The Virtual Linguistics Campus: free online linguistics tuition for all

Ever been interested in language or linguistics, but not had the opportunity to study it? Would you like to learn about the fundamental tenets of linguistic theory in your own time, for free, but still put together by a prestigious university? Well, soon you will be able to! Linguist List made me aware of the Virtual Linguistics Campus, an initiative run by the Philipps University Marburg, which has a long and distinguished tradition in linguistics and philology. How you use it really depends on how keen you are, and whether you want to part with any cash. If you’re willing to cough up some money, you can do a whole degree online by the looks of things. However, there are also three courses that are offered FREE to every man and his dog, providing you set up an account (also free). These courses are:

Linguistics 101 – Fundamentals (for a general overview of linguistic theory assuming no background)

Linguistics 102 – Speech Science (for a more detailed introduction to Phonetics and Phonology)

Linguistics 103 – The Nature of Meaning (for a more detailed introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics)

I’ve registered and had a quick look, and the course overviews look really good. There’s no obligation to hand in anything, and since they’re free, you could just pick and choose from the resources you find interesting or useful. There are e-lectures and problem sets with solutions, all put together by top academics. It doesn’t get much better (especially when you’re not paying for it).

The only thing is – they’re not live yet. The courses will ‘go live’ on 15th September 2013, when I guess people will be able to work on them at their own pace. See this video for more information on Linguistics 101:

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

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,

Mountweazels, dictionaries and esquivalience

In preparation for teaching  this term, I was perusing Lieber (2010), which is a pretty readable introduction to the key topics in Morphology. One thing that is different about this book from others, however, is the author’s decision to include a discussion about dictionaries, cautioning students not to immediately rush to the OED when they want to know if xyz is ‘really a word’. One reason for caution is the presence in dictionaries of mountweazels. I had never come across these before, and had no idea what they were. Apparently, a mountweazel is a phony word that gets inserted into a dictionary in order that its authors/publishers can identify lexicographic piracy, i.e. in order to ascertain whether someone has plagiarised previous work, the author(s) of a particular dictionary make up a word and a definition, shove it in, and wait to see if the author(s) of subsequent dictionaries include this imposter. The term comes from a false entry for Lillian Virgina Mountweazel in the New Columbia Encyclopedia, according to Lieber (2010). The term mountweazel is thus a mountweazel in its own right!

One example of such a word is esquivalience, which was introduced by the authors of the New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) and defined as ‘the wilful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities’ (Lieber, 2010:29). Although it was ‘out-ed’ as a fake word in this New Yorker article from 2005, esquivalience has since taken on a life of its own, with many thousands of hits on Google. There are two things to take away from this: 1. Don’t always trust lexicographers (I wonder if there are any mountweazels in the Scrabble dictionary?!) and 2. new vocabulary items can become widespread via media that are perceived to have high status and authority.

Here are a few more mountweazels for your enjoyment (from the same New Oxford American Dictionary, and quoted from the article linked above):

earth loop—n. Electrical British term for GROUND LOOP.
EGD—n. a technology or system that integrates a computer display with a pair of eyeglasses . . . abbreviation of eyeglass display.
electrofish—v. [trans.] fish (a stretch of water) using electrocution or a weak electric field.
ELSS—abbr. extravehicular life support system.
esquivalience—n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities . . . late 19th cent.: perhaps from French esquiver, “dodge, slink away.”
eurocreep—n. informal the gradual acceptance of the euro in European Union countries that have not yet officially adopted it as their national currency.

Lieber, Rochelle. 2010. Introducing Morphology. Cambridge: CUP.

Attitudes to linguistic borrowing


So I’ve been quiet on the blog-front in recent months: mostly finishing my MPhil thesis and revising for exams. Now I find myself in that slightly eerie Zwischenphase between Masters and PhD. Happily, I’ve had plenty of things going on to fill my time. One of the things I’ve been working on is preparing to teach a new undergraduate paper from October: History of the German Language. The reading list sent out to students is longer than both my arms put together and I’ve had my work cut out getting through it, let alone getting further than it. One of the topics is Medieval and later loan vocabulary, which essentially focuses on lexical (but also phonological and morphological) borrowing into German at different periods and from different languages.

The Germanists amongst you will be aware that German has borrowed extensively from several languages over the years, but probably none more so than French in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To give you a bit of (very basic historical) background, the Thirty Years War was not  a great time for the German economy, and there was much trade with France as a result. In addition, French and German dynastic relations had become ever more intertwined, and many thousands of Huguenots were seeking refuge in Germany from persecution in France. Culturally, then, Germans had begun ever more to look to France. French loans are consequently found in abundance in technical language, newspapers/journals, as well as letters from the period, influencing such semantic fields as military vocabulary (Attacke, marschieren), fashion (Brokat), food (Schokolade), the home (Balkon), pastimes (Promenade), trade (Billet), diplomacy (Administration) and kinship terms (TanteOnkel). Many of these loans were dropped in subsequent centuries, but some remain. Scholars estimate that Standard German as spoken today is made up of about 5% of words of French origin.

Rather like today, commentators in the seventeenth century had strong opinions about the use of language and in particular the use of French loans. What I found interesting is that these opinions were often inconsistent. Brunt (1983) explains that public opinion in Germany showed various conflicting attitudes towards the French in the mid-seventeenth century:

On the one hand they [the French] were the epitome of all that was cultivated and elegant; on the other they were an inferior race, lacking all the German virtues, whose language and fashions were exerting a deleterious effect upon German society. (p22)

Towards the end of the Thirty Years’ War […] there arose among certain writers a conviction that the whole of German society was in a state of decline due to neglect of native virtues and the imitation of foreign manners.  (p62)

What I always find amusing about studying the history of languages (or of anything) is that the same ideas keep coming round again. The fact is, linguistic purism has been alive and well for centuries. The above German example strongly reminds me of British attitudes to so-called ‘Americanisms’, but it’s also true of the response of many speakers of other languages to English loans. On the one hand (and speaking very broadly), we embrace much of the culture and attitudes crossing the pond from the US, but at the same time there’s a feeling that ‘Americanisms’ ‘infiltrating’ the (English/German/whatever) language are having a deleterious effect on our society. One need only think back to this article from the BBC last year, in which a commentator lists the ‘Americanisms’ which he found to be the most ‘ugly’ and ‘pointless’.* We see conflicting attitudes even in this little piece. The author broadly upholds some things about America which he deems to be positive (even including some ‘Americanisms’ here), but he also writes of the ‘sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe.’ The idea is that abandoning our own ‘distinctive’ dialect(s?) comes about as a result of idleness and is a negative thing.

Examining attitudes towards linguistic borrowing from the past, however, serves to show that connecting lexical borrowing with the deterioration of society is nothing new.

The seventeenth century German equivalent of Engels’ article above was the pamphlet. I’ll leave you with a quotation from one called Der Vnartig Teutscher Sprach=verderber (‘The wicked German language corrupter’) from 1644:

Seithero die Complementen […] auffkommen / so ist die Teutsche Trew/ Glaub vnd Redlichkeit auβ Teutschland gezogen.

(‘Ever since these [linguistic] complements (i.e. French loans) have been around, the German sense of loyalty, faith and integrity has been hauled out of Germany.’)

*Rather embarrassingly (and as is often the case with perceptions about language), the author of the article is unaware that his linguistic perceptions do not match up to reality. In the event, 80% of his ‘Americanisms’ are not, in fact, American (at least in the first instance). See this link from the folks at Language Log for more info.


Brunt, Richard (1983): The Influence of the French Language on the German Vocabulary (1649-1735). Berlin: de Gruyter.

‘Simplicity’ and Linguistics

I was happily re-reading this excellent introduction to Linguistics this evening, when I stumbled across a sentence that annoyed me.

‘Obviously, [example X] is consistent with general scientific guidelines which require us to always seek the simplest and most elegant theory which is consistent with the data we need to explain.’ (Radford et al., 1999:330)

I’ve found that this kind of sentiment is so common in Linguistics that people barely mention it. Indeed, you might have read the above quotation and thought, yes, obviously. The idea is clearly influenced by Occam’s razor, which Wikipedia sums up as ‘a principle that generally recommends that, from among competing hypotheses, selecting the one that makes the fewest new assumptions usually provides the correct one, and that the simplest explanation will be the most plausible until evidence is presented to prove it false.’ Apparently, the principle is attributed to William of Ockham, hence the name. I think that this principle is so deeply embedded in our understanding of the world that most of us have never really thought about it. I must confess, when I started to notice I’d accepted this principle without thinking about why, I started to find it deeply dissatisfying. Who says that the hypothesis which makes the fewest new assumptions usually provides the correct one? What evidence is there of this? What governs this principle? Is it not more of a methodological suggestion of how to test theories, rather than an existential fact about stuff? The only times I have ever seen Occam’s razor discussed in any discipline is when it is appealed to as a kind of universal law which is assumed – obviously – to be true. I’m not necessarily saying I think it’s not true, just that very few people (in syntax at least) seem to challenge this assumption, something which has pervaded linguistic thought for a long time and which has reached its peak in the Chomskyan tradition.

Indeed, the Minimalist Program, which is currently the most fashionable theory of syntax, is underpinned by this principle, and this is implicit in its name. The following extract comes from an introductory textbook to the theory.

‘As in any other domain of scientific inquiry, proposals in linguistics are evaluated along several dimensions: naturalness, parsimony, simplicity, elegance […] etc. […] Put another way, the task is to find a way of taking the platitude that simpler, more elegant, more natural theories are best and giving them some empirical bite.’ (Hornstein et al., 2005:5-6)

Later, the authors introduce a caveat:

‘It’s possible that the language faculty is just “ugly”, “inelegant”, “profligate”, “unnatural” and massively redundant. If so, the minimalist project will fail. However, one can’t know if this is so before one tries. And, of course, if the program proves successful, the next question is why the language faculty has properties such as elegance and parsimony.’ (ibid., 7)

Am I the only one who thinks basing a whole research program around nothing more than a nice idea is a bit strange?

Naturally, the whole issue is underpinned by the question of whether the language faculty is ‘natural’, ‘parsimonious’, ‘simple’ or ‘elegant’. The first problem we have is that it is not abundantly clear what these terms actually mean with regards to language. I’ve come across few people who have attempted to explain what they mean by such terms. Usually linguists just use the terms as a sort of theoretical dustbin into which they shove any possible counterargument to their particular theory, because stating that one’s theory is more ‘simple’/’elegant’ is akin to trumping anyone’s ace.

If the language faculty is ‘simple’/’elegant’/etc. (and here we are presupposing that there is a language faculty of some sort), the only way we can access it is through the linguistic performance of a speaker, clearly. If the linguistic performance of a speaker is ‘simple’, then I might be able to be persuaded that his/her linguistic competence is ‘simple’. I would find it highly dubious if someone made the claim that linguistic performance is messy, but linguistic competence is not, as one cannot directly access the latter. What do others think?

As it happens, I’ve yet to be convinced that language (in the sense of performance) is simple, elegant, or parsimonious. If it were, why would we have to bend over backwards accounting for things in a complex way theoretically? Take plural formation as a banal example. In English, it’s nice and simple. You have your lexeme (word) in your lexicon (mental dictionary), e.g. book. To make a plural, you just whack on the suffix -s. That seems like a fairly straightforward default rule. If I asked you what the plural of gallyhop was, you’d say gallyhops, even though I can guarantee you’ve never heard the term gallyhop before and you have no idea what one is. Yes, there are exceptions like children and sheep, but we can account for those by listing them separately in the lexicon. But look at German. There are eight ways of forming the plural. If there is a ‘default’ way, which one is it? And how do we account for the other seven ways? Surely employing eight methods of forming the plural is hardly ‘simple’, ‘elegant’ or ‘parsimonious’?

It was put to me a while ago by one of my professors that the idea of the language faculty needing to be maximally simple might have had more to do with what computers could do at the time the idea came about than with what the language faculty can do. As little as twenty years ago, computers could store very little. I suppose it’s not surprising that one might think that storing information requires an inordinately large amount of space, and thus theoretical concerns were formed accordingly. Does anyone have any views on this?


Radford, Andrew, Martin Atkinson, David Britain, Harald Clahsen, and Andrew Spencer. 1999. Linguistics: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hornstein, Norbert, Jairo Nunes and Kleanthes K. Grohmann. 2005. Understanding Minimalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Weird things that languages do #2: the Antipassive construction

First, a caveat: it was brought to my attention in my last post (‘Weird things that languages do #1: Ergativity‘) that the phenomenon in question wasn’t exactly ‘weird’ for people who speak ergative languages. This is true! What I mean by ‘weird’, of course, is more that the phenomena I describe are surprising for people who are only familiar with English (or perhaps Indo-European languages). This is quite true of today’s ‘weird thing’: the Antipassive construction.

It is a verb voice that in some languages allows you to delete the patient. Essentially, the Antipassive is the opposite of the passive, which allows you to delete the agent. To understand this better, we’d better remind ourselves of what the passive is, and have a think about what agents and patients are.*

(1) Jane kicked the ball.

(2) The ball was kicked (by Jane).

In (1), Jane is the subject, the ball is the object. In (2), the ball is the subject, and Jane is a non-essential oblique (i.e. you can miss ‘by Jane’ out, hence the parentheses). This is easy enough to understand: the object ‘the ball’ in (1) has been promoted to the subject of (2). Importantly, the semantic roles have not changed. In both (1) and (2), Jane is the agent (i.e. she is deliberately performing the action). The ball is the theme (i.e. it undergoes the action but does not change its state). So what is happening is that the theme in (1), ‘the ball’ is an object, but in (2) it has been promoted to the subject. The agent is no longer necessary in (2), i.e. it is deletable.

If English had a less impoverished case system, you’d find nominative marking on the subjects, and accusative marking on the object. The oblique might be marked by some other case (here, ‘X’):

(1′) Jane.NOM kicked the-ball.ACC.

(2′) The-ball.NOM was kicked (by-Jane.X)

This is because subjects are (usually) always marked nominative in languages like English. (Try replacing the nouns in (1) and (2) with pronouns, which do still show case marking in English.)

There has also been some change to the verb: ‘kicked’ in (1) has become ‘was kicked’ in (2). Some languages (e.g. Latin) show that a verb is passivized by verb morphology, rather than adding a new word (in English: an auxiliary). The word dicit in Latin means ‘he/she/it says’. Dicitur means ‘it is said’. In this case, the suffix -tur signals 3rd person present passive, whereas  the suffix -t in dicit signals 3rd person present active.

So, let’s get to the Antipassive construction: the sentence in (1) in an ergative language might look like this:

(3) Kicked the-ball.ABS Jane.ERG

‘Jane kicked the ball’

So, Jane, marked ergative, is the agent, and the ball, marked absolutive, is the patient. You will recall that this is the normal state of affairs in transitive sentences in ergative languages. In the corresponding Antipassive construction, it is the agent that is marked absolutive, and the patient is marked otherwise (sometimes ergative, sometimes in some other way, represented below by ‘X’), and the verb carries antipassive morphology:

(3) kicked.ANTIPASS Jane.ABS (the-ball.X)

In (3), the agent (Jane) has been promted from being marked ergative to being marked absolutive (just like the theme ‘the ball’ in the passive construction was promoted from being marked accusative to being marked nominative) and the theme (‘the ball’) can optionally be deleted (just like the agent, Jane, could be deleted in the passive construction). So it is like the passive but the opposite!

(3) is hard for us to translate into English, as we don’t have an Antipassive construction. Since the semantic roles are the same, the (truth-conditional) meaning is probably the same as the normal transitive sentence ‘Jane kicked the ball.’ Wacky, eh?

* (In order to understand this construction, one has to understand the concept of ergativity (see my previous post.)

Weird things that languages do #1: Ergativity

As many people know, English has a particularly impoverished case system. This means that we don’t see much evidence of (overt) case to mark grammatical function (like subject or object). If you’ve got a sentence like Mary saw Jim, then you know from the word order that it was Mary (the subject) doing the seeing of Jim (the object). Many languages encode this kind of information via case. Latin, for example, marks the subject of a verb with Nominative case, and the object with Accusative case. If English had any kind of case marking for this, it would look like this:

(1) Mary.NOM saw Jim.ACC.

(2) Mary.NOM slept.

(Obviously, pronouns show case marking in English e.g. I saw him vs he saw me, but there is lots of evidence that this is being further eroded, e.g. between you and me/I, When he saw Paul and me/I, etc. Go look it up in corpora if you don’t believe me!)

You’ll notice above that Nominative case marks the subject of both transitive (example 1) and intransitive sentences (example 2). Some languages which have case marking do not have this alignment at all. Instead, such languages mark the subject of an intransitive verb with the same case as the object of a transitive verb. These languages are known as Ergative languages, as opposed to e.g. Latin, which is an Accusative language. Were English to be an ergative language (and have overt case marking), it would mark its case like this:

(3) Mary.ERG saw Jim.ABS

(4) Mary.ABS slept.

(ABS is short for Absolutive, and ERG Ergative. These are the names of the cases.)

It is clear from these examples that the object in (3), a transitive sentence, is marked with Absolutive case, as is the subject of (4), which is an intransitive sentence. Wacky, eh?

Let’s look at a real example from Basque, pillaged from the Wikipedia article I linked above (so if the gloss isn’t perfect, which it looks like it’s not, sorry! Basque speakers please correct it!)

(5) Gizon-a etorri da.

man-ABS has arrived

‘The man has arrived.’

(6) Gizon-ak mutil-a ikusi du.

man-ERG boy-ABS saw

‘The man saw the boy.’

Even more bizarrely, some languages can show signs of having both a Nominative-Accusative and Ergative-Absolutive case marking. This is known as split ergativity. For example, a language might have Ergative-Absolutive case marking on nouns, but Nominative-Accusative marking on pronouns. Or, like Hindi-Urdu (Wikipedia reckons this is a language…), it might mark subjects in the perfective aspect for transitive verbs in the active voice with Ergative case, while in other aspects (habitual, progressive) subjects appear in the Nominative case.

More weird things that languages do will follow!

Empiricism, God and language

I started reading a really good book a couple of days ago called Simpler Syntax, by Culicover & Jackendoff (2005). In it, the authors outline considerable problems with the way the Minimalist Program has been progressing in recent years. But that’s the stuff of another post sometime. I thought I’d google a couple of reviews to see how much of an impact the book had had on the linguistic community. I came across this review, which interestingly (to me) compared the way in which Culicover & Jackendoff perceive Universal Grammar with a ‘God of the gaps theory’. One sentence particularly got my goat, however:

Fortunately, unlike the issue of the existence of God, in which one side views empirical evidence as simply irrelevant, there is a good chance for the UG/constructionalist debate to be resolved along empirical lines.

I stopped thinking about Linguistics for a while and pondered the opinion expressed by the reviewer. I’m sure you’ve all come across it many times: science = empiricist, existence of God = not empiricist/stupid (delete as appropriate). Is the reviewer right when he says that people who argue for the existence of God view empirical evidence as ‘simply irrelevant’?

Something else that caught my attention this week was a comment on a friend’s Facebook status which read:

You don’t need to be a theologian if your argument is with the fundamentals, not the fiddly little details. If someone tells you there’s a unicorn in your bedroom, you know there isn’t. You don’t ask what colour it is and which way it’s [sic] horn twists first.

Not being an epistemologist by trade, I have only dabbled a little in the theories of knowledge, caught up in the debate between rationalism (e.g. Chomsky) and empiricism (e.g. Quirk), along with a couple of other books and articles about theology which I’ve read. As far as I understand it, empiricism refers to the kind of knowledge that comes via ‘sensory experience’. The Wikipedia article on the subject (ever to be trusted!) defines it in this way:

Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation.

I wouldn’t quibble with that. What strikes me, however, is the apparent hypocrisy of some in the ‘science’ camp concerning the existence of God, such as those I’ve quoted above. Empiricism dictates that one doesn’t make one’s judgment based on a priori reasoning, but that is exactly what the Facebook commentator has done! He starts off with the view that unicorns do not exist, therefore he needn’t concern himself with the finer details. That’s not empirical, at least according to wikipedia’s definition of it, and thus isn’t ‘scientific’ (by his own logic).

That’s all well and good, you say, but unicorns don’t exist. This, however, isn’t really the point. I’ve no problem with a priori reasoning: there are many kinds of knowledge, not just empirical knowledge, and everyone lives their lives according to these different kinds of knowledge, whether they care to admit it or not. In many circumstances, a priori knowledge makes a lot of sense (such as this one). I just find it curious how often it’s the case that ‘scientists’ (whoever that refers to) sometimes don’t stick to the ‘rules’ of their own game.

It is not my intention to start spinning out the usual arguments in the Science vs God debate. Many others devote their life to this, and this is a good place to start. John Lennox, a Professor of Maths at Oxford University, also has an excellent website which is worth looking at. Nor is it my wish to bring forth the (historical) evidence for the God I  trust in, though I believe this to be profuse.

Instead, I want to think about language. It’s certainly true that language can be investigated according to empirical methodology, and Linguistics has undergone a bit of a shake-up over the years as scholars from other disciplines (notably Psychology) pick holes in its bad research practice. But I wonder whether empiricist methods can really illuminate our understanding of the meaning of  ‘language’ as a concept. Let me be absolutely clear: I am not suggesting that empirical linguistic evidence does not shed light on the nature of language. But let’s think a bit about what language actually is.

You can’t touch language. It isn’t physical. Sure, you can observe it, for example, in the utterance you spoke when you ordered a coffee this morning, or the words you’re reading on this page. But that’s not actually all we mean by language. These words I’m writing are part of what we call the English language, but they’re not synonymous with it. In fact, they’re just symbols on the page that represent the phonetic noises we emit when we exhale air. Sound waves even. But there’s more to language than that, everyone knows that. There’s that meaning part to it. Oh, and grammar.

Some have argued (notably Chomsky!) that what language really is is I-language, that is, the ‘internal language’ in your brain made up of a lexicon and a grammar, which is heavily dependent on Universal Grammar, which is something all babies are born with. But we’re about as close to finding out what constitutes this I-language, or where it is in the brain, as we are to drawing square circles. It may be the case that we’ll know everything about I-language one day, but this ‘science-conquers-all’ mentality requires a (blind?) faith in science that I find difficult to share.

Nevertheless, people do argue that we know language is in our heads, so it is ‘tangible’ in some abstract sense. However, when we refer to the English language, we refer to the language through the ages, as well as the language used by different geographical and social groups, and not simply to the I-language in your or my head. To be a native speaker of English today, you don’t have to know that the English passive used to be formed with weorþan (‘to become’) rather than ‘to be’. But this and similar phenomena are still part of what we understand when people refer to ‘language’ as a concept.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that we happily get on in life with knowledge that is not ’empirical’, in the purest sense: while language is observable and can be empirically tested, it isn’t something ‘physical’ when we refer to it on a day-to-day basis. It’s not made up of atoms. Our concept of it can’t even be reduced to neurons flying round our brain. And yet no one denies that it exists or is real, even though we don’t really know much about how and where it’s stored in the brain, how words are associated with meaning, and so on. This is, of course, true of other abstract nouns such as hope, or love, etc. It’s just that Linguistics prides itself on being ‘scientific’. Oh, and I happen to have a vested interest.

Obviously, in answer to my (rhetorical) question above, no theologian worth his salt would view empirical evidence as ‘simply irrelevant’. How many books arguing for the existence of God have you read which do this?

I’d welcome comments!

On German ‘ge-‘

Anyone who has had even the smallest amount of German tuition will know that, to form a past participle in German, you whack a ge- on the front (and shove a -t on the end – well, most of the time). Ever wondered where that came from? I hadn’t until I stumbled across someone writing about it when I was reading about German verbs in Lockwood’s (1968) scintillating book Historical German Syntax.

In terms of its etymology, Lockwood (1968) makes the claim that ge-, which was gi- in Old High German (henceforth OHG) and (probably) ga- in Proto-Germanic, is likely to be a cognate with the Latin cum/con-/co-, ‘with’. He reckons its primary sense was the meaning of ‘together’.

Indo-European verbs had a means of expressing how an action took place in addition to when it took place. The Linguists among you will know that the former refers to aspect, the latter to tense (see this article for info about aspect). Apparently, according to Lockwood (1968), in OHG the commonest function of ge- was to make imperfect verbs perfective.* For example, the OHG verb swîgan meant to ‘be silent’, and giswîgan meant to ‘fall silent’. There also existed some ‘simplexes’, e.g. bringan, ‘to bring’, which were already understood to be perfective, so didn’t need to take the gi- perfective prefix (think about it: if you ‘bring’ something somewhere, the action is always completed. You can’t bring me a book and the book not reach me). There were also some verbs which compounded with gi- which had no corresponding simplexes, e.g. gilouben, which is modern day glauben, ‘to believe, think’.

There are a couple of verbs which have a corresponding form with ge- on the front in modern German, e.g. denken (‘to think’) vs gedenken (‘to remember’, in the sense of commemoration). Now, however, there is a lexical difference, rather than an aspectual one. Lockwood (1968) could only come up with gefrieren (‘to freeze (up)’) as a modern infinitive with a ge- on the front which is aspectually perfective.

However, to go back to OHG, the ‘perfective preverb’ gi- was generalized to a large extent before past participles, because the use of a perfect tense often implied a completed action. Consequently, gisagêt often functioned as the past participle of both sagên and gisagên. Our perfective simplexes noted above retained the original, gi-less past participles:

ih haben iʒ funtan

‘ich habe es gefunden’

‘I (have) found it.’

This made me happy as I have often wondered why some past participles didn’t seem to have a ge– prefix in older German texts. An example that immediately springs to mind is one of the chorale/recits, no. 7,  in J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: Er ist auf Erden kommen arm (something like ‘He has to earth now come so poor’). One would expect a tidy ge- on the front of kommen in modern German. Yet there isn’t one.

In Middle High German and New High German, the aspectual distinction largely died out. Hence sitzen to sit’ and sagen ‘to say’ have survived, but gesitzen and gesagen haven’t. In other instances, the simplex has died out, and the ge- form has prevailed:

OHG   winnan – ‘to struggle’, giwinnan – ‘to obtain by strength’; Mod. German gewinnen – ‘to win’

The ones that have survived (as in denken/gedenken above) all have a lexical difference in the modern language, as noted above. Ge- had spread to the past participles of all of the simplexes by Early New High German (ENHG), but only if the verb bore initial stress. Lots of verbs in the modern language that end in -ieren do not bear initial stress, and also take no ge- prefix on their past participles (think markiert, blamiert, arrangiert, etc).

At some point, ge- must have been reanalyzed as a tense marker of the perfect, which is hardly surprising as it was used so much in perfect constructions. Those perfective simplexes like kommen prevailed until the eighteenth century, when little ge- also took hold of them as well. There are now only traces of the old forms in words like willkommen, rechtschaffen.


*Lockwood (1968:102) notes that the presence/absence of gi- was partly determined by considerations which had nothing to do with aspect.