In Memoriam Matti Rissanen

by Sylvia Adamson (University of Sheffield)

It is with great sadness that the Society has received news of the death of Matti Rissanen, Professor Emeritus of English Philology at the University of Helsinki, at the age of 80 on 24 January 2018.


A long-time member and supporter of the Philological Society, Matti Rissanen was a pioneer in English historical corpus linguistics, and the director of the project that produced the Helsinki Corpus of English Texts, which covers a thousand years of the history of English and has been used widely since its publication in 1991.

Matti Rissanen was one of the rare scholars to command the history of the English language from its early stages to the present, beginning with his PhD thesis (1967) on the Old English numeral ONE. His wide range of publications includes a number of original articles and several co-edited volumes of corpus-based research, such as Early English in the Computer Age (1993), English in Transition and Grammaticalization at Work (1997), as well as the much cited chapter on ‘Early Modern English syntax’ in The Cambridge History of the English Language (vol. 3, 1999). Also taking an active interest in early American English, he was one of the international team that re-edited the Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt (2009).

His retirement in 2001 did not mark an end to his research activities. His philological expertise made an important contribution to the publication project that resulted in a new Finnish translation of all Shakespeare’s works. One of his long-lasting research interests was the history of English connectives, on which he was working to the very last days of his life.

Active in numerous professional organizations, Matti Rissanen served as president of the Societas Linguistica Europaea and chaired the Board of the International Computer Archive of Modern and Medieval English (ICAME). He was the founder and first director of the Research Unit for Variation, Contacts and Change in English (VARIENG), an Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence from 2000 to 2011. He was also a driving force in the foundation of the Finnish Institute in London and the Language Centre of the University of Helsinki. In recognition of his achievements Matti Rissanen received many awards, including an honorary doctorate of the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and being elected to the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters. He was an Honorary member of the Modern Language Society, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, and the Japan Association for English Corpus Studies.

On the personal level, Matti was supervisor to several generations of undergraduate and doctoral students in Helsinki, while providing unfailing encouragement and support to many more students and colleagues both in Finland and abroad. He will be greatly missed by his wide circle of friends.

Anyone who would like to share their memories and recollections of him is invited to do so by adding them as comments (in English or Finnish) to this VARIENG blog post.

This notice has been adapted, with permission, from the notice posted by Matti’s colleagues in Helsinki.

Language, learning and usage-based theory: tackling nominal and verbal morphology in Slavic

by Dagmar Divjak (University of Sheffield)

Usage-based theories of language are built on the assumption that our ability to extract and entrench the distributional patterns available in the input enables learners to build a grammar from the ground up. This circumvents the needs for an innate universal grammar. But it does not tell us which patterns are relevant. And it remains customary for linguists to approach the data using linguistic categories—such as Case or Tense, Aspect and Mood—categories that were never intended to reflect the workings of the mind. In this talk, I will argue that it might be better to take the input as starting point and derive categories that resemble those native speakers might derive. Models from Learning Theory can help with this. I will present two case studies that capitalize on a merger of cognitive linguistics and cognitive psychology, and aim to infuse Usage-Based linguistics with insights from Learning Theory … with a little help from computational engineering.

The first case study uses insights from Learning Theory to challenge the idea that theoretical linguistic constructs such as tense, aspect and mood (TAM) predict best how native speakers of Russian read sentences containing verbs meaning to try in real time. Discrimination learning, as implemented in the NDL algorithm, proposes simple 3-letter usage-patterns and predicts the time it takes subjects to read and integrate these verbs into a sentence significantly better than all TAM markers combined.


Contrary to what mainstream (psycho)linguistic models assume, speakers do not (and do not need to) analyse verb forms in terms of abstract linguistic concepts such as tense, aspect and mood when they process language. Instead, they can rely on simple letter sequences that are linked directly to an experience and embed crucial information about that experience (i.e., is it over, ongoing, or coming up; was it something that they completed, or simply did for a while; was it an order). This demonstrates that honouring parsimony (naivety and simplicity) in the structures that are hypothesized to exist, and in the way in which behaviour is explained, is a powerful research stance, in particular for designing cognitively realistic accounts of language knowledge and representation.

The second case study demonstrates how biologically inspired machine learning techniques can pinpoint the essence of native speaker intuitions. Polish boasts fascinating examples of seemingly unmotivated allomorphy, and the genitive singular of masculine inanimate nouns (which can be -a or -u) is its prime example. Criteria for choice have been proposed that are semantic, morphological or phonological in nature, but most of these are unreliable, yielding conflicting predictions (Dąbrowska 2005). Furthermore, although -u occurs with at least twice as many nouns, -a is the default ending for new words entering the language. The NDL algorithm, that implements discrimination learning, predicts the choice between -a and -u better using simple sequences of 3 letters (letter triplets or trigraphs) than models running on richly annotated corpus data. In addition, it explains the unexpected preference of -a as genitive ending for new words in terms of the learnability of words taking the -a ending, their phonological predictability and their contextual (semantic) typicality.

On their own, linguists and psychologists would have approached these questions rather differently and, from within their disciplinary cages, would have arrived at answers that would necessarily have remained partial. Integrative interdisciplinarity, on the other hand, relies on a simultaneous, interspersed methodological endeavour to arrive at more encompassing answers that combine depth of analysis with breadth of explanation. It presupposes mutually complementary theories, shared testable hypotheses as well as compatibility of research methodologies. But what wins the game is a good dose of willingness to question your customary ways of doing things.

This paper will be read at the Philological Society meeting in London, SOAS Main Building, Room 116, on Friday, 9 February, 4.15pm.

Conference announcement: mFiL 2018

by Sarah Mahmood (University of Manchester)

The Manchester Forum in Linguistics (mFiL) is an annual conference for early career researchers in all fields of linguistics. The aim of the conference, to take place on 26-27 April 2018 at the University of Manchester, is to share current work, results and problems and to provide information and advice for postgraduate students, post-doctoral scholars and others in the early stages of their scientific career. This includes the presentation of papers and posters, plenary talks and a careers panel, as well as a social programme including a conference dinner and informal drinks.

The mFiL, which is being organised now for the sixth time (last held in April 2017), is the successor of a postgraduate linguistics conference that ran in Manchester from 1992 until 2011 almost annually. The conference adheres to strict standards of scientific rigour: all abstract submissions are double-blind peer-reviewed by two experts, mostly professors and lecturers from various UK universities, and only submissions with a solid scientific contribution are accepted for presentation at the conference. Submissions that have implications for linguistic theory generally or that employ novel empirical methods are especially encouraged.

Submissions for oral and poster presentations in all areas of linguistics are welcomed.

Oral presentations should be no more than 20 minutes in length with an additional 10 minutes allocated for questions, comments and discussion. Poster presentations will be presented during a dedicated session on the schedule.

The deadline for submissions is 11 February 2018 (midnight GMT).

See the conference websitefor more details.

Syntactic microvariation in Romance – bridging synchrony and diachrony: the case of SI

by Sam Wolfe (University of Oxford)

Major syntactic differences between the medieval Romance languages and their modern counterparts have been noted for well over a century (Tobler 1875; Diez 1882; Thurneysen 1892; Meyer-Lübke 1889), with a body of more recent work highlighting important synchronic variation amongst the medieval languages (Vance, Donaldson & Steiner 2009; Wolfe 2015, forthcoming), and diachronic variation observable in texts from different stages of the medieval period (Ledgeway 2009; Labelle & Hirschbühler 2017; Galves forthcoming). In this talk, I focus on a particular aspect of the syntax of Medieval Romance: the grammar of the particle SI, which abounds across the early textual records, but eludes a satisfying analysis.

Based on a new hand-annotated corpus of seven Old French texts, I show that the numerous and frequently contradictory claims in the literature regarding SI (Marchello-Nizia 1985; Reenen & Schøsler 2000; Ledgeway 2008) can often be reconciled under an account where its formal characterisation, discourse-pragmatic value, and interaction with other areas of core clausal syntax varies markedly, both synchronically and diachronically, within the period conventionally referred to as ‘Old French’. Specifically, I sketch a grammaticalisation pathway where SI becomes progressively bleached through a process of upwards reanalysis (Roberts & Roussou 2002). This entails a change from SI (>SIC) as an adverbial encoding temporal succession, to topic continuity marker (Fleischman 2000), then two distinct expletive stages, where SI acts as a last-resort mechanism to satisfy the Verb Second constraint. The core empirical observation is that there is large-scale variation between SI in 12th-century and 13th-century texts and, furthermore, small-scale variation in the syntax of SI across texts which are conventionally considered contemporaneous.

In the second part of the talk I bring in data from a range of Medieval Italo-Romance varieties, showing that SI in Sicilian, Florentine, Piedmontese and Venetian texts mirrors almost exactly the distribution of SI in 12th-century French, but does not show the distributional properties of the highly grammaticalised element found in 13th-century French.

The core intuition behind the analysis of Medieval Romance SI is that the element in question can occupy distinct positions within an articulated left periphery (on which see Rizzi 1997, Benincà & Poletto 2004 and Ledgeway 2010) during different stages of the grammaticalisation process. Furthermore, throughout its history, SI cannot be understood in isolation from ongoing changes in the Medieval Romance Verb Second property and its correlates (Wolfe 2016), but may also have a previously overlooked role in shaping a number of the morphosyntactic isoglosses observable within Romance-speaking Europe today. In particular, I suggest that differences in the syntax of Old French SI and its Old Italo-Romance counterparts may account for major contemporary Italo- vs. Gallo-Romance differences in the syntax of topicalisation, focus and the null subject property.

Overall, although SI may seem like a small and parochial area of Medieval Romance syntax, its synchronic and diachronic significance for an understanding of the evolution of Romance grammar cannot be underestimated.


Fleischman, Suzanne. 2000. Methodologies and Ideologies in Historical Linguistics: On Working with Older Languages. In Susan C. Herring, Pieter Th. van Reenen & Lene Schøsler (eds.), Textual parameters in older languages. Amsterdam; Philadelphia, Pa.: John Benjamins. 33–58.

Galves, Charlotte. Forthcoming. Partial V2 in Classical Portuguese. In Theresa Biberauer, Sam Wolfe & Rebecca Woods (eds.), Rethinking Verb Second. (Rethinking Comparative Syntax). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Labelle, Marie & Paul Hirschbühler. 2017. Leftward Stylistic Displacement in Medieval French. In Eric Mathieu & Robert Truswell (eds.), Micro-change and Macro-change in Diachronic Syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ledgeway, Adam. 2008. Satisfying V2 in early Romance: Merge vs. Move. Journal of Linguistics 44(2).

Marchello-Nizia, Christiane. 1985. Dire le vrai: L’adverbe «si» en français médieval: Essai de linguistique historique. (Publications Romanes et Françaises CLXVIII). Geneva: Droz.

Roberts, Ian & Anna Roussou. 2002. Syntactic change a minimalist approach to grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vance, Barbara, Bryan Donaldson & B. Devan Steiner. 2009. V2 loss in Old French and Old Occitan: The role of fronted clauses. In Sonia Colina, Antxon Olarrea & Ana Maria Carvalho (eds.), Romance Linguistics 2009. Selected papers from the 39th Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages (LSRL), Tuscon, Arizona. (Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 315). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 301–320.

Wolfe, Sam. Forthcoming. Redefining the V2 Typology: The View from Medieval Romance and Beyond. (Ed.) Christine M. Salvesen. Linguistic Variation (Special Issue: A Micro-Perspective on V2 in Germanic and Romance).

Wolfe, Sam. 2015. The Old Sardinian Condaghes. A Syntactic Study. Transactions of the Philological Society 113(2). 177–205.

A video of the talk can be found below. The accompanying handout is available here.

This paper was read at the Philological Society meeting in London, SOAS Main Building, Room 116, on Friday, 12 January, 4.15pm.

Obituary: Professor Randolph Quirk

by Ruth Kempson (King’s College, London)

Members of the Philological Society might like to record the death on 20 December of Professor Randolph Quirk, whose international reputation as a major linguist expert on the modern English language has been secured ever since his setting up of the survey of English Usage during the 1960s and 70s. This survey was, at the time, a unique annotated corpus collection of over 1 million words of both spoken and written English across a vast variety of styles, all text in each file classified with detailed category labelling, and in the spoken cases accompanied by annotations for intonation. It was then on the basis of these data that he and a group of colleagues wrote a considerable number of immense descriptive grammars of English, starting with A Grammar of contemporary English (1972), and culminating in the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985). During that period he became Quain Professor of English Language and Literature, and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. Subsequently, he became vice-chancellor of the University of London, received a knighthood for services to higher education in 1985 and became President of the British Academy (1985-1989). He joined the Upper House as Baron Quirk of Bloomsbury in 1994, from which position he contributed in a wide-ranging way to education debates.

On a more personal note, he was a man who combined immense energy and speed with unstinting giving of his time in encouraging and helping junior colleagues, in ways to which he characteristically never drew attention. Witness to this generosity was his encouragement to myself, a young graduate who had become his secretary, to take his MA in linguistics, supposedly part-time but in fact in a registration which he backdated by one year so that I was able to complete the degree within a year, scampering between lectures and back to my secretarial duties. One year later I found that my life had been changed out of all recognition into an academic life with all the professional pleasures I have subsequently enjoyed. This generosity of his, both amazing in the first instance and sustained ever thereafter, has provided me with a role model for how to support graduate students and co-researchers I have tried to live up to ever since. The fact that we didn’t agree on all things was never a difficulty for either of us, not even as he accumulated titles and dignities, which he carried very lightly. He was a person one feels hugely honoured to have known.

The Survey of English Usage at University College London has created a facility for colleagues to write a tribute to Randolph Quirk.
Members’ memories of Randolph if they ever met him, worked with him, were taught by him, or attended one of his lectures across the world are also very welcome.

A flexible approach to focus and the syntax-prosody interface

by Kriszta Szendröi (University College, London)

This paper addresses ‘a central question for […] any theory of the syntactic prosodic constituency relation’ (Selkirk, 2011, 17): how to best characterize the notion of ‘clause’ in ALIGN/MATCH constraints related to the syntax-prosody mapping of the intonational phrase. It will be proposed that the notion of ‘clause’ should be determined in each construction by making reference to the overt position of the finite verb (or auxiliary). We show how this theory of the syntax-prosody mapping determines the typology of prosodically-driven word order variations associated with focus and topic.  We will discuss data from the Bantu language, Bàsàá, and the Finno-Ugric language, Hungarian, as well as English and Italian.

A video of the talk can be found below.

This paper was read at the Philological Society meeting in London, Room 3D, Garden Halls, University of London, 1 Cartwright Gardens, WC1H 9EN, on Friday, 20 October, 4.15pm. 

The Syntax and Semantics of the Perfect Active in Literary Koine Greek

by Robert S. D. Crellin (University of Cambridge)

trps_oc_mockup1_Layout 1The semantics of the Ancient Greek perfect active, morphologically directly inherited from the Proto-Indo-European form of the same name, has long been a matter of scholarly contention. What makes this verb form semantically so interesting is that for most of the duration of Ancient Greek it seems to combine several tense-aspect and diathetical features, namely anteriority, resultativity, stativity, and detransitivisation in causative predicates, which are in many languages conveyed by separate morphological means. To put this in concrete terms, in Ancient Greek you would use a perfect active form to render both English ‘I have made a chair’ and ‘I stand’. This has led to a variety of approaches to analysing the perfect’s semantics, to varying degrees either positing lexicalisation of apparently aberrant readings, or generalising a particular aspect of the semantic behaviour of the perfect, but beyond what the data as a whole can support.

My recent monograph, The Syntax and Semantics of the Perfect Active in Literary Koine Greek, seeks to address the question of the semantic description of the Greek perfect head-on, on the basis of the plentiful but understudied corpus of literary post-Classical Greek (c. 300 BCE – 300 CE). After some theoretical preliminaries, the study first assesses the full range of behaviours of the perfect in this corpus according to verb and predicate type, before building up a semantic description of the perfect from which the perfect’s diverse interactions with different predicate-types can be derived. This is achieved by adopting insights inter alia from Tenny’s Aspectual Interface Hypothesis (Tenny 1994) as well as the generative tradition, to provide an account of the perfect’s semantics which thoroughly integrates its argument structure relations with its tense-aspect denotations. It is demonstrated that it is possible to formulate a semantic description by which one may predict, with a predicate of known semantic properties, how the perfect will be read. Specifically, the perfect derives a homogeneous atelic eventuality from the predicate which it heads.

The simplest case is that in predicates which are themselves homogeneous and atelic, such as states, the perfect may simply derive another state from the predicate:

trépetai katà stenōpòn ēremēkóta
turn.PRS.IND.N-ACT.3SG PTCL down corridor.M.ACC.SG be_quiet.PRF.PART.ACT.M.ACC.SG
‘He turned down a quiet narrow passage…’ (Jos. AJ 19.104, monograph p. 50)

However, since the negative of a state may also be said to have the same event structural properties, a cancelled state is also a valid reading of the perfect, e.g.:

Phregéllai… pólis… tàs pollàs tôn
Phregellai city.F.NOM.SG ART.F.ACC.PL many.F.ACC.PL ART.GEN.PL
árti lekhtheîsōn perioikídas próteron eskhēkuîa
just_now say.AOR.PART.N-ACT.GEN.PL dependent_town.F.ACC.PL previously have.PRF.PART.ACT.F.NOM.SG 
‘Phregellai… a city… which previously had the majority of the places just mentioned as dependent towns.’ (Strabo 5.3.10, monograph p. 236)

Indeed, it may be said more generally that the negative of any eventuality is homogeneous and atelic (see e.g. de Swart 1996: 229 who, following Verkuyl 1993, takes such predicates as states). This allows the perfect to derive such an eventuality from predicates where the subject is not presented as entering into a state, by instantiating the predicate and locating the subject in the homogeneous and atelic post-situation e.g.:

hóper kagṑ nûn pepoíēka
‘… which is exactly what I have now done.’ (Jos. AJ 12.213, monograph p. 17)

The relationship between argument structure and tense-aspect denotation becomes clear in labile change-of-state predicates. Here the perfect active may have resultative or anterior semantics according to its syntax. Read as detransitivising, the perfect is read as resultative, whereas when the predicate is transitive, it reads as an anterior. In each case, the perfect is seen to derive a homogeneous atelic eventuality and predicates this of the subject:

heistḗkei dè… hupestalkṑs tôi skótōi.
‘[Claudius] had stood… taking cover in the darkness there.’ (Jos. AJ 19.216, monograph p. 190)
ho Phílippos… hupó tina lóphon
hupestálkei toùs Illurioùs…
‘But Philip… had sheltered the Illyrians behind a hill…’ (Plb. 5.13.5, monograph p. 190)

The monograph is a development of my PhD thesis, completed with AHRC funding at the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge, in 2012, which looked at the same question. The latter, however, is more empirically focused, using large datasets to generalise about the behaviour of the perfect from the macro-perspective. The present work presents a counterpoint to that project, by taking the micro-perspective, and seeking to establish, by delving into the underlying structure of the Greek language in this period, the semantic basis on which this form’s rather idiosyncratic behaviour might be described.

Crellin, Robert. 2012. The Greek Perfect Active System: 200 BC – AD 150. PhD Dissertation. University of Cambridge.

Swart, Henriette D. E. de. 1996. Meaning and Use of not … until. Journal of Semantics (13). 221–263.

Tenny, Carol. 1994. Aspectual Roles and the Syntax-Semantics Interface. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Verkuyl, Henk. 1993. A Theory of Aspectuality: the Interaction between Temporal and Atemporal Structure. Cambridge: CUP.

Robert Crellin’s book, The Syntax and Semantics of the Perfect Active in Literary Koine Greek, is freely accessible to members of the Philological Society via the Wiley Online Library and their membership number. Members are asked to contact one of the Society’s secretaries with any questions in this regard.