How linguistics helps us reconstruct ancient fire mythology

Report on the ‘Martin Burr Fund’ grant offered for a monograph on the Norse God Loki

written by Riccardo Ginevra (Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University)

The historical and comparative approach to Indo-European poetic language and myth has developed greatly in the second half of the 20th century, particularly thanks to the efforts of, among others, Rüdiger Schmitt (1967; 1968), Enrico Campanile (1977; 1990) and Calvert Watkins (1995). By means of this methodology, linguists have been able to highlight several parallels between the poetic phraseology, divine names and mythological narratives occurring in texts in the Indo-European languages of oldest attestation, in particular Hittite, Vedic and Epic Sanskrit, Ancient Greek and Latin.

Sources in Old Norse and in the other ancient Germanic languages, however, have been somewhat overlooked by scholars of comparative Indo-European poetics, mainly because, in comparison with, for instance, Hittite and Greek (already attested in the 2nd millennium BCE), these languages were first written down at a relatively late date (the Early Middle Ages). The antiquity of a tradition’s written sources, however, should not be the main criterion in assessing its importance in reconstruction: in contrast, as demonstrated by Calvert Watkins (1995: 414ff.) in his classic discussion of dragon-slaying myths, Germanic traditions often preserve very archaic features of Indo-European poetics and myth. In my opinion, this truth may be even further demonstrated by a linguistic analysis of the names, phraseology, and narratives concerning the mischievous Scandinavian god Loki, a topic to which I have devoted much of my PhD research at the Università per Stranieri di Siena and the University of Cologne between 2015 and 2018.

My interest in Loki actually arose in 2014, when I was still a Master’s student at the Università Cattolica of Milan, writing a thesis on the several parallels between (among others) some Ancient Greek myths involving the god Hermes (the – at least partial – reflex of an ancient fire-god, as already argued by van Berg 2001) and the titan Prometheus (the “Fire Thief” par excellence), and some Norse mythological narratives involving Loki, who had already been analyzed as a fire-deity by Jacob Grimm in his Deutsche Mythologie (1835). Even though Grimm’s interpretation of Loki was later challenged on various grounds (cf. e.g. Liberman 1992:131), the god’s association with fire is supported not only by parallels in Scandinavian folklore (cf. e.g. Heide 2011) and archaeology (cf. Gestsson 1961), but also by the linguistic analysis of his myths both within their Scandinavian context and in comparative Indo-European perspective, as I have proposed in two publications (Ginevra 2018a; 2018b) and as I argue extensively in a corresponding monograph, on which I am currently working and whose preparation has been partially supported by the “Martin Burr Fund” from the Philological Society.

Depiction of Loki from an Icelandic manuscript (16th-century).

As a first example of the inner-Norse and comparative evidence for Loki’s interpretation as a fire-god, I would like to discuss the Norse myth of Loki’s capture and binding (Vǫluspá 35; prose finale of Lokasenna; Gylfaginning 50), whose plot may be briefly summarized as follows: the gods capture Loki and bring him to a cave, where he is chained to three stones and a venomous snake is fixed above him, in such a manner that the reptile’s poison constantly drips into his face; standing by his side, Loki’s wife Sigyn tries to collect the snake’s venom into a basin, but, every time she has to leave her husband’s side in order to pour the liquid away, the snake’s poison drips directly into Loki’s face and the god shakes so violently that the whole earth trembles, causing earthquakes.

Now, according to Norse cosmology, earthquakes were caused by the violent movements of underground fires (cf. Konungs skuggsjá 14 ms. b.,Brenner 1881:30 “You also said that so vast are the fires in the bowels of the land that earthquakes arise out of fire’s violent movements”); furthermore, the poison which torments Loki may be analyzed as a reflex of the Old Norse kenning “poison of the fire” for ‘water’ (cf. Sigvatr Þórðarson, Lausavísa 1.2–4 “snake of the poison of fire” = “snake of water” = “fish”). These considerations allow for the interpretation of Sigyn’s act of collecting and pouring out the poison which drips onto Loki’s face as a mythical representation of the pouring of water or other liquids onto fire, possibly reflecting corresponding pre-Christian Scandinavian fire-rituals which have been reconstructed by Kaliff 2005 on the basis of archaeological evidence.

This is further supported by Sigyn’s name (actually to be scanned as Sígyn, as shown by Skaldic meter), which may be the Old Norse outcome of a Proto-Indo-European formation *sei̯k-én-ih2/sei̯k-n̥-iéh2‘she of the pouring’, a reflex of the root *sei̯k‘pour’ which is widely attested in Vedic Sanskrit in the context of fire-rituals, cf. Rigveda 8.9.7cd “Here he will pour (siñcād – another reflex of the root *sei̯k) the most honeyed soma and the hot milk in the presence of the fire-priest”. The same reconstructed formation *sei̯k-én-ih2may also underlie Vedic °sécanī– ‘pouring’ (upa-sécanī- ‘id.; pouring ladle’ in RV 10.21.02c; 10.105.10a), and it would closely parallel the (Latinized) Celtic river-name and theonym Sēquana (modern-day river Seine in France), which is the reflex of a similar formation *sei̯k-en-eh2 ‘she of the pouring’.

Depiction of the myth of Loki and Sigyn on the Gosforth Cross (mid-11th

As a further example of the comparative evidence for Loki’s identification as the reflex of an Indo-European fire-god, let us take into consideration the Norse myth of Loki’s wager with the dwarf Brokkr (as told in Skáldskaparmál 35): as a punishment for shaving all the hair off the head of Thor’s wife, Loki has to forge beautiful gifts for the gods; after having done so, Loki pledges his own head in a wager with the dwarf-smith Brokkr, challenging him to forge better treasures; when Brokkr succeeds and wins the wager, Loki tries to flee, but is soon captured by Thor, and his lips are finally sewn together by Brokkr.

Several parallels for this narrative may be found in the Sanskrit myth of Fire’s cursing by the seer Bhr̥gu (Mahābhārata 1.5–7; 9.46.12–20), in which the god Fire betrays the trust of Bhr̥gu’s wife and is therefore cursed by the seer to become an “eater of everything”, thus losing control over his own mouth; ashamed, Fire flees, but his hiding place is discovered by the gods, who convince the supreme god Brahma to restrain Fire’s mouth (slightly modifying Bhr̥gu’s curse).

Various phraseological and structural parallels between these Norse and Sanskrit narratives allow for the reconstruction of an Indo-European “Myth of the Mouth of the Fire-god”, in which, after committing a crime against a woman, the fire-god risks losing control over his head or mouth because of a wager or curse; the fire-god flees, but is later found by the other gods, and his mouth is restrained – either literally (Loki) or metaphorically (Fire).

Furthermore, these correspondences allow for the assumption of a direct connection between the Norse god Loki’s rival Brokkr and the Sanskrit god Fire’s opponent Bhr̥gu, whose names may in fact be traced back to *bhr̥g-nó– and *bhŕ̥g-oṷ- respectively, two related formations which are derivatives of one and the same root *(s)bh(h2)g– ‘crackle, roar’, among whose reflexes are, for instance, Homeric σφαραγέομαι ‘crackle, sizzle’ and Vedic Sanskrit sphūrjáyant- ‘crackling, sizzling’ and bhūrjáyant- ‘id.’ (reflexes of *[s]bhr̥h2g-éi̯e- ‘crackle, sizzle’). The possibility of a common etymology for the names of their respective enemies thus supports an identification of Loki as the Norse counterpart to the Sanskrit god Fire.

Depiction of character with his mouth stitched (currently interpreted as a reference to the myth of Loki and Brokkr) on the Snaptun Stone (10th-11th century).

As these two examples suggest, an analysis of Loki’s mythology from a comparative Germanic and Indo-European perspective allows for the identification of several inherited features of religious onomastics, poetic language, and narrative structures in Scandinavian pre-Christian religion and myth, improving our understanding of the meaning and origin of these ancient texts. Thanks to the partial support of the Philological Society’s “Martin Burr Fund”, my book-length discussion of these topics hopefully will, on the one hand, match the late Martin John Burr’s academic interest in Comparative Philology and Old Germanic languages and cultures, and, on the other hand, contribute to the Philological Society’s mission “to investigate and promote the study and knowledge of the structure, the affinities, and the history of languages”.


van Berg, Paul-Louis. 2001. Hermes and Agni: a fire-god in Greece?. In: M. E. Huld, K. Jones-Bley, A. Della Volpe and M. Robbins Dexter, Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference, 189-204. Washington DC.

Brenner, Oscar. 1881. Speculum regale. Ein altnorwegischer Dialog nach Cod. Arnamagn. 243 Fol. B und den ältesten Fragmenten. München.

Campanile, Enrico. 1977. Ricerche di cultura poetica indoeuropea. Pisa

Campanile, Enrico. 1990. La ricostruzione della cultura indoeuropea. Pisa.

Gestsson, Gisli. 1961. Mynd af Loka Laufeyjarsyni. Árbók Hins íslenzka fornleifafélags 58:47–51.

Ginevra, Riccardo. 2018a. Old Norse Brokkr, Sanskrit Bhr̥gu- and PIE *(s)bh(h2)g– ‘crackle, roar’. In: David M. Goldstein, Stephanie W. Jamison, and Brent Vine (eds.), Proceedings of the 28th Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference, 71–93. Bremen.

Ginevra, Riccardo. 2018b. Old Norse Sígyn (*sei̯k-n̥-i̯éh2– ‘she of the pouring’), Vedic °sécanī– ‘pouring’, Celtic Sēquana and PIE *sei̯k ‘pour’. In: David M. Goldstein, Stephanie W. Jamison, and Brent Vine (eds.), Proceedings of the 29th Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference, 65–76. Bremen.

Heide, Eldar. 2011. Loki, the Vätte, and the Ash Lad: A Study Combining Old Scandinavian and Late Material. Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 7.63–106.

Kaliff, Anders. 2005. The Vedic Agni and Scandinavian Fire Rituals. Current Swedish Archaeology 13.77–97.

Liberman, Anatoly. 1992. Snorri and Saxo on Útgarðaloki, with notes on Loki Laufeyjarson’s character, career, and name. In: Carlo Santini (ed.), Saxo Grammaticus. Tra storiografia e letteratura. Bevagna, 27-29 Settembre 1990, 91–158. Roma.

Schmitt, Rüdiger. 1967. Dichtung und Dichtersprache in indogermanischer Zeit.Wiesbaden.

Schmitt, Rüdiger (ed.). 1968. Indogermanische Dichtersprache. Darmstadt.

Watkins, Calvert. 1995. How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. New York.

Third International Workshop on Syntactic Cartography (IWSC2019)

Written by Keith Tse (Ronin Institute, New York)

On what has been a regular fixture in the past few years, the biennial Third International Workshop on Syntactic Cartography (IWSC-3) took place on the 26th-27th October 2019 at Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) which happened at the end of Open Access Week in China and was preceded by a separate yet related workshop called ‘Changing Boundaries’ on the 25th. This year’s joint event had a special significance as it was the first IWSC to take place at BLCU after the establishment and inauguration of their Linguistics Department which was celebrated in a similar event at the end of October 2018 (to which the author was also invited to present a poster), and these three days were marked by an impressive number of keynote and invited speakers as well as many local and external presenters who assembled from all around the world to take part in what was to be a rich and dynamic academic forum on cutting-edge issues in biolinguistics and formal cartography using data from a wide range of languages. After a competitive round of abstract reviewing, I was fortunate enough to have my abstract on Chinese Voice alternation (my native language) selected for oral presentation, and my presentation dealt with the use of two famous morphemes in Chinese ba (把) and bei (被) which are widely known to involve object preposing. Since Wang (1959), ba– and bei-constructions have been identified as parallel constructions, since in both constructions the object of the main lexical verb seems to be raised from its base-generated position in the lower VP to a higher position (object i … PRO i), the copy of which can be resumed by a coreferential pronoun:

1) subject BA object i verb (PRO i) (Feng (2002:148))

e.g. 李四 把 壞蛋        殺-了         (他)

        Lisi ba huaidan    sha-le        ta

        Lisi BA scoundrel kill-PERF him

        ‘Lisi killed the scoundrel.’ (Huang, Li, Li (2009:153))

2) object i BEI subject verb (PRO i) (Feng (2002:148))

e.g. 張三         被   李四  打-了       (他)

       Zhangsan bei  Lisi  da-le        ta

       Zhangsan BEI Lisi  hit-PERF him

       ‘Zhangsan was hit by Lisi.’ (Huang, Li, Li (2009:112))

Despite the voluminous work that has been done on Chinese ba and bei-constructions (see Li (2006) and Li (1993) respectively), mainstream movement analyses (Tsao (1987), Feng (1995), Huang (1999)) do not adequately account for their empirical complexities, and my new proposal is that ba and bei are light verb projections denoting Voice (Active and Passive respectively), and the fact that these are merged higher than an optional unaccusative marker gei (給) denoting affectedness (3a-b) (Tang (2001), Cao (2012)) suggests that the preposed object may in fact be merged in an A-position, namely the specifier of gei (Kuo (2010)). In light of the fact that bei can be merged higher than ba which is in turn higher than gei (3c), the cartographic arrangement indicates three distinct A-heads above Asp(ect) to which the lexical verb moves (BEI (Passive) – BA (Active) – GEI (Affect)):

3a) 一-把      火    就      把  阿房-宮           給    廢-了

       yi-ba     huo jiu     ba afang-gong    gei  fei-le

       one-CL fire  then BA afang-palace GEI ruin-PERF

      ‘One torchwas enough to ruin A-fang Palace.’ (Chappell and Shi 2016:471))

3b) 杯子  被    他  給   打-破-了

       beizi bei  ta  gei  da-po-le

       cup   BEI he GEI hit-break-PERF

       ‘The cup got broken by him.’ (adapted from Tang (2001:259))

3c) 他  被    朋友         把  一-個      太太    給  騙-走-了

       ta  bei  pengyou ba yi-ge      taitai  gei  pian-zou-le

       he BEI friend      BA one-CL wife   GEI cheat-go-PERF

       ‘He was cheated of a wife by his friend.’ (Chen (2003:1173))

Due to the tightness of time as there were so many presentations that each presentation was only allocated twenty minutes including Q&A, only one question was allowed for my presentation, and it was made by Professor Marcel den Dikken who asked whether it was possible to use ba and bei with set idioms, and if so, whether this would suggest that the object in the idiom could be raised via movement rather than be generated as new arguments by bei/ba/gei, which might pose as a counter-example to my analysis. This reminded me of Li’s (2006) analysis where she does explicitly use phrasal idioms in Mandarin Chinese (e.g. 佔便宜 ‘to take advantage of’, 開刀 ‘to have an operation’, 幽默 ‘to be humorous’, 小便 ‘to have a pee’) to support her movement analysis as all such idioms are permissible in ba– and, by extension, bei-constructions, though she also recognises that there are constraints on ba-constructions as the raised object must have a certain thematic relationship with the lexical verb which is implicit in gei-insertion, namely affectedness, and this also applies to set idioms (他把便宜(給)佔去了 ‘he took advantage of it’, 他把刀(給)開完了 ‘he finished the operation’, 別把默(給)幽壞了 ‘don’t humour badly’, 你趕快把便(給)小了吧 ‘hurry up peeing’). I pursued this discussion with Professor den Dikken afterwards and discussed some of the technical details with him and Professor Ian Roberts whose first book I cited, and these discussions clarified certain technical details in my analysis. As the invited speakers were invited to the dinner banquet, non-invited presenters such as myself returned to our accommodation, and since most of us stayed at the same hotel in the vicinity of BLCU, I was able to say goodbye to most participants and all speakers upon their sober return from the banquet. I held further discussions with Dr. Joseph Perry and Professor Roberts about the nature of IWSC-3 and how impressed we were by this year’s edition, which is a tribute to the local organisers and all the participants, and as I made my way to the airport, I left our capital feeling not only a sense of mission accomplished but also a job well done. 

I would hence like to place special thanks to members of the Philological Society, especially Professor Klaus Fischer and Professor Peter Austin, for accepting my application to the Martin Burr Fund and to the patrons of the Martin Burr Bequest for their generous sponsorship of my participation in such a prestigious international conference at which I was able to share my research with so many distinguished members of our field. I am now in the process of writing this up for the forthcoming publication of the conference proceedings in which I shall express all my ideas with more clarity and purpose.


Cao, D-G. (2012): ‘ “被” 的雙重語法地位和被字句的生成’. Dangdai Yuyanxue 13(1):73-81. 

Chappell, H. and Shi, D-X. (2016): ‘Major Non-Canonical Clause Types: ba, bei and ditransitives’, in Shi, D-X. and Huang, C-H. (eds), A Reference Grammar of Chinese, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 451-483. 

Chen, P. (2003): ‘Indefinite determiner introducing definite referent: a special use of yi “one” + classifier in Chinese’. Lingua 113(12):1169-1184. 

Feng, S-L. (1995): ‘管約理論與漢語的被動句 (GB theory and passive sentences in Chinese)’. Zhongguo Yuyanxue Luncong 1:1-28. 

Feng, S-L. (2002): ‘韻律結構與把字句的來源 (Prosodic structure and the origin of ba construction)’. In Triskova, H. (ed), Tone, stress and rhythm in spoken Chinese (Journal of Chinese Linguistic Monographs 17), Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, pp. 119-168.

Huang, C-T. (1999): ‘Chinese Passives in Comparative Perspective’. Tsinghua Journal of Chinese Studies 29(4):423-509. 

Huang, C-T., Li, A., Li, Y-F. (2009): The Syntax of Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Kuo, P-J. (2010): ‘Transitivity and the BA construction’. Taiwan Journal of Linguistics 8(1):95-128. 

Li, A. (2006): ‘Chinese Ba’, in Everaert, M. and van Riemsdijk, H. (eds), Blackwell Companion to Syntax: Volume I, pp. 374-468. 

Li, S. (1993): 現代漢語被字句研究 (Xiandai Hanyu Beiziju yanjiu). Beijing: Beijing University Press. 

Tang, S-W. (2001): ‘A complementation approach to Chinese passives and its consequences’. Linguistics 39(2):257-295. 

Tsao, F-F. (1987): ‘A Topic-Comment Approach to the Ba Construction’. Journal of Chinese Linguistics 15:1-54. 

Wang, H. (1959): 把字句和被字句 (Baziju he Beiziju). Shanghai: Shanghai Education Publications.  

PhilSoc Master’s Bursary Report

written by Greta Galeotti (Harvard University)

I was about twelve when I first came in contact with the study of an ancient language, through a Latin workshop offered at my middle school. In hindsight, this encounter proved to be fatal: I went on to join a high school with a curriculum focused on the Greek and Latin languages and literature (as it is not uncommon in Italy) and, to the surprise of exactly nobody among my friends and family, I went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Classics. However, another two encounters during the early stages of my Bachelor’s have shaped the direction of my later academic studies in a more specific direction: in the first semester of the first year, with General Linguistics, and at the beginning of the second year, with Greek Dialectology. Within the first two classes I had decided that that was what I wanted to pursue further.

The discovery of the study of language per se and its evolution felt like the most natural evolution of my interest on textual analysis, and the study of ancient dialects particularly resonates with me given the complex dialectal mosaic of my home country. Completely fascinated with the idea of language reconstruction from an Indo-European perspective, I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to puruse these interests in a program that would allow me to study both general and historical linguistics, and maintain a focus on Greek: the Master of Philosophy in General Linguistics and Comparative Philology at the University of Oxford. The contribution of the PhilSoc Master’s Bursary to this end has been decisive and something I am most grateful for.

It has allowed me to complete a program where I was able to explore numerous interests and build a background in both general and Indo-European linguistics. Within the program, I have focused on Greek as my major, and gained not only a comparative linguistic perspective but also a new languages by choosing Sanskrit as my minor. I was able to take advantage of the University’s many other opportunities and so to enrich my curriculum and not neglect languages slight more commonly spoken, such as Modern Greek. I refocused on my passion, Greek dialects, during my
final Master thesis, through a study on their disappearance and the emergence of the Ancient Greek koine in Delphi, analysing a corpus of about four hundreds decrees and relating the use of dialect and koine to their formulaic nature.

I am lucky to have been offered the opportunity to continue on this path of research by by being offered a place in the PhD program in Classics at Harvard University, which I have been part of since September 2019. The Classics department maintains tight ties with the Linguistics Department on the floor above, and felt like the perfect opportunity to bring together my interests in Classics and the study of literature with those in linguistics, allowing me to maintain the various interests developed in Oxford, such as Sanskrit, with my main focus on Greek dialects. The background I have built in my MPhil I feel has been instrumental in bringing me to my current place, and I remain extremely grateful to the PhilSoc for having enabled me to pursue my passion through the Master’s Bursary scheme.

Anna Morpurgo Davies Bursary Report

written by Roxanne Taylor (University of Manchester)

I was generously funded by the Anna Morpurgo Davies bursary through PhilSoc, financial support which was of great help in the completion of my MPhil General Linguistics and Comparative Philology. Having graduated with my BA from Oriel College, Oxford, in 2017, I took up a place at Wolfson College, Oxford in the same year to commence post-graduate study.

As part of the masters programme, I undertook training in various aspects of general linguistic theory, including syntax, phonology, phonetics and morphology.  I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to study aspects of modern linguistics like phonetic transcription which are otherwise alien to those who study ancient languages. I chose to continue my study of Ancient Greek, as well as studying the history and structure of Old English. The combination of Old English and Ancient Greek is certainly unusual, and has raised eyebrows! I encountered Old English through my undergraduate study of Medieval literature, and I was grateful to be able to explore the language from a different perspective, guided by the expert staff based at Oxford. Weekly tutorials during my masters encompassed a wide range of topics, from Greek accentuation, and aspect, to Siever’s Law,  and the metrical phonology of Old English poetry.

Part of what attracted me to the Oxford MPhil was the requirement for a 25,000 word thesis. My thesis was supervised by Professor Philomen Probert, and addressed the “semantics and syntax of non-finite expressions of purpose in the Greek of Herodotos’ Histories”. The thesis explored the use of participial phrases and prepositional phrases as means of encoding a relation of purpose. The different strategies for encoding purpose relations were found to be semantically differentiated: for example, the future participle was found to be used in contexts in which the destination of some motion and the purpose intended are closely associated.

My thesis also had a syntactic dimension, using the framework of Lexical Functional Grammar. The category of participial phrases was considered, alongside the mechanics by which future participles show case and gender features.  Future participles expressing a purpose are analysed as VPs, with their own subjects (Haug, 2017). The analysis of adverbal Greek participles offered in the thesis is similar to that of Lowe (2015) for the same construction in Sanskrit. I presented aspects of my thesis research at the PhilSoc’s own “Early Career Forum” in March 2019, and also at the University of Göttingen at Christmas.

In September 2019 I embarked on an AHRC-funded PhD in Linguistics at the University of Manchester. My doctoral research focuses on the Old English noun phrase, examining argument realisation and argument structure. The research uses quantitative and qualitative methodology, and the theoretical analysis is couched within LFG, which I first encountered at Oxford. I hope to continue in academia once my PhD is completed. Some of my ideas for post-doctoral study include the left periphery of the Ancient Greek noun phrase, applying the precepts of construction grammar to poetic formulae, and charting the expansion of the “of”-genitive in the long twelfth century and Early Middle English in terms of the specific relations which the “of”-genitive can be used to express.


Haug, Dag T.T. (2017). ‘Backward Control in Ancient Greek and Latin Participial Adjuncts’. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 35(1):99-159.

Lowe, John (2015), Participles in Rigvedic Sanskrit: The Syntax and Semantics of Adjectival Verb Forms, Volume 17 in the series Oxford Studies in Diachronic and Historical Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

19th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences – 2019

by Caitlin Halfacre (Newcastle University)

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

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

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

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

Figure 2

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

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

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

International Congress of Phonetic Sciences – The Phonetician’s Olympics

by Bruce Xiao Wang (University of York)

The International Congress of Phonetic Sciences (ICPhS) 2019 was held in Melbourne from August 5th to 9th. I would like to thank The Philological Society at the beginning of this blog, because this trip would not be possible without the travel bursary from Philological Society.

ICPhS is the Olympics for phoneticians which is held every four years. The congress covers broad topics in phonetic sciences, including sociophonetics, phonetics in psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics, forensic phonetics and speech corpora tools. Attending ICPhS is an eye-opening experience for me, which made me realise that there are many different topics in phonetic sciences that I never thought of. Even different phonetic studies from different areas are not directly related, I could still be inspired by methodologies used from different phonetic studies. The full programme can be found here.

Apart from being able to listen various talks during the congress, I also had a chance to present my own poster in forensic voice comparison (FVC). FVC is normally carried out during the legal process, and the experts’ duty is to assist the trier of fact in decision-making. A typical FVC case involves the comparison between two or more recording samples, in which the experts need to assess not only the similarity between each recording samples, but also typicality under a broader population. My poster for ICPhS concerns the sampling effect on the system performance in FVC, which is a joint work with my two supervisors, Prof. Paul Foulkes and Dr. Vincent Hughes. I consider our poster session a success, because we received highly praised comments from Prof. Phil Rose and Prof. Shunichi Ishihara who are both world-renowned forensic phonetic experts based in Australian National University. Apart from academic events, I have also got the chance to do some sightseeing in Melbourne, such as St. Kilda breakwater, where many little penguins can be seen at night; winter night market at Queen Victoria Market, where various cuisines and souvenirs from different culture backgrounds can be found, and Moonlit Sanctuary Conservation Park, which gave me an unique experience to “hang out” with kangaroos, koalas, and dingo.

Report on the 51st International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics

by Xiaolan Cao (University of Melbourne)

With the generous bursary from the Philological Society, I was able to present my research paper at the 51st International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics held at Kyoto University, Japan, 25–28 September 2018 .

During the conference, three posters and seventy-two papers of the most recent research on Sino-Tibetan languages and linguistics were presented, including various topics in the fields of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and diachrony. Professor Sun Jackson and Professor James Matissof gave the plenary talks. All the papers presented at the conference are freely available here.

On the second day of the conference, I presented my paper on the phonology of Southern Pinghua and phonological dialectal variances. In this paper, I first present the phonology of Southern Pinghua based on the Wucun dialect. I organized this section of my paper by the order of consonants, vowels, tones, and syllable structure. After going through the phonology and phonological features of the Wucun dialect, I presented my study on the phonological variances between 32 Southern Pinghua dialects. Based on variance analysis, I concluded that Southern Pinghua dialects are relatively diverse, which partly explains the low degree of mutual intelligibility between those dialects. Thus, it is neither prudent nor rigorous to use one dialect to represent the whole Southern Pinghua group without thorough comparative studies investigating dialectal variants.

After my presentation, I received valuable feedback on my paper and connected with researchers who share research interest in Sinitic languages. With all the feedback I received, I am currenlty preparing a journal paper based on my presentation with additions on the diachrony of Southern Pinghua phonology, which I hope to submit to the Transaction of the Philological Society.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Philological Society again for the generous bursary. Without this support, I would not have been able to make my trip to the conference to share my research findings and exchange ideas with researchers from all over the world on Sino-Tibetan languages and linguistics.

Creoles in Costa Rica – the 22nd Biennial SCL Conference

by Marina Merryweather (Queen Mary University of London)

With the generous funding of the Philological Society’s Martin Burr fund, I was able to attend the 22nd Biennial Conference of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics, hosted jointly with the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics.

The Society for Caribbean Linguistics, as the name suggests, focuses on the many languages studied around the Caribbean, be it the post-colonial languages of the different islands and coastal regions, or the indigenous languages still prevalent in the parts of Latin America that border the sea. Meanwhile, the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics generally covers all areas of study related to pidgins and creoles, regardless of where they are found. There is, of course, a lot of overlap between the aims of the two societies, given the prevalence of creole languages all around the Caribbean basin; nonetheless, both societies have their own areas that they cover, and there is a lot that differs between them. This was evident in the talks on offer at the conference.

costa rica 3The theme of this conference was “Connecting the Caribbean: Languages, Borders and Identities”. This led to a lot of focus in the talks on concepts such as language policy, language endangerment, and minority languages more generally. For example, there were panels devoted to the discussion of Limonese creole, an English-lexifier creole spoken on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, which is closely related to Jamaican creole – and was, indeed, imported by Jamaican migrant workers in the early 20th century. The panels included the launch of a book containing a standardised alphabet for the language, as well as a round-table with local speakers on their attitudes towards it, and how they intended to preserve it as they became more assimilated into the predominantly Hispanophone Costa Rican society. There were also a considerable number of talks on indigenous languages in Central America, and especially Costa Rica. This included a plenary from Prof. Juan Diego Quesada (National University of Costa Rica and University of Costa Rica) on the typology of indigenous languages, and the way that certain typological features could be attributed to three general groups in the northern, central, and southern regions of Central America.

In addition to the panels on Limon creole mentioned above, there were some other creole and creole-adjacent languages that caught my interest at the conference. There was, for example, an entire panel devoted to languages in St Lucia, and particularly the development of a vernacular English, as opposed to both the standard English and the French creole that they speak on the island. Debate is still taking place as to whether this English is a creole, or whether something else is happening, such as relexification of the French creole, or the development of a mixed language. There was also a plenary chaired by Joyce Pereira on the huge advances in Papiamento language policy in Aruba; in a short space of time, it went from being a language entirely shunned by the Dutch government, to the centre of a pilot scheme to become the main language of education in the country.

costa rica 1The research that I was presenting at the conference was also on a creole language, specifically on the variety of Antillean French Creole spoken in Martinique. Literature on this creole, particularly written in English, is limited, but what little has been written suggests that a process known as decreolisation—whereby creole languages evolve to more closely resemble their lexifier languages—is currently underway (Lefebvre, 1974; Bernabé & Confiant, 2002; Bernabé, 2006). My MA thesis investigated whether this was still a process that was taking place. Basing my research on a study done by Vaillant (2009), I conducted a form of matched-guise test to see if certain grammatical features were considered acceptable by participants. These features were not usually considered obligatory in Martinican Creole, but are in French; if the sample sentences without these French features were considered incorrect, this would point to the French standard becoming the norm. These features included the use of a relative pronoun as well as the use of a reflexive construction with verbs typically considered reflexive in French. The results of this study, however, pointed neither one way nor another; one of the features was considered grammatical and the other was not. This pointed to a number of different possibilities, from an argument against decreolisation, to a different theory being needed to explain the changes at hand—such as the concept of interlecte (Prudent 1981)—to there being structural effects at play determining which positions the morphosyntactic features are needed in. The study was small and took place in a very restricted setting, but by bringing it to the conference, I hoped to develop a paper which could inspire future creolists to look further into the language.

costa rica 2

This was just a small flavour of some of the enormous variety of talks I listened to over the five days of the conference, which was the first I have ever attended. Between the people, the cultural events, and the luscious surroundings of Costa Rica, I had an immensely enjoyable week, and learnt a lot. I am grateful to the Philological Society for giving me the opportunity to attend, and hope that I will be able to also make their next conference in Trinidad in 2020!

Bernabé, J. (2006). Theoretical and Practical Conditions for the Emergence of a Koine among French-Lexified Creole Languages. In J. Clancy Clements, T. Klingler, D. Piston-Hatlen, & K. Rottet (eds), History, Society and Variation: In honor of Albert Valdman. Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V, 163-77.
Bernabé, J., & Confiant, R. (2002). Le Capes de créole: stratégies et enjeux. Hermès, La Revue 1, 211-23.
Lefebvre, C. (1974). Discreteness and the Linguistic Continuum in Martinique. Anthropological Linguistics 16(2), 47-78.
Prudent, L. (1981). Diglossie et interlecte. Langages 15(61), 13-38.
Vaillant, P. (2009). Induction of French structures into Creole grammar. Gießen, Germany. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from

The Philological Society offers numerous bursaries, travel and fieldwork grants to its members; for more information, please visit the PhilSoc website.


The latest from Austronesian historical linguistics

by Laura Arnold (University of Edinburgh)

LogoiCAL14The 14th International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics was held on 17–20 July 2018, at the campus of the Université d’Antananarivo in the capital of Madagascar, the westernmost outpost of the Austronesian world. With four keynote speakers and 176 participants, the conference brought together Austronesian researchers from all over the world to share their latest research on this huge and diverse language family. The four days of talks were followed by an excursion to the UNESCO world heritage site of the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, situated on a soaring hill above stunning landscapes and rice paddies, 24 km to the northeast of the city. Photographs of the conference by David Gil can be found here.

As ever, there were many talks that dealt with historical, comparative, and philological issues in Austronesian linguistics. The question of the the origin and movement of the pre-Austronesians and the subsequent expansion of Austronesian languages throughout insular Southeast Asia was the subject of lively debate throughout the conference. In his keynote speech, Waruno Mahdi—a proponent of the proto-Austric hypothesis, which links Austro-Tai to Austroasiatic—used genetic, archaeological, and linguistic data to argue that speakers of proto-Austronesian comprised two distinct population groups. One was a subtropical group (the ‘Deutero-Malays’), descended from the rice-cultivating Austro-Tai group; and the other was an equatorial group (the ‘Proto-Malays’), who migrated from the south towards the Proto-Austronesian homeland of Taiwan when the Sunda shelf was flooded, around 7000–4000 years BP. Laurent Sagart, on the other hand, who proposes that Austronesian is a sister of Sino-Tibetan, later argued that the pre-Austronesians originated from the Yellow Valley in north China, approximately 9000–7500 years BP. This conclusion is based on agricultural archaeological evidence regarding the spread of millet domestication; the spread of the ritual ablation of upper lateral incisors; and mtDNA and Y chromosome data showing a link between Sino-Tibetan- and Austronesian-speaking populations. Regarding the dispersal of the Malayo-Polynesians, Marian Klamer emphasised that the traditional farming dispersal model of Austronesian expansion throughout Island Southeast Asia is too simplistic, and cannot account for the linguistic and archaeological diversity found throughout the area – especially for the so-called Western Malayo-Polynesian and Central Malayo-Polynesian languages, which comprise over 600 languages across the majority of Island Southeast Asia. She reminded us that the Malayo-Polynesian expansion most likely did not occur in one fell swoop across the archipelago, but that there may have been hundreds or possibly thousands of migrations across the area; and that we need detailed, bottom-up micro-comparisons in order to work out the history of the linguistic dispersal of Malayo-Polynesian languages. This sentiment in particular appeared to strike a chord with the conference participants, and was something I heard echoed many times over coffee, lunch, and the cocktail party that closed the conference.


Credit: David Gil

Another topic of interest was the linguistic inferences that can be made about the history of Malagasy from 17th-century sources. One of the keynote speakers, Narivelo Rajaonarimanana, outlined his work on the Sorabe manuscripts and texts held in the National Library of Paris, which he has been transcribing and translating. He discussed the use of Qur’anic verses in these manuscripts in healing prayers, and as talismans for protection. He also sketched out some aspects of the grammar of the volañ’onjatsy dialect, spoken by a group living around the Matataña River, which is represented in these texts. Earlier in the conference, Alexander Adelaar (see also here) presented several speculations regarding the phonology of early Malagasy, using evidence from 17th-century Sorabe texts, and a 1603 textbook and wordlist of Malagasy compiled by Frederik de Houtman. First, he concluded that *y and *w in proto-Southeast Barito (the Bornean ancestor of Malagasy) were still vocoids at the point when Sorabe, a derivative of the Arabic script, was first adapted to transcribe Malagasy. Second, he established that the contraction of like vowels in originally disyllabic roots (e.g. *fu(h)u ‘heart’ > fu, *raa ‘blood’ > ra) had not yet taken place. Third, he discussed problems with the traditional identification of the Sorabe texts with the Taimoro dialect, providing linguistic evidence to show that the oldest Sorabe texts have features in common with the Tanosy dialect. Sorabe was originally practiced in a wider area, and its identification with the Taimoro dialect and region alone is too narrow and only reflects the current state of affairs. Finally, the orthography used in the wordlist, as well as comparison with cognate forms in other languages, suggests Malagasy still had a palatal nasal ñ at the time Houtman was compiling this wordlist.

My travel to the conference was funded in part by the Philological Society. In my presentation, I looked at a split in the tone system of a dialect of Ambel, a South Halmahera-West New Guinea language spoken in West Papua, Indonesia. This split was conditioned by vowel height, such that toneless syllables with non-high vowel nuclei *e, *a, and *o developed High tone, whereas toneless syllables with high vowel nuclei *i or *u remained toneless. There are two interesting points about this split. First, tone splits conditioned by vowel quality are very rare. Second, in all other cases of tone splits or tonogenesis conditioned by vowel quality that have been described in the literature so far, high vowels are associated with High tone. The conditioning of High tone by non-high vowels, as we find in Ambel, has not previously been attested. I went on to present a possible phonetic motivation for the split. This motivation makes reference to the complementary phenomena of intrinsic F0 and intrinsic pitch. All things being equal, higher vowels (e.g. /i/, /u/) are generally produced with a higher F0 than lower vowels (e.g. /a/). However, intrinsic pitch compensates for this, in that, when the F0 is identical, hearers perceive lower vowels as being higher in pitch than higher vowels. One important exception to intrinsic F0 is at the lower end of a speaker’s pitch range (e.g. in a tonal language, Low-toned syllables), where differences in F0 are reduced or completely neutralised. Toneless vowels in Ambel are realised with low pitch. I therefore suggested that, when proto-Ambel first developed tone, and toneless syllables came to be realised with low pitch, the intrinsic F0 of these toneless vowels was neutralised; however, the intrinsic pitch that formerly compensated for intrinsic F0 differences was maintained. This meant that speakers of Ambel came to perceive the toneless non-high vowels (*e, *a, and *o) as higher in pitch than the toneless high vowels (*i and *u). Eventually, this perceptual difference resulted in the merger of toneless syllables with non-high vowels with other High-toned syllables. Slides from this presentation can be found here.

Other talks that may be of interest to members and followers of the Philological Society are as follows (in order of presentation):

  • Owen Edwards explored the possible phonetic quality of proto-Austronesian *j. Three pieces of evidence lead him to the conclusion that the best reconstruction may be the affricate *dz. First, *dz is preserved as /dz/ in three primary branches of Austronesian, including Malayo-Polynesian; second, most of the reflexes in the present-day languages can be accounted for by making reference to natural and well-attested sound changes; and third, reconstructing *dz leads to a balanced and typologically-expected phonological inventory in proto-Austronesian.
  • Francesca Moro presented empirical data demonstrating that the morphological simplification of Alorese that has occurred since the most recent common ancestor with Lamaholot can be explained by the large number of L2 speakers of the language, which has historically been used as the lingua franca of the area.
  • Albert Davletshin looked at the diachrony of case marking in Nukeria, a Polynesian outlier – specifically, an agentive marker a, which is preposed only to singular personal and demonstrative pronouns, the question word ai ‘who?’, and personal names. He showed that the development and distribution of a can be explained by an interaction between semantics and phonology. On the semantic level, he discussed the phenomenon of differential agent marking, found elsewhere in Polynesian languages, in which highly-individuated NPs (such as pronouns, personal names, and definite NPs) are marked, whereas lower-individuated NPs are not. The distribution of a can be further explained by making reference to a phonological constraint in Nukeria which prevents the bimoraic singular pronouns and any bimoraic personal names from being realised without additional marking.
  • In a paper by Ritsuko Kikusawa(see also here), John Lowry, Paul Geraghty, Apolonia Tamata, Fumita Sano, Susuma Okamoto, and Hirofumi Teramura, results from a pilot project in Fiji combining linguistic and GIS data were discussed. In this project, the data are used to map different ‘communalects’, depending on how similar forms for a particular meaning are to Standard Fijian. This methodology can also be used to calculate the similarity of forms to a reconstructed ancestor form, and has the potential to be used in testing hypotheses with regards to historical population movements, for example where the ports of entry for a particular island may have been.
  • A paper by Juliette Huber and Antoinette Schapper looked at Austronesian borrowings into the non-Austronesian Eastern Timor languages. On the basis of sound changes in both the Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages, several layers of borrowing can be identified, indicating a complex and long-term history of contact. In addition, Austronesian borrowings from unidentified sources in the Eastern Timor languages suggests that there has been contact with a now-extinct Austronesian substrate in East Timor; and shared vocabulary throughout the languages of the area points to contact between the proto-languages of the Austronesian and non-Austronesian languages spoken today, although the source of these words is difficult to determine.
  • Kirsten Culhane and Owen Edwards presented data from the Meto dialect cluster, in which there are very diverse patterns of intervocalic consonant insertions. A diachronic perspective is necessary to understand this diversity – most of the consonants used in insertion can be easily explained by making reference to well-attested sound changes in each of the dialects. However, a structural analysis is insufficient to account for the synchronic state. Instead, a social perspective which makes reference to the distinct identity of each of the dialect communities is necessary to explain the observed differences.
  • Corinna Handschuh provided an overview of common and proprial articles in Austronesian. Various languages throughout the family have a system in which different articles are used to mark common and proper nouns: most notably in Oceanic, but also elsewhere, such as in Tagalog. The distinction has also been reconstructed to proto-Austronesian. This system is highly unusual, in that it has not so far been attested in any other language family. She thus focussed on the stability of such a typologically unusual system over such a great time depth, flagging up the similarities with nominal classification systems such as gender, which are typically stable over time.
  • Emily Gasser discussed a ‘crazy rule’ of /β/, /r/, and /k/ mutation, which is attested in the majority of the languages of the South Halmahera-West New Guinea (SHWNG) subbranch. While her presentation focussed on the synchrony of this mutation, in the question and answer session she proposed that it may be helpful in the subgrouping of SHWNG – specifically, that the mutation provides evidence for grouping the SHWNG languages spoken around Cenderawasih Bay into a single primary branch.
  • Tobias Weber discussed the typological profile of the languages of Sumatra and the Barrier Islands, investigating mostly structures mentioned in the WALS. He assumed that certain features of these languages—the larger-than-average vowel inventories, the denasalisation of consonants in Enggano and Mentawai, numeral classifiers, and clausal head-marking (indexing of arguments on the predicate)—may be explained by influence from a now-extinct pre-Austronesian substrate.
  • Peter Slomanson looked at the development of negation in the contact languages Sri Lankan Malay and Sri Lankan Portuguese. He showed that these two varieties are in some ways structurally closer to each other than they are to their co-territorial model languages, Tamil and Sinhala, yet the contact languages still differ from each other in their respective negation systems. The parallels that there are, for example in the ordering of functional markers, suggest that contact between what would become Sri Lankan Malay and Sri Lankan Portuguese may have begun in Java, before continuing in Sri Lanka.
  • Penelope Howe presented preliminary data from matched guise tests, showing that an emergent lexical tone contrast in the Central dialects of Malagasy additionally indexes social meaning. Her results suggest that the use of tone in these dialects is associated with more positive attributes (e.g. friendliness, honesty). However, when tone is absent, the speakers of these dialects are associated with more negative attributes (e.g. reticence, indifference).

For further information about any of these presentations, readers are encouraged to contact the relevant author(s).

The Philological Society offers numerous bursaries, travel and fieldwork grants to its members; for more information, please visit the PhilSoc website.