John Lennox at The Oxford Union’s God debate

Many of you will know of John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University. He is interested in and writes a lot about the interface of science, philosophy and religion, and has debated noted atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchins. Recently he was one of the speakers at the Oxford Union debate ‘This house believes in God’. He is a fabulous speaker and this is definitely worth watching as it’s only short. He makes a strong rational case for God, but what I thought was particularly powerful is how he shows that ultimately believing in God is about knowing a person and restoring a broken relationship – it’s quite remarkable.

Linguistics for laypeople: language contact

Language contact, whether between similar dialects or typologically different languages, almost always influences change in one or more of the languages in question. Linguistic borrowing of any sort is closely associated with certain socio-historical and socio-cultural factors, namely those of conquest and immigration. In such situations, there is usually a dominant language which has a higher status in the speech community. However, language contact does not always come about only due to such sociological factors. Monolingual communities, while comparatively rare, can and do borrow linguistic elements from languages which have a high status globally. Take, for instance, the relatively recent influx of anglicisms into many languages (e.g. German).

Here I’m going to consider the nature of language contact mainly from a diachronic perspective (i.e. how contact induces language change). I won’t deal with topics like (synchronic) bilingialism, second language acquisition or pidgins and creoles. For a good introduction to all the issues surrounding language contact, you are advised to consult Yaron Matras’ 2009 book (see references). Instead, I’ll focus on how language contact influences change in various components of the grammar, and I’ll examine the claim that it is lexical items that are borrowed first and most readily, while morpho-syntactic elements are most resistant to borrowing. Most of the examples will come from the history of English, for a couple of reasons. First, most people reading this blog post will be native speakers of English, and it might interest them to learn about the history of their language. In addition, English has undergone language contact with both typologically similar and less similar languages during its history – in the first instance, Norse, in the second, Norman French.

It’s certainly true that lexical items are very readily borrowed. Over the last century, for example, speakers of German have borrowed a good deal of lexis from English, particularly in certain semantic fields such as business and trade. These include lexical items for which German words already exist, such as die Show (alongside die Vorstellung), as well as what are known as pseudo-loans, that is, loans that are indeed borrowed but refer to something different from in the source language, such as der Smoking (a dinner jacket) and das Handy (a mobile phone). In trying to account for the reasons why such lexical items are borrowed, researchers often appeal to the notion of prestige, which is actually remarkably difficult to define, but refers to something like high status within a particular speech community. We know that prestige is a factor here because there is no need to borrow a good deal of the lexis, given the existence of native words for the same items. It’s worth noting, too, that notions of prestige are not static, and indeed German has borrowed extensively from other high-status languages during its history, especially Latin and French. This indicates that social factors play a significant role in linguistic borrowing, but also that these factors are subject to change.

Are there restrictions on the kind of lexis that usually gets borrowed? The short answer is yes, it tends not to be basic vocabulary that gets borrowed. This is probably resistant to change because it gets used a lot more frequently than non-core vocabulary. In the time of extensive borrowing from French into English following the Norman conquest, a vast number of French lexemes were borrowed into English, such as visible, table, and arrive, to name but a few. However, the basic vocabulary, such as kinship terms, numbers, colours, and so on, remained Germanic (English, if you recall, shares a common ancestor with other Germanic languages such as German, Dutch, Frisian, and the Scandinavian languages). Some items of core vocabulary were borrowed, but these items were (and still are) associated with a higher register or status: think of items of food that we get from French such as pork and veal.

Despite the fact that the lexicon is most readily borrowed across linguistic systems, other components of the grammar can also be affected. For example, the French loans we have just discussed also influenced the phonological component of English speakers. McMahon (1994) shows that, in Old English, [v] and [f] were allophones of the same phoneme /v/. That means that [f] and [v] didn’t distinguish meaning in any way, each one only appeared in a specific phonological environment, and they were in what’s called complementary distribution (more on that here). For example, word initially, you never got [v] in Old English, in that instance the phoneme would always be articulated as [f]. But many French loans were pronounced with initial [v], such as vealvirtue and visible. This contributed to what’s known as a phonemic split, where the speech sounds [v] and [f] ceased to be allophones of the same phoneme, no longer in complementary distribution. They split into two phonemes, /v/ and /f/, which is what we have in Modern English.

Similarly, the morphological component can also be affected, and there are also examples of this from French borrowing into English during the Medieval period. Speakers reanalyzed -ible/-able in words such as terrible and visible, as a productive derivational suffix (see this post for more info on what this means), which was then extended freely to non-French lexemes such as enjoyable. By ‘reanalysis’, we mean that the hearer understands the meaning or form of a linguistic element to be different from that of the speaker, in this case that -ible/-able is a suffix that can be used freely also with native adjectives. And ‘extension’ refers to the fact that the new structure or meaning is extended to new contexts, like here with enjoyable.

Likewise, syntactic borrowing is also possible, and Harris & Campbell (1995) list it as one of the three mechanisms of syntactic change. For example, the comparative Spanish construction mas … que was borrowed into Pipil, a language spoken in El Salvador, as mas … ke. Unlike the effects of language contact we witnessed in the phonological and morphological components above, syntactic borrowing requires no reanalysis, at least in this example, according to Harris & Campbell (1995). In the [v]/[f] and -ible/-able examples above, both reanalysis and extension were the mechanisms of the change: the contact was just the facilitator. Harris & Campbell (1995) think syntactic borrowing is different, in that it is its own independent mechanism of change, not requiring reanalysis or extension. This is not an uncontroversial position, however!

While borrowing of lexis is usually widespread in situations of contact, the other components of the grammar are often much less affected. However, when the contact languages are typologically similar, that is, if they stem relatively recently from a common ancestor and are (almost?) mutually intelligible, then this observation does not hold. For example, the Viking invasions influenced English in manifold ways, which is clear when one compares Old English with Middle English. While it is a matter of some debate as to whether Norse and Old English were mutually intelligible dialects during at least some of the period that we associate with the Viking settlement, it is certainly the case that the two varieties were much more similar than, say, Old English and Norman French. So we find, for example, that some items of the core vocabulary of Norse make their way into English, pertaining e.g. to the weather (such as sky) and body parts (e.g. skin). (As an aside, did you ever notice that shirt and skirt descend from the same Germanic word? Skirt was borrowed later from Norse.) Similarly, grammatical function words like the pronouns their and them were borrowed into English, likewise the demonstrative the. Consequently, the phonemes /ð/ and /θ/ became part of English’s phonological inventory. It is suspected that the languages’ typological similarity facilitated these changes. Why and how this happened, however, is a matter of debate (and a topic for a future blog post, perhaps).

Thomason & Kaufman (1988) account for this observation by suggesting that languages can only borrow structural elements if they correspond to ‘tendencies of development’ of the language into which the borrowing is happening. To my mind, this abstracts languages away from its speakers somewhat and suggests (even if only by the back door) that there are determined ‘pathways’ of change for specific languages in their development, which I’m not sure I totally sign up for in any teleological sense. Otherwise, it seems a bit like their view is just a restatement of the fact that typologically similar languages borrow readily across all components of the grammar.

An alternative explanation is based on the generative principle that the lexicon is less highly organised than other components of the grammar. That is, phonological and morpho-syntactic phenomena are less likely to be borrowed because they involve multiple lexical items and multiple conceptual levels. For example, the borrowing and reanalysis of /v/ as a distinct phoneme from /f/ in English affects the underlying level as well as the surface structure. However, where linguistic components are already very similar, such as is the case with Old Norse and Old English, structural borrowing can be facilitated more easily, as the rules and representations as well as any underlying forms are likely to be much more similar.

To conclude, then, we’ve seen that lexis is most commonly borrowed, whereas other components of the grammar are much less affected when the languages in question are typologically quite distinct. This is, however, not usually the case when languages are typologically similar. Some ways of accounting for this were also offered, in particular that the lexicon is less organised than the other components. But what does ‘less organised’ really mean? And how ‘similar’ do languages need to be to facilitate grammatical borrowing? Is this always the case? These are some of the questions linguists are still trying to answer.


Harris, A. C., & L. Campbell. 1995. Historical syntax in cross-linguistic perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Matras, Y. 2009. Language Contact. Cambridge: CUP.

McMahon, A. 1994. Understanding Language Change, Cambridge.

Thomason, S. & T. Kaufman. 1988. Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics (first ed.), Berkeley: University of California Press

Amanda Thatcher reading Ephesians 6:10-18

I didn’t watch the whole of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, but I’ve seen this clip of the Ephesians reading by the former Prime Minister’s granddaughter, Amanda Thatcher, going round Twitter and the blogosphere. I was amazed by her composure and resolute assuredness in her delivery of this. I read here that she is a committed Christian. You can tell, can’t you?

Linguistics for laypeople: inflection vs derivation

In the study of Morphology, which is concerned with the structure of words, there has traditionally been a distinction drawn between two types of affixes, inflectional and derivational. An affix is basically what your traditional Latin or German grammars would have called an ‘ending’, though the term is more general, as it can refer to bits of words that come at the beginning (a prefix), or in the middle (an infix) or at the end (suffix) etc.

Inflection is often defined as a type of affix that distinguishes grammatical forms of the same lexeme. When we talk of lexemes in linguistics we’re usually referring to the fact that there are some word forms that differ only in their inflectional properties. So go and went are different word forms, but they belong to the same lexeme, whereas go and walk belong to different lexemes. With that in mind, let’s turn to an example of inflection. The English plural suffix -s in book-s is an inflectional suffix because it distinguishes the plural form books from the singular form book. Books and book are thus different grammatical forms of the same lexeme.

Derivation refers to an affix that indicates a change of grammatical category. Take for example the word person-al. The suffix -al does not distinguish between grammatical forms of the same lexeme: person and personal are different lexemes, and personal belongs to a different word class (i.e. it is an adjective) from person (which is obviously a noun).

That’s all well and good, but unfortunately things don’t stop there. On closer inspection it becomes clear that there are significant problems with the above definitions. First, they come with theoretical assumptions, that is, an a priori distinction between lexemes and word forms. There are theoretical implications here, as lexemes are considered to be those linguistic tokens which are stored individually in each person’s lexicon or ‘mental dictionary’, whereas anything to do with grammar is traditionally considered not to be stored there. More problematic, however, is that many affixes cannot neatly be identified as either inflection or derivation. Some seem more inflection-like than others but have derivation-like qualities too, and vice versa. This is problematic for people who believe in a dichotomous dual mechanism model, i.e. who think that grammatical information and lexical information are stored in separate components of the overall grammar.

Haspelmath (2002) discusses several more distinctions between inflection and derivation, building on the narrow definitions given above. He groups the distinctions into two categories, ‘all-or-nothing’ and ‘more-or-less’ criteria. That is, in his view, the ‘all-or-nothing’ criteria unambiguously distinguish inflection from derivation, whereas the ‘more-or-less’ do so to a lesser extent. I won’t go through every criterion as that would be tedious, but you’ll soon get a sense that there are problems with pretty much all of them.

His first ‘all-or-nothing’ criterion is basically the one we used to define our terms at the beginning: derivation indicates a change of category, whereas inflection does not. However, consider the German past participle gesungen, (‘sung’). On first glance this seems to be an example of bog-standard inflection, The circumfix ge- -en indicates that gesungen is a different grammatical form of the lexeme singen (‘to sing’) from, say, singst (‘you (sg) sing’). They are all the same category, however, as they are all verbs. However, gesungen can change category when it functions as an attributive adjective, as in (1):

1. Ein gesungen-es Lied

A sing.PP-NOM song

‘A song that is sung’

In this case, then, an example of what appears to be inflection can also change category.

Haspelmath’s (2002) third criterion is that of obligatoriness. The saying goes that inflection is ‘obligatory’, but derivation is not. For example, in (2), the right kind of inflection must be present for the sentence to be grammatical:

(2) They have *sing/*sings/*sang/sung.

By contrast, derivation is never obligatory in this sense, and is determined by syntactic context. However, some examples of inflection are not obligatory in the sense described above either. For example, the concept of number is ultimately the speaker’s choice: she can decide whether she wishes to utter the form book or books based on the discourse context. Because of this, Booij (1996) distinguishes between two types of inflection, inherent and contextual. Inherent inflection is the kind of inflection which is determined by the information a speaker wishes to convey, like the concept of number. Contextual inflection is determined by the syntactic context, as in (2). Keep this distinction in mind, we’ll come back to it!

In addition, there are problems with all of Haspelmath’s (2002) further ‘more-or-less’ criteria. I’ll take three of them here, but I’ll cover them quickly.

i. Inflection is found further from the base than derivation

Example: in personalities we have the base person, then the derivational suffixes -al and -ity before we get the inflectional suffix -s. You don’t get, e.g. *person-s-al-ity

Problem: Affect-ed-ness has the opposite ordering (i.e. inflectional suffix -ed is closer to the base than the derivational suffix -ness).

ii. Inflectional forms share the same concept as the base, derivational forms do not.

Example: person-s has same concept as person, but person-al does not.

Problem: It’s very vague! What is a ‘concept’? What about examples like German Kerl-chen (‘little tyke’)? -chen is usually considered to be an inflectional suffix, but Kerl doesn’t mean ‘tyke’, it means ‘bloke’. There is surely a change in concept here?

iii. Inflection is semantically more regular (i.e. less idiomatic) than derivation.

Example: inflectional suffixes like -s and -ed indicate obvious semantic content like ‘plural’ and ‘past tense’, but it’s not always clear what derivational suffixes like -al actually represent semantically. Derivation, such as in the Russian dnev-nik (‘diary’, lit. ‘day-book’) is more idiomatic in meaning (i.e. you can’t work out its meaning from the sum of its parts).

Problem: What about inflectional forms like sand-s, which is idiomatic in meaning? (i.e. sands does not equate with the plural of sand in the same way that books does with book.)

So, why does this matter? I alluded to the problem above. Basically, many linguists (e.g. Perlmutter (1988)) are keen to hold to a dichotomous approach to grammatical and lexical components in terms of how linguistic information is stored in the brain. They want inflection and derivation to be distinct in a speaker’s linguistic competence in accordance with the dual mechanism model, with derivation occurring in the lexicon and inflection occurring subsequent to syntactic operations. But the natural language data seem to indicate that the distinction between inflection and derivation is somewhat fuzzier.

So how do people get around it? There are several ways, but I’ll outline two of them here. The first is known as the Continuum approach, advanced by scholars such as Bybee (1985). As the name suggests, this approach entails that there is a continuum between inflection and derivation. Take a look at the following table, adapted from Haspelmath (2002:79) (sorry it’s so small):

morphology table

In the descending rows, the different types of inflectional/derivational affixes can be placed in an order according to how prototypically inflectional or derivational they are. For example, the -s plural suffix is prototypically more inflectional than the German diminutive suffix -chen.

But this approach can’t account for the order preference of base-derivation-inflection, which is one of the properties we discussed above. In addition, it carries with it great theoretical implications, namely that the grammar and the lexicon form a continuum. This is not the place to get into this debate, but I think there are good reasons for keeping the two distinct.

Booij (1996; 2007) comes up with a tri-partite approach to get around this problem, and it goes back to the distinction made above between inherent and contextual inflection. His approach is neat, because it attempts to account for the fuzziness of the inflection/derivation boundary while maintaining a distinction between the grammar and the lexicon. By dividing inflection/derivation phenomena into three rather than two (so derivation plus the two different types of inflection), we can account for some of the problematic phenomena we discussed above. For example, ‘inherent’ inflection can account for lack of obligatoriness in inflection when this occurs, as well as accounting for the occasional base-inflection-derivation order, when that occurs. ‘Contextual’ inflection takes care of obligatory inflection and the usual ordering of base-derivation-inflection.

There’s more to be said on this: can Booij’s tripartite approach really explain why, for example, the ordering base-derivation-inflection is so much more common than the other ordering? What about the problems with inflection that can change category such as in ein gesungenes Lied? Nevertheless, we’ve seen that a sharp distinction between inflection and derivation cannot be drawn, which has consequences for a dichotomy approach to the grammar. This dichotomy can be maintained if we follow Booij’s distinction of contextual versus inherent inflection.


Booij, G. 1996. Inherent versus contextual inflection and the split morphology hypothesis,
Yearbook of Morphology 1995, 1-16.

Booij, G. 2007. The Grammar of Words. An Introduction to Morphology. Oxford: OUP.

Bybee, J. 1985. Morphology. The Relation between Form and Meaning. Benjamins:

Haspelmath, M. 2002. Understanding Morphology. London: Arnold.

Perlmutter, D. M. 1988. The split morphology hypothesis: evidence from Yiddish, in M.
Hammond & M. Noonen (eds), Theoretical Morphology. San Diego, CA: Academic Press,

The Heart in Waiting: Commotio records Bob Chilcott carols


Bob relaxes in his ‘composer’s chair’!

Well, the weather was certainly appropriate for a recording of Christmas carols! Over the weekend the Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio, in which I have had the pleasure to sing for 5 years, recorded a disc of carols by Bob Chilcott in Keble Chapel, due for release in November 2013 on the Naxos label, under the direction of the mighty Matthew Berry. For those of you unfamiliar with the choir, it was founded in 1999 to provide a ‘refreshing alternative’ to the usual choral repertoire by focusing on little known works of the 20th and 21st centuries. For anyone who has been through the mill of Evensong repertoire for years (i.e. me), such a choir provides a wonderful opportunity to discover new music (especially by working with composers of new works), be challenged musically, and, well, have a good time with other like-minded individuals. The choir is that rare thing: amateur in the best sense of it being our hobby, while capable of negotiating difficult music. We get a fair bit of air-time on ClassicFM and Radio 3, and for a discussion on Radio 3 of the music on our last disc, the choral music of Francis Pott, see here: Caroline Gill of Gramophone Magazine calls the choir ‘uniquely good’!

With this in mind, you might ask why we were recording a disc of Bob Chilcott’s carols, some of whose works, unlike most of the repertoire we sing, are very well known in choral circles, and whose music isn’t (at least at first blush) as challenging a sing as Commotio’s usual staple diet. I’ve found that some can be quite snobby about his music, brushing it aside as ‘cheesey’, often lumping it together with the music of John Rutter. If you think there is nothing more to Chilcott’s music than An Irish Blessing, can I invite you to think again. I first realised there was more to his music than my school-girl choral experiences had led me to believe when I sang his Advent Antiphons in 2007. These are anything other than cheesey. Bob is a hugely experienced choral composer who writes in many different styles, but what I find underpins his music is the fact that it is so singable. You can really tell he’s a singer and I never feel vocally tired after singing his music, even for 12 hours a day during a recording! He also manages to compose music which is both musically interesting and accessible for a wider audience: no mean feat!

Inside Keble chapel

Inside Keble chapel

We recorded something like 24 individual movements/pieces, including the more well-known Shepherd’s carol. Many of the pieces were for unaccompanied choir, but we also recorded some with organ, harp, flute and oboe, and worked with a lovely soprano soloist, Laurie Ashworth. It was quite an experience getting used to singing with instrumentalists in the boomy acoustic of Keble chapel, but it was a lot of fun. Many of the pieces are absolute gems. Bob explained that he likes to set music to texts by modern poets such as Kevin Crossley-Holland and Helen Dunmore, and I found that these texts so wonderfully explore the mystery of the incarnation, which, given that this is a Christmas disc, is the central theme. Crossley-Holland’s poem The Heart in Waiting is particularly brilliant, and I think the title so amazingly captures both the about-to-be-ness and the eternity of God’s plan to become man: Jesus has been there since the beginning, a ‘heart in waiting’.

And Bob’s settings of these texts are sublime. He writes like a French composer in Les Anges de nos Compagnes, and his double-choir setting of Before the ice/O Magnum Mysterium is weighty and full of awe as the narrator contemplates the implications of the incarnation. But it was his setting of On Christmas Night that I loved the most. It is a collection of eight movements for choir, harp, organ, oboe and flute based on familiar texts such as Once in Royal David’s City, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (translated) and O little town of Bethlehem. For each text he has written a new tune, but then introduces the traditional tune later on into the texture, i.e. over the top of the new tune, and all this without the new tune sounding like it’s been written to ‘fit’ the old one – amazing! I can never understand how composers write new tunes to texts which have such well-established choral arrangements already. But Bob’s setting of This is the truth sent from above far outdoes the traditional Vaughan Williams arrangement in its simplicity and mystery, really bringing out how contrary the incarnation is to the world’s expectations.

Commotio recordings are never stressful, and it was an enjoyable weekend. There is a real spirit of ‘togetherness’ in the choir and it means that we always have a lot of fun making music without it ever being cliquey or diva-ish. And the tenors are always making us laugh: check out their Christmas jumpers!

Christmas jumpers at the ready!

Christmas jumpers at the ready!

I’ll probably blog again about this once the disc is out (we’ll be having a launch concert in London in November). Watch this space! And if you can’t wait till then, here’s King’s College Cambridge’s offering of The Shepherd’s Carol in 2011.

Easter Homily by Sarah Coakley at Salisbury Cathedral

I came across this excellent homily on Fulcrum‘s website, and I urge you to read it: it is full of Easter joy and explains why the resurrection matters! I particularly like how the speaker talked about the modern idea of the individual and how it does not want to submit to and ‘die with’ Christ. This is very much something I resonate with!

So here is the great truth at the heart of Christian faith:  resurrection. Stake your life on it, struggle with it, and everything will change. Die, turn, see … and live in this mystical body, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, who, in its Salisbury manifestation, has turned out here this morning in the cold and dark to start you on this great adventure of the Christian life of redemption, joy and fulfilment, and will hold you in it in all your frailty and glory, unto your life’s end. For Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.’