Arabic linguistics: overview and history

Arabic linguistics is a vast field combining study of the Arabic language with the analytical disciplines that constitute the field of linguistics. Linguistic theories, methods, and concepts are used to analyze the structure and processes of Arabic; but at the same time, Arabic with its millennium-long intellectual traditions, its complex morphology, and its current broad diversity of registers, informs linguistic theory. Many linguistic approaches to Arabic language analysis have been applied over the past fifty years both within the Arab world and from the point of view of western scholars. These approaches and their disciplinary procedures are both varied and convergent, covering a wealth of data but also coming to terms with central issues of concern to Arabic linguistics that had been neglected in the past, such as validating the prominent role of vernacular Arabic and variation theory in Arabic society and culture. Arabic linguistics is now an active subfield in sociolinguistics, corpus linguistics, and computational linguistics as well as theoretical and applied linguistics. Both traditional and new genres of Arabic writing are now being examined within postmodern frameworks of literary theory and linguistic analysis. Media Arabic studies is a new and rapidly growing field; medieval texts are being re-examined in the light of new philology and discourse analysis; previously ignored forms of popular culture such as songs, advertisements, oral poetry, vernacular writing, letters, email, and blogs are now legitimate grist for the linguistics mill.

The discipline of linguistics has a growing number of subfields. The traditional four core divisions usually include theoretical linguistics, applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, and computational linguistics. Each of these has developed new applications, perspectives, hypotheses, and discoveries that extend their analytical power in novel ways, such as cognitive linguistics in theoretical linguistics, second language acquisition in applied linguistics, corpus linguistics in the computational field, and discourse analysis in sociolinguistics. When these perspectives and theories are applied to Arabic, the findings can be revealing, satisfying, or puzzling, but generally lead toward greater understanding of how languages work, how they resemble each other, and how they differ. The field of computational linguistics has provided ways to develop extensive corpora of spoken and written Arabic that can be used for pioneering research and analysis of language in use. An active subfield of linguistics – history of linguistics – examines linguistic historiography, the development of language analysis over time, and the evolution of grammatical theory in different cultures.

The phonological, morphological, and syntactic structures of Arabic reflect its Semitic origins and its essential differences from Indo-European languages. These differences and their cultural embeddedness are what make Arabic of interest to research in many fields of linguistics. For example, the particularly well-defined and elaborated verb system with its derivations reflect an aspect of classical Arabic that is both fascinating and rigorous in its structure and linguistic logic. As another example, the contrasts between vernacular and written language, their different roles within Arab society, and the tensions between local and regional linguistic identities, form areas of sociolinguistics that pose particular challenges to data collection, empirical study, and objective analysis. Many research challenges and opportunities still lie ahead in this regard.

Read the full excerpt here.


The Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs

Fig. 1

Middle Egyptian, written by Proffessor James Allen, introduces the reader to the writing system of ancient Egypt and the language of hieroglyphic texts. It explores the most important aspects of ancient Egyptian history, society, religion, literature, and language. Grammar lessons and cultural essays allows users not only to read hieroglyphic texts but also to understand them, providing the foundation for understanding texts on monuments and reading great works of ancient Egyptian literature. This third edition is revised and reorganized, particularly in its approach to the verbal system, based on recent advances in understanding the language. (The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 1).

1. Language and Writing

1.1 Family
Egyptian is the ancient and original language of Egypt. It belongs to the language family known as Afro-Asiatic or Hamito-Semitic and is related to both of that family’s branches: North African languages such as Berber and Beja, and Asiatic languages such as Arabic, Ethiopic, and Hebrew. Within Afro-Asiatic, Egyptian is unique. It has features that are common to both branches, although it is closer to the African side of the family.

1.2 History

Egyptian first appeared in writing shortly before 3200 BC and remained a living language until the eleventh century AD1. Beginning with the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 641, Arabic gradually replaced Egyptian as the dominant language in Egypt. Today, the language of Egypt is Arabic. Egyptian is a dead language, like Latin, which can only be studied in writing, though it is still spoken in the rituals of the Coptic (Egyptian Christian) Church. Throughout its long lifetime, Egyptian underwent tremendous changes. Scholars classify its history into two phases and five major stages:

Earlier Egyptian

1) Old Egyptian is the first stage of the language. Although Egyptian writing is first attested before 3200 BC, these early inscriptions (called Archaic Egyptian) consist only of names and labels. Old Egyptian proper is dated from approximately 2700 BC, when the first extensive texts appeared, until about 2100 BC.

2) Middle Egyptian (or Classical Egyptian) is closely related to Old Egyptian. First attested around 2100 BC, it survived as a spoken language for some five hundred years but remained the standard hieroglyphic language for the rest of ancient Egyptian history. Middle Egyptian is the phase of the language discussed in this book.

Later Egyptian

3)Late Egyptian began to replace Middle Egyptian as the spoken language after 1600 BC, and it remained in use until about 600 BC. Though descended from Old and Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian differed substantially from the earlier phases, particularly in grammar. Traces of Late Egyptian can be found in texts earlier than 1600 BC, but it did not appear as a full written language until after 1300 BC.

4) Demotic developed out of Late Egyptian. It first appeared around 650 BC and survived until the fifth century AD.

5) Coptic is the name given to the final stage of ancient Egyptian, which is closely related to Demotic. It appeared at the end of the first century AD and was spoken for nearly a thousand years thereafter. The last known texts written by native speakers of Coptic date to the eleventh century AD.

1.3 Dialects
Egyptian also had several dialects. These regional differences in speech and writing are best attested in Coptic, which had five major dialects. They can only be partly detected in the writing of earlier phases of Egyptian, but they undoubtedly existed then as well: a letter from about 1200 BC complains that a correspondent’s language is as incomprehensible as that of a northern Egyptian speaking with an Egyptian from the south. The southern dialect of Coptic, known as Saidic, was the classical form; the northern one, called Bohairic, is the dialect used in Coptic Church services today.

1.4 Hieroglyphs
The basic writing system of ancient Egyptian consisted of about five hundred common signs, known as hieroglyphs. The term “hieroglyph” comes from two Greek words meaning “sacred carvings,” which are a translation, in turn, of the Egyptians’ own name for their writing system, “the god’s speech.” Each sign in this system is a hieroglyph, and the system as a whole is called hieroglyphic (not “hieroglyphics”).

Unlike Mesopotamian cuneiform or Chinese, whose beginnings can be traced over several hundred years, hieroglyphic writing seems to appear in Egypt suddenly, around 3250 BC, as a complete system. Scholars are divided in their opinions about its origins. Some suggest that the earlier, developmental stages of hieroglyphic were written on perishable materials, such as wood, and simply have not survived. Others argue that the system could have been invented all at once by an unknown genius. Although it was once thought that the idea of writing came to Egypt from Mesopotamia, recent discoveries indicate that writing arose independently in Egypt.

People since the ancient Greeks have tried to understand this system as a mystical encoding of secret wisdom, but hieroglyphic is no more mysterious than any other system that has been used to record language. Basically, hieroglyphic is nothing more than the way the ancient Egyptians wrote their language . To read hieroglyphic, therefore, you have to learn the Egyptian language.

[1]  Some scholars prefer BCE and CE rather than BC and AD. Because both conventions use the same benchmark (see Essay 9), however, this book retains the older system.

look inside



Read the full excerpt from Middle Egyptian, An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, here.










Chopping down the Syntax Tree

Word-tree-5Blog post by Remi van Trijp based on a recent article in Language and Cognition

One of the most notorious problems in linguistics is how to handle “long-distance dependencies”: utterances in which some elements seem to have been taken away from their original position and then moved to a different place. Typical examples are WH-questions such as “What did you see” in which the direct object (“what”) takes sentence-initial position instead of following the verb, as it would do in a declarative utterance (e.g. “I saw the game”).

But what makes long-distance dependencies so difficult? Most linguists assume a tree structure (or “phrase structure”) for analyzing utterances. As a data structure, trees consist of nodes that have at most one parent node, which means that information in a tree can only trickle down from a parent to its immediate children, or percolate upwards in the other direction. A tree structure is thus hopelessly inadequate for representing dependencies between nodes that are in the top of the hierarchy and nodes that are situated somewhere below. The most common solution to this problem is to say that there is a “gap” where we would normally expect a part of the utterance. Information about the gapped element then has to be communicated node-by-node upwards in the tree, until the “filler” of the gap is found.

In recent years, however, a cognitive-functional alternative has started to crystallize in which long-distance dependencies spontaneously emerge as a side effect of how grammatical constructions interact with each other in order to cater for the different communicative needs of language users. For example, the difference between “I like ice cream” and “Ice cream I like” can be simply explained as the tendency for speakers to put the most topical information in the front of the sentence – suggesting that word order should be decoupled from an utterance’s hierarchical structure.

While this view has for a long time been dismissed for being ad-hoc and not lending itself to proper scientific formalization, there now exists a formally explicit computational implementation of the cognitive-functional alternative in Fluid Construction Grammar, which works for both parsing and production. The implementation eliminates all formal machinery needed for filler-gaps by chopping down the syntax tree: rather than taking a tree structure as the sole device for representing all information of an utterance, different linguistic perspectives are represented on equal footing (including an utterance’s information structure, functional structure, illocutionary force, and so on).

The implementation shows that a cognitive-functional approach to long-distance dependencies outperforms the filler-gap analysis in several domains: it is more parsimonious, more complete (i.e. it includes a processing model) and it offers a better fit to empirical data on language evolution.

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A linguist’s foray into the ‘real world’: Why Dias Kadyrbayev was highly unlikely to understand his Miranda rights

Dr. Aneta Pavlenko Professor of Applied Linguistics

Dr. Aneta Pavlenko
Professor of Applied Linguistics

Written by Aneta Pavlenko, Temple University

We are often asked about the relevance of linguistics for the ‘real world’. On June 2, 2014, I got an opportunity to explain this relevance to the judge, the media, and the general public when I testified as an expert witness in the pre-trial hearing of a Kazakh national, Dias Kadyrbayev, friend of the accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnayev. The hearing was not about guilt or innocence. Its purpose was to determine whether Dias understood his Miranda rights – to remain silent, to request a lawyer, and to have a lawyer provided to him for free – and the consequences of waiving them. There were two complications: the FBI interrogation was not recorded, nor could I test Dias’ proficiency directly because by the time his lawyers contacted me, he had spent more than eight months in jail, interacting and reading in English.

Based on my previous experience with a similar case, I requested Dias’ test scores, academic records, and written texts produced by him prior to the interrogation. I also asked him to write a language learning history based on my prompts. Then I used his test scores from 2011 to establish his baseline proficiency (“no lower than”), linguistic patterns in his learning history to establish a ceiling proficiency (“no higher than”), and linguistic patterns in his writings from 2012-2013 to infer his proficiency at the time in terms of the ACTFL proficiency guidelines. My analysis suggested that at the time of the interrogation he had an Intermediate level of English proficiency and was highly unlikely to understand his Miranda rights without linguistic accommodations, such as clarification, translation, or interpretation.

In court, I tried to explain why a Russian speaker who relied on simple sentences, such as “I am feel bad” or “I did them very bad”, may be unable to automatically process sentences, such as “If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish”. The reasons are many: syntactic complexity, low-frequency words, polysemy, differences between Russian and English in sentence structure and temporal marking, unfamiliarity with the privilege against self-incrimination, and the fact that the rights were presented under stress, in a short time span, without linguistic assistance. My task should have been fairly easy, right?

Sorry to say, fellow linguists, it was not a triumphant experience – eyes glazed when I uttered the terms ‘language proficiency’ and ‘predictive validity’ and mouths opened in extended yawns when I listed ‘deep embedding’, ‘double conditionals’, ‘ellipsis’ and ‘polysemy’ as features that make understanding the Miranda rights challenging for non-native speakers of English. Next-day media reports showed that I failed to communicate my points effectively. The failure lies squarely on my shoulders – I should have found better terms and examples – yet it also stems from different assumptions in academia and the ‘real world’ about language and evidence.

Here is the ‘real world’ version. Kadyrbayev studied English for 6 years in Kazakhstan and spent 4 weeks in the UK and 8 weeks in the US, prior to his arrival in the US in 2011. The prosecution argued that this was a record of ‘extensive’ study, sufficient to establish his English-language competence. They also stated that being a student at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth was in and of itself sufficient evidence of Kadyrbayev’s English proficiency.
In academia, years of language study are not a valid predictor of proficiency, due to highly variable instruction quality, and the only evidence that counts are test scores. Kadyrbayev’s 2011 score of 5.5 on IELTS, an international test of English proficiency, indicates, according to the IELTS guide, a low level of proficiency that requires further English study prior to taking any academic courses or even linguistically demanding ESL courses. So how did he get to be a student at UMass?

In fact, Kadyrbayev was not a UMass student – he was enrolled in the program run at UMass by a for-profit corporation Navitas that recruits foreign students who can pay for their courses and promises them that after two years they could transfer into the regular program. In Kadyrbayev’s case, this was not to be because Navitas did not heed his low IELTS scores and instead of offering ESL instruction he badly needed, enrolled him in academic courses, such as math and chemistry, where he struggled to understand what was going on. The mismatch between his level of proficiency and the linguistic demands of his courses led to plagiarism, absenteeism, failed courses, academic probation, and, in February 2013, dismissal from the program. But this does not mean he could not speak English, right?

To make their case, the prosecution emphasized his ability to interact in everyday situations and use colloquial English. These arguments, however, present language as binary, where you either have it or you don’t, and evidence of ‘some’ English suffices as evidence of ‘all’. Researchers, on the other hand, see proficiency in terms of levels and emphasize that speaking skills, or Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) in Jim Cummins’ terms, are acquired earlier than Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), necessary to process the Miranda rights.

In terms of consent forms, in academia, regulations for protection of human subjects require us to write research consent forms in plain English and to translate them for speakers with lower levels of English proficiency. In the criminal justice system, there is no requirement to present the Miranda warnings in any language other than English, and a signature on the Miranda form is sufficient evidence of understanding. For linguists, on the other hand, the signature is evidence of understanding that the form had to be signed, and the only valid evidence of understanding of Miranda rights is their restatement in one’s own words.

I left the courtroom that day asking myself: would an American detained in Kazakhstan consent to go through the proceedings in his non-fluent Russian or Kazakh? And if not, how can our own criminal justice system address its monolingual bias and could it “afford” to do so “if it wished”? In my own view, it can and it should – the policies and best practices suggested by research are neither expensive nor time-consuming. The adoption of ‘plain English’ forms and standardized translations of the Miranda warnings, in combination with the requirement to restate the rights in one’s own words, would go a long way towards addressing the disparity in the system. This also may be the only way to ensure that boring linguists like me do not reappear in court.


If you enjoyed this post, find out more about The Bilingual Mind, here.



At Last, a Handbook of Stylistics

The Cambridge Handbook of StylisticsPost written by Peter Stockwell, Editor of the new The Cambridge Handbook of Stylistics

Twenty-five years ago, one of the contributors to the new Cambridge Handbook of Stylistics started a conference paper by declaring that there could not be a handbook for the field of stylistics. Unlike other subjects, went the argument, stylistics at the time did not have a commonly agreed set of methods and principles. Drawing on the most recent linguistics in order to study literature was seen as oddly interdisciplinary, and eclectic. The comment was quickly forgotten, as the speaker produced an overhead-projector transparency that was not only printed, rather than handwritten, but was actually in colour! There were audible gasps from around the room at this startling technology.

Both the field of stylistics and the wizardry of our presentational skills have moved on equally exponentially since then. Stylistic methods that emphasise a systematic and modern linguistic understanding of the language of literary texts have become mainstream. The close description of literature can be found in literary studies all over the world. Twenty-five years ago, there was no such thing as a lectureship in stylistics: now a literary-linguistic training is almost a guarantee of an academic post. Exploring the language of literature is becoming central to the school curriculum. When literature students first encounter stylistics, I have watched the light of revelation dawn in their faces like an epiphany.

Stylistics has itself changed, from being relatively narrowly focused just on the textuality of literary works to the current situation in which matters of reading, interpretation, culture and literary texture are prominent. Stylistics – under various different names across the world – has been supercharged by the revolutions in text-digitisation and in cognitive science.

The Handbook of Stylistics would barely be recognisable to that audience a quarter of a century ago. Sara Whiteley and I assembled a stellar cast of the most important stylisticians of the age and asked them to produce something new. The result is a series of thirty-nine meditations, arguments and – of course – stylistic analyses. The Handbook is a monumental thing, both physically and intellectually, but it is also a starting point rather than a review of past glory. Stylistics is progressive, in the sense that there is a tangible collective desire to move the field forward rather than defending entrenched positions. Our authors set out their arguments and evidence as clearly and readably as possible, so that others can engage with them, and think about ways of addressing their ideas even better. Several of our chapters are even in the form of a dialogue between two authors. The whole thing is vibrant and exciting, and the aim of the book is to engage both the old stylistician and the new student of style in their own new thinking. We wanted thirty-nine chapters, rather than the rounded forty, to serve iconically as a suggestion that there is always one more thing to be said.

Discover more about The Cambridge Handbook of Stylistics

Epen[t]thesis in Standard Italian Pronunciation (SIP)


Guest post by Alex from

How do you pronounce the term persona (‘person’) in current standard Italian? Is it peɾˈsona or peɾˈʦona? The answer is both. The former variant is the one that always features in dictionaries and textbooks on Italian pronunciation; the latter is never included in dictionaries and is characterized by what I shall call /t/-epenthesis, that is the process whereby s in Standard Italian Pronunciation (SIP)  can optionally become ʦ after the consonant sounds n, r/ɾ and l. This process occurs not only word-internally but also across word boundaries. Despite its frequency and unmarkedness in contemporary spoken Italian, it is still often unjustly considered by linguists and elocutionists as a reprehensible regionalism rather than pukka SIP.

/t/-epenthesis is so widespread amongst Italian native speakers of all ages and social backgrounds – and has been so for quite a long time now – that it can be heard on both television and radio. It also frequently features in the political speeches of ex-prime minister Mario Monti and President Giorgio Napolitano. Canepari in his Manuale di Pronuncia Italiana (2004; Zanichelli) states that this phenomenon is extremely common “al Centro (compresa la Toscana, tranne Firenze e Prato)” (p.88) [in the centre of Italy, including Tuscany, but not Florence or Prato] . He then adds:

“Pure alla RAI le cose non cambiano. Anche in Lombardia orientale e settentrionale e nella Svizzera italiana e al Sud (tranne la Sardegna) c’è la stessa caratteristica, ma con diffusione meno sistematica” (p.88).
[This feature is to be heard on all RAI channels and is also typical of northern and eastern Lombardy (= the region around Milan). In addition, it can be found in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland and in the south of Italy (except in Sardinia), although here it tends to be more variable.]

Contrary to what some people think, /t/-epenthesis is not at all a speech defect. If this were so, then millions of Italians would presumably be ‘abnormal’ in the way they speak. This phenomenon, which is also to be found in current General British (GB) and General American (GA) in phonetic contexts similar to those found in Italian, is simply due to the fact that

“the speech organs instead of moving immediately from the first type of articulation to the second, anticipate the second in one or more ways so that a third type of consonant is produced on the way. For [ns] → [nts] the soft palate is raised closing the passage to the nose and the vocal cords cease to vibrate before the narrowing is made to form [s]. For [ls] → [lts] the sides of the tongue are raised to form a complete closure and the vocal cords cease to vibrate, again before the narrowing is made to form [s]. For [rs] → [rts] the tip of the tongue ceases to vibrate and forms a complete closure with the teeth-ridge and the vocal cords cease to vibrate before the organs separate to form [s]” (Chapallaz, M., 1979, The Pronunciation of Italian, p.149; London: Bell & Hyman).

Failing to use /t/-epenthesis in the contexts described above can sound old-fashioned, formal, unnatural, or even comical for native speakers. A variant like, for example, inˈsjɛme for insieme (‘together’) would be described by many as a ‘stage pronunciation’, unlike inˈʦjɛme which would go pretty much unnoticed by most speakers.

You can find several examples of /t/-epenthesis in the following post by the present author here.

[1]Standard Italian Pronunciation (SIP) as described here is the accent based on a geographically central variety (including the city of Rome) but lacking marked regional features.

[2] Please note that Canepari still views /t/-epenthesis merely as a characteristic of regional speech.


Bilingual Language Acquisition

How do children develop bilingual competence? Do bilingual children develop language in the same way as monolinguals? Set in the context of findings on language development, Bilingual Language Acquisition examines the acquisition of English and Spanish by two brothers in the first six years of their lives. (The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 1).


Bingual language acquisition

The terms bilingual and bilingualism have received diverse definitions. In this book, bilingual (the person), and bilingualism (the condition or state of affairs) refer to the use of two (or more) languages in everyday life. Two major patterns of language acquisition have been identified in studies of early bilingualism: simultaneous bilingualism and sequential bilingualism, but no agreement exists with respect to the age at which bilingual development would be considered to be sequential. In simultaneous bilingualism, the child acquires two languages at the same time from birth or, as some researchers propose, before 3 years of age. Here, I use the term Bilingual First Language Acquisition (BFLA, or 2L1) to refer to situations where the child’s exposure to two languages begins at birth (cf. De Houwer 2009: Ch. 1). This means that the question of the effect that different ages of first exposure to a language may have on the development of bilingual competence is not relevant in BFLA, but it is in sequential bilingualism. The latter could be differentiated, depending on when acquisition of a second language begins, into: (a) successive bilingualism, when the child’s exposure to a second language starts sometime between the first and third birthdays; and (b) early second language acquisition, a form of early bilingualism that happens when a child has one established language before starting to hear and learn a second language (De Houwer 2009: 4). This book focuses on BFLA – that is, on the acquisition of two languages from birth, Spanish and English in this case. The overall goal is to examine whether bilingualism affects the course of development in each language, and if so, how. course of development in each language, and if so, how.


Download the full excerpt here


English and multilingualism in China’s universities

Post written by Werner Botha, based on an article published in the latest issue of English Today.

With such a large number of English language learners, as well as an increasing use of English as a medium (or additional medium) of instruction in China’s universities, one wonders how this is impacting the ordinary lives of university students in China. This issue is of particular interest because very little is currently known about the impact of globalization on the spread and use of English in Chinese university students’ linguistic repertoires. A large number of these students are not only acquiring English at school and university, but increasingly outside of their formal education, through the Internet, music, computer games, movies, and television series. Indeed, many of these students have also been shown to be highly mobile, and in most cases migrate throughout Greater China (and abroad) in order to pursue higher education degrees.

Despite the lack of studies on the use of English in the educational as well as personal lives of Chinese university students, attention has recently been drawn to the fact these students are surprisingly multilingual, and constantly switch between different languages and language varieties as they move between various communicative worlds (e.g. socializing with their friends, using online chats, etc). Not only does English offer many of these students better career prospects and tangible success in an increasingly globalised world, but the English language is for many of them a means to explore new spaces, and offers them new ways of expressing their individual identities to others in the worlds they percieve themselves to live in.

It also appears that the increasing use of English in these students’ formal education is having an impact on the ways in which Chinese students are learning their course materials, and even more strikingly in the ways these students are using multiple languages to negotiate their everyday lives. As university students in China become increasingly bilingual in English and Putonghua (Mandarin), they increase their ability to move across spaces, both in the ‘real’ world, as well as in their Internet and entertainment lives. The varieties of English these students are exposed to no doubt also effect the ways in which they can use different varieties of English to construct and reconstruct personal identities. Not only this, these students also open up opportunities for others to share in their physical and virtual lives by using English in novel and unpredictable ways. Research on the spread and use of English in mainland China needs to keep pace with these shifting, multilingual contexts of language use in the Greater China region, and especially with the rich and multivaried multilingual worlds of students in China’s higher education.

Read the full paper English in China’s universities today‘ here

The Study of Language by George Yule | 5th Edition

The Study of Language has proven itself to be the student and instructor choice for first courses in language and linguistics because of its accessible approach to, what is often, a complicated subject. In every edition, readers have praised the book for being easy to follow, simple to understand, and fun to read, with its quirky anecdotes and examples of languages from around the world. Now in its fifth edition, it is further strengthened by the addition of new student ‘tasks’ (guiding readers to connect theory to real-world scenarios), including examples from even more foreign languages, and updating the text to reflect the most current linguistic theory. We will also be offering an enriched learning experience with our new enhanced eBook (publishing in Autumn), which will include pop-up glossary terms, embedded audio and interactive questioning. All of these features make this the most student-friendly edition of the textbook yet.


The Study of Language

Paragraph above by Valerie Appleby, Development Editor, Cambridge University Press

Is English a ‘killer language’ or one at threat?

Is English a killer language?Post written by Clive Upton based on his Editorial in the recent issue of English Today

Our editorial in English Today issue 29.3 raised the subject of English as a ‘killer language’.

We pointed to a speech given on 22nd February 2013 in which the German President Joachim Gauck called for English to be seen as the common language of Europe, and especially of the European Union.

This speech resulted in a response published  in The Times from the British Council’s Director of Strategy. John Worne was quick to try to forestall any suggestion that such an idea supported the notion, sometimes put forward, that English is a ‘killer language’ that grows at the expense of other languages.

In the latest issue this debate has been widened to demonstrate that English too might be thought to be threatened at times, as signalled by an entertaining but nevertheless serious linguistic matter that has recently arisen in the Welsh part of the UK, as reported in The Times:

 Residents in the Welsh village of Varteg are not happy with plans to rename it Y Farteg, saying that it will make them the butt of jokes. Welsh language campaigners are calling for the name change, claiming that the current title for the village is incorrect. In  the Welsh language, there is no letter V – although the same sound is pronounced [i.e. written] with the letter F. However locals say that the proposed name sounds like a schoolboy’s playground insult. Sioned Jones, 42, a resident of the village, said: ‘Just imagine how embarrassing it will be to have the word fart in your village’s name…’

The interaction between the Welsh and English languages has not been a happy one in Wales. Historically, English was frequently imposed upon Welsh speakers: in the extreme southwest of the country replacement of Welsh by English occurred through settlement as long ago as the late eleventh century, and in much of the south, where Varteg is situated, it occurred progressively throughout the period of the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Replacement of Welsh by English was not sympathetically done, and created hurt and resentment. As social and political attitudes have changed, especially since the mid-twentieth century, strenuous efforts have been made to give Welsh proper official status.

But as we know, language is tied closely to identity, to the way in which speakers connect with their communities as they are now and as they have been passed on to them by their forebears. Just as the Welsh speakers bridled at having English forced upon them in the past, so many of their English-speaking compatriots now resent having Welsh forced upon them from outside their community. To the very large majority of people in the area in which the village is located, Varteg is not an ‘incorrect’ spelling but a time-honoured one, used for generations. And it seems likely that the anger at its being questioned goes deeper than the merely linguistic, so that what local Varteg residents really object to is not so much the association of the word ‘fart’ with their village, but more that the V- spelling inherited by them from their English-speaking ancestors is being eroded, and that the Welsh language is being boosted at their expense. There is no easy solution to such conflicts of language wherever they occur, but they should be handled intelligently and sympathetically on all sides.

As a postscript to this, we can now report that local objections have been heeded, and the idea of introducing ‘Y Farteg’ as an alternative to ‘Varteg’ has been dropped.

Five of the articles in this issue of English Today concern aspects of the interface between English and other languages.

Enjoy access to the entire issue without charge until 30th June 2014.


Wondrous Welsh, Published in the Times, 28th September 2013