Big and small data in ancient languages

by Nicholas Zair (University of Cambridge)

Back in November I gave a talk at the Society’s round table on ‘Sources of evidence for linguistic analysis’ on ‘Big and small data in ancient languages’. Here I’m going to focus on one of the case studies I considered under the heading of ‘small data’, which is based on an article that I and Katherine McDonald and I have written (more details below) about a particular document from ancient Italy known as the Tabula Bantina.

tabula_bantina

It comes from Bantia, modern day Banzi in Basilicata and is written in Oscan, a language which was spoken in Southern Italy in the second half of the first millennium BC, including in Pompeii prior to a switch to speaking Latin towards the end of that period. Since Oscan did not survive as a spoken language, we know it almost entirely from inscriptions written on non-perishable materials such as stone, metal and clay. There aren’t very many of these inscriptions: perhaps a few hundred, depending on definitions (for instance, do you include control marks consisting of a single letter?). We are lucky that Oscan is an Indo-European language, and, along with a number of other languages from ancient Italy, quite closely related to Latin, so we can make good headway with it. Nonetheless, our knowledge of Oscan and its speakers is fairly limited: it is certainly a language that comes under the heading of ‘small data’.

 

iron_age_italy

One of the ways scholars have addressed the problem of so-called corpus languages like Oscan, and even better-attested but still limited ones like Latin has been to combine as many relevant sources of information, from ancient historians to the insights of modern sociolinguistic theory as a way of squeezing as much information from what we have – and trying to fill in the blanks where information is lacking. This has been a huge success, but this approach can also be dangerous, especially when it comes to studying language death. Given that we know a language will die out in the end, it is very tempting to see every piece of evidence as a staging post in the process, and try to fit it into our narrative of language death. Often this provides very plausible histories, but we must remember that, while in hindsight history can look teleological, things are rarely so clear at the time.

The Tabula Bantina is a bronze tablet with a Latin law on one side and an Oscan law on the other side. It is generally agreed that the Latin text was written before the Oscan one, but the Oscan is not a translation of the Latin: the writer of the Oscan text simply used the conveniently blank side of the tablet to write the new material on. The striking things about the Oscan text are that it is written in the Latin alphabet, and there are lots of mistakes. It also strongly resembles Latin legal language. The date of this side is probably between about 100-90 BC, just before Rome’s ‘allies’, which is to say conquered peoples and cities in Italy, rose up against it in a rebellion generally known as the Social War. Continue reading “Big and small data in ancient languages”

The Faces of PhilSoc: Karen Corrigan

karen_corrigan

 

Name: Karen Corrigan

Position: Professor of Linguistics and English Language

Institution: Newcastle University

Role in PhilSoc: Council Member


About You

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

Even as a child I was fascinated by all things linguistic. I grew up in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles and the arrival of the British Army was my first exposure to accents and dialects that were not native to the region since Northern Ireland back then was synonymous with emigration rather than immigration. My younger sister and me – despite being teenagers – didn’t get out much on account of the security situation and used to entertain ourselves confined to quarters by challenging each other to mimic the English and Scottish accents we had begun to hear around us. I suppose that was our way of trying to make light of the threat which the army represented in our lives. When I went to University as an undergraduate, opting for English, Irish and Linguistics was thus a no-brainer for me.

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

“The Syntax of South Armagh English in its Socio-Historical Perspective.” Amongst my conclusions, were the ideas that:

  1. Irish English needed to be investigated from a contact linguistic perspective since it did after all develop from the L2 acquisition of English on a massive scale by L1 speakers of Irish;
  2. Taking a mixed Sociolinguistic and Biolinguistic approach to syntactic variation and change can be more illuminating than viewing it through a single lens.

I still believe in both of these conclusions and the latter, in particular, has become associated with a new sub-discipline in linguistics known as ‘Socio-Syntax’ which I have continued to work in since and which is being further supported by the research of other scholars too.

On what project / topic are you currently working?

Research on language in Northern Ireland (including my own prior to 2014) tends to focus on the varieties spoken by the major ethnicities. Their linguistic heritages have been hotly disputed and scholarship reflects the socio-political conflict of ‘The Troubles’. The Peace Process has ensured greater protection for Irish and Ulster Scots and has also made the region more attractive, resulting in unprecedented immigration. New ethnicities have become increasingly visible and audible. The project I am currently investigating was supported by an AHRC Research Leadership Fellowship and explores these connected communities in the light of historical emigration.
The project addresses the following issues arising from these inward and outward migratory trends:

  1. How can a cross-disciplinary approach to migration and language contribute to our knowledge of the ways in which socially meaningful spaces are constructed by human agents?
  2. How do speakers make use of linguistic variation to express local belonging and/or dissonance therefore developing, and displaying to each other, ‘a sense of place’ (Convery, Corsane and Davis 2012)?
    In other words:

    • Do ethnic minorities maintain their community languages to assert social distance?
    • What are the constraints on linguistic variation amongst indigenous young people?
    • Are new inward migrants acquiring the same constraints as their local peers?
    • Are there differences between the constraints discernible amongst the Northern Irish English varieties used by newer and older minority ethnic groups?
  3. Do diverse NI social groups hold similar or different attitudes towards minority and regional languages and their speakers?
  4. To what extent are the migratory experiences of the Irish Diaspora and inward migrants to NI similar and can historical records of emigration by the majority ethnic groups be used to promote tolerance towards ethnic minority communities now living in NI?
  5. What ‘best practice’ educational support is there for regional and minority languages in NI?

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

I will continue to work on language and dialect issues in Ireland alongside keeping up my interests in the ‘Diachronic Electronic Corpus of Tyneside English‘ project which I have been developing there since joining Newcastle University in the 1990s.

How did you get involved with the Philological Society?

I became a member of the society though communications with Prof. Keith Brown, former Honorary Secretary for Publications of the Society, who I first met as an undergraduate. Keith was the external examiner of our Linguistics programme at University College, Dublin and the practice there was to have a viva with the external as part of the examination process from the First Year onwards.


‘Personal’ Questions

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

It has to be Irish because it is a minority language and could do with the support!

Minimalism or LFG?

Minimalism but with a Sociolinguistic twist.

Teaching or Research?

I have to say I really enjoy both.

Do you have a linguistic pet peeve?

Approaches to contact varieties that do not consider Mufwene’s wonderful ‘Founder Principle’

What’s your (main) guilty pleasure?

Chocolate.


Looking to the Future

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

I think HE should be free to all.

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

If I am honest, I’m afraid that I don’t …

What is your prime tip for younger colleagues?

Learn to be collaborative and collegiate.