Membership survey 2016 

by Richard K. Ashdowne (University of Oxford; Honorary Membership Secretary, PhilSoc)

In spring 2016 the Council of the Society ran an online survey to find out members’ views on matters to do with the Society’s current activities, and in particular its programme of meetings.

More than 200 members completed the survey, from a wide range of the Society’s very diverse membership, including new and student associate members and those who have been members of the society for many decades.

The chief results of the survey were that more than half of the respondents typically do not attend any meetings of the Society each year, while less than 10% of respondents said they typically manage to attend three or more meetings. Over a quarter of those who completed the survey said they had never attended a meeting of the Society.

The most frequently given reasons for being unable to attend meetings were the difficulty and/or cost of travel to meetings and the pressure of other work or family commitments. A number of other reasons were given by smaller numbers of respondents.

The Society very much understands that the investment of time and money for a member to attend a meeting in person is often considerable. For this reason we have now encouraged speakers to provide a brief abstract that will enable members to make a more informed decision about attending.

With a view to making its meetings more accessible to UK members living outside the southeast of England the Society is continuing to arrange at least one of its regular meetings each year outside of this area. Recent events of this kind have included the events in Newcastle and Leeds in 2016. The Society – via the Secretary – is keen to hear from members who would be willing to host such events in the future.

The survey asked whether respondents had viewed the videos of some of the Society’s joint events with the British Academy and whether members would watch recordings of other meetings in addition to or instead of attending. Since this possibility was generally welcomed by those who responded, the Society has now begun to experiment with making video recordings of some of its regular meetings and making these available via YouTube. It is hoped that members who are unable to attend meetings in person may find these of interest. We would be interested in any feedback on these videos in comments on this post.

Council keeps the arrangements for meetings under regular review and so we’d also be interested in any comments in general on the Society’s events via the comments on this post.

PhilSoc and other learned societies react to Brexit

On 23 June 2016, the British public voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union with a majority of 51.9% and a turnout of 72.2%. Since then, only few details of HM Government’s plan for “Brexit” have emerged. In part, this delay is owed to the Prime Minister’s policy of non-disclosure, but has also been affected by the long-awaited decision of the Supreme Court regulating that Parliament need be consulted on triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. A bill to this effect has been approved by the House of Commons on 8 February 2017, and will now be considered by the House of Lords.

In view of these events and owing to the as yet unspecified possibility of changes to regulations in the education and research sector, a number of learned societies including the Philological Societies have drafter a letter of response to “Brexit” and its impact on language and language learning in the United Kingdom.

The letter calls on HM Government to develop a language policy emphasising four points:

  1. Foster a positive public attitude towards language, language learning and working with languages.
  2. Maintain and enlarge the UK’s international diplomatic, regulatory, and security networks.
  3. Encourage the development of multilingual skills at all stages of the National Curriculum.
  4. Provide for research on language as on of many aspects of human nature and society.

The Society looks to its members for comments on this statement in the comments section. The full text of the letter can be found below. Continue reading “PhilSoc and other learned societies react to Brexit”

Ethnopoetic philology and the power of narrative for endangered voices

by Alexander King (Franklin & Marshall College)

Ethnopoetics lies at the juncture of linguistics, comparative literature, anthropology, and activist politics. It is more of an approach than a discipline, and was inspired by the realization that indigenous oral literature, or ‘orature’ was of equal literary merit to that of the ancient and modern literary languages. Ethnopoetic analysis requires close attention to the form and performance of oral narratives, looking for patterning in phonology, morphology, syntax, as well as repetitions in word use and larger units. I will present some examples of the power of stories in the lives of Koryaks, who are indigenous to Kamchatka, Russia. The material comes from a documentation project by Valentina R. Dedyk and me (funded by a grant from the Endangered Languages Documentation Project).

A video of the talk can be found below.

This paper was read at the Philological Society meeting in London, SOAS Main Building, Room 116, on Friday, 10 February, 4.15pm.

Old Norwegian vowel harmony and the value of quantitative data for descriptive linguistics

by Tam Blaxter (University of Cambridge)

Quantitative methods in historical linguistics are most often used to answer ‘variationist’ questions. We assume that we know what the possible forms of a language were, but ask questions about their distribution: when was one form replaced by another? Who used which forms? Were some more common in particular linguistic contexts, genres or text types? For this reason, quantitative methods might seem unappealing to historical linguists primarily interested in describing a historical variety—its grammar and lexicon—or describing etymologies. From time to time, however, quantitative data can throw a light on these more basic descriptive questions.

An excerpt from the Old Norwegian Homily Book

Old Norwegian, unlike its better-studied West Nordic sister Old Icelandic, exhibited height harmony of unstressed non-low vowels. Readers familiar with Old Icelandic texts will expect to see three distinct vowels in unstressed syllables: /a i u/ written <a i u>. In Old Norwegian texts we find an additional two graphemes, <e o>, in complementary distribution with <i u>. These vowels agree with the vowel of the stressed syllable for height: <i u> appear in unstressed syllables whenever the stressed syllable was high and <e o> whenever it was non-high. There are two exceptions to this rule: when the syllable contained the vowel normalised ǫ, which was the u-umlaut product of *a, we find unstressed syllables with <u> and either <e> or <i>, and when the stressed syllable contained the i-umlaut product of *a (usually normalised e but sometimes written ę to distinguish it from /e/ < Proto-Germanic *e), we find unstressed syllables with <i> and either <u> or <o>.

In theory, then, we could use the vowel harmony to distinguish between the stressed phonemes /e/ and /ę/ which were not (consistently) distinguished in the orthography: the former should have harmony vowels <e o> while the latter should have <i o/u>. However, Old Norwegian vowel harmony is a slippery creature. Few texts exhibit it totally consistently, making it difficult to sort out what is orthographic and what phonological variation. If we take a qualitative approach in which we read individual texts and describe their orthographies, we can’t confidently interpret deviations from vowel harmony as meaningful. If, on the other hand, we take a quantitative approach which includes data from many different texts, interesting patterns may become clear. Continue reading “Old Norwegian vowel harmony and the value of quantitative data for descriptive linguistics”