Russian in Plain English: amazing things start with a timid first step

by Natalia V. Parker (University of Leeds)

Having taught Russian to adults in the UK for over 20 years, I most definitely did not plan a postgraduate researcher career. Living in rural Somerset, I was enjoying helping my learners discover my mother tongue and looking for ways of making it easier for them to understand how Russian works. Over the years, this search grew into my own independent research into specifics of the acquisition of Russian by English speaking beginners, which resulted in a new approach to teaching Russian. My students encouraged me to see whether I could make this methodology work for other learners of Russian and I decided to try testing it within some kind of research project.

The difficulty was that language teaching methodologies for Russian is an extremely under-researched topic in the UK. The Russianists I approached were mainly interested in Russian literature, history, politics, music, rather than language teaching methodologies, and language teaching methodologists were not Russianists: it took me over a year to find an academic who was interested in what I was doing. The other difficulty was that, having a teenage daughter and no full time employment, I was not able to fund my project in any shape or form. Nearly a hundred emails, letters and applications later, I suddenly received an email from the British Philological Society, suggesting that I could possibly apply for your Masters bursary. Receiving that bursary was so much more than financial support – it made me realize that somebody believed in the potential of my project and gave me hope that I am not on my own in striving to promote the learning of Russian.

The bursary enabled me to run my first experiment on phonological acquisition, teaching Russian pronunciation (including notorious Russian stress) to complete beginners. Its results have not only confirmed the effectiveness of my teaching approach but have led to identifying the differences in stress making by Russian and English speakers, crucial for stress acquisition, which have not been covered in the research literature to date. These findings have been presented at the BASEES (British Association for Slavonic and East European Languages), AATSEEL (American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages) conferences and SLS (Slavic Linguistic Society) meeting in Potsdam, among others. My article, based on this investigation, is under review in SEEJ (Slavic and East European Journal, published in US).

Furthermore, after two years of numerous reviews and active correspondence, Routledge accepted my publishing proposal for a beginners’ textbook, Russian in Plain English, which is due to come out in May. The book employs recent findings in language pedagogy, Second Language Acquisition and Psycholinguistics, language processing in particular, and is anything but traditional. It is not a course book, but rather a learner-friendly starter, that helps learners understand the logic behind Russian phonological and grammar systems, as well as acquire solid reading and speaking skills. More information about the book can be found here.

The book is really why I started all this, though my research now has gone further. I was asked to develop my methodology further through a PhD. I am now in the second year of my PhD at Leeds, fully funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (through White Rose College of Arts and Humanities). My current study is investigating the acquisition of the Russian inflection system by English speakers, and how to make language instruction more processable for learners.

This might not have happened if my first timid step was not supported by your MA bursary four years ago. Thank you for helping me take it.

In memoriam Sir John Lyons

by Peter K. Austin (SOAS)

The Philological Society regrets to advise members that Vice-President Sir John Lyons passed away on 12 March 2020 at the age of 87 after a long period of ill health. Lyons grew up in Stretford, Lancashire, and won a scholarship to Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1950 where he read Classics. After national service he returned to Cambridge in 1956 to begin his PhD in Linguistics under W. Sidney Allen, moving to a lectureship at SOAS in 1957 (the same year he joined PhilSoc) and completing his PhD under R. H. Robins on ‘Some lexical sub-systems in the language of Plato’. In 1960 he went to Indiana University to work on machine translation and gave his first courses on general linguistics. From 1961 to 1964 he taught at Christ’s College and from 1964 to 1984 he was Professor of Linguistics at the Universities of Edinburgh and Sussex. Between 1965 and 1969 he was the founding editor of the Journal of Linguistics. His 1999 paper, published in our Transactions Vol 97 (‘Diachrony and synchrony in twentieth-century linguistic semantics: old wine in new bottles?’), reflects on aspects of his intellectual history, noting “both the Philological Society and the London School played a crucial role in my intellectual development … in what, as far as linguistics is concerned, were my formative years”.

John Lyons was a leading scholar in the field of semantics and pragmatics, and his textbooks Introduction to Theoretical LinguisticsSemantics (2 volumes), and Language, Meaning and Context are models of care, clarity and precision. He was a Fellow of the British Academy, the recipient of honorary degrees from UK and international universities, and in 1987 was knighted ‘for services to the study of linguistics’. In 2016, he was awarded the Neil and Saras Smith Medal for Linguistics by the British Academy ‘for his outstanding lifetime contribution to the field of linguistics’. After serving as Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, from 1985 he retired to France in 2000.

For those interested in an autobiographical account of Sir John Lyons, see Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories by Keith Brown & Vivien Law, 2002.  Publications of the Philological Society 36. pp 170-199.

Grammatical Number in Welsh: Diachrony and Typology

by Silva Nurmio (University of Helsinki)

From the Introduction, pages 1-3.

Nominal morphology and morphosyntax have been relatively neglected topics in Welsh, with diachronic studies dealing mostly with syntax and phonology, and with some work on verbal morphology. Searchable text corpora have been created relatively recently, both for Middle and Modern Welsh, which have made this study possible and allowed me to quantify and test earlier assumptions and theories. This book is the first monograph-length treatment of grammatical number in Welsh and it is aimed at Celticists as well as linguists interested in number more generally. It explores questions such as ‘does Middle Welsh have number values other than singular and plural?’, ‘does Middle Welsh have a dual?’, ‘does Welsh have “collective” nouns?’, ‘why are there so many different plural endings in Welsh?’, ‘why do adjectives sometimes, but not always, agree with a plural noun?’, and ‘why do we use the singular with numerals in Welsh?’ The following linguistic concepts are used to shed new light on the development of Welsh: animacy and the animacy hierarchy; markedness; minor numbers; the loss of the dual as a grammatical number; the interface between derivation and inflection; and language contact (with Latin and English at different periods). These concepts are oriented with regard to current cross-linguistic research on number as discussed especially in Corbett (2000). I attempt to place number in Welsh in a cross-linguistic perspective and provide data that can be used by linguists working on Welsh as well as those with no previous knowledge of the language. Welsh stands to contribute to many discussions in Corbett (2000) such as research on minor numbers (Middle Welsh can be said to have a minor dual for nouns denoting parts of the body) and non-compulsory agreement (adjectives can, but do not have to, agree in number with the noun they modify).

The starting point to the discussion is, in most cases, Middle Welsh for which we have a good amount of textual evidence, and nowadays also searchable text corpora which allow for quantitative work. Old Welsh is relatively poorly documented and we lack evidence for many number phenomena, which means that the Middle Welsh evidence is often also our earliest evidence. Each chapter explores the changes leading up to Modern Welsh, and Chapter 5 on mass nouns includes new data on Modern Welsh elicited through fieldwork. A comprehensive sister study of grammatical number phenomena in Modern Welsh, using corpora and quantitative and experimental data, remains an important desideratum.

This book has three major themes: (i) the grammatical number categories of Welsh; (ii) number agreement and (iii) genre and register and their importance to linguistic studies on older language stages. The first theme is represented by Chapters 3 (‘duals’), 4 (‘collectives’) and 5 (mass nouns). Chapters 3 and 4 look at two categories, ‘duals’ and ‘collectives’, which, as the quotation marks suggest, are problematic and have previously lacked an operative definition in Welsh, giving rise to much terminological confusion in the literature. I argue that these are indeed number categories (a minor number category in the case of the dual), alongside the more familiar singular/plural type. Chapter 5 re-evaluates Welsh mass nouns and demonstrates that there is curious overlap between collective and mass nouns which has previously gone largely unnoticed. I set out a number of tests to determine the category of any given noun, including morphological and syntactic criteria, which show that mass nouns can in fact be divided further into two groups, dubbed mass1 and mass2. Mass1 nouns behave as one might expect mass nouns to behave on the basis of languages like English, by being uncountable and controlling singular agreement. Mass2 nouns, on the other hand, are fascinating in being hybrid controllers, namely they can control both singular and plural agreement and anaphora. There are, to my knowledge, so far no other attested examples of mass nouns as hybrid controllers in any other languages.

Mass nouns, then, lead us to the second major theme of this book, namely number agreement. I explore this theme further in Chapters 6 and 7 in which I look at the number agreement of adjectives (attributive and predicative, as well as adjectives used as nouns) and the agreement of nouns in numeral phrases. These case studies reveal systematic patterns in what has often been described as free variation or occasional irregularity in Welsh. Adjectives in attributive and predicative positions have non-compulsory agreement, but many lexemes have clear preferences for agreement or non-agreement. In numeral phrases, the regular pattern is for nouns to remain in the singular with ‘two’ and above, but in Middle Welsh some nouns have other forms (either identical with the plural, or different from both the singular and the plural). While this has been described as occasional irregularity, this use of ‘special forms’ is in fact only possible for a small group of nouns, called ‘numeratives’. Chapter 7 on numeral phrases summarizes some findings of Nurmio & Willis (2016) while expanding the discussion to include a comparison with number agreement in Breton and Cornish, as well as Irish.

The third theme of the book is the importance of understanding the difference between literary genres and registers when studying older language stages for which only textual evidence remains. Medieval Welsh texts are all written to varying degrees in a formal literary register, and the study of linguistic features often involves uncertainty between regarding something as really reflecting the spoken language of the time or being a peculiarity of literary stylistics. Rodway’s (esp. 2013) work on the medieval Welsh verbal system has advanced our knowledge of the linguistic differences between prose and poetry. I show in Chapter 6 that number agreement on attributive adjectives is another domain where genre/register differences appear, in this case between a sample of prose texts translated from Latin and native prose, while some differences between prose and poetry also occur. Plural agreement is on the whole more common in the texts translated from medieval Latin than in native Welsh compositions, suggesting that this is a register feature of this group of translations, and may differ greatly from contemporary spoken usage. A difference between literary genres was also highlighted in my case study of the plural suffix -awr (Nurmio 2014) which was shown to be almost completely restricted to poetry, and more specifically vocabulary related to the semantic fields of warfare and weapons. There are likely to be other features that vary between genres. Analysing these will be important for understanding the range of linguistic variation in Welsh; for instance, are differences between given texts due to different dates of composition (diachronic variation), genre/register variation, or perhaps dialectal variation? The seemingly philological task of studying variation between literary genres is, then, of much significance to more general linguistic questions.

The approach of these case studies is historical and typological. Depending on the data available, I compare Old, Middle, Early Modern and Modern Welsh at different points (see the next section for the approximate dates for these periods). As discussed in 1.2, the Old Welsh period is not well attested, and we often lack any examples of a given linguistic phenomenon. However, Chapter 4 (on ‘collective’ nouns) and 6 (on adjectival number agreement) draw considerably from the Old Welsh corpus, as it includes interesting data on pluralized singulative nouns and plural adjectives respectively. Chapter 7 on numeral phrases charts a major change between Middle and Modern Welsh agreement patterns with numerals. Early Modern Welsh features in the discussion of singulatives in Chapter 4 where I show that many singulatives are first attested in this period. Chapter 5 draws considerably on Modern Welsh; both the medieval and modern corpora lack sufficient examples of agreement with mass nouns, which led me to conduct fieldwork with speakers of Modern Welsh, which I tentatively compare with older stages.


Corbett, Greville G., 2000. Number. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nurmio, Silva, 2014. ‘ Middle Welsh ‐awr: The case of the lost plural suffix’, Studia Celtica 48, 139– 170.

Nurmio, Silva & David Willis, 2016. ‘ The rise and fall of a minor category: The case of the Welsh numerative’, Journal of Historical Linguistics 6 (2), 297– 339.

Rodway, Simon, 2013. Dating Medieval Welsh literature: Evidence from the verbal system. Aberystwyth: CMCS Publications.

Silva Nurmio’s book Grammatical Number in Welsh: Diachrony and Typology 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. Full members are entitled to a print copy of this volume, which may be requested using this online form.

In memoriam Professor Glanville Price

by Nigel Vincent (University of Manchester)

Professor Glanville Price, a longstanding member of the Society and Council member 1973-79, 1984-87, passed away on 22 December 2019, aged 91. After posts at the universities of St. Andrews, Leeds and Stirling, in 1972 he returned to his native Wales as Professor of the Romance Languages at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (as that institution was then known) where he remained until retirement in 1995. He was best known for his work on French, especially A Comprehensive French Grammar (5th ed, 2003), but in addition he edited and contributed to numerous works on the Celtic languages including The Celtic Connection (1994) and Languages in Britain and Ireland (2000).  He also conceived and edited Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe (1998) and for many years co-edited The Year’s Work in Modern Language Studies.

Masters Bursary Scheme

The Philological Society is pleased to offer a limited number of annual bursaries for students embarking on a taught postgraduate programme in the areas of linguistics or philology.  The intention is that the bursaries will make a contribution to maintaining and furthering the breadth and diversity of language-study in the UK by providing support for outstanding young scholars in the field. As one of the bursaries, the Council of PhilSoc decided in December 2014 to establish the Anna Morpurgo Davies Masters Bursary which would be given normally to someone working on Ancient Languages (including non-Indo-European ones). Each bursary is valued at £5000 p.a., which may be used for either fees or maintenance.  A bursary will not be granted to anyone who has full fees and maintenance from any other award but it may be used to supplement another award which covers only fees.  The application form for the current competition is available below:

The PhilSoc Masters Bursary is now no longer accepting new submissions.

Sound change and analogy in morphological paradigms: Why automated inference is on the horizon

Erich Round (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena; University of Queensland) 

The comparative method is one of the greatest methodological achievements in the history of linguistics. And yet, despite its relatively precise formulation, we do not have an automated implementation of it, and consequently we face a very long wait to know more about the inferable history of language families around the globe. One may well ask why. As it happens, in a mathematical PhD thesis from 2010, Alexandre Bouchard-Côté demonstrated why, by showing that even the inference of sound change was computationally infeasible. Bouchard-Côté pointed to two impediments: (1) a factorial explosion in the difficulty of the computational task, and (2) a paucity of evidence when the data consists of a short list of basic vocabulary. However, recent progress in computational statistics provides reason to believe that impediment (1) may be overcome for at least some models of linguistic change. Impediment (2) might be alleviated by allowing the algorithms to look at richer sources of data (as we humans do), such as inflectional paradigms. And so, in this talk I discuss the prospects for trying to automate a core aspect of the comparative method: the inference of sound change and analogy in paradigms, with an emphasis on analogy. I discuss what is already known about analogy; what it might entail to model that knowledge explicitly; the role to be played by mathematical models of language change; and what research questions the exercise might realistically help us to ask.

This talk will take place at 4:15 on Friday 10 January 2020 at SOAS University of London, the Brunei Gallery Building (opposite the Main Building) in Room B103.

In Memoriam Professor Frank Palmer

by Aditi Lahiri (University of Oxford)

It is with great sadness that the Philological Society has been informed of the death of Professor Frank Palmer, a former Vice President of the Philological Society since 1992, who passed away on the 1st November 2019.

 Professor Palmer was educated at New College, University of Oxford and then became a member of the teaching staff at the SOAS in London, with a post of Lecturer from 1950 to 1960. He then became Professor of Linguistics at University College, Bangor  in 1960. In 1965, along with a number of Bangor colleagues, he moved to the University of Reading to establish the Department of Linguistic Science. He was appointed Professor of Linguistic Science the department rapidly acquired an outstanding international reputation under his headship. In 1955 he was inducted into the Linguistics Society of America (LSA)In 1971, Professor Palmer was appointed one of the Professorship Holders of the LSA. He was later made a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Academia Europea.   

Professor Palmer carried out important descriptive research on Ethiopian languages, and his seminal work on mood and modality, was highly influential, with his CUP textbook on the topics being widely used internationally. For further information about his life and work see Keith Brown and Vivien Law 2002. “Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories“. Wiley-Blackwell (PhilSoc Publication 36). He retired in 1987 with the title of Emeritus Professor of Linguistic Science. 

Ancient Greek enclitics: some new light from ancient grammarians

by Philomen Probert (University of Oxford)

Ancient Greek is a language rich in enclitics (little words forming some sort of prosodic unit with what precedes), and ancient grammatical texts give us important information on how an enclitic affects the accent or stress of the preceding word. But in some situations we struggle to understand what ancient authors are telling us. For example, what happens when enclitics follow one another in sequence? Some ancient texts tell us that every enclitic except the last gets an accent on its last syllable, while others present us with the same idea plus a series of apparently unlikely exceptions. This talk will argue that the ancient grammarians are consistently getting at a recursive rule, but that they deploy ingenious strategies for not talking about recursion.

19th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences – 2019

by Caitlin Halfacre (Newcastle University)

In August 2019, I was supported by a PhilSoc travel bursary to attend the 19th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, to present a poster. The conference was in Melbourne, hosted by The Australasian Speech Science and Technology Association and had 422 oral presentations and 397 poster presentations. The poster I presented was based on my MA and was also included in the Congress proceedings papers. My title was North-South Dividers in privately educated speakers: a sociolinguistic study of Received Pronunciation using the foot-strut and trap-bath distinctions in the North East and South East of England.

Figure 1: Accent Variation in England, adapted from Wells (1984)

There is a model of accent variation in England that demonstrates the interactions between regional variation and variation based on social class. The high level of regional variation found in working class speakers seems to reduce going up the socio-economic spectrum, see, with the top of the triangle forming the accent called Received Pronunciation (RP – popularly known as BBC English). However, this model has not been updated for almost 40 years. My research involves recording speakers from different regions whose socio-economic status would place them near the top of this triangle and investigating a variety of accent features that would general display regional variation.

The paper I presented discussed what are known as the FOOT-STRUT and TRAP-BATH splits, descriptions of what vowels speaker uses. The FOOT-STRUT split is whether the two words (and those in the same sets) rhyme or not, and the TRAP-BATH split is whether words like BATH have the same vowel as trap, generally found in the North, or the same vowel as PALM, generally found in the South. In 10 privately educated speakers from the North East and South East I found that they all behaved the same as each other in the FOOT-STRUT split, demonstrating that this feature acts in a non-regional manner. However, regarding the trap-bath split, I found that the speakers reflected the patterns found in their local region. This is likely due to the social salience of the feature; non-linguists have a strong awareness of how people in different regions pronouns words in the BATH set (e.g. glass, path, mast) and see it as a regional identity marker.

Figure 2

Presenting this poster gave me the opportunity to gain feedback on both my methods and results, invaluable information for data collection for my PhD. I also was able to meet and discuss my findings with leading researchers in the field, whose work has greatly influenced mine. Including the researcher who illustrated the above model, and another who is the only other person currently publishing sociophonetic research on RP.

I would like to thank PhilSoc for awarding me the travel bursary, I used it to supplement the funds my department were able to give in order to make up the required amount. This congress only happens once every four years and I could have missed out on the opportunity to attend without their support.

My poster and proceedings paper can be found on my website.