One Language, Two Grammars: the ‘Plight’ of Classical Armenian

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

Armenian is one of those Indo-European languages that very rarely gets much attention from students of historical linguistics or comparative philology; most frequently, it crops up only in discussions of the augment, laryngeals, and the Glottalic Theory. This, alas, is unlikely to change.
Yet, Armenian can serve as an interesting case study for a number of fields within linguistics, not least language contact and corpus linguistics. With these two topics in mind, allow me to introduce you to Armenian – albeit in extreme brevity –, and to illustrate one of its more curious traits: its two grammars.

Map of Armenia in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE
An exceedingly short introduction: Iranian, Greek, and the Armenian language(s)

Armenian, attested in its Classical form (called գրաբար |grabar|) since the 5th century CE, is a language with a couple of twists. Until a ground-breaking paper by Heinrich Hübschmann (1875), Armenian was thought to belong to the Iranian language family. In fact, Armenian is most closely related to Greek – and even that not all that closely (Clackson 1994). For the most part, this relationship is not immediately obvious at the surface, particularly if compared to the similarities between, for instance, Vedic and Old Avestan, or Latin and Oscan.
The reason for its historical allocation to the Iranian family lies in the inordinate amount of Iranian loan words and calques, both lexical and phraseological, in Armenian. These are mostly taken from Parthian (North West Middle Iranian; Meillet 1911–12, Schmitt 1983). Less obviously, even certain Iranian syntactic structures and patterns have been replicated (Meyer 2013, 2016). These borrowings are, without doubt, owed to long-lasting contact between Armenian and Parthian speakers. Since the 5th century BCE, Armenia was under Iranian rule in one form or another: Achaemenid, Artaxiad, Arsacid Parthian, and later Sasanian Persian. For the most part, an Armenian king of Iranian origin ruled as primus inter pares among other Armenian and Iranian noble families. The history and ethnic composition of Armenia is, of course, far more complex than can be described in one sentence; excellent summaries can be found in Hovannisian (1997).

So far, so good. Continue reading “One Language, Two Grammars: the ‘Plight’ of Classical Armenian”

Faces of PhilSoc: George Walkden

George Walkden
Position: Lecturer in English Linguistics
Institution: University of Manchester
Role in PhilSoc: Council member; member of the Publications Committee


About You

How did you become a linguist – was there a decisive event, or was it a gradual development?

My favourite subjects at school were languages and maths, and I was always torn between them. During my first degree I gradually realized I could combine the two! I think my desire to continue in academia was born during my year abroad, during which I was clocking in and out every day to translate documents for a pharmaceutical company. I wanted to do a job that rewarded results, not a 9-to-5, and a job that allowed me to keep on learning (and studying language) until I keeled over. After that I was more or less hooked!

What was the topic of your doctoral thesis? Do you still believe in your conclusions?

My doctoral thesis was about reconstructing the syntax of Proto-Germanic. The general conclusions – in particular that syntactic reconstruction is feasible and interesting – I would stand by. I did make at least one major mistake in interpreting results for Old English verb-late clauses, though, and I gave a talk about this at PhilSoc in 2015, retracting my earlier claim.

On what project / topic are you currently working?

Lots of different things! Negation in Middle English, preposition stranding in early Germanic, how to derive and understand Constant Rate Effects in syntactic change… I’m an obsessive collaborator and tangent-taker. I’m also looking to expand my parsed corpus of Old Saxon.

What directions in the future do you see your research taking?

I’m keen to expand my knowledge of computational and mathematical approaches to language change, and am aggressively reading up in this area. Combining this with corpus-based research and predictive theories of acquisition and use is what I’d aim to achieve. One of the things I love about historical syntax is how many different skills you need to develop: philology, syntactic theory, corpus methodology, the general theory of language change, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

How did you get involved with the Philological Society?

Two events aimed specifically at postgrads and early career researchers: one in Cambridge in 2010, and another in Oxford in 2012.

‘Personal’ Questions

Do you have a favourite language – and if so, why?

Old Saxon! It’s the underappreciated sibling of Old High German, and has been unjustifiably ignored, especially within Germany.

Minimalism or LFG?

Minimalism. But I wish we had something like XLE.


Looking to the Future

Is there something that you would like to change in academia / HE?

Gold Open Access should be the norm, not the exception. Academic publishing should be scholar-led.

(How) Do you manage to have a reasonable work-life balance?

Honestly, I find it hard to distinguish between the two.

What is your prime tip for younger colleagues?

Don’t be afraid to put your ideas out there! Senior academics are (mostly) not out to get you.

Transitive nouns and adjectives: evidence from Early Indo-Aryan

by John J. Lowe (University of Oxford)

LoweTransNomsTransitivity is typically thought of as a property of verbs, and perhaps of adpositions, but it is not a typical property of nouns or adjectives. In the influential cross-classification of syntactic categories developed by Chomsky (e.g. 1981: 48), nouns and adjectives are actually defined in opposition to adpositions and verbs by their inability to govern objects, that is by their inability to be transitive. A few authors have discussed exceptions to this generalization, but they tend to be rare and non-productive; for example in English there may be only a single transitive adjective, near, which is a historically explicable exception to an otherwise consistent synchronic rule that nouns and adjectives cannot govern ‘bare’ noun phrase complements (Maling, 1983). As a second example, in early Latin there are a few nouns and adjectives which may govern accusative case objects, but the process is not productive and is entirely eliminated by Classical Latin.

gnaruris                          vos                    volo                esse        hanc                 rem
acquainted.ACC.PL     you.ACC.PL    wish.1PL       be.INF   this.ACC          matter.ACC
‘I wish you to be acquainted with this matter.’ (Latin: Plautus Most. 100)

In the early Indo-Aryan languages, however, there is a relative wealth of transitive noun and adjective categories. In my forthcoming monograph Transitive Nouns and Adjectives: evidence from early Indo-Aryan (OUP, July 2017), I investigate the evidence from four periods of early Indo-Aryan, discussing the synchronic and diachronic explanation for this unusual phenomenon.

The majority of transitive noun/adjective categories in early Indo-Aryan fall under the traditional heading of ‘agent noun’ (including agentive adjectives, used in the same way); these are the categories whose transitivity is most clear, and most common. For example, in the sentence below the ‘agent adjective’ kāmin- ‘desirous, desiring’ governs an accusative object ‘drink’.

kāmī                                   hi       vīraḥ                            sadam    asya        pītim
desirous.NOM.SG.M   for      hero.NOM.SG.M     always    it.GEN    drink.ACC
‘For the hero (is) always desirous (of) a drink of it.’ (Sanskrit: RV 2.14.1c)

Superficially, kāmī here looks similar to a participle, i.e. to a word category which, as a non-finite verbal category, could unproblematically govern an object. However, I show that the majority of transitive nouns and adjectives attested in early Indo-Aryan cannot be analysed as non-finite verb forms, but must be acknowledged as part of a distinct constructional type in early Indo-Aryan.

Other transitive nouns fall under the traditional heading of ‘action nouns’; I show that for the most part action nouns are transitive only when used as infinitives, and hence their transitivity can be explained as the unexceptional transitivity of non-finite verb forms. There are also nouns and adjectives whose transitivity is adpositional, rather than verbal.

Crucially, I show that there is a statistical correlation between transitivity of nouns and adjectives and the syntactic context of predication: nouns and adjectives which are used as the primary predicate in a (perhaps null) copular construction are statistically more likely to be transitive than those which are used in other ways. This correlation is unique to transitive nouns and adjectives and securely distinguishes this formation from transitivity with non-finite verb categories.

The book provides a detailed introduction to transitivity (verbal and adpositional), to the categories of agent and action noun, and to early Indo-Aryan. The four periods of early Indo-Aryan selected for study are: Rigvedic Sanskrit, the earliest Indo-Aryan; Vedic Prose, a slightly later form of Sanskrit; Epic Sanskrit, a form of Sanskrit close to the standardized ‘Classical’ Sanskrit; and Pali, the early Middle Indo-Aryan language of the Buddhist scriptures. I show that while each linguistic stage is different, there are shared features of transitive nouns and adjectives which apply throughout the history of early Indo-Aryan.

The data is set in the wider historical context, from Proto-Indo-European to Modern Indo-Aryan, and a formal linguistic analysis of transitive nouns and adjectives is provided in the framework of Lexical-Functional Grammar.


Chomsky, Noam (1981), Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures, Dordrecht: Foris.

Lowe, John J. (2017), Transitive Nouns and Adjectives: Evidence from Early Indo-Aryan, volume 25 in the series Oxford Studies in Diachronic and Historical Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. c. 400 pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-879357-1.

Maling, Joan (1983), ‘Transitive adjectives: a case of categorial reanalysis’, in Frank Heny & Barry Richard (eds.), Linguistic Categories: Auxiliaries and Related Puzzles, volume 1. Dordrecht: Reidel. 253–289.