From language enthusiast to UCLA linguistics PhD student

by Tom Trigg (University of California)

When I applied for my undergraduate studies, I was sure that linguistics would take secondary place to French, having originally applied for a joint honours French & Linguistics degree. However, two months before I enrolled at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), I made the somewhat crazy decision to switch to a single honours BA in Linguistics, which turned out to be the best decision. I ended up falling in love with the subject and deciding to continue my studies through to postgraduate level. My time during my undergraduate studies solidified a profound interest in the underlying facets of language structure, and culminated in an undergraduate thesis investigating case variation in Finnish. During my second year, I was determined that pursuing further education in linguistics was absolutely what I wanted to do, so I decided to apply to QMUL once again for an MA in linguistics.

It goes without saying that my MA would have been financially impossible without the PhilSoc’s Master’s Bursary. It ensured I could dedicate all my time to my MA. Graduating in December 2019, I was able to explore many more aspects of linguistics during my postgraduate studies. This included a joint project investigating the nature of so-called pluralia tantum (nouns which only have a singular form: “trousers”, “groceries” etc.). Our work, which is still ongoing, was presented at the Linguistics and English Language Postgraduate Conference (LELPGC) at the University of Edinburgh, and at the general meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (LAGB) at QMUL. I was also able to participate in the London Semantics Day (LSD) at QMUL, presenting some preliminary work which made up part of my MA thesis. My thesis was ultimately focused on investigating the nature of Finnish reflexives. I investigated and analysed Finnish anaphors (words like “himself”) and logophors (pronouns which may only refer back to an attitude holder/speaker). Given the breadth of this topic, it is an area which I very much hope to return to. Throughout my MA studies, I realised that taking part in serious research was what I wanted to do with my career. I likewise found a passion for research which relies on cross-linguistic comparison and elicitation with native speakers.

Knowing that my research interests lie firmly within the realm of formal linguistics, particularly syntax and semantics, and their interface, I applied to a number of doctoral programs in both the US and UK. I was lucky to be offered a place on the linguistics graduate program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which I started in September 2019. I’ve since had the opportunity to undertake a number of other projects, including: (i) investigating Finnish wh-movement (which forms wh-questions like “who did you see?”); and (ii) probing the syntax/semantics of British English so-called fuck-inversion (constructions like “Is John a nice guy?” “Is he fuck!”. Sailor, Craig. 2017. ‘Negative inversion without negation: On fuck-inversion in British English.’ In Cambridge Occasional Papers in Linguistics (COPiL) 10: 88-110.). Needless to say, my ability to pursue my education at Master’s level was aided, in no small part, by the Master’s Bursary. Without this, it would be unlikely that I would have been able to continue my studies in a doctoral program. So for that, I am incredibly grateful to PhilSoc for allowing me to pursue my passion.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Origin of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua

by Xiaolan Cao (University of Melbourne)

In this post, I will discuss the origin of the voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua, one of the two branches of Pinghua and a minority Sinitic language. Southern Pinghua is mostly spoken in Southern Guangxi in China (Qin 2000) by approximately 1.8 million native speakers (Min 2013). However, some of the dialects have experienced huge trans-generational language loss and are hence potentially endangered (Cao 2019). Most Southern Pinghua speakers identify as ethnic Han, the majority ethnic group in China, while most of the rest identify as ethnic Zhuang.

In southern Pinghua, the voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/ is a consonant phoneme occurring in the onset position of a syllable. The phonemicity of /ɬ/ can be established by the minimal pair in Table 1 below.[1]

Word Gloss
/ɬa33/ ‘spread’
/sa33/ ‘sprinkle’

Table 1: a minimal pair of voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/

Commonly, /ɬ/ is not considered an internal development of Sinitic languages primarily because it rarely occurs in present-day Sinitic languages. Within China, it is distributed in the former Baiyue area, once occupied by the ancestors of Tai-Kadai speakers (Li 2000). Besides Southern Pinghua dialects, Cantonese dialects located in Southern Guangxi and Western Guangdong also have the phoneme /ɬ/. Outside Guangxi and Guangdong, /ɬ/ can be found only in three small regions in China: it can be seen in some dialects of Ming in non-contiguous geographical pockets in Fujian Province or some dialects of Hui in Anhui Province; it also can be found in some dialects of various Sinitic languages spoken on the west coast of Hainan Province (de Sousa 2015: 166-168, quoting Liu X 2006, Liu F 2007, Akitani 2008, and Meng 1981). Due to its limited distribution in present-day Sinitic languages, /ɬ/ is not reconstructed for Middle Chinese or Old Chinese in the literature; see Zhengzhang (2003), Li (1971), Baxter and Sagart (2014), and Wang (1985) respectively.

On the other hand, /ɬ/ is common in present-day dialects of Zhuang, a Tai-Kadai language mainly spoken in Guangxi (Zheng 1998). According to works by Mai (2009, 2011), Ouyang (1995), Yuan (1989), Zheng (1998), and Zhao (2015), the phoneme /ɬ/ in Sinitic languages may have developed under the influences from Zhuang loanwords through language contact. However, the opposing view—that because the phoneme /ɬ/ in Zhuang corresponds to *s in Proto-Tai, it is likely that Zhuang developed this phoneme under the influence from Sinitic languages instead of the opposite direction of influences—has been suggested in the Chinese language literature as well (de Sousa 2015, quoting Li F 1977 and Pittayaporn 2009).

The two views on the origin of /ɬ/ in Sinitic languages have some limitations. First, the argument that /ɬ/ is not an internal development of Sinitic language simply because of its limited distribution and absence from reconstructions for Middle Chinese or Old Chinese does not preclude that /ɬ/ could have developed in Southern Pinghua after the Middle Chinese period.

Further, the evidence does not indicate whether /ɬ/ is an internal development in Southern Pinghua or a phoneme developed under the influences of loanwords from Zhuang through language contact. As for its distribution in Southern Pinghua, the phoneme /ɬ/ can be found in both the Sinitic stratum and the Zhuang stratum. According to a survey by Cao (2018), in the Sinitic stratum, Chinese characters (Chinese cognates) whose Southern Pinghua pronunciations contain onset /ɬ/ were mostly recorded as having the Middle Chinese onset denoted as 心 (*s) in Qieyun, a rhyming dictionary published in 601 CE during the Sui dynasty (581–618). This correspondence exists not only in common words, such as /ɬam52/ (‘three’) and /ɬɜm52/ (‘heart’) but also in literary words, like /ɬɜw52/ (‘constellation’) and /ɬoŋ52/ (‘lofty’).

The correspondences between /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua and onset 心 (*s) in Middle Chinese suggests that /ɬ/ is of Sinitic origin. However, from the same survey, there are ninety-one admissible syllables start with /ɬ/ in total, among which twenty-six cannot be associated with Chinese characters (Chinese cognates). Normally for Southern Pinghua syllables, being able to be identified by Chinese characters strongly indicates their Sinitic origin. Thus, these twenty-six syllables are possibly not of Sinitic origin but introduced to the language by loanwords from other languages, such as Zhuang. Thus, the distribution of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua does not support /ɬ/ being an internal development or one induced by the influences of language contact with Zhuang.

In addition to the distributional features of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua, the historical developments of /s/-phonemes in Southern Pinghua may also shed some light on the developments of /ɬ/. In Southern Pinghua, pronunciations of Chinese characters whose onset is /s/ correspond mostly to those denoted in Qieyun as having onsets denoted as 审 (*ɕ), 禅 (**ʑ), and邪 (*z). Based on the fact that these three Middle Chinese onsets did not develop into /ɬ/, we may speculate that the Middle Chinese onset 心 (*s) has some features that make it prone to sound change to /ɬ/ under certain influences, such as loanwords from Zhuang.

Finally, the geographical distribution of /ɬ/ is not so discontiguous as described in previous studies. The geographical distribution of /ɬ/ is contiguous in Southern Guangxi and Western Guangdong. These two adjacent regions in total occupy approximately 184,000 square kilometres [2] of densely populated area, which is larger than Cambodia (181,035 square kilometres) or Nepal (147,181 square kilometres). Therefore, it may not be accurate to describe the territory of /ɬ/ in Southern Guangxi and Western Guangdong as small or isolated, and /ɬ/ can be considered as an areal feature for further studies in historical linguistics, areal linguistics, and linguistic typology. Drawing from the analysis and evidence given in the discussion above, I would like to posit some questions for further investigation.

  1. Why is /ɬ/ so prevalent in Southern Pinghua and Cantonese dialects found in the area of Southern Guangxi and Eastern Guangdong, but not in the other areas?
  2. If language contact with Zhuang is a contributing factor to the development of /ɬ/, why does /ɬ/ occur in Southern Pinghua dialects but not most Northern Pinghua dialects, given both Pinghua branches have similar contact with Zhuang?
  3. Similarly, why do Cantonese dialects in Western Guangdong have /ɬ/ but not those in Eastern Guangdong, considering Cantonese dialects mostly have similar exposure to Zhuang in the history?
  4. Can the peculiar distributions of /ɬ/ in Pinghua and Cantonese dialects be explained by a mere historical accident?

In sum, the two opposing views on the origin of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua are questionable because the evidence is inconclusive. At this stage, the origin of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua dialects remains unclear, and further investigations are still required.


Baxter, W.H., and Laurent Sagart. 2014. Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cao, Xiaolan. 2019, ‘Documentation of Wucun Pinghua’: Endangered Langauge Documentation Program.

—. 2018, ‘A Survey of the Southern Pinghua Pronunciation of Chinese Characters with English Glosses and Corresponding Mandarin and Cantonese Pronunciations’: University of New England.

de Sousa, Hilário 2015, ‘Language Contact in Nanning: Nanning Pinghua and Nanning Cantonese’, in Hilary M. Chappell (ed.), Diversity in Sinitic Languages, Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2016: Oxford University Press.

Li, Fanggui. 1971, ‘上古音研究 (a Study of Old Chinese Phonology]’. Qinghua Xuebao 9,26-32.

Li, Lianjin. 2000, ‘平话的历史 [ the History of Pinghua]’. 民族语文 [ Minority languages of China] 6,24-30.

Mai, Geng. 2009, ‘从粤语的产生和发展看汉语方言形成的模式 [ a View of the Formation Pattern of Chinese Dialects from the Formation and Development of Yue]’. 方言[Fangyan] 3,219-232.

—. 2011, ‘粤语方言的音韵特征-兼谈方言分区的一些问题 [ Phonological Features of Yue and Some Issues in the Subgrouping of Chinese Dialects]’. 方言[Dialects],289-301.

Min, Gunag. 2013, ‘桂南平话研究综述 [ a Literature Review of the Studies of Southern Pinghua]’. 语文学刊 [ Journal of langauge] 9,22-23.

Ouyang, Jueya. 1995, ‘两广粤方言与壮语的种种关系 [ the Relations between Zhuang and the Yue Dialects Spoken in Guangdong and Guangxi]’. 民族语文 [ Minority languages of China] 6,49-52.

Qin, Yuanxiong. 2000, ‘桂南平话研究 [Study in Southern Pinghua]’, unpublished: Jinan University.

Wang, Li. 1985. 汉语语音史 [the Phonological History of the Chinese Language]. Bejing: China Social Science Press.

Yuan, Jiahua. 1989. 汉语方言概要 [ Introduction to Chinese Dialects]. Beijing: 文字改革出版社 [ The press of language and character reform].

Zhao, Yuan. 2015, ‘广西粤语,平话中的边擦音/ɬ/的来源及其形成探究 [ Exploring the Origin of the Voiceless Fricative /ɬ/ in Yue and Pinghua Spoken in Guangxi’. Journal of Guangxi Teacher’s Education University (Philosophy and Social Sciences Edition) 36,61-66.

Zheng, Zuoguang. 1998, ‘广西平话的边擦音声母ɬ及其形成 [ the Formation of Lateral Fricative /ɬ/ in Guangxi Pinghua’, 方言与音韵研究论集

, Nanning: Guangxi Jiaoyu Press, pp. 103-110.

Zhengzhang, Shangfang. 2003. 上古音系 [Phonology of Old Chinese]. Shanghai: Shanghai Jiaoyu Press.

[1] Southern Pinghua is a tone language, and the numbers in the word transcriptions indicate lexical tones

[2] The regions of Southern Guangxi and Western Guangdong occupy approximately half of Guangxi (236,700 square kilometers) and one third of Guangdong (177,900 square kilometers). Therefore, it is estimated that these two regions altogether have around 184,000 square kilometers.

The Preterite and Perfect in Middle English

by Morgan Macleod (University of Ulster)

The Proto-Germanic tense system, consisting only of a present and a preterite, was augmented in Old English by the addition of a periphrastic perfect. This perfect had already been grammaticalized to the point where it could be used even with intransitive verbs, e.g. þin folc hæfð gesyngod ‘your people have sinned’ (Mitchell 1985: I, 289). However, it was still possible to use the preterite to express similar temporal content, e.g. Ic heold nu nigon gear[…] þines fæder gestreon ‘I (have) now held your father’s property nine years’ (ÆLS I.21.42). For many Old English authors the preterite was in fact the preferred mode of expression; previous research on a sample of Old English texts found that the new periphrastic perfect was used only in 26% (95/360) of the cases where it would have been possible semantically (see Macleod 2014). However, little previous quantitative work exists on the subsequent development of the perfect and preterite towards the modern system, in which the two categories are paradigmatically opposed and can seldom be interchanged without altering the meaning of an utterance.

A preliminary investigation of the preterite and perfect in Middle English was performed using the Helsinki Corpus (Rissanen et al. 1996). Such a corpus, small in size yet selected for balanced content, was ideal for a form of analysis involving manual review of entire textual passages. The methodology was based on that of Macleod (2014): texts from the earliest Middle English period, 1150–1250, were analysed to identify all situations for which a present perfect would be an appropriate representation, and the relevant verbs were identified either as preterites or as perfects. This research revealed an abrupt transition between Old English and Middle English; in Middle English, not including texts that represent late copies of Old English works, the periphrastic perfect was used in 94% (258/274) of cases. It is possible that the earlier stages of this transition took place within OE, where they were obscured by the relatively homogeneous nature of the textual record. In addition, some ME authors seem to show awareness of a new opposition between the preterite and the perfect, e.g. Orm 197 Þe þridde god uss hafeþþ don / Þe Laferrd Crist onn erþe, / Þurrh þatt he ȝaff hiss aȝhenn lif ‘The Lord Christ has done us the third good on earth in that He gave His own life’. Here the same situation is described with a preterite to position it within a historical narrative and with a perfect to highlight its continuing relevance, showing a clearer contrast than seems to have existed in Old English.

Although the majority of Middle English examples seem to conform to the modern pattern, a small number of exceptions remain, a fact noted by previous authors such as Mustanoja (1960) and Fischer (1992). One factor involved in these exceptions may lie in the variation observed (e.g. Elsness 1997) among varieties of English in their tense preferences: constructions such as American English I already ate can be paralleled in Middle English examples such as Ich ne seh him neauer ‘I never saw Him’ (St Juliana 100.15), while examples such as mare wunder ilomp ‘greater wonders (have) happened’ (Ancrene Wisse 32.9) may show an even greater tolerance for the preterite than would be possible in present-day American English. This variation may best be interpreted as a difference not in the temporal meaning of the forms involved, but in the pragmatic presuppositions created by their use, in keeping with the approach of Portner (2003).

Some Middle English examples also involve the use of a past tense under a present-tense verb in a way that would be of marginal acceptability in Modern English. This can be seen in examples such as Brut I.384.7424, Ich þonkie mine Drihte[…] þet he swulche mildce; sent to moncunne ‘I thank my Lord that He sent such mercy to mankind’. Although much research on the sequence of tenses (e.g. Abusch 1997; Gennari 2003) has tended to focus on cases in which the matrix verb is in the past tense, it is known that sequence-of-tense phenomena are subject to cross-linguistic variation in their construction and interpretation. Examples such as the above may reflect an underlying difference between Middle English and Modern English in their sequence-of-tense rules.

This preliminary investigation has found a high degree of similarity between Middle English and Modern English in their use of the perfect even at a very early date, in sharp contrast to the patterns found in Old English texts. While the explanations proposed here may help to explain the small number of apparent counterexamples, more work is needed to substantiate these proposals. In particular, a larger data sample might provide further examples to clarify the factors influencing speakers’ choice between the perfect and the preterite, while a more general examination of the sequence of tenses found in Middle English would be essential to establish the details of the system obtaining at this period and the ways in which it might differ from Modern English. Further research in this area has the potential to illuminate many currently obscure details of the Middle English verbal system.


Abusch, Dorit, 1997. ‘Sequence of tense and temporal de re’, Linguistics and Philosophy 20, 1–40.

Elsness, Johan, 1997. The Perfect and Preterite in Contemporary and Earlier English, Berlin: de Gruyter

Fischer, Olga, 1992. ‘Syntax’, in Norman Blake (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, vol. 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 207–408.

Gennari, Silvia P., 2003. ‘Tense meanings and temporal interpretation’, Journal of Semantics 20 35–71.

Macleod, Morgan, 2014. ‘Synchronic variation in the Old English perfect’, Transactions of the Philological Society 112, 319–343.

Mitchell, Bruce, 1985. Old English Syntax, 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon.

Mustanoja, Tauno F., 1960. A Middle English Syntax, Helsinki: Societé Néophilologique.

Portner, Paul, 2003. ‘The (temporal) semantics and (modal) pragmatics of the perfect’, Linguistics and Philosophy 26, 459–510.

Rissanen, Matti, et al. (eds.) 1996. The Helsinki Corpus of English Texts, Helsinki: University of Finland, electronic.

The Loss of the Latin Case System – A New Morphological Approach

by Zeprina-Jaz Ainsworth (University of Oxford)

Much work has already been done on the development of the Latin case system, which has been lost almost entirely from nouns and adjectives in Romance. Scholars such as Herman (2000) have outlined phonetic, analogical, functional, and syntactic changes which may have contributed to the opacification of certain morphological case forms. However, none of the previous analyses account for the near-total loss of the case category in Romance. For instance, as the result of regular phonological changes, the singular forms in the first declension would not have ‘fallen together’ into a single, invariant shape:

PluralClassical LatinSound ChangeResult

AccusativeMENSAMLoss of final -m**mensa
AblativeMENSĀLoss of vowel length distinctions
GenitiveMENSAEae >[e]
DativeMENSAEae >[e]

Table 1: Phonetic erosion in first declension singular case/number suffixes

Moreover, cross-linguistic comparison indicates that, despite phonological, analogical, and functional developments, languages do not necessarily always lose their case systems. Finnish, for instance, retains the fifteen case values (for nouns and adjectives) reconstructed for proto-Finnic (although the abessive, comitative, instructive and prolative are now in restricted usage), and has even begun to develop new morphological suffixes:

Proto-Finnic nominative, genitive, partitive, essive, translative, elative, inessive, illative, ablative, adessive, allative, abessive, comitative, instructive, prolative
Modern Finnish nominative, genitive, partitive, essive, translative, elative, inessive, illative, ablative, adessive, allative, (abessive, comitative, instructive, prolative), comitiative2, excessive

Table 2: Case values in proto-Finnic and modern Finnish

This study is concerned with answering the question: why do we find such different developments cross-linguistically?

One major difference between these two languages is that Latin is characterized predominantly by fusional morphology, whilst Finnish exhibits an abundance of agglutinative structure. By analysing these structures from a unit-agnostic ‘abstractive’ approach (as opposed to a ‘constructive’ perspective, in which forms are considered to be ‘built’ up of sub-word parts),[1] we may best understand how they behave in significantly different ways in diachrony.

In Latin for instance, the fully-inflected wordform and the relationship it bears to other forms in the paradigm provides the language-user with informative patterns which may be extended in the inflexion of other lexemes – there is no need to posit ‘underlying’ forms or identify sub-word morphs in order to ‘construct’ new forms. For instance, if the language-user knows a nominative singular form ending in -a, the lexeme must belong to the first declension. In the second and fourth declensions, however, even if both the nominative singular and accusative singular forms are known, there is residual ambiguity about the inflexion class to which the lexeme belongs:

Nom. sg. PUELLA 1st declension SERVUS 2nd/4th declension GRADUS 2nd/4th declension
Acc. sg. PUELLAM 1st declension SERVUM 2nd/4th declension GRADUM 2nd/4th declension
Gen. sg. PUELLAE 1st declension SERVĪ 2nd declension GRADŪS 4th declension

Table 3: Implicational relations in a sub-set of Latin nouns

In Finnish, implicative relations provide information about inflexion class, whilst the frequent isomorphic form~function mapping exhibited by inflexional suffixes provides absolute certainty in the expression of most case functions.

Nom. sg. ajatus ‘thought’ -Vs ~ -Vks-/-Vs ~ -VV- vieras ‘stranger’ -Vs ~ -Vks-/-Vs ~ -VV-
Part. sg. ajatusta -Vs ~ -Vks-/-Vs ~ -VV- vierasta -Vs ~ -Vks-/-Vs ~ -VV-
Gen. sg. ajatuksen -Vs ~ -Vks- + [n] vieraan Vs ~ -VV- + [n]

Table 4: Implicational relations and sub-word units in a sub-set of Finnish nouns

Whilst multiple forms are required in Finnish to determine the declension class to which a lexeme with a nominative singular form in -s belongs, there is certainty in many cells as to the inflexional material that will follow the lexical stem.

The abstract patterns that exist in Latin are not maximally-informative, that is, there is occasionally still uncertainty about the shape of an unknown form, even given knowledge of two forms in the language (consider table three). In Finnish, on the other hand, there is a sub-word area of absolute certainty in most of the cells in the inflexional paradigm. In addition to implicational relations, therefore, a Finnish speaker, even where there is not have sufficient information to deduce the inflexion class of a lexeme, may utilize maximally-predictable sub-word forms to produce a form (whether or not the ‘correct’ one) which may be interpreted correctly by a hearer.[2]

The observations offered here accord with language-learning data. Niemi and Niemi (1987) and Laalo (2009), for instance, observe that Finnish children recognise early the direct mapping of the suffix -n and genitive singular functions; they then utilise this knowledge in the deduction of previously unencountered forms. In Latin, exemplary paradigms and principal parts have long been used to capture the inflexional variation exhibited by lexemes. The implicational relations that exist between the nominative singular and genitive singular forms of a noun, for instance, are sufficient to enable L2 learners to ‘match’ novel items to the correct inflexion class.

I suggest that understanding the way in which morphological structures are recognised and exploited by languages-users may help to explain (in conjunction with, e.g., phonological or analogical developments) whether morphological case distinctions are likely to be lost or maintained. In Latin, the implicational relations, although informative, are not always maximally-predictive, and became opacified through time following regular phonological developments (such as those given in table one). As a result of such phonetic erosion, the area of informativeness in the Latin case system has shifted from the area of suffixal variation, distinct across declension, towards the certainty associated with the invariant form of the lexeme. By contrast, the maximally-predictable sub-word elements in Finnish may be rote-learned, which provides them with diachronic stability. These units, in addition to the less informative abstract relations, offer language-users on average more information in language use than is available to a learner of Latin in the production of novel inflected forms. Consideration of the morphological structures found in a given language and the ways in which they are recognised and exploited in language use may therefore offer some additional insight into why the robust Latin case system is not found in Romance.


Blevins, J.P., 2006. ‘Word-based Morphology’. In Journal of Linguistics 42:3. 531-573.

—-, 2016. Word and Paradigm Morphology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blevins, J.P., P. Milin, and M. Ramscar. 2017. ‘The Zipfian Paradigm Cell Filling Problem’. In F. Kiefer, J.P. Blevins, and H. Bartos (eds.). Perspectives on Morphological Structure: Data and Analyses. Leiden: Brill. 139-158.

Herman, J., 2000. Vulgar Latin. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Laalo, K., 2009. ‘Acquisition of Case and Plural in Finnish’. In U. Stephany and M. Voeikova (eds.). Development of Nominal Inflection in First Language Acquisition: a Cross-Linguistic Perspective. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 49-90.

Milin, P., V. Kuperman, A. Kostić and H.R. Baayen, 2009.
‘Words and paradigms bit by bit: An information-theoretic approach to the processing of inflection and derivation’ in In J.P. Blevins and J. Blevins (eds.). Analogy in Grammar: Form and Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 214-252.

Niemi, J. and S. Niemi, 1987. ‘Acquisition of inflectional marking: A case study of Finnish’ in Nordic Journal of Linguistics 10:1. 59-89.

[1] The terms ‘abstractive’ and ‘constructive’ are from Blevins (2006).

[2] This discussion may be recast in terms of the information-theoretic notion of ‘entropy’. See, e.g., Milin et al. (2009) and Blevins (2016:171-196).