The moment of truth: Testing the Matrix Language Frame model in English–Vietnamese bilingual speech

by Li Nguyen (University of Cambridge)

Over the last few decades, there has been burgeoning interest in the study of code-switching in the research of bilingualism. Despite various definitions of what the phenomenon might entail, it is generally agreed in the literature that code-switching broadly refers to bilinguals’ ability to effortlessly alternate between two different languages in their daily speech (Bullock and Toribio 2008:1). This ability enables speakers’ behaviour of language mixing, which, as researchers have come to realise, is far from random but rather governed by specific structural constraints (Poplack 1980; Bullock & Toribio 2009). The nature of such constraints has inspired the search for a ‘universal pattern’, resulting in new investigations involving a number of language pairs, such as English–Spanish (Poplack 1980; Travis & Torres Cacoullos 2013; Aaron 2015), English–Welsh (Stammers & Deuchar 2012), Ukrainian–English (Budzhak-Jones & Poplack 1997), Igbo–English (Eze 1997), or Acadian French–English (Turpin 1998).

One of the most influential theoretical accounts in code-switching literature is Myers-Scotton (2002)‘s Matrix Language Frame model (MLF), which assumes an asymmetrical relationship between the two languages in bilingual discourse. As the MLF goes, ‘speakers and hearers generally agree on which language the mixed sentence is “coming from”’ (Joshi 1985:190–191), and it is this language that constitutes the ‘matrix language’ (ML) of the conversation. In a code-switched clause, the MLF predicts that the ML (i) supplies closed-class system morphemes such as finite verbs or function words, and (ii) determines word order. Although the need and the practicality of identifying a ML in some language pairs are debatable (Sankoff & Poplack 1981; Clyne 1987), the asymmetrical relationship between two languages involved is borne out in many existing datasets. Most often, the asymmetry is more obvious in pairs that are structurally different, with existing evidence heavily involving an Indo-European language and an Asian or African language (see Chan 2009:184 for an exhaustive list). The question is then: does the MLF actually generate accurate predictions in spontaneous speech?

In this project, I am testing the applicability of the MLF in English–Vietnamese code-switching data. This pair provides an interesting testing platform, since they share a similar surface word order (SVO) despite other typological differences. In other words, at a clausal level, the word-order morpheme principle is not applicable to determining the Matrix Language. The focus of the study thus lies on the so-called ‘conflict sites’, points at which the word order of the participating languages differs. These conflicts involve the sequence head-modifier within NPs and Possessive Phrases. Specifically, modifier and possessors precede head nouns in English, but follow head nouns in Vietnamese. When bilingual speakers are presented with such a conflict, MLF predicts that the matrix language (i.e. language of the finite verbs or function words) should determine the word order. Furthermore, as an isolating language, Vietnamese has virtually no overt morphology. This adds an extra layer to the complexity of determining the Matrix Language at the clausal level, which is traditionally is assigned by the language of the finite verb, thereby testing the MLF predictions when these two languages come into contact.

Thanks to fieldwork funding support from the Philological Society, I was able to carry out my fieldwork in Canberra, Australia, where I had existing connections with the Vietnamese bilingual community. Data collection took place between June and September 2017. My principle in building the corpus was drawn from Labov’s emphasis on the vernacular, where ‘minimum attention is paid to speech’ (Labov 1984:29).  This approach was chosen because the vernacular reflects the most natural, systematic form of the language acquired by the speaker ‘before any subsequent efforts at (hyper-) correction or style shifting are made’ (Poplack 1993:252). Recruited speakers were thus free to choose their own interlocutors, in an environment that they were most comfortable with. They were asked to self-record a conversation on their personal mobile phone device, of a minimum of 30 minutes. After the recording was returned, speakers were asked to fill in a questionnaire to obtain information on extra-linguistic variables. The questionnaire consists of 18 questions, available both in English and Vietnamese.

The data collection process was successfully completed, resulting in a corpus of 10 hours of spontaneous speech. Results from this research should offer concrete, empirical evidence for or against the applicability of the MLF in language contact situations in which the participating languages are typologically disparate. If found non-applicable, it is hoped that the patterns found will form the foundation of a new theoretical framework accounting for the data in question. Methodologically, the study demonstrates a systematic approach to determining the ML, especially in problematic situations where the overarching word order of the participating languages converge, and one of the languages lacks overt morphology. When made publicly available, the data will also constitute the first digitalised English–Vietnamese bilingual corpus, providing a valuable resource for future research on this language pair in particular, and in bilingualism research as a whole.


Aaron, J. E. (2015). Lone English-origin nouns in Spanish: The precedence of community norms. International Journal of Bilingualism 19(4), 429–480.

Budzhak-Jones, S. & Poplack, S. (1997). Two generations, two strategies: the fate of bare English-origin nouns in Ukrainian. Journal of Sociolinguistics 1(2), 225-258.

Bullock, B. & Toribio, J. (2008). Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Code-switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chan, B. (2009). Code-switching between typologically distinct languages. In B. Bullock & A. Toribio (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Code-switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 182-198.

Clyne, M. (1987). Constraints on code-switching: How universal are they? Linguistics 25, 739–76.

Eze, E. (1997). Aspects of language contact: A varionatist perspective on codeswitching and borrowing in Igbo-English bilingual discourse. PhD dissertation. Ottawa: University of Ottawa.

Joshi, K. (1985). Processing of sentences with intrasentential code switching. In D. R. Dowty, L. Karttunen and A. Zwicky (eds.) Natural language parsing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 190–205.

Labov, W. (1984). Field methods of the project on linguistic change and variation. In J. Baugh & J. Sherzer (eds.), Language in use: Readings in sociolinguistics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 28–53.

Myers-Scotton, C. (2002). Contact Linguistics: Bilingual Encounters and Grammatical Outcomes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Poplack, S. (1980). Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en español: Toward a typology of codeswitching. Linguistics 18(7–8), 581–618. 

Poplack, S. (1993). Variation theory and language contact. In D. Preston (ed.), American dialect research: An anthology celebrating the 100th anniversary of the American Dialect Society. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 251–268.

Sankoff, D. & Poplack, S. (1981). A formal grammar for code-switching. Papers in Linguistics 14(1), 3-46.

Stammers J., & Deuchar M. (2012). Testing the nonce borrowing hypothesis: Counter-evidence from English-origin verbs in Welsh. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 15(3), 630–664.

Travis, C., & Torres Cacoullos, R. (2013). Making voices count: Corpus compilation in bilingual communities. Australian Journal of Linguistics 33(2), 170-194.

Turpin, D. (1998). ‘Le francais, c’est le last frontier’: The status of English-origin nouns in Acadian French. International Journal of Bilingualism 2(2), 221–233.

Faces of PhilSoc: Bas Aarts


Bas Aarts Offsite Link
Position: Professor of English Linguistics
Institution: University College London
Role in PhilSoc: Council Member

About You

How did you become a linguist – was there a decisive event, or was it a gradual development?

Strangely enough, this probably has to do with the Second World War. My grandparents, who lived in the south of the Netherlands, hid British pilots whose planes had been shot down in their loft, and my father, who was then very young, developed a love of the English language as a result of talking to these pilots. He became a linguist, and our family became very anglophile. As a result I also became a linguist.

What was the topic of your doctoral thesis? Do you still believe in your conclusions?

Small clauses in English. Do I still believe in the conclusions? The field has moved on, but yes, I think at least some of the conclusions are still valid.

On what project / topic are you currently working?

I’m currently working on -ing clauses in English, and I’m editing the Oxford Handbook of English Grammar.

What directions in the future do you see your research taking?

I’m hoping to do more research with the Diachronic Corpus of Present-Day Spoken English which we developed in the Survey of English Usage at UCL. (DCPSE is a spoken corpus with materials from two different time periods.)

How did you get involved with the Philological Society?

I have been attending PhilSoc meetings since working on my PhD.

‘Personal’ Questions

Do you have a favourite language – and if so, why?

Well, apart from my native language Dutch, it has to be English.

Minimalism or LFG?

Minimalism. (Strange question, though. Why only these two?)
[We were going for extremes choices…]

Teaching or Research?


Do you have a linguistic pet peeve?

I always think it’s a shame when some linguists seem to have lack of openness towards different approaches to the study of language.

What’s your (main) guilty pleasure?

Err, pizzas.

Looking to the Future

Is there something that you would like to change in academia / HE?

Get rid of tuition fees!

(How) Do you manage to have a reasonable work-life balance?

Yes, fortunately mostly I do.

What is your prime tip for younger colleagues?

Never lose confidence in yourself and keep being passionate about your subject.

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.

Latin in Medieval Britain

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

Of the many languages in use in Britain in the middle ages, Latin is arguably the best attested and yet most overlooked. Not the native language of any of its users and employed especially—though certainly not exclusively—in written functions, Latin has tended to be the elephant in the room despite its indisputable importance for its users and their societies.

After the departure of the Roman legions from Britain, Latin’s continued use was by no means assured, but there is a continuous train of use down to the time of the Tudors and beyond. Over more than a thousand years British medieval Latin was employed for all manner of functions from accountancy to zoology.

In this new collection of papers, arising from the conference held to celebrate the completion in print of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, the place of Latin in medieval Britain is examined from a variety of historical, cultural and linguistic perspectives and in relation to some of its many different contexts.

In the first part, David Howlett, Neil Wright, Wendy Childs and Robert Swanson look successively at the start of the Anglo-Latin tradition, the twelfth-century renaissance, the use of Latin in historiography and record-keeping in the fourteenth century, and the continued use of Latin in the medieval tradition into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The vitality of the language over the ages and its users’ constant reinvention of its role emerge as central themes.

In the second part, attention is directed to particular fields, namely law (Paul Brand), musical theory (Leofranc Holford-Strevens), the church (Carolinne White) and science (Charles Burnett), as examples of how the Latin language was used and adapted to its roles. That it was being employed in historical, social, cultural and linguistic settings quite different from its ancient ancestor had important consequences. It meant that, for instance, Latin was frequently in need of new terminology for the contemporary world, especially in some of these more technical areas. Borrowing, calquing and native word-formation processes were all ways of meeting this need, reflecting the inherent contact between Latin and its users’ native vernacular languages.

In the third and final part, these linguistic contacts become the central focus in chapters examining the relationship between Welsh and Latin (Paul Russell), the relationship between Latin and English (Richard Sharpe), the development of a mixed-language code (Laura Wright), the relationship of Germanic, Anglo-Norman French and Latin (David Trotter), and the relationship between English and Latin (Philip Durkin and Samantha Schad). The final chapter, by David Howlett, ties in with some of the lexicographical questions raised by Sharpe, Trotter, and Durkin and Schad, and looks back at the process of preparing the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources.

Latin in Medieval Britain is edited by Richard Ashdowne and Carolinne White and  published by the British Academy in association with OUP. Many of the contributors are members of the Society and current or former members of Council.

Further information, including abstracts of all the chapters, can be found on the DMLBS blog and the book can be obtained directly from OUP and all good booksellers.

‘The Word Detective’ serialised on BBC Radio 4

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

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.

The conundrum of the Deputy Lieutenant

by Eleanor Dickey (University of Reading)

I have recently been informed that my application for UK citizenship has been successful, so I shall have the opportunity to swear allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. This leads to the discovery that when new citizens of the UK swear allegiance to the Queen, they are invited to shake the hand of her Lord Lieutenant for their county – unless that official is otherwise engaged, in which case they shake the hand of the interestingly-named Deputy Lieutenant. One could in theory call this person a lieutenant lieutenant, or a deputy deputy, but since the sixteenth century the title has in fact been Deputy Lieutenant. The Deputy Lieutenant is, apparently, not to be confused with the Vice Lord Lieutenant, though I cannot quite work out whether the Vice-Lieutenant mentioned in the OED is another term for the Deputy Lieutenant or for the Vice Lord Lieutenant.

Similarly, a university may have Pro Vice Chancellors, who may also be called Deputy Vice Chancellors, and some universities even have Deputy Pro Vice Chancellors, but there never seems to be a Vice Vice Chancellor. The Pro-Vicar is an official in the Catholic church, but the Vice Vicar is, as far as I know, unattested.

A few counterexamples can be found: the term Vice Viceroy is attested, though it is rare compared to the Deputy Viceroy (an official in, for example, the early government of Brazil). Some departments of the US government apparently contain a Deputy deputy secretary, a Deputy associate deputy secretary, a Principal deputy deputy assistant secretary, and/or a Deputy deputy assistant secretary. But despite this testimony to extreme bureaucracy, the basic linguistic principle seems to be that the ‘vice’ terms do not double up in a single title: a term already contained in the original title is not normally added to it again.

Explanations for the distinctions between these different terms abound, and no doubt these explanations work for particular titles. Certainly there is a real difference between a university’s Vice-Chancellor, who actually runs the institution, and a Pro-Chancellor who stands in for the Chancellor on ceremonial occasions. And if the Pro-Chancellor were to have a deputy, it would not be unreasonable to call him or her a Vice Pro-Chancellor and distinguish that official firmly from a Pro Vice Chancellor. But on a larger level the construction of such titles cannot be determined primarily by distinctions of meaning, since if it were, we would more often see the same term used twice in a row.

In Latin, as far as I can ascertain, the question does not arise. Despite the impressive nature of the imperial bureaucracy, there do not seem to be titles containing more than one iteration of the idea ‘acting for’. The proconsul is readily to be found, but he is joined neither by the official acting pro proconsule nor the one in vicem proconsularis. So why does English act as it does? Is the difference primarily linguistic or cultural? What do other languages do? This is a type of question to which Philological Society members are uniquely qualified to contribute, so I look forward with interest to their contributions!

TPS 114(3) – Abstract 2

Trade Pidgins in China: Historical and Grammatical Relationships

by Michelle Li

Sino-western contacts began in the 16th century when Europeans started open trade with China. Two trade pidgins, Macau Pidgin Portuguese (MPP) and Chinese Pidgin English (CPE), arose during the Canton trade period. This paper examines the historical and grammatical relationships of these two pidgins by drawing data from 19th century phrasebooks. This study argues for a close connection between MPP and CPE with reference to three grammatical features which go beyond shared vocabulary: locative copulas, form of personal pronouns, and prepositional complementisers. While these grammatical properties find little resemblance in the recognised source languages for CPE, parallel uses are attested in MPP, which therefore appears to provide the model for these properties in CPE.