I am currenlty preparing a journal paper based on my presentation with additions on the diachrony of Southern Pinghua phonology, which I hope to submit to the Transaction of the Philological Society.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Philological Society again for the generous bursary. Without this support, I would not have been able to make my trip to the conference to share my research findings and exchange ideas with researchers from all over the world on Sino-Tibetan languages and linguistics.

Why language learning opens the mind: old prejudices, trendy myths, and new research

by Antonella Sorace (University of Edinburgh)

These are interesting times for both the scientific and the public understanding of multilingualism. Old prejudices about learning more than one language in childhood are still widespread, yet new misconceptions about the ‘bilingual advantage’ treat language learning as a panacea. We need two types of ‘bridges’ to debunk old and new myths: bridges that connect different research fields to help understand the interacting factors affecting multilingualism, and bridges to bring a balanced picture of multilingualism research to people from all sectors of society who need to make informed decisions. In this lecture, I will describe how the research and public engagement centre Bilingualism Matters is successfully building both types of bridges worldwide.

The annual Anna Morpurgo Davies Lecture, organised in co-operation with the British Academy, will take place on Friday, 10 May, 4.15pm, at the Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG. Tickets are available from the British Academy website. A video recording will be made available in due course.

The Origin of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua

by Xiaolan Cao (University of Melbourne)

In this post, I will discuss the origin of the voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua, one of the two branches of Pinghua and a minority Sinitic language. Southern Pinghua is mostly spoken in Southern Guangxi in China (Qin 2000) by approximately 1.8 million native speakers (Min 2013). However, some of the dialects have experienced huge trans-generational language loss and are hence potentially endangered (Cao 2019). Most Southern Pinghua speakers identify as ethnic Han, the majority ethnic group in China, while most of the rest identify as ethnic Zhuang.

In southern Pinghua, the voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/ is a consonant phoneme occurring in the onset position of a syllable. The phonemicity of /ɬ/ can be established by the minimal pair in Table 1 below.[1]

Word Gloss
/ɬa33/ ‘spread’
/sa33/ ‘sprinkle’

Table 1: a minimal pair of voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/

Commonly, /ɬ/ is not considered an internal development of Sinitic languages primarily because it rarely occurs in present-day Sinitic languages. Within China, it is distributed in the former Baiyue area, once occupied by the ancestors of Tai-Kadai speakers (Li 2000). Besides Southern Pinghua dialects, Cantonese dialects located in Southern Guangxi and Western Guangdong also have the phoneme /ɬ/. Outside Guangxi and Guangdong, /ɬ/ can be found only in three small regions in China: it can be seen in some dialects of Ming in non-contiguous geographical pockets in Fujian Province or some dialects of Hui in Anhui Province; it also can be found in some dialects of various Sinitic languages spoken on the west coast of Hainan Province (de Sousa 2015: 166-168, quoting Liu X 2006, Liu F 2007, Akitani 2008, and Meng 1981). Due to its limited distribution in present-day Sinitic languages, /ɬ/ is not reconstructed for Middle Chinese or Old Chinese in the literature; see Zhengzhang (2003), Li (1971), Baxter and Sagart (2014), and Wang (1985) respectively.

On the other hand, /ɬ/ is common in present-day dialects of Zhuang, a Tai-Kadai language mainly spoken in Guangxi (Zheng 1998). According to works by Mai (2009, 2011), Ouyang (1995), Yuan (1989), Zheng (1998), and Zhao (2015), the phoneme /ɬ/ in Sinitic languages may have developed under the influences from Zhuang loanwords through language contact. However, the opposing view—that because the phoneme /ɬ/ in Zhuang corresponds to *s in Proto-Tai, it is likely that Zhuang developed this phoneme under the influence from Sinitic languages instead of the opposite direction of influences—has been suggested in the Chinese language literature as well (de Sousa 2015, quoting Li F 1977 and Pittayaporn 2009).

The two views on the origin of /ɬ/ in Sinitic languages have some limitations. First, the argument that /ɬ/ is not an internal development of Sinitic language simply because of its limited distribution and absence from reconstructions for Middle Chinese or Old Chinese does not preclude that /ɬ/ could have developed in Southern Pinghua after the Middle Chinese period.

Further, the evidence does not indicate whether /ɬ/ is an internal development in Southern Pinghua or a phoneme developed under the influences of loanwords from Zhuang through language contact. As for its distribution in Southern Pinghua, the phoneme /ɬ/ can be found in both the Sinitic stratum and the Zhuang stratum. According to a survey by Cao (2018), in the Sinitic stratum, Chinese characters (Chinese cognates) whose Southern Pinghua pronunciations contain onset /ɬ/ were mostly recorded as having the Middle Chinese onset denoted as 心 (*s) in Qieyun, a rhyming dictionary published in 601 CE during the Sui dynasty (581–618). This correspondence exists not only in common words, such as /ɬam52/ (‘three’) and /ɬɜm52/ (‘heart’) but also in literary words, like /ɬɜw52/ (‘constellation’) and /ɬoŋ52/ (‘lofty’).

The correspondences between /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua and onset 心 (*s) in Middle Chinese suggests that /ɬ/ is of Sinitic origin. However, from the same survey, there are ninety-one admissible syllables start with /ɬ/ in total, among which twenty-six cannot be associated with Chinese characters (Chinese cognates). Normally for Southern Pinghua syllables, being able to be identified by Chinese characters strongly indicates their Sinitic origin. Thus, these twenty-six syllables are possibly not of Sinitic origin but introduced to the language by loanwords from other languages, such as Zhuang. Thus, the distribution of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua does not support /ɬ/ being an internal development or one induced by the influences of language contact with Zhuang.

In addition to the distributional features of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua, the historical developments of /s/-phonemes in Southern Pinghua may also shed some light on the developments of /ɬ/. In Southern Pinghua, pronunciations of Chinese characters whose onset is /s/ correspond mostly to those denoted in Qieyun as having onsets denoted as 审 (*ɕ), 禅 (**ʑ), and邪 (*z). Based on the fact that these three Middle Chinese onsets did not develop into /ɬ/, we may speculate that the Middle Chinese onset 心 (*s) has some features that make it prone to sound change to /ɬ/ under certain influences, such as loanwords from Zhuang.

Finally, the geographical distribution of /ɬ/ is not so discontiguous as described in previous studies. The geographical distribution of /ɬ/ is contiguous in Southern Guangxi and Western Guangdong. These two adjacent regions in total occupy approximately 184,000 square kilometres [2] of densely populated area, which is larger than Cambodia (181,035 square kilometres) or Nepal (147,181 square kilometres). Therefore, it may not be accurate to describe the territory of /ɬ/ in Southern Guangxi and Western Guangdong as small or isolated, and /ɬ/ can be considered as an areal feature for further studies in historical linguistics, areal linguistics, and linguistic typology. Drawing from the analysis and evidence given in the discussion above, I would like to posit some questions for further investigation.

  1. Why is /ɬ/ so prevalent in Southern Pinghua and Cantonese dialects found in the area of Southern Guangxi and Eastern Guangdong, but not in the other areas?
  2. If language contact with Zhuang is a contributing factor to the development of /ɬ/, why does /ɬ/ occur in Southern Pinghua dialects but not most Northern Pinghua dialects, given both Pinghua branches have similar contact with Zhuang?
  3. Similarly, why do Cantonese dialects in Western Guangdong have /ɬ/ but not those in Eastern Guangdong, considering Cantonese dialects mostly have similar exposure to Zhuang in the history?
  4. Can the peculiar distributions of /ɬ/ in Pinghua and Cantonese dialects be explained by a mere historical accident?

In sum, the two opposing views on the origin of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua are questionable because the evidence is inconclusive. At this stage, the origin of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua dialects remains unclear, and further investigations are still required.


Baxter, W.H., and Laurent Sagart. 2014. Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cao, Xiaolan. 2019, ‘Documentation of Wucun Pinghua’: Endangered Langauge Documentation Program.

—. 2018, ‘A Survey of the Southern Pinghua Pronunciation of Chinese Characters with English Glosses and Corresponding Mandarin and Cantonese Pronunciations’: University of New England.

de Sousa, Hilário 2015, ‘Language Contact in Nanning: Nanning Pinghua and Nanning Cantonese’, in Hilary M. Chappell (ed.), Diversity in Sinitic Languages, Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2016: Oxford University Press.

Li, Fanggui. 1971, ‘上古音研究 (a Study of Old Chinese Phonology]’. Qinghua Xuebao 9,26-32.

Li, Lianjin. 2000, ‘平话的历史 [ the History of Pinghua]’. 民族语文 [ Minority languages of China] 6,24-30.

Mai, Geng. 2009, ‘从粤语的产生和发展看汉语方言形成的模式 [ a View of the Formation Pattern of Chinese Dialects from the Formation and Development of Yue]’. 方言[Fangyan] 3,219-232.

—. 2011, ‘粤语方言的音韵特征-兼谈方言分区的一些问题 [ Phonological Features of Yue and Some Issues in the Subgrouping of Chinese Dialects]’. 方言[Dialects],289-301.

Min, Gunag. 2013, ‘桂南平话研究综述 [ a Literature Review of the Studies of Southern Pinghua]’. 语文学刊 [ Journal of langauge] 9,22-23.

Ouyang, Jueya. 1995, ‘两广粤方言与壮语的种种关系 [ the Relations between Zhuang and the Yue Dialects Spoken in Guangdong and Guangxi]’. 民族语文 [ Minority languages of China] 6,49-52.

Qin, Yuanxiong. 2000, ‘桂南平话研究 [Study in Southern Pinghua]’, unpublished: Jinan University.

Wang, Li. 1985. 汉语语音史 [the Phonological History of the Chinese Language]. Bejing: China Social Science Press.

Yuan, Jiahua. 1989. 汉语方言概要 [ Introduction to Chinese Dialects]. Beijing: 文字改革出版社 [ The press of language and character reform].

Zhao, Yuan. 2015, ‘广西粤语,平话中的边擦音/ɬ/的来源及其形成探究 [ Exploring the Origin of the Voiceless Fricative /ɬ/ in Yue and Pinghua Spoken in Guangxi’. Journal of Guangxi Teacher’s Education University (Philosophy and Social Sciences Edition) 36,61-66.

Zheng, Zuoguang. 1998, ‘广西平话的边擦音声母ɬ及其形成 [ the Formation of Lateral Fricative /ɬ/ in Guangxi Pinghua’, 方言与音韵研究论集

, Nanning: Guangxi Jiaoyu Press, pp. 103-110.

Zhengzhang, Shangfang. 2003. 上古音系 [Phonology of Old Chinese]. Shanghai: Shanghai Jiaoyu Press.

[1] Southern Pinghua is a tone language, and the numbers in the word transcriptions indicate lexical tones

[2] The regions of Southern Guangxi and Western Guangdong occupy approximately half of Guangxi (236,700 square kilometers) and one third of Guangdong (177,900 square kilometers). Therefore, it is estimated that these two regions altogether have around 184,000 square kilometers.