Understanding the loss of inflection

by Helen Sims-Williams (University of Surrey)

The role of inflection is one of the most conspicuous ways that languages differ from each other. While English speakers only have to learn four or five forms of the verb, speakers of Georgian have to deal with paradigms containing hundreds of forms. In return for their efforts, they gain the ability to express complex propositions compactly: the single word vuc’er requires five words in its English translation ‘I am writing to him’.

Surrey Morphology Group
Loss of Inflection: a research project by the Surrey Morphology Group

The extent of inflectional morphology also distinguishes different historical stages of the same language – during its recorded history English has dramatically reduced the inflection it inherited from Proto-Germanic, leaving only a few relics, like the distinction between pronominal I/me, she/her, he/him.

The inflectional poverty of modern English may come as a relief to the many people who learn it as a second language, but its meagre remaining stock of inflection is zealously guarded by purists. Barack Obama was ‘roundly criticized’ for using a subject pronoun in phrases like “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” – a use described by Hock in his Principles of Historical Linguistics (1991: 629) as ‘the ultimate horror’ (admittedly in scare quotes), and which even led one blogger to comment “believe it or not, this was a contributing factor to my voting decision”. Continue reading “Understanding the loss of inflection”

TPS 114(3) – Abstract 5

Negation in Colonial Valley Zapotec

by Carolyn Jane Anderson and Brook Danielle Lillehaugen

This paper presents an overview of negation in Colonial Valley Zapotec (CVZ) based on a corpus of texts written in Valley Zapotec between 1565 and 1808. There are four negative markers in CVZ, two bound (ya=, qui=) and two free (aca, yaca). Standard negation employs a negative word and an optional clitic, =ti. Understanding the syntax of a historical form of Valley Zapotec allows us to make some observations about related forms in modern Valley Zapotec languages, in particular San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec (SLQZ). For example, the morpheme =ti, which is required in clausal negation in SLQZ, is not obligatory in any negative constructions in CVZ until around 1800. In Vellon 1808, the youngest text in the corpus, we observe =ti required in one type of clausal negation. This allows us to observe details of the development of the modern Valley Zapotec negation system, including the fact that the remaining changes leading to obligatory =ti in clausal negation in SLQZ must have occurred within the last 200 years.

TPS 114(3) – Abstract 4

Periodization, translation, prescription and the emergence of Classical French

by Wendy Ayres-Bennett (University of Cambridge) and Philippe Caron

In this article we demonstrate how fine-grained analysis of salient features of linguistic change over a relatively short, but significant period can help refine our notions of periodization. As our case study, we consider whether it is appropriate to distinguish a period called français préclassique (‘Pre-Classical French’), and if so, what its temporal limits are. As our contemporary informants we take, on the one hand, the comments of writers of remarks on the French language, who were highly conscious of language change, and on the other, usage in successive French translations of the same Latin source text which can be exploited to track and date the adoption of ‘modern’ linguistic variants. We find atypical patterns of change – and notably changes which move rapidly through Labov’s different stages – that contribute to the sense of discontinuity or periodization. However, this sense of ‘rupture’ does not coincide with the chronological boundaries hitherto suggested for français préclassique, thus throwing the validity of this period into question.

TPS 114(3) – Abstract 3

Analogical Levelling and Optimisation: the Treatment of Pointless Lexical Allomorphy in Greek

by Helen Sims-Williams (University of Surrey)

Ancient Greek verbal morphology involved extensive allomorphy of lexical morphemes, most of which was phonologically and semantically arbitrary, lexically idiosyncratic, and functionally redundant. This was subsequently reduced through analogical levelling, which eliminates alternations in favour of a single phonological expression of underlying meaning. This reduction of arbitrary complexity is often observed in the development of morphological systems, which has inspired a common view of morphological change as being guided by universal preferences, nudging languages along paths which will lead them to a more optimal status. This paper applies data from the history of Greek to two questions about analogical levelling and the role of ‘optimisation’. Firstly, is levelling motivated by a universal preference for a one-to-one alignment of meaning and form? Secondly, is the direction of levelling determined by universal preferences for particular ways of marking morphosyntactic distinctions? I will argue that the answer to both questions is no: the developments observed here are remarkably well predicted by language-specific, formal properties of paradigms, without the need to invoke universal preferences. These facts are best accommodated if speaker competence includes detailed probabilistic information about the predictive structure of paradigms, which has important implications for morphological theory, as well as historical linguistics.

TPS 114(3) – Abstract 2

Trade Pidgins in China: Historical and Grammatical Relationships

by Michelle Li

Sino-western contacts began in the 16th century when Europeans started open trade with China. Two trade pidgins, Macau Pidgin Portuguese (MPP) and Chinese Pidgin English (CPE), arose during the Canton trade period. This paper examines the historical and grammatical relationships of these two pidgins by drawing data from 19th century phrasebooks. This study argues for a close connection between MPP and CPE with reference to three grammatical features which go beyond shared vocabulary: locative copulas, form of personal pronouns, and prepositional complementisers. While these grammatical properties find little resemblance in the recognised source languages for CPE, parallel uses are attested in MPP, which therefore appears to provide the model for these properties in CPE.

TPS 114(3) – Abstract 1

London’s Name

by Theodora Bynon

The present paper was inspired by Richard Coates’s 1998 article ‘A new analysis of the name London’, in which he refutes the traditional derivation of the name from the form Londinium recorded in the Classical sources on the grounds that its Old English ancestor Lunden presupposes a British (that is to say, Celtic) source form *[Lōndonjon] with a back vowel in the second syllable. I wish further to clarify the history of this name in two respects by showing that: (i) the British name must have reached western Germanic dialects prior to West Germanic Consonant Lengthening and thus in all probability prior to the Anglo-Saxon settlements in England, and: (ii) that *Londonion (with a short [o]) belongs to an identifiable British place-name type, even though the identity of the lexical base lond- remains rather elusive and information on a native settlement is confined to a single historical source, which locates it to the south of the Thames.

Sources of evidence for linguistic analysis

Round table discussion with Aaron Ecay (Unversity of York), Seth Mehl (University of Sheffield), Nick Zair (Univeristy of Cambridge), chaired by Cécile De Cat (University of Leeds)

Is linguistics an empirical science? How reliable are the data on which linguistic analyses and theories are based? These questions are not new, but in light of the disturbing findings of the Reproducibility Project in psychological sciences, the need to revisit them has become more pressing.  This round table discussion will start with presentations from three postdoctoral researchers, who will discuss the question of data collection and analysis and the interpretation of linguistic evidence.

 

This panel will be held on 11 November 2016 at 4.15pm in the Great Woodhouse Room, University House, University of Leeds, LS2 9JS.

For more information about the individual panelists’ presentations, see their abstracts below. The presentations have been live-tweeted under the hashtag , and George Walkden has kindly provided a storified version of the tweets. Continue reading “Sources of evidence for linguistic analysis”

Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS) – Project Launch

by Lisa-Maria Mueller (University of Cambridge)

Languages are not merely a tool for communication but central to key issues of our time, including national security, diplomacy and conflict resolution, community and social cohesion, migration and identity. Learning languages then is not only about learning the words and grammar of another language but also about a deeper intercultural understanding that is not just important for individuals but for developing more respectful and effective policy.

And yet multilingualism and multiculturalism are commonly problematised and Modern Foreign Languages have not yet attained the same status as English, Maths or Science in the school setting.

The AHRC funded Open World Research Initiative (OWRI), which subsumes four major projects, therefore aims to explore and promote modern languages in the UK (see here for more details).

MEITS is one of those four research programmes. It is based at the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Queen’s Belfast and spans six interlocking strands exploring the fields of literature, cinema and culture, history of ideas, sociolinguistics, education, applied linguistics and cognition (see diagram).

meits_diagram

Together, these strands seek to answer the following research questions:

  • What is the relationship between the multilingual individual and the multilingual society?
  • What are the opportunities and challenges presented by multilingualism?
  • What is the relationship between multilingualism, diversity and identity?
  • What is the relationship between multilingualism and language learning?
  • How can we influence attitudes towards multilingualism?
  • How can we re-energise Modern Languages research?

To this end, research strand 1 will be investigating literature, cinema, culture and citizenship in a globalising Europe by studying cultural texts and events – narrative, fiction, poetry, theatre, cinema – that foreground, problematise, and inform questions of linguistic unity, diversity, identity, power, and quality of life in the public sphere. This strand will focus on two distinct contexts at opposite ends of Europe; Catalonia, on the one hand, because of its status as an ‘autonomous region’ in Spain and Ukraine, on the other, due to its recent conflicts over the legacy of empire and colonialism. Despite inherent differences, these regions share the instrumentalisation of language for the renegotiation or secession of national identities. Spanning from the 19th to the 21st century, strand 1 of the MEITS project will investigate how and why language is politicised in multilingual contexts and the role of culture in this process by undertaking formal-aesthetic and symbolic-ideological analyses of texts and contexts.

Strand 2 also focuses on societal multilingualism and will provide a comparative perspective of standard languages, norms and variation in multilingual contexts. The role of multilingualism in relation to standard languages will be analysed synchronically and diachronically in national and transnational contexts (e.g.: France/Francophonie) alongside pluricentric (e.g.: German) situations where languages vie with other languages/varieties on cultural, political and ideological grounds (e.g.: Ukrainian, Irish, Mandarin) by combining methods from the humanities, sociolinguistics and historical sociolinguistics.

The question of identity is central to many of the projects and will be explored from an individual and a social perspective in the third strand of the MEITS project. The contexts of Ireland and France will be contrasted as the first has an official language that is both minoritised and dialectal while the latter has a single standard language that is highly standardised and dominant despite the richness of regional and heritage languages in France. Quantitative and qualitative approaches will be blended to investigate issues such as urban language in multicultural contexts, regional identities, as well as the role of language for social cohesion.

Multilingual identity is further investigated in strand 4 of the MEITS project, where its connection to motivation and attainment in foreign language learning will be studied. To this end, the development and expansion of multilingual identities in early foreign language learning among monolingual adolescent learners and their peers with English as an additional language will be charted. The cognitive and social dimensions of motivation will be studied in intervention and matched non-intervention classes using a mixed methods design.

Instructed foreign language learning is also the focus in strand 5 of the MEITS project where the influence of age, language-specific factors and setting on the language learning process and progress will be studied. The aim of this strand is to investigate whether an earlier start indeed is better in the context of minimal input settings or whether cognitive changes during adolescence might actually make young adults more successful language learners. In order to achieve this goal, a combination of linguistic and cognitive tests will be employed to assess the language learning process and attainment in learners of different starting ages in a longitudinal study.

Finally, strand 6 shares its interest in cognitive processes with strands 4 and 5 and will study the impact of multilingualism on motivation, health and well-being. This topic will be approached from two perspectives. On the one hand, the cognitive effects of intensive language learning in late adulthood will be studied and on the other, bilingual and monolingual children with autism will be compared in order to establish whether cognitive advantages associated with typically developing bilingualism can also be found in bilingual children with autism.

This brief overview of the MEITS project shows that the six research strands are closely intertwined, facilitating the development of new interdisciplinary research paradigms and methods which will allow for a more holistic approach to the study of multilingualism on a societal and individual level. Through this integrated approach and our close collaboration with partners from outside higher education we aim to change attitudes towards multilingualism and highlight its benefits for cultural awareness, health and well-being, education, social cohesion, (inter)national relations as well as employability and thus empower individuals and transform societies.

If you want to learn more, visit the project’s website and/or follow us on social media (on facebook, twitter: @meits_owri).