‘The Word Detective’ serialised on BBC Radio 4

by John Simpson (Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary, 1993–2017)

Picture1
John Simpson
(© Bloomington Photography)

A generation ago, my colleagues and I at the OED were starting to become increasingly aware that the dictionary was in danger of drifting away from its audience. Or, to put it more accurately, the dictionary was standing still while its audience moved into the twentieth and then the twenty-first centuries.

Historical lexicography is demanding. There are few short cuts; standards are exacting. The editors of the First Edition of the OED had laboured for many years to capture the history of our language, and its format reflected nineteenth-century expectations about how knowledge should be presented. Nowadays the level of scholarship at the OED is the same – it has to be. But a wider audience expects to be able to access and understand the dictionary in radically new ways.  One of the challenges of the last few decades has been how to present the content of the OED to a new readership in the digital age.

Picture2I wrote The Word Detective to give readers an informal, behind-the-scenes look at the OED and the extraordinary things it has set out to achieve over the last forty years. In addition, I wanted to convey to readers the excitement of researching and defining the language – because that’s what we all felt as editors.

The Word Detective will be broadcast at 7.45 p.m. this Monday to Friday (13–17 March), on BBC Radio 4. See if I achieved it!

 

 


John Simpson’s ‘The Word Detective’ is published by Little Brown in the UK, and Basic Books in the USA.

PhilSoc and other learned societies react to Brexit

On 23 June 2016, the British public voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union with a majority of 51.9% and a turnout of 72.2%. Since then, only few details of HM Government’s plan for “Brexit” have emerged. In part, this delay is owed to the Prime Minister’s policy of non-disclosure, but has also been affected by the long-awaited decision of the Supreme Court regulating that Parliament need be consulted on triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. A bill to this effect has been approved by the House of Commons on 8 February 2017, and will now be considered by the House of Lords.

In view of these events and owing to the as yet unspecified possibility of changes to regulations in the education and research sector, a number of learned societies including the Philological Societies have drafter a letter of response to “Brexit” and its impact on language and language learning in the United Kingdom.

The letter calls on HM Government to develop a language policy emphasising four points:

  1. Foster a positive public attitude towards language, language learning and working with languages.
  2. Maintain and enlarge the UK’s international diplomatic, regulatory, and security networks.
  3. Encourage the development of multilingual skills at all stages of the National Curriculum.
  4. Provide for research on language as on of many aspects of human nature and society.

The Society looks to its members for comments on this statement in the comments section. The full text of the letter can be found below. Continue reading “PhilSoc and other learned societies react to Brexit”

Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS) – Project Launch

by Lisa-Maria Mueller (University of Cambridge)

Languages are not merely a tool for communication but central to key issues of our time, including national security, diplomacy and conflict resolution, community and social cohesion, migration and identity. Learning languages then is not only about learning the words and grammar of another language but also about a deeper intercultural understanding that is not just important for individuals but for developing more respectful and effective policy.

And yet multilingualism and multiculturalism are commonly problematised and Modern Foreign Languages have not yet attained the same status as English, Maths or Science in the school setting.

The AHRC funded Open World Research Initiative (OWRI), which subsumes four major projects, therefore aims to explore and promote modern languages in the UK (see here for more details).

MEITS is one of those four research programmes. It is based at the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Queen’s Belfast and spans six interlocking strands exploring the fields of literature, cinema and culture, history of ideas, sociolinguistics, education, applied linguistics and cognition (see diagram).

meits_diagram

Together, these strands seek to answer the following research questions:

  • What is the relationship between the multilingual individual and the multilingual society?
  • What are the opportunities and challenges presented by multilingualism?
  • What is the relationship between multilingualism, diversity and identity?
  • What is the relationship between multilingualism and language learning?
  • How can we influence attitudes towards multilingualism?
  • How can we re-energise Modern Languages research?

To this end, research strand 1 will be investigating literature, cinema, culture and citizenship in a globalising Europe by studying cultural texts and events – narrative, fiction, poetry, theatre, cinema – that foreground, problematise, and inform questions of linguistic unity, diversity, identity, power, and quality of life in the public sphere. This strand will focus on two distinct contexts at opposite ends of Europe; Catalonia, on the one hand, because of its status as an ‘autonomous region’ in Spain and Ukraine, on the other, due to its recent conflicts over the legacy of empire and colonialism. Despite inherent differences, these regions share the instrumentalisation of language for the renegotiation or secession of national identities. Spanning from the 19th to the 21st century, strand 1 of the MEITS project will investigate how and why language is politicised in multilingual contexts and the role of culture in this process by undertaking formal-aesthetic and symbolic-ideological analyses of texts and contexts.

Strand 2 also focuses on societal multilingualism and will provide a comparative perspective of standard languages, norms and variation in multilingual contexts. The role of multilingualism in relation to standard languages will be analysed synchronically and diachronically in national and transnational contexts (e.g.: France/Francophonie) alongside pluricentric (e.g.: German) situations where languages vie with other languages/varieties on cultural, political and ideological grounds (e.g.: Ukrainian, Irish, Mandarin) by combining methods from the humanities, sociolinguistics and historical sociolinguistics.

The question of identity is central to many of the projects and will be explored from an individual and a social perspective in the third strand of the MEITS project. The contexts of Ireland and France will be contrasted as the first has an official language that is both minoritised and dialectal while the latter has a single standard language that is highly standardised and dominant despite the richness of regional and heritage languages in France. Quantitative and qualitative approaches will be blended to investigate issues such as urban language in multicultural contexts, regional identities, as well as the role of language for social cohesion.

Multilingual identity is further investigated in strand 4 of the MEITS project, where its connection to motivation and attainment in foreign language learning will be studied. To this end, the development and expansion of multilingual identities in early foreign language learning among monolingual adolescent learners and their peers with English as an additional language will be charted. The cognitive and social dimensions of motivation will be studied in intervention and matched non-intervention classes using a mixed methods design.

Instructed foreign language learning is also the focus in strand 5 of the MEITS project where the influence of age, language-specific factors and setting on the language learning process and progress will be studied. The aim of this strand is to investigate whether an earlier start indeed is better in the context of minimal input settings or whether cognitive changes during adolescence might actually make young adults more successful language learners. In order to achieve this goal, a combination of linguistic and cognitive tests will be employed to assess the language learning process and attainment in learners of different starting ages in a longitudinal study.

Finally, strand 6 shares its interest in cognitive processes with strands 4 and 5 and will study the impact of multilingualism on motivation, health and well-being. This topic will be approached from two perspectives. On the one hand, the cognitive effects of intensive language learning in late adulthood will be studied and on the other, bilingual and monolingual children with autism will be compared in order to establish whether cognitive advantages associated with typically developing bilingualism can also be found in bilingual children with autism.

This brief overview of the MEITS project shows that the six research strands are closely intertwined, facilitating the development of new interdisciplinary research paradigms and methods which will allow for a more holistic approach to the study of multilingualism on a societal and individual level. Through this integrated approach and our close collaboration with partners from outside higher education we aim to change attitudes towards multilingualism and highlight its benefits for cultural awareness, health and well-being, education, social cohesion, (inter)national relations as well as employability and thus empower individuals and transform societies.

If you want to learn more, visit the project’s website and/or follow us on social media (on facebook, twitter: @meits_owri).

 

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

by Peter Gilliver (Associate Editor, Oxford English Dictionary)

The origins of the Oxford English Dictionary, and indeed its fortunes for much of the period when its first edition was compiled, were so closely bound up with the Philological Society that it is hardly surprising that it was long known in some quarters as ‘the Society’s Dictionary’. Accordingly, the Society’s members may be interested to know something about the new history of the project which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

9780199283620

It has been many years in the making. In the late 1990s, about a decade after I took up a position as a member of the Dictionary’s current editorial staff, I began to contemplate the idea of compiling a new history of it. Many will be familiar with some of the other histories of the OED that were already available at that time, or have appeared since: Caught in the Web of Words for example, Elisabeth Murray’s magisterial biography of her grandfather James Murray (which inevitably only manages to tell his story by also telling the story of the work with which his prodigious energies and intellect were taken up for over half his life), or Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything. However, I thought that my own knowledge of the Dictionary, gained through years of constant engagement with its text as a practising lexicographer, might qualify me to take a fresh look at the subject. Moreover, I had already begun to explore the Dictionary’s archives, having become interested in the lexicographical work done by J. R. R. Tolkien as one of my predecessors on the staff (and given a conference paper on the subject in 1992), and I could see that there was a great deal more to be discovered.

I decided that there might be advantages in combining the task of researching and writing the history of the OED with my ‘day job’ as one of the team of lexicographers engaged in preparing the Dictionary’s third edition. Working on the two tasks concurrently has indeed been beneficial to both—the cross-fertilization between ‘doing lexicography’and writing the history of one of its greatest projects has taken place in both directions—but it has also had the disadvantage that it took me fourteen years to complete the book.

james-murray
James Murray in the Scriptorium

It gives me great pleasure to take this opportunity to acknowledge, as I already have done in the preface to the book, the generosity of the Council of the Philological Society in allowing me to consult the Society’s records; many of these records are currently deposited in the archives of Oxford University Press, making it easy to consult them at the same time as the OED‘s own enormous archive. In particular, the minute books for the Society’s meetings—both ordinary meetings, and meetings of the Council—from the earliest years of work on the Dictionary have greatly enriched the story, with fascinating detail about such matters as the protracted behind-the-scenes manoeuvring with key figures in the Society that preceded the eventual signing of contracts with OUP in 1879, and the thorough briefings about the project’s progress during the ensuing decades, which Society members received (usually directly from one or other of the Dictionary’s Editors) at regular ‘Dictionary Evenings’—privileged information, which the Society was often the first to hear, and which in some cases never got written down anywhere else.

The history of the OED has an intrinsic interest to anyone interested in linguistic scholarship, the history of English, and British cultural history more generally; I hope that the Society’s close association with the Dictionary will give further interest to my book for Society members. They certainly have good reason to be proud of the part played by the Society, and by many of its individual members, in the inception and compilation of the Dictionary, arguably one of the greatest philological projects ever undertaken.

‘The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary’ is published by Oxford University Press (ISBN 9780199283620).

Before we go live: an update

It has been just over a month since we announced that the Philological Society Blog would go live in mid-October, to coincide with the first regular PhilSoc meeting of the academic year 2016/17. So far, the results are very encouraging!

Since the beginning of September, we have received more than a dozen offers to write blog posts from members at varying stages of their careers and from a variety of places: from master’s students to permanent postholders, working at the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Oxford, Reading, Sheffield, and Surrey.

Come October, members can expect interesting insights into new research projects, fieldwork reports, and outlines of doctoral research, next to general news from the Society such as abstracts of papers to be read at meetings and articles to appear in the Transactions.

In the meanwhile, we encourage all members to think about writing a blog post about their own research, projects, fieldwork, books, or recent/future conferences (whether organised or attended). As outlined in our new style guide, contributors have great freedom in their choice of topic and form – and we hope that they will use the opportunity to share their findings, thoughts, and questions with other linguists.

All members interested in writing a post are asked to get in touch via the contact form or by email to studentassoc {at} philsoc.org.uk .

Welcome to our blog!

Over the course of the last academic year, PhilSoc has decided to launch a blog for news, research reports, and announcements that will be of interest to members of the Society.

Beginning with the first regular meeting of the Philological Society in the academic year 2016/17 on 14 October, the blog will be updated on a regular basis (at least every 10 days) and will offer a variety of entries:

  • abstracts of papers to be read at PhilSoc meetings and of the papers to appear in TPS
  • reports on Outreach activities facilitated by the Society
  • summaries of members’ activities funded by the Society (conference travel, fieldwork, etc.)
  • news from Master’s Students on PhilSoc Bursaries
  • research reports from members of the Society

We strongly encourage PhilSoc members to use this blog as a platform to share their recent, current, and future research projects, elicit informal feedback on their ideas, and to advertise events and projects they are involved in.

Similarly, we hope that members at all stages of their career (doctoral, ECR, permanent postholders) will share their news, thoughts, and projects with the rest of the Society. These can take the form of short abstracts, longer outlines of projects, questions concerning a research area, calls for participants or contributors, opinion pieces concerning current linguistic topics, or announcements of larger research projects.

Members who have received a bursary or other funding from the Society in the past year are requested to compose a short report on their work or activities.

Every entry will be open to comments from the PhilSoc membership, which we hope will allow members to exchange opinions, links, and other resources with one another.

All members interested in contributing to the blog are invited to do so directly by following this guide. For any further questions or suggestions, feel free to comment on this entry, or to get in touch with the Secretary for Student Associates (Robin Meyer, studentassoc {at} philsoc.org.uk).

We look forward to your contributions!