On Writing « The Secret Life of Language »

by Simon Pulleyn (London)

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In September 2017, I was asked by Trevor Davies, Commissioning Editor at Octopus Books, whether I would write a book about language for the general reader. Octopus already had titles such as The Secret Life of the Periodic Table and The Secret Life of Equations. Now they wanted to try linguistic science. They had some general ideas about scope, but I was offered a free hand as to the text. Octopus specialize in illustrated books. This was quite new for me. My previous experience was that pictures cost money and, as the author must pay for them, they are best avoided. But Octopus has an entire department dedicated to sourcing images; the project also had a talented artist who produced drawings tailored to my ideas. PhilSoc readers will not be slow to spot anachronisms in cartoons depicting Cicero or Babylonian scribes. But the aim of the book is to appeal to the bright general reader, not the specialist; the designers thought that the drawings would have broader appeal if they did not incorporate my niggles about period costume and furniture.

Once I had been signed up as the author, I was in the unenviable position of being expected to know everything. Sadly, I don’t but I was able to consult knowledgeable friends who dug me out of some of my ignorance. I began with an almost blank sheet of A3 paper. It contained just a series of empty rectangles called spreads: these correspond to what you see when you open the book at any given point and look at the two pages in front of you. My job was to decide, in outline at first and then in detail, what would go onto each page or spread. What were the topics to cover and how many spreads should be devoted to each? All this was against the background that the number of pages for this series is fixed at 192 and not all of those are for the author: there must be titles, picture acknowledgements, and an index.

I began with evolution, looking at the anatomical apparatus needed for speech and how this developed. I am no expert in this field and those who specialize in primate evolution will probably find things that they would say otherwise. I went on to look in detail at the constituent elements of linguistics: two spreads on phonetics, three on phonology, four on morphology, two on lexicon and three on syntax. The book then moves on to proto-languages and the problems with arranging languages into families. The book has on its cover an attractive tree diagram of the Indo-European languages. Anyone familiar with the field will know how contentious a topic this is and will either want to draw the branches in a different way, change the labels or object altogether to the notion of trees. But I hope that the text of the book makes it clear that the enlightenment enthusiasm for genealogies, which also brought us Linnaean classification of plants and the periodic table of elements, is not taken by linguists today as the last word on the topic. The problems of areal influence are discussed in detail, particularly in respect of the Semitic languages and those of mainland Southeast Asia.

The deadline for the book was strict. Whereas those of us accustomed to academic publishing often have years in which to write a monograph, my brief from Octopus was to write 50,000 words in ten weeks. Furthermore, the text was to be delivered in three batches so that the design team could be getting on with the illustrative content for one part of the book whilst I was writing the text for the next. Because of the need to fit in illustrations, this meant that one had generally to write in units of 610, 1220 or 2440 words depending on the number of pages to be covered.

Because I wanted to give the reader the broadest immersion in the field, the book goes on to tour the world either by looking at language families or at the speech of large geographical areas. There are thus sections on the Celtic, Semitic, Turkic, and Iranian languages and others on the languages of India, the Caucasus, the Pacific and the Americas. On some days, this meant that my task was to write 610 words on the idea and reconstruction of the Indo-European family. This is a challenge in terms of choice and compression but also a wholesome discipline. Other days were much harder. It is not encouraging to wake up knowing that the business of the moment is to produce 1220 words on the languages of North and South America. Quite aside from problems of choice and compression, the greater challenge was that I knew so little about the topic and needed to educate myself before presuming to write a single word. By the end of the day, I had not written the required number of words but at least had read a great deal and mapped out the way forward.

Specialist readers will disagree over what ought to have been included, what left out and what emphasis ought to have been given to individual elements. But I hope that the general reader new to language and browsing in a high-street shop will be enthused and drawn in to our wonderful subject. If a person is motivated to start learning another language or to buy some books on linguistics (there is a select bibliography), that is a result. The cartoons are meant to allure. But that does not mean that the text is small beer. I asked my editor if I could discuss things like syllabic nuclei and sonority hierarchy. ‘Yes,’ he replied without missing a beat, ‘Of course!  Just make sure that you explain it all clearly.’ The diagrams help to do that and there is a full glossary at the back.


Simon Pulleyn’s The Secret Life of Language was published by Octopus Books on 30 August 2018 (Cassell, 192 pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781788400244).

CfP: Early Career Researcher Forum

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

As members will know, the Philological Society is the oldest learned society in Great Britain devoted to the scholarly study of language and languages, demonstrating its endeavour to promote the study and knowledge of the structure, the affinities, and the history of languages through regular talks, the publication of the Transactions of the Philological Society, and a monograph series.

ECR_logoTo further the engagement with languages and linguistics even more, the Society will host an Early Career Researcher Forum on 8–9 March 2019, and thus invites submissions of abstracts for 20-minute oral presentations or poster presentations on any topic of research within the Society’s interests from Early Career Researchers (late-stage doctoral students and post-docs) as well as from individuals conducting linguistic or philological research not ordinarily employed in an academic position or higher education.

jon_background_copyThe 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.

Anonymous abstracts of no more than one page (DIN A4 or US Letter, Times New Roman, 12pt, 2.5cm margin on all sides) including references, diagrams, and examples may be submitted electronically in PDF format to PhilSocECRF@gmail.com no later than 12.00pm GMT on Friday, 14 December 2018. Applicants should indicate whether they intend to give an oral or poster presentation, or are open to either. Submissions will be evaluated by the scientific committee and speakers informed about their success by 31 January 2019.

Speakers who join the Society at the student/ECR rate (£20 for 5 years) will be eligible to apply for a bursary to cover travel and accommodation in a College (or similar).

All queries and questions should be directed to the Society’s Hon. Secretary for Student Associate Members at: robin.meyer[at]ling-phil.ox.ac.uk.

A downloadable version of the Call for Papers is available here.

Survey: Attitudes towards digital culture and technology in the Modern Foreign Languages

by Renata Brandão (King’s College London)

Looking at the history, present and future of ‘digital’ Modern Languages research, our strand, Digital Mediations, of the AHRC-funded Language Acts & Worldmaking project explores the effects of digital culture and technology upon Modern Language research, asking what kinds of ‘translation’ are performed as information enters and leaves the digital sphere.

As part of our research, we have just launched a survey of attitudes towards digital culture in the Modern Foreign Languages, with attention to both theory and practice, as part of the Language Acts & Worldmaking project, a flagship project funded by the AHRC Open World Research Initiative, which aims to regenerate and transform modern language learning. Please consider doing the survey if you work in Modern Languages. We would be very interested to hear about your experience.

The survey is aimed at people with any level of digital expertise, and whose work involves Modern Foreign Languages in any role (whether that be as researcher, learner, teacher, funder, policy-maker, digital practitioner, cultural practitioner or other).

For most participants, the survey will take about 15 minutes. For those who have strong involvement in digital theory or practice, you will be offered additional optional questions which might make the survey longer.

We will analyse the survey results for future presentation and publication—all results will be anonymised—and will present initial findings in the coming year.

The survey will be open until 31st May 2018.

To the survey ➡


This survey is part of a research project called ‘Modern Foreign Languages Research: Digital Mediations’ which was submitted to, and approved by, the King’s College Research Ethics committee under its Minimal Ethical Risk Registration Process (REC Reference Number: MR/17/18-280).

 If you have any questions, please contact Paul Spence at paul.spence@kcl.ac.uk.

 

Indo-Iranian Philology Day

by Robin Meyer (University of Oxford)

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Wolfson College, Oxford, and the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics at the University of Oxford are pleased to host an Indo-Iranian Philology Day on Saturday, 28 April 2018, at Wolfson College.

This day celebrates the long-standing tradition of teaching Indic and Iranian languages as well as Indo-Iranian Comparative Philology at the University, and will showcase the breadth of the field as well as the fascinating connections with other areas of study.

The day begins with a lecture introducing Indo-Iranian Philology. Thereafter,  the morning consists of three sets of short introductory classes in Vedic and Avestan language and texts, as well as a brief survey of Indo-Iranian and Indo-European Comparative Philology and Old Persian Cuneiform.

After a buffet lunch, four lectures by international and local scholars on a number of religious, historical, and literary topics relating to the Indo-Iranian world will round off the day.

The Indo-Iranian Philology Day, sponsored by the Lorne Thyssen Research Fund for Ancient World Topics and by the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics at the University of Oxford, is open and free to all who are interested. For catering and room booking purposes, we ask that you register on our Eventbrite site, where you can also find a full programme of the day.

In Memoriam Matti Rissanen

by Sylvia Adamson (University of Sheffield)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Obituary: Professor Randolph Quirk

by Ruth Kempson (King’s College, London)

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

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


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

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.