Building Meaning in Context: A Dynamic Approach to Bantu Clause Structure

by Hannah Gibson (University of Essex)

When I first started on my doctoral research, I had access to two sentences from the Tanzanian Bantu language Rangi which seemed to show that the language allowed for post-verbal auxiliary placement. This word order was unexpected given that Rangi has a dominant SVO order. It is also unusual in the context of East African Bantu languages where auxiliary-verb order dominates.

I subsequently spent a year spent in Tanzania working with Rangi-speakers and Rangi-speaking linguists, and gathering data. Luckily for me, the two sentences I had started off with were indeed representative of the language. And the picture was in fact more complicated than that. While verb-auxiliary order is obligatory in the two future tense constructions, this order is ‘reversed’ in a range of syntactically-conditioned contexts: wh-questions, sentential negation, relative clauses, after subordinators and in cleft constructions.

Fast forward several years, and at the end of 2018, my monograph Building meaning in context: a dynamic approach to Bantu clause structure was published as part of the Philological Society’s Monograph series. The book adopts a parsing/production-based approach to modelling Bantu clause structure, employing the tools and assumptions laid out in the Dynamic Syntax framework. It includes a chapter which looks at this auxiliary placement alternation in Rangi in more detail, as well as examining a number of other features of Bantu morphosyntax.

Dynamic Syntax (DS; Cann et al. 2005, Kempson et al. 2001, 2011) is a grammar formalism that aims to capture this real-time parsing process. Under the DS perspective, linguistic knowledge is considered to be the ability to parse language in context, whilst syntax is considered to be the constraint-based way in which representations of content can be built up from words encountered in a string.

The book presents an overview of the key tools and mechanisms adopted by the Dynamic Syntax framework (Chapter 2). It then goes on to show the application of these assumptions to modelling the Bantu clause, drawing primarily on data from the East African Bantu language Swahili (Chapter 3). A number of key phenomena relating to Bantu morphosyntax – inversion constructions and passives (Chapter 4) and negation (Chapter 5) – are also examined.

Chapter 6 presents an account of the word order alternation found in Rangi that I set out to examine after seeing those two sentences all those years ago. There is also a chapter which goes beyond data from the Bantu languages and explores cross-linguistic similarities that emerge as a result of the formal account presented (Chapter 7).

One of the contributions made by the study of auxiliaries in Rangi, is that it further supports the predictive power of the DS framework. The formal tools used in this account of Rangi auxiliaries show parallels with accounts of distinct phenomena in unrelated languages – clitic placement phenomena in Cypriot Greek and Medieval Spanish, as well as cleft constructions in Japanese and ‘scrambling’ in Korean.

The book will be of interest to those working on African languages, and particularly the languages of the Bantu family. But also those interested in word order phenomena, lexicon-based formal approaches to modelling language, as well as those wanting to find out more about Dynamic Syntax.

Opportunities for Linguistics in Modern Foreign Languages

by Michelle Sheehan (Anglia Ruskin University)

On 31 May, the ‘Linguistics in Modern Foreign Languages’ project held a conference at Anglia Ruskin University, funded by Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Anglia Ruskin University, the British Academy and the Philological Society.

The conference brought together exam boards, publishers, advocacy groups and academics and teachers to learn about findings from the project so far and to explore outcomes of comparable international initiatives. The ‘Linguistics in MFL’ project assesses the potential for the inclusion of linguistic topics in the secondary school languages curriculum. It aims to introduce students to linguistics and deepen their interest in language, including its historical, cultural and social reflexes.

Talks were given by Teresa Tinsley, author of the British Council’s Language Trends surveys and Chris Pountain, member of the A-level Content Advisory Board for MFL, amongst others. The full programme is available here.

Discussants at the event included Dora Alexopoulou, Editor of Language, Society and Policy, Victoria Dutchman-Smith, Commissioning Editor (MFL), OUP, Bernadette Holmes, Director of Speak to the Future, Rhona Thompson, Curriculum Manager for Languages at AQA, and four teachers: Sophie Hentschel, from Thirsk School and Sixth Form College, Olly Hopwood, from Westminster School, Susan Stewart, Head of Multilingualism at International School of London and Janette Swainton, Head of MFL at Longsands Academy, St Neots.

The PhilSoc grant allowed us to offer travel bursaries for teachers to attend the event, and they did so in great numbers from all over the UK. Many commented on how inspiring they had found the event and how it has made them think about their teaching practice.

Claire Robinson from Suffolk One (a state VI form college) said:

Just wanted to thank you rather in haste for a great day on Friday.  I really enjoyed it, and even though I wasn’t quite sure what to expect I found it very inspiring.  My particular take-aways were:

  1. Linguistics really delivers on equity – this came home to me as a really pressing need after Teresa Tinsley’s talk which showed how uptake is narrowing to become the preserve of elite schools, and again as a huge opportunity highlighted by the fact that anyone can ‘do’ linguistics in relation to their own L1, thus giving the lie to students who think it’s ‘posh’ to talk about language.
  2. Mary Wenham’s talk has inspired me to resurrect some materials I used to use years ago to introduce L2 teaching, as I’m offering a ‘Tongue Twisters’ session on our ‘Raising the Bar’ day when we invite Year 6 students from primary schools in Ipswich to join us for a taste of sixth form life – I’ll let you know how it goes!

For more information about the project, click here.

Oblique predicative constructions in English

by Bas Aarts (University College London)

English allows for a predicative phrase to occur after the prepositions for and as in constructions like the following:

(1) We took her for a friend.
(2) They left her for dead.

(3) I regarded her as a genius.
(4) She rates his work as excellent.

The phrases introduced by for and as in these constructions introduce either a noun phrase or adjective phrase constituent that is predicated of the postverbal noun phrase in each case. I will call the V + NP + [PP P+NP/AdjP] construction the oblique predicative construction, and the complement of the preposition an oblique predicative complement. The construction with for is the older one, and is found in many unrelated languages, including Gothic, Greek, Latin, Russian, Spanish, Dutch and German, as Jespersen (1909-49, IV: 386) has shown.

In this paper I will trace the history of predicative oblique constructions involving for and as and a number of additional prepositions from Old English onwards. I will then discuss the huge range of constructions in which predicative for appears, and how these differ from constructions with as, which gradually became dominant in Present-Day English. By looking at a range of data I will investigate whether the claim that for and as are interchangeable, made by the OED, Jespersen and Poutsma, is valid. I will argue that for a number of reasons it is unsustainable. I will look at one of these reasons in detail, namely the observation that for has acquired a subtly specialised meaning which has come to differentiate it from as.

This paper will be read at the Annual General Meeting of the Philological Society in Cambridge, Murray Edwards College, Buckingham House Seminar Room, on Saturday, 15 June 2019, 4.15pm.

Why language learning opens the mind: old prejudices, trendy myths, and new research

by Antonella Sorace (University of Edinburgh)

These are interesting times for both the scientific and the public understanding of multilingualism. Old prejudices about learning more than one language in childhood are still widespread, yet new misconceptions about the ‘bilingual advantage’ treat language learning as a panacea. We need two types of ‘bridges’ to debunk old and new myths: bridges that connect different research fields to help understand the interacting factors affecting multilingualism, and bridges to bring a balanced picture of multilingualism research to people from all sectors of society who need to make informed decisions. In this lecture, I will describe how the research and public engagement centre Bilingualism Matters is successfully building both types of bridges worldwide.

The annual Anna Morpurgo Davies Lecture, organised in co-operation with the British Academy, will take place on Friday, 10 May, 4.15pm, at the Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG. Tickets are available from the British Academy website. A video recording will be made available in due course.

Members’ access to Publications of the Philological Society

by Richard Ashdowne (University of Oxford; Hon. Secretary for Membership)

In pursuit of its charitable goals, and as funds permit, the Philological Society supports the work of researchers in linguistics and philology by financing the publication of a series of original research monographs, including those whose specialised topic may fall outside the remit of commercial publishers. The series is called Publications of the Philological Society and it is currently edited by Susan Fitzmaurice.

All current members of the Society are entitled to electronic access to all the publications in this series since 2016. A list of recent publications can be found on the Society’s publisher’s website under ‘Monograph Series’.

In addition to electronic access, full members of the Society (but not student associate members) are eligible to request one printed copy of any publications in this series published during the current or previous calendar year without charge, provided that any membership subscription due for the relevant year has been paid. Requests should be made using this online form.

Long-standing members of the Society will be aware that this represents a change from the previous blanket distribution of hard copies of these publications, but the Society remains committed to ensuring that entitled members who wish to receive printed copies can easily do so.

The first two titles to be published under the new arrangement were first made available electronically in 2016. They are The Syntax and Semantics of the Perfect Active in Literary and Koine Greek by Robert Crellin and Revitalising Languages in Provence: A Critical Approach by James Costa. Both Robert Crellin and James Costa have written about their individual books for this blog; you can find the entries here and here. Electronic access to these titles is available for all members of the Society. The Society regrets the time taken to establish the process for requesting printed copies of these titles. It will therefore accept requests for printed copies of these two titles from full members whose membership was current in either 2016 or 2017; such requests should be made before the end of 2019.

The publication for 2018 was Building Meaning in Context: A Dynamic Approach to Bantu Clause Structure by Hannah Gibson. Although not yet separately listed under monographs on the publisher’s website, this title is already available electronically to all members of the Society via this link. Full members whose membership was current in 2018 may request a printed copy using this online form; requests should be made before the end of 2019.

There are several further publications forthcoming in this series and details of these will be circulated to members by e-mail as they are released.

The Philological Society encourages all researchers, whether or not they are members, to submit proposals for research monographs for inclusion in the series. All proposals are subject to a rigorous reviewing process. Our standards are extremely high and only proposals with a very positive recommendation from the reviewers are considered for publication. Prior to submitting a proposal, potential authors should discuss their proposal with the series editor.

Early Career Researcher Forum

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


PhilSoc is pleased to announce the programme for this year’s Early Career Researcher Forum, to be held on 8–9 March 2019. Twenty Early Career Researchers (late-stage doctoral students and post-docs) will present their research in 20-minute talks or posters.


The ECR Forum will take place at Wolfson College, Oxford.  Next to paper and poster sessions, there will be two workshops on journal and monograph publishing (led by Prof. James Clackson, Cambridge, and Prof. Susan Fitzmaurice, Sheffield) and on grant applications (led by Prof. Aditi Lahiri, Oxford). After the conclusion of the Research Forum, Prof. Rudolf Wachter (Basel) will give a paper at an ordinary meeting of the Society.

The programme of the Forum is available here as pdf. Abstracts of all talks, brief academic biographies of the presenters, and a registration form can be found here.