Monthly Archives: November 2010

Reading Group Tonight | Linguistics: Past, Present & Future

Wednesday 24 November | 18:00 | Southsider pub

Tonight’s reading group follows on loosely from both Professor James Hurford’s talk last week and the Subject Centre report of Careers and Employability in Linguistics/ English Language (view report here).

What made you study linguistics/ English Language? 

How would you describe the courses you are taking (e.g. do they go down the road of empirical science? Are they very philosophical? ) 

Do you think they are too much one way or another? 

Do you think the breadth of disciplines in Linguistic and English Language is a good thing, or should we have more specialism?  

What do you propose should be the core elements in an undergraduate Linguistics/ English Language degree? Should stats be compulsory? Should philosophy of language be compulsory? Should there be an option to choose to do a BSc or an MA? 

How do you suggest we improve the field of linguistics? How can be increase ties with other subject areas/ departments?

We will be discussing the past, the present and the future of language sciences and our role in them:
-What made us choose a language-science related degree.
-What skills we feel we have gained/ are gaining from our degrees.
-What we hope to do in the future and how our studies will enable us to do this.
We will discuss the above in relation to the findings of the Subject Centre report.
In addition, we will discuss the future directions of language sciences, looking questions such as:
Is the empirical direction areas of the subject are taking a good thing?
What do we feel should be included as essential/ compulsory elements in an undergraduate degree in Linguistics/ English Language? 
The group will have a two fold purpose:
a) To provide you with a chance to see what other people feel about the subject(s), as it is so easy to become surrounded by like-minded people who approach the subject(s) with the same philosophy you do- especially the case in honours.
b) To help you focus your ideas about what skills you have gained- essential for writing job applications, CVs or further study applications.

Bare-Contact Relatives

In my free time (yes, that is a joke), I’ve been reading The Worm Ourobos, another old fashioned fantasy novel (of the sort that I normally get insulted for reading.) The first sentence was once pointed out to me as the best first sentence in any book, and I am inclined to agree to some extent.

There was a man named Lessingham dwelt in an old low house in Wastdale, set in a gray old garden where yew-trees flourished that had seen Vikings in Copeland in their seedling time.

However, flowery prose aside, what’s odd is that this construction doesn’t work for me. It would work if it said, instead, “There was a man named Lessingham who dwelt…”. This is called, I believe, a bare-contact relative clause. For some speakers, this would work. This exact issue was raised yesterday in my syntax class, when the lecturer held up the grammatical example “It was your husband paid for that.” Of course, this didn’t work for me, or a few other students. When it was put to a poll, it was found that for most students in the class, this didn’t work.

This highlights the issue of using private grammaticality judgements in papers – without statistical studies, one really can’t be sure about the amount of deviation between a personal grammar and the generally accepted one. It also raises the interesting question of how one acquires these variations. And that’s all I have to say on that.

One Dice, Two Dice. Red Dice, Blue Dice.

Last night, over a game of monopoly (because even aspiring linguists take an occasional break from Scrabble), my flatmates and I got into a debate over what the singular and plural forms of the word “dice” are. “Pass the {single} dice” seemed grammatical to me… My flatmates were not of the same opinion. Given the competitive nature of our flat, a bet ensued. The unsold Corsucant and some spare cash would go to the winner. (note: to those unfamiliar with the Starwars Edition Monops’, Corsucant is one of the expensive dark blue properties.)
I maintained that “dice” was singular, but to my dismay, Merriam Webster online didn’t confirm my belief. So I reluctantly handed over the cash, the property, and my dignity.

Monopoly aside, the thought of losing a linguistic debate to Caroline the History student and Freddie the Maths student kept me tossing and turning for hours after we’d retired from the game to our bedrooms. So I whipped out the laptop back out and did some research. It turns out that the OED defines dice as its own plural, “Historically, dice is the plural of die, but in modern standard English dice is both the singular and the plural: throw the dice could mean a reference to either one or more than one dice”
Maybe the historian in Caroline was clinging to the outdated usage?

Maybe time to re-think who deserved the payoff in the monopoly game. but alas, as Caesar would say, Alea iacta est, “the die is cast.”

Next Talk: Prof. Jim Hurford – The Origins and Evolution of 21st Century Linguistics (45 Years in Linguistics)

Wednesday 17 November | 18:00 | Appleton Tower 1 | £1/FREE for members

The Origins and Evolution of 21st Century Linguistics:? 45 Years in Linguistics
Professor James R. Hurford
Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Linguistics & English Language

Professor James Hurford has published in many sub-fields of linguistics including phonetics, semantics, grammar and the origins of language (and has also translated books on the last topic from French to English). His most recent publication is a two volume work on our linguistic origins in the OUP series Studies in the Evolution of Language, for which he is also a series editor. The Origins of Meaning was published in 2007 and the long awaited Origins of Grammar will be published next year.

In these books Prof. Hurford looks at the linguistic capabilities of humans in the light of evolution, an idea based on Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous adage from biology: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.

In his talk, Prof. Hurford is going to look at linguistics itself in the light of more recent evolution, and revolution: how it has changed during his carer over the last 45 years and how it has become what it is today, at the beginning of the 21st Century.



In 1963, linguistics as an academic subject barely existed in Britain. True, there were one or two professors of linguistics, but it couldn’t be studied at an undergraduate level.  In the USA it was more developed, but even in America, the subject was (I would guess) about one tenth of the size it is now, in terms of numbers of teachers and students.  The Chomskyan revolution of the mid 1950s had barely reached Britain in the mid 1960s.  Linguistic theory existed, but was very much in the shadow of Saussure and Bloomfield.  The technology of teaching and research was very different back then, and has changed almost beyond recognition in the past fifteen years.

The whole 20th century in linguistics could be fairly called the Saussurean century.  And the latter half could be called the Chomskyan half-century.  There have been doubting and critical voices throughout, but they have been outnumbered by workers in the dominant paradigm. Mainstream linguistics is now turning to a new perspective on language, not solely dominated by synchronic study of an ideal state of mind of an ideal speaker.  The difficulty in reaching this stage stems from both the symbolic nature of language itself and the typical non-scientific training of most academic linguists in the 20th century. (JRH)

Prof. Hurford completed his undergraduate studies at  St John’s College, Cambridge, reading Modern and Medieval Languages (French and German). He received his PhD from the Department of Phonetics at University College, London; his PhD thesis title was The Speech of One Family: a phonetic comparison of the speech of three generations in a family of East Londoners.

He has worked at UCLA, (University of California, LA), the University of California at Davis, the University of Lancaster. and most recently here at the University of Edinburgh. He officially retired from academia n 2007 and is now Professor Emeritus of the department of Linguistics & English Language here at Edinburgh. Jim still continues to the teach honours course onn the Origins and Evolution of Language which has been one of his passions for at least the past 15 years.

He has been described by one research fellow at Edinburgh as the “grandaddy of evolutionary linguistics” and this reflects both his role as one of the founders of the this field and his great knowledge and understanding of the issues this field raises. In 1996 he co-organised the first International Conference of Evolutionary linguistics, EVOLANG, which was held in Edinburgh. This conference has become the biannual meeting point for researchers from many countries; it was held in Utrecht, The Netherlands, this year and will be held in Kyoto, Japan, in 2012.

For more information on Professor Hurford and his career (including a great idea for a ‘Linguistics SciFi story!) visit his staff home page.

If you have Facebook you can register your plan to attend.

Entry is £1 and FREE to active members. Membership is £3 (£6 for non-students) and you can join on the night. Membership cards are now ready so if you don’t already have one then pick it up before the talk.

The talk will start at 6:00 p.m. and last about 1 hr. There will be a Q&A/ discussion session at 7:00 p.m. which should last about half an hour.

We also meet at Assembly Bar (41 Lothian Street EH1 1HB ) after the talk at 8:00 p.m. for food and drink with the speaker.

Our talks are public lectures open to all, regardless of whether you are a student or not or what or where you study if a student. We aim for all of our events to be accessible to all; please feel free to contact us beforehand if you require assistance or further information.

Next Reading Group: ‘Metalinguistic shmetalinguistic’

Wednesday 10 November | 18:00 | Southsider pub

This week’s reading has been recommended by Dr. Patrick Honeybone and is “not a million miles away” from the phenomenon he spoke about in his talk last week, but you don’t need to have been to the talk to understand it!

It’s a paper by called Metalinguistic shmetalinguistic: The phonology of shm-reduplication by Andrew Nevins and Bert Vaux from MIT and Harvard University respectively (Vaux & Nevins, 2007).

We’ll be chatting about this with anyone who’s had a chance to read it and also talking about the other ways in which words are shortened, lengthened or changed.


Vaux, Bert and Andrew Nevins. 2007. In J. Cihlar, A. Franklin, D. Kaiser, and I. Kimbara, eds., CLS 39-1: The Main Session: Papers from the 39th Annual Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. Chicago: AuthorHouse.

English Infixation

Let us pretend, temporarily, that I am particularly annoyed at some hypothetical ridiculous oddity or stupidity. Being a fluent speaker of English, and as I am entirely given over to the practice of complaining, I would likely utter some sort of insulting exhortation involving English swear words. But, peculiarly to English, depending on the nature of the annoyance, I might even go so far as to infix another expletive inside of a present one. For instance:

  • Mild annoyance: What a stupid thing.
  • Annoyance: It’s just stupid! Arg!
  • Heated Annoyance:It’s abso«bloody»lutely ridiculous!

Some second language Arabic or Hebrew learners who have problems with the semitic root system and it’s corresponding vowel infixes would doubtless be surprised to note that English has them, too, as here. However, these are highly constrained – as far as I am aware, they only occur as intensificatory modifiers for insults and the like. Secondly, although I don’t know if a study has been done into this, it seems to me that they only work when there is some sort of consonant harmony (like poetic assonance?). So, one sees abso«fucking»lately and re«bloody-fucking»diculous, but not abso«damning»lately. (Yes, those first two examples attested: I use it all the time, although I normally submit the underlying lexemes as being re-«bloody»«fucking»«dick»ulous). Does anyone know of any examples where there isn’t some sort of vague assonance between the labials /b/ and /f/?

Since this is a fun and offensive post, I’ll end with this joke from a marginal comedy from the late ’90s called “Meet the Deedles”. (Amazing film, if you can find it.)

“That’s so diculous, it’s RE-diculous.”