Faces of PhilSoc: George Walkden

George Walkden
Position: Lecturer in English Linguistics
Institution: University of Manchester
Role in PhilSoc: Council member; member of the Publications Committee


About You

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

My favourite subjects at school were languages and maths, and I was always torn between them. During my first degree I gradually realized I could combine the two! I think my desire to continue in academia was born during my year abroad, during which I was clocking in and out every day to translate documents for a pharmaceutical company. I wanted to do a job that rewarded results, not a 9-to-5, and a job that allowed me to keep on learning (and studying language) until I keeled over. After that I was more or less hooked!

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

My doctoral thesis was about reconstructing the syntax of Proto-Germanic. The general conclusions – in particular that syntactic reconstruction is feasible and interesting – I would stand by. I did make at least one major mistake in interpreting results for Old English verb-late clauses, though, and I gave a talk about this at PhilSoc in 2015, retracting my earlier claim.

On what project / topic are you currently working?

Lots of different things! Negation in Middle English, preposition stranding in early Germanic, how to derive and understand Constant Rate Effects in syntactic change… I’m an obsessive collaborator and tangent-taker. I’m also looking to expand my parsed corpus of Old Saxon.

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

I’m keen to expand my knowledge of computational and mathematical approaches to language change, and am aggressively reading up in this area. Combining this with corpus-based research and predictive theories of acquisition and use is what I’d aim to achieve. One of the things I love about historical syntax is how many different skills you need to develop: philology, syntactic theory, corpus methodology, the general theory of language change, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

How did you get involved with the Philological Society?

Two events aimed specifically at postgrads and early career researchers: one in Cambridge in 2010, and another in Oxford in 2012.

‘Personal’ Questions

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

Old Saxon! It’s the underappreciated sibling of Old High German, and has been unjustifiably ignored, especially within Germany.

Minimalism or LFG?

Minimalism. But I wish we had something like XLE.


Looking to the Future

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

Gold Open Access should be the norm, not the exception. Academic publishing should be scholar-led.

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

Honestly, I find it hard to distinguish between the two.

What is your prime tip for younger colleagues?

Don’t be afraid to put your ideas out there! Senior academics are (mostly) not out to get you.

Old Norwegian vowel harmony and the value of quantitative data for descriptive linguistics

by Tam Blaxter (University of Cambridge)

Quantitative methods in historical linguistics are most often used to answer ‘variationist’ questions. We assume that we know what the possible forms of a language were, but ask questions about their distribution: when was one form replaced by another? Who used which forms? Were some more common in particular linguistic contexts, genres or text types? For this reason, quantitative methods might seem unappealing to historical linguists primarily interested in describing a historical variety—its grammar and lexicon—or describing etymologies. From time to time, however, quantitative data can throw a light on these more basic descriptive questions.

An excerpt from the Old Norwegian Homily Book

Old Norwegian, unlike its better-studied West Nordic sister Old Icelandic, exhibited height harmony of unstressed non-low vowels. Readers familiar with Old Icelandic texts will expect to see three distinct vowels in unstressed syllables: /a i u/ written <a i u>. In Old Norwegian texts we find an additional two graphemes, <e o>, in complementary distribution with <i u>. These vowels agree with the vowel of the stressed syllable for height: <i u> appear in unstressed syllables whenever the stressed syllable was high and <e o> whenever it was non-high. There are two exceptions to this rule: when the syllable contained the vowel normalised ǫ, which was the u-umlaut product of *a, we find unstressed syllables with <u> and either <e> or <i>, and when the stressed syllable contained the i-umlaut product of *a (usually normalised e but sometimes written ę to distinguish it from /e/ < Proto-Germanic *e), we find unstressed syllables with <i> and either <u> or <o>.

In theory, then, we could use the vowel harmony to distinguish between the stressed phonemes /e/ and /ę/ which were not (consistently) distinguished in the orthography: the former should have harmony vowels <e o> while the latter should have <i o/u>. However, Old Norwegian vowel harmony is a slippery creature. Few texts exhibit it totally consistently, making it difficult to sort out what is orthographic and what phonological variation. If we take a qualitative approach in which we read individual texts and describe their orthographies, we can’t confidently interpret deviations from vowel harmony as meaningful. If, on the other hand, we take a quantitative approach which includes data from many different texts, interesting patterns may become clear. Continue reading “Old Norwegian vowel harmony and the value of quantitative data for descriptive linguistics”

TPS 114(3) – Abstract 1

London’s Name

by Theodora Bynon

The present paper was inspired by Richard Coates’s 1998 article ‘A new analysis of the name London’, in which he refutes the traditional derivation of the name from the form Londinium recorded in the Classical sources on the grounds that its Old English ancestor Lunden presupposes a British (that is to say, Celtic) source form *[Lōndonjon] with a back vowel in the second syllable. I wish further to clarify the history of this name in two respects by showing that: (i) the British name must have reached western Germanic dialects prior to West Germanic Consonant Lengthening and thus in all probability prior to the Anglo-Saxon settlements in England, and: (ii) that *Londonion (with a short [o]) belongs to an identifiable British place-name type, even though the identity of the lexical base lond- remains rather elusive and information on a native settlement is confined to a single historical source, which locates it to the south of the Thames.