Parallel evolution of relative clauses in Indo-European

by Nikolas Gisborne & Robert Truswell (University of Edinburgh)

The Indo-European indefinite/interrogative pronouns *k wi-/k wo- are the source of relative pronouns in several daughter languages, including varieties of Romance, Slavic, and Germanic among others. These pronouns did not head relative clauses in PIE, and so their presence in the relative clauses of the daughter languages is a result of processes of historical evolution which have recurred in different subfamilies. However, this recurring parallel process is by and large confined to Indo-European. Comrie (1998) claims instead that the interrogative relative pronoun strategy is a European areal phenomenon, because it is also found in neighbouring languages such as Hungarian and Georgian. However, there is ample evidence that endogenous innovation gives rise to interrogative relativizers in English and several other Indo-European languages. This suggests that such endogenous processes may be wholly or partly responsible for the emergence of interrogative relativizers across Indo-European. However, these processes are not the same across daughter languages: there appear to be several meandering paths from the same start point to similar endpoints.

In this talk, we establish a framework for describing both the parallel diachronic pathways and the dimensions of variation around those pathways. The broad outline of the parallel developments can be established by combining a typological perspective on Indo-European indefinite/interrogatives with results from Haspelmath (1997) on the relationship between interrogative and indefinite pronouns, from Belyaev & Haug (2014) on the typology of correlatives and conditionals, and from Haudry (1973) on the relationship between correlatives and headed relatives. At the same time, the behaviour of individual lexical items within this typological space is less predictable, accounting for the variation around this broad pathway.

This paper was read at the Annual General Meeting of the Philological Society in Oxford, Somerville College, on Saturday, 16 June, 4.15pm.

An audio recording and screencast of the paper can be found below and on the Society’s YouTube channel. A PDF version of the presentations is also available.

Bashkardi – a language by convergence?

by Agnes Korn (CNRS, Paris)

Bashkardi, spoken in Southern Iran inland from the Strait of Hormuz, is a very little known language. The dialects differ on all levels of grammar and show strong influence of Persian. This talk will present some salient features of the phonology and morphology of Bashkardi and compare them to other Iranian languages to shed light on the development of the grammatical structures. I will examine the hypothesis that Bashkardi is not a genetic entity, but a group of Iranian dialects of diverse origin which developed common traits by a process of convergence, having found themselves next to each other in a small region that remains remote even today.

This paper will be read at the Philological Society meeting in London, SOAS, Brunei Gallery building, first floor, room B104, on Friday, 11 May, 4.15pm.

Mechanising historical phonology

by Patrick Sims-Williams (Aberystwyth University)

The neogrammarian approach to historical phonology involves propounding sound-change laws and explaining exceptions by means such as sub-laws, rearranging the relative chronology, and appeal to special factors such as analogy, borrowing, incomplete lexical diffusion, and sporadic phenomena like metathesis. Progress is mostly made manually, but in the second half of the 20th century some linguists looked forward to the ‘triumph of the electronic neogrammarian’. Although this hasn’t been realized yet, I’ll argue that there are opportunities to make important advances with comparatively little effort.

This paper will be read at the Philological Society meeting in Cambridge, Selwyn College, Diamond Room, on Saturday, 10 March, 4.15pm.

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.

A video of the talk can be found below.

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

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.

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. 

AGM & The President’s Lecture: Standards, norms and prescriptivism

The Annual General Meeting of the Philological Society was held on 17 June at Selwyn College, Cambridge.

Having completed a four-year term of office, Prof. Wendy Ayres-Bennett stood down as President of the Society; she is succeeded by Prof. Aditi Lahiri FBA.

The following Members of Council have served their term on council or wished to retire early, and did not stand for re-election: Prof. Ruth Kempson FBA (KCL); Prof. Aditi Lahiri FBA (Oxford); Dr John Penney (Oxford); Dr George Walkden (Manchester).

In their place, the following new Ordinary Members of Council have been elected: Prof. Eleanor Dickey (Reading); Dr Mary MacRobert (Oxford); Prof. Maj-Britt Mosegaard-Hansen (Manchester); Dr David Willis (Cambridge).

The 9th RH Robins Prize was awarded to Jade Jørgen Sandstedt (Edinburgh) for a paper entitled ‘Transparency and blocking in Old Norwegian height harmony’, which will be published in TPS.

The outgoing President delivered her President’s Lecture on ‘Standards, norms and prescriptivism’, an audio recording and screencast of which can be found below and on the Society’s YouTube channel.