Membership survey 2016 

by Richard K. Ashdowne (University of Oxford; Honorary Membership Secretary, PhilSoc)

In spring 2016 the Council of the Society ran an online survey to find out members’ views on matters to do with the Society’s current activities, and in particular its programme of meetings.

More than 200 members completed the survey, from a wide range of the Society’s very diverse membership, including new and student associate members and those who have been members of the society for many decades.

The chief results of the survey were that more than half of the respondents typically do not attend any meetings of the Society each year, while less than 10% of respondents said they typically manage to attend three or more meetings. Over a quarter of those who completed the survey said they had never attended a meeting of the Society.

The most frequently given reasons for being unable to attend meetings were the difficulty and/or cost of travel to meetings and the pressure of other work or family commitments. A number of other reasons were given by smaller numbers of respondents.

The Society very much understands that the investment of time and money for a member to attend a meeting in person is often considerable. For this reason we have now encouraged speakers to provide a brief abstract that will enable members to make a more informed decision about attending.

With a view to making its meetings more accessible to UK members living outside the southeast of England the Society is continuing to arrange at least one of its regular meetings each year outside of this area. Recent events of this kind have included the events in Newcastle and Leeds in 2016. The Society – via the Secretary – is keen to hear from members who would be willing to host such events in the future.

The survey asked whether respondents had viewed the videos of some of the Society’s joint events with the British Academy and whether members would watch recordings of other meetings in addition to or instead of attending. Since this possibility was generally welcomed by those who responded, the Society has now begun to experiment with making video recordings of some of its regular meetings and making these available via YouTube. It is hoped that members who are unable to attend meetings in person may find these of interest. We would be interested in any feedback on these videos in comments on this post.

Council keeps the arrangements for meetings under regular review and so we’d also be interested in any comments in general on the Society’s events via the comments on this post.

Fieldwork on West Polesian

by Kristian Roncero (University of Surrey)

West Polesian belongs to the Eastern Slavonic subgroup and is spoken in the Polish region of Podlasie, the south-western half of the Brest region in Belarus, and the Volynsk region in Ukraine. West Polesian has hardly been studied separately, yet it differs considerably from the national standard  (or literary) languages where it is spoken. One of the main reasons is its isolation. Older stages of the Common Eastern Slavonic language and culture have been preserved thanks to the fact that Polesians live in a marshy area which can be difficult to access as it is frequently flooded. In Žydča (see map), some speakers  remember the times when they were kids and a helicopter would bring bread to the village as the ‘road’ was flooded (before they drained some roads in the 80’s-90’s).

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Map of the studied villages in the region of Brest (Belarus)

There is very little work on West Polesian grammar, which is why I decided that I needed to get it from first hand witnesses. Continue reading “Fieldwork on West Polesian”

Exaptation: acquiring the unacquirable

by Benjamin Lowell Sluckin (Humboldt University of Berlin, formerly University of Cambridge)

I was fortunate enough to receive a PhilSoc Masters Bursary in 2015/16, which has been of greater value to me than the £4000 awarded. It enabled me to study for an MPhil in Theoretical and Applied Linguistics at my institution of choice, the University of Cambridge. I’m happy to say it was worth it!  So before I get down to writing about my experiences of postgraduate study and research, I want to thank PhilSoc for their generosity and for seeing value in that hopeful letter of application penned in early Spring 2015.

First I’ll say a bit about my general experience and then I’ll get down to the linguistic meat. Cambridge is a weird and wonderful place. It is like stepping into a time machine and stepping out in 1870 where everyone has a MacBook. It is a bubble, as everyone says; the real world seems distant and at times one can feel claustrophobic. However, the bubble is good for doing research. It is quiet, there are talks almost every day and there was always the possibility of valuable academic discussion with my peers and seniors in the department, from whom I learnt a great deal.  Like any University, but perhaps especially, there is also the constant opportunity to have your assumptions about everything and anything challenged by those who know better, or at least pretend to do so. The Masters Bursary allowed me not only to learn some serious linguistics, but also to acquire the ability to power a very unstable boat with a very long stick. All in all, I learnt a great deal. I can now say with some confidence that I understand enough syntax to understand what people are disagreeing about most of the time, but not to always understand why they insist on disagreeing.

In my bursary application I said I wanted to specialise in diachronic morphosyntax in Germanic and I specifically “promised” to look at exaptive changes in language (my thanks to George Walkden whose support and lectures got me thinking about these things). In short, Lass (1990, 1997) said that when form-to-function mappings are eroded in language, we can be left with functionless linguistic “junk” which can then be co-opted for an unrelated function. The canonical example from Lass (1990) is the recycling of afrikaans gender marking from Dutch syntactic agreement marking for gender and definiteness (1a,b) to conditioning by the morphological character of the adjective itself (1c,d): simple vs complex.   I found Lass’ ideas interesting and I knew that David Willis in Cambridge had been working on this topic, so I was keen to get in on the action (for lack of a better term). Once arrived, he was always ready to challenge my ideas and encourage me to refine my arguments.

(1) Examples
a. Dutch common/neuter definite & common indefinite

de gevaarlijk-e muis/paard
the dangerous-e mouse.com/horse.neut

b. Dutch neuter, indefinite

een gevaarlijk-∅ paard
a dangerous-∅ horse.neut
(adapted from ex.23, Norde & Trousdale 2016:187)

c. Afrikaans simple adjective

die groot groep
the large-∅ group
([Lubbe & Plessis 2014:28] cf. Sluckin 2016:6)

d. Afrikaans complex adjective

die belangrik-e rol
the important-e role
([Lubbe & Plessis 2014:21] cf. Sluckin 2016:6)

Scholars have argued about exaptation for 25 years; so I will admit now that I approach this problem from a minimalist perspective. That means: I focus on Child Language Acquisition as the primary locus of morphosyntactic change, I reject junk, i.e. functionless material as impossible (like many but not all), and crucially my work assumes that the syntactic architecture is based on a hierarchical generation of formal features and projecting heads, and so on and so on….

This type of change is especially interesting because, in my mind, it shows the incredible capacity of the child acquiring language to regularise seemingly incoherent data. Research into exaptive reanalyses can tell us something about how humans can make good data from bad data.

So what is bad data? Well “junk” doesn’t work if we assume that every utterance is somehow a representation of linguistic units stored in the lexicon – or whatever we call it. Sadly,  I don’t have the space elaborate on all past approaches (see Vincent 1995; Willis 2010, 2016; Lass 1997, and Van de Velde & Norde 2016 for a review), but my hypothesis can be summed up as follows: breakdown in language can, over time, render structures increasingly difficult to acquire; this can reach a point where the target structure—dare I say parameter—is no longer acquirable from the input. The child is faced with the choice of losing the structure or finding any other possible analysis. What’s the difference between this and any other reanalysis, I hear you ask. Well, one standard view is that reanalysis works on the basis of ambiguity between possible analyses; so if there are two or more possible analyses, the child is more likely to choose the simpler one (2a). If the more economical analysis were not found, the original would still be available from the input. I argue that for exaptation what we instead find is that the original analysis is removed completely for the acquirer (2b). Therefore, any new analysis does not rely on ambiguity between the target and other analyses, as the target just doesn’t factor for the child making sense of the input.

I have tried to test this for syntax alone, whereas past work focused more on morphosyntax. The questions I am trying to answer is: how pervasive is exaptive reanalysis and what strategies do children use to find analyses when they can’t draw on strategies of economy. To these ends, I am looking for explanations orthogonal to Universal Grammar. My MPhil thesis research on the collapse of V2 and its reanalysis as Locative Inversion in Early Modern English involving the actuation of locative formal features, e.g. out of the woods came the bear, seems to suggest that phonologically silent syntactic heads might be especially vulnerable to this kind of change, as their acquisition is purely dictated by overt syntax (3a,b: trees for those who like them – click on the “Read more” button). Metaphorically speaking, we knew Pluto was there before we could see it because we could see things orbiting it. Syntax works similarly, the only difference is that if we change an orbit we change the planet, or rather syntactic head, too.  I am pursuing these ideas with larger case studies as part of my PhD project at the Humboldt University in Berlin, where I am now part of Artemis Alexiadou’s  research group.  I am also trying to see how grammar competition, language contact and exaptive reanalysis might go hand in hand in certain situations.

Continue reading “Exaptation: acquiring the unacquirable”