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 . Continue reading “Sources of evidence for linguistic analysis”