Category Archives: Lectures

Lectures run by the society.

Singing in tone languages – not so mysterious?


Newcomers and LangSoc longtimers alike are warmly welcomed to the first LangSoc lecture of the 2016/17 academic year! It will be given by Edinburgh’s own Bob Ladd, on the subject of singing in tone languages. You can find his abstract below.

Doors at 18:00 for an 18:15 start.
Free for LangSoc members, £2 for non-members.

Everyone is welcome to join us at the pub afterwards!

Speakers of European languages who discover the existence of tone languages are almost invariably mystified, and a question that often comes up is “So how do they sing?” In the past 15 years there has been quite a lot of research on this question, some of it here in Edinburgh, and the answer appears to have two parts. The boringly obvious part is that a lot of language use, including song lyrics, is pretty predictable, so mangling the phonetic shape of words may not make much difference to intelligibility. (The same applies to whispering in languages with voicing contrasts!) The more interesting part is that pairing a song text with a tune in a tone language involves various expectations about what ‘fits’ or sounds right. (The same kinds of expectations apply to the placement of stressed and unstressed syllables relative to a tune in English songs.) All tone languages that have been investigated seem to approach this problem of matching tune and text in remarkably similar ways.

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Tartan, Haggis, and Accents: The Value of Scottish English to Scotland’s Tourist Economy

It’s time for the final regular LangSoc lecture of the academic year! This Wednesday, Lauren Hall-Lew will be talking to us about the value of Scottish English to Scotland’s tourist economy. You can find out more from her abstract, which is as follows:
The last few decades have seen a rapid rise in studies documenting the commodification of language (e.g., Irvine 1989, Haeri 1997, Cameron 2000, Heller 2010, Duchêne & Heller 2012). This work, founded on Bourdieu’s (1977, et seq.) theory of the ‘linguistic marketplace’, shows how linguistic forms have over time become commodities that either give value to the material goods they accompany or are treated as directly exchangable for material wealth. The international tourism economy is one of the major contexts for scholarship in the study of linguistic commodification (e.g., Heller 2003, Thurlow & Jaworski 2010, Pietikäinen & Kelly-Holmes 2011, Gao 2012). Heritage tourism, where the travel goal is to experience cultural authenticity, is one area where non-standard linguistic varieties are being made available as products for consumption. In this talk I will report on my ongoing work on the commodification of language in the Edinburgh tourism industry.

Free for members, £2 for non-members

Doors at 18:00 for a 18:15 start — Wednesday 23 March — Appleton Tower

NB! This week we’re in LT1, not LT4 as usual.

Join us at Usher’s afterwards, and don’t forget to let us know you’re coming on Facebook!

Doing Language — Ronnie Cann — CANCELLED

Unfortunately, Ronnie Cann has had to cancel this lecture due to medical reasons.

doing language

This week’s LangSoc lecture will be given by Edinburgh’s own Ronnie Cann! His talk is titled ‘Doing Language’, and his abstract is as follows:

A characteristic feature of human language is it can be used to refer to situations, objects and other things that are not in the immediate context of an utterance. On the other hand, certain aspects of an utterance, written or spoken, depend for their interpretation on the context in which the utterance occurs. Expressions like here, now, she, that person depend on the context to identify what is meant while the import of clauses like ‘It’s hot in here’ or ‘I’ve got a headache’ depend on the social situation of the speakers and the situations they are engaged in for their precise interpretation. But context dependence goes beyond the use of demonstratives and the implication of additional meanings above and beyond what is said.

Human languages are all notoriously vague, with expressions characteristically only being partially expressive of a concept that we can nevertheless readily use and understand. As any cursory look at ‘real’ natural language data makes clear, whether spoken or written, languages display an endemic sensitivity to context so that meanings, intentions, and other information that they can convey may never be fully fixed despite our intuitions as users. This lack of fixed interpretations results, at least in part, from the fact that languages are inherently dynamic both in use and in intrinsic structure; and it is the underlying presumption that our language provides us with a ‘practice’ or process that allows us to exploit inherent context sensitivity for effective and generally efficient use of linguistic resources in acts of communication, even with ourselves. Notoriously, however, neither the property of context dependence nor that of dynamicity is adequately addressed by current theories of grammar.

In so far as any concept of context is defined, it is presumed to be relevant only within semantics, the theory of meaning; and any expression of dynamicity within the grammar is excluded in principle. In this talk, I argue, to the contrary, that both are central to understanding natural language in general and the grammatical properties of particular languages. Accordingly, I shall argue, the current view that languages are analysable as context independent objects is untenable and that a radical rethink of current approaches to grammatical theory is necessary if we are ever to understand the nature of human language.

Free entry for members, £2 for non-members.

Doors at 18:00 for a 18:15 start — Wednesday 9 March — Appleton Tower LT4.

Join us at Usher’s afterwards!

Language and Ideology in the Sixteenth Century: Religion, Politics and Spelling Reform


Welcome to the second semester of the academic year!

This week’s LangSoc lecture will be given by Professor Jeremy Smith of the University of Glasgow, and it will be about language and ideology in the sixteenth century.

His abstract is as follows:

Since the late nineteenth century, spelling reform of the English language has become a minority pursuit, although the English Spelling Society still exists and indeed its American branch has picketed events such as Spelling Bees as recently as 2004. But no-one has been burned at the stake for adopting a particular English spelling-practice.
Things were rather different in the sixteenth century, and my paper will discuss how spelling became a vector of ideology during the Reformation, both in England and in Scotland.

Free entry for members, £2 for non-members.

18:00 doors for a 18:15 start — Wednesday 13 January — NB! This semester lectures will take place in Appleton Tower LT4.

As always, we’ll be going to Usher’s afterwards and everyone is welcome!

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Extra-Special LangSoc Lecture!



To celebrate a delegation of Dutch students visiting the University of Edinburgh, LangSoc is proud to present a special lecture in addition to our usual program! This lecture will be given by our very own Chris Cummins and will be about reasoning with numbers in language. His full abstract is as follows:
“There’s a substantial literature on the semantics and pragmatics of quantity expressions, including those involving number. This literature has only tangentially connected to the celebrated body of research on cognitive biases, which has been argued to show that humans are predictably irrational in certain aspects of reasoning. However, some pragmaticists have raised the concern that there are linguistic confounds in some of the most striking experimental demonstrations of human irrationality. In this talk I sketch some of the pragmatic inferences that are licensed by the use of expressions of numerical quantity, and consider how these might emerge in reasoning paradigms, and what implications this might have.”
Free entry for members, £2 for non-members. As always, we’ll be going to the pub afterwards — come along to socialise with Chris and with our guests!
Appleton Tower LT3 (NB! we’re in LT3 this time, not LT1 as usual) — 18:00 doors for a 18:15 start — Friday 20 November

Secondary Linguistic Personality and associative effects on vocabulary mapping in L3


Happy November and welcome to this week’s LangSoc lecture by Ekaterina Matveeva!
The talk will cover the research on the secondary linguistic personality in the process of language acquisition. Also questions related to the associative effects in vocabulary mapping in the process of L3 acquisition will be touched upon.

Free entry for members, £2 for non-members.

Doors open at 18:00 for a 18:15 start.

Appleton Tower — Lecture Theatre 1 — Wednesday 4 November

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“Silencing; or, Do trolls just wanna have fun?” – Professor John E. Joseph

Silencing; or, Do Trolls Just Wanna Have Fun? – Professor John E. Joseph – Wednesday, 1 April – 18:00-19:15 – Appleton Tower LT1


Professor John E. Joseph will be joining us for our last talk of the semester. In this lecture he will be tackling the issues of trolling and cyber-bullying, and what it means in the context of the role and function of language.


[“Silencing; or, Do trolls just wanna have fun?”
John E. Joseph, University of Edinburgh

Research on cyber-trolling has turned up conflicting results, reflecting the deep divide between those who see it as the essentially harmless construction of an on-line pseudo-identity meant to provoke ‘lulz’, and others for whom it is harrassment, threatening behaviour that should be criminalised. The Cambridge historian Mary Beard, who has been on the receiving end of cyber-bullying, experienced it as an attempt at silencing women who have a public platform, and has located it within a tradition that extends from Homeric epic through to her own tormentors. She has furnished me with original screenshots of some of the most disturbing texts she received (Caution: they are not for the faint-hearted), and it is these that we shall examine and analyse within the framework of some basic questions: What is the fundamental function of language? Under what circumstances is it ethical or necessary to silence another? Is there a generational gap in the perception of cyber-trolling, and if so, why?]

Entry free to members, £1 for non members.

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Parenting Style: From Preschool to Pre-adolescence in the Acquisition of Variation — Dr. Jennifer Smith

Parenting Style: From Preschool to Pre-adolescence in the Acquisition of Variation — Dr. Jennifer Smith — Wednesday 18 March — 18:00-19:15 — LG.09, David Hume Tower

langsoc cover

Dr. Jennifer Smith, of the University of Glasgow, will be talking to us about the overlap of sociolinguistics and child language acquisition in the context of styleshifting.

[Jennifer Smith & Sophie Holmes-Elliott

Labov (2001:437) observes that ‘children begin their language development with the pattern transmitted to them by their female caretakers, and any further changes are built on or added to that pattern.’ More specifically, ‘Linguistic variation is transmitted to children as stylistic differentiation on the formal/informal dimension….Formal speech variants are associated by children with instruction and punishment, informal speech with intimacy and fun’ (ibid). The further development in sociolinguistic norms arises when ‘children learn that variants favoured in informal speech are associated with lower social status in the wider community’ (ibid) and ‘later acquisition of superposed dialects’ (Labov 2013:247).

Our previous research on preschool children (2-4 year olds) in interaction with their primary caregivers (Smith et al 2007, 2009, 2013) showed that the caregivers used systematic patterns of styleshifting from vernacular to standard with some variables (1) but not with others (2). These patterns of (non)styleshifting were transmitted to the children who faithfully replicated the patterns in their own speech.

1. (child) Are we gan to Isla’s? (caregiver) Uhuh. (child) Are we? (caregiver) Later on, aye. (child) Say yes or no. (caregiver) Aye…yes. (child) No, say yes or no. (caregiver) Yes.

2. (child) Is there pens in there? (caregiver) Aye, there is. (child) My paints are in there.

What happens to these patterns of (non)styleshifting once the children move from the vernacular dominated norms of the home to the standard dominated norms of the school?

To tackle this question, we returned to the original preschool children now in pre-adolescence (11-13 years old). In order to tap the boundaries of styleshifting between vernacular and standard, we recorded the speakers with a) a community insider who uses the local vernacular and b) a community outsider who uses a very standard dialect and replicated the analyses of variables carried out eight years earlier.

In analysing the results, we appeal to Labov’s (1993, 2008) sociolinguistic monitor in interpreting the (lack of) development of styleshifting from preschool to preadolescence, and indeed in later life.]

Free for members
£1 entry for non-members

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The Linguistics of Punctuation – Professor Jeremy Smith

The Linguistics of Punctuation – Professor Jeremy Smith (University of Glasgow) – Wednesday 11th February – 18:15 to 19:15 – Appleton Lecture Theatre 3

This talk will be looking at the development and impact of punctuation, through a historical pragmatics approach, with a focus on Scottish and English texts from over the centuries.

Professor Jeremy Smith is the Head of the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, a professor of English Philology and has been described on RateMyProfessors as follows: “Jeremy has Sherlock Holmes cufflinks and he is smashing.”

As always, you are all welcome to join us at the bar afterwards to unwind!

Hope to see you there!

Free to LangSoc members, £1 entry for non-members.

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Robert Truswell – It’s All Relative: Relative Clauses and Diachronic Typology 12/11/14

relativeWednesday 12 November – 18:00 to 19:00 – Lecture Theatre 1, Appleton Tower

Robert Truswell ( will be presenting on some joint work carried out with Nikolas Gisborne. It explores further some of the peculiar aspects of relative clauses that are currently an area of intense inquiry.


“This talk aims to make links between typological patterns and their theoretical explanations. I will focus in particular on the prospects for explaining one particularly unusual typological pattern, which we call “parallel evolution”.

Noun phrases like (1), where the relative clause has a wh-phrase in [Spec,CP], are found in roughly 1/2 of modern Indo-European languages, but only 1/40 of other modern languages.

(1) The person [[with whom] I saw John __ ]

In other words, wh-relatives are an Indo-European thing, more or less. Normally, if a phenomenon is specific to a language family in this way, we glimpse a diachronic explanation: properties of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) may be responsible for the skewed typological distribution of this construction. For instance, if PIE had constructions like (1), we would probably not be surprised if a lot of its daughter languages did too.

However, very few attested early IE languages (from more than a couple of thousand years ago) have wh-relatives like (1), so PIE almost certainly didn’t have them either. This means that wh-relatives have developed time and again, in parallel, across Indo-European, but not elsewhere. This is strange: typical models of syntactic change rely on random low-level reanalyses during acquisition, and the distribution of wh-relatives isn’t random.

Our aim is to relate this pattern to two factors: first, PIE must have some relevant distinguishing feature, or else the fact that wh-relatives are so concentrated in IE would be a mystery. We identify a likely candidate, a particular type of “correlative” construction. Second, certain types of reanalysis must be more likely than others, so that grammars are more likely to change in some directions than others. We identify certain biases operative in language acquisition that may plausibly lie behind this skew. These two ingredients, we hope, are all we need to explain the unusual typological distribution of wh-relatives.

Finally, this is work in progress, and the topic is proving to be a very rich source of research questions. We will do our best to show what it looks like at the relatively early stages of a project like this, and identify open questions and methodologies that could be used to address them.”

Entry free for members, £1 for non-members.

As usual we will be heading to Greenmantle afterwards, We hope you will join us.

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