Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 2)

Blog post written by Asya Pereltsvaig author of Languages of The World & co-author of The Indo-European Controversy.

Missed part one? here’s the link: Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 1)

Old World Map

Image: www.flickr.com/photos/pasukaru76/3595826459 via Creative Commons.

Bones and pots found in archaeological digs do not talk. Yet, as discussed in detail in our book, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, we can use the tools of paleo-linguistics to search for the PIE homeland. The general idea is simple: the reconstructed vocabulary of the ancestral language is examined for clues as to its speakers’ physical environment and modes of subsistence. Thus, speakers of a language that has words for ‘snow’, ‘sleigh’, ‘reindeer’, and ‘seal’ must live in a very different place from those of a language with words for ‘palm’, ‘coconut’, ‘rice’, and ‘elephant’. Based on the consensus reconstructions of PIE, its speakers must have lived in a temperate environment, where snow, birch trees, beech trees, and wolves were common features, but salt-water bodies were not. Reconstructions of words for ‘rye’, ‘barley’, ‘sickle’, and ‘to plough’ tell us that PIE speakers had agriculture, while words for ‘sheep’, ‘goat’, ‘pig’, and ‘cattle’ mean that they raised animals. But perhaps most revealing, and at the same time most controversial, are the reconstructed roots *ek’wos- ‘horse’ and *kwekwlo- ‘wheel’ (which survived in English in equestrian and wheel). Since the earliest archeological evidence of wheels and horses dates from about 3500 BCE, the logic of the paleo-linguistic argument tells us that PIE could not have been spoken earlier than that—a timeframe compatible with the Steppe but not the Anatolian theory. The steppe zone is also the most likely place in which humans first came into close contact with wild horses and eventually domesticated them. Other clues, which likewise strengthen the Steppe theory, can be found among loanwords from neighboring languages such as Proto-Uralic, the ancestor of today’s Finnish, Hungarian, and Samoyedic languages, spoken in northwestern Siberia. But words alone, Martin Lewis and I argue, cannot tell the whole story and sometimes can be highly misleading. Approaches to the Homeland Problem relying exclusively on lexical data—from glottochronology, which was first explored in the 1950s and has since been discredited, to the Bayesian phylogenetic methods employed by Russell D. Gray and his colleagues in recent work—produce notoriously unreliable results because words are subject to speakers’ conscious choices and are easily and frequently borrowed from one language into another. Grammatical structures offer more reliable evidence of family relationships but they are harder to convert into workable binary input for Bayesian calculations. For example, models that rely on lexical data usually show Romani, the language of the Gypsies, as much more distinctive within the Indo-Aryan branch than it actually is, dating its divergence to 2,500-3,500 years ago. In reality, Romani gained a distinctive lexicon not because it diverged from its “sibling languages” a long time ago but rather because it was in contact with, and picked numerous words from, other languages on its path from northern India to Europe, such as Persian, Armenian, and Greek. A look at its structural properties, such as its gender and case systems, indicates that Romani must have split off from the other Indo-Aryan languages only about 1,000 years ago. This more recent date of the Roma exodus from northern India is now confirmed by genetic studies. Rapid migrations, such as the trek that the Roma made at the turn of the second millennium CE, are key to understanding both population distribution and the spread of languages. In the historical record of the Indo-European language family, such swift population movements, almost instantaneous at the relevant time scale, happened many times: Latin spread with the growth of the Roman Empire, Russian advanced east with the colonization of Siberia, and Norse speakers settled the previously uninhabited Iceland (and for a while also Greenland), to give just a few examples. Yet, recently proposed computational models often take into account only one mechanism of language spread: demic diffusion, a slow and random population movement in all directions, impeded only by water. Such models cannot handle quick migrations, and hence necessarily postulate a much slower spread of Indo-European languages and, as a result, a much earlier date for PIE. The preceding discussion of the importance of migration, however, should not obscure another well-known fact: although languages often spread through the movement of the people who speak them, they do not always travel with genes. Consider, for example, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. In addition to the physical descendants of the Anglo-Saxon invaders, Roman soldiers stationed in Iberia, and East Slavs from the Kievan Rus’, these languages are spoken today by millions of genetically-unrelated individuals—and entire indigenous groups—found in such regions as in Alaska, the Andes, the Amazonian rainforest, Australia, the Caribbean, and Siberia. Consequently, genetic studies that reveal patterns of migration and admixture of various groups sometimes help us figure out certain pieces of the Indo-European puzzle, but they cannot provide conclusive evidence of the PIE homeland. As the book unfolds, Martin Lewis and I take the reader through a maze of findings from historical linguistics, archaeology, historical geography, and genetics, allowing one to interpret and reconcile these findings within a coherent narrative. Thus, the book is as much about methodology and epistemological issues—how we acquire or fail to acquire knowledge of the human past—as it is about the location of the Indo-European homeland itself. At the time when scientific research becomes increasingly collaborative and interdisciplinary, and when the general public increasingly needs to be able to assess scientific findings on a broad range of issues—from genetic history to climate change and genetically-modified foods—rethinking such epistemological issues becomes ever more critical.

Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 1)

Blog post written by Asya Pereltsvaig author of Languages of The Worldco-author of The Indo-European Controversy.

Europe, Map

Image: www.flickr.com/photos/paulsimpson1976/3629546523 via Creative Commons.

In 1767, the year when the British first sighted Pitcairn Island and visited Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean, another monumental discovery was being made back in London, in the study of one James Parsons. Comparing the numerals ‘one’ through ‘ten’ in various languages of Europe, Parsons “was insensibly led on to attempt following them to their source”. The book in which this phrase first appeared, The Remains of Japhet, being Historical Enquiries into the Affinity and Origins of the European Languages, was as long-winded as its title, and Parsons himself retired shortly after its publication. As a result his work remained obscure and largely neglected by subsequent scholarship. But his key idea—that languages as varied as Latin and Sanskrit, Greek and Gothic, Persian and Irish share a common ancestor—was rediscovered three decades later by another Englishman, Sir William Jones. He too noted that similarities among many Classical Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Gothic words, such as patēr, pater, piter, and fadar for ‘father’, are non-accidental and indicate that these languages “have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists”. Similar word comparisons between Hindi, Bengali, and Romani, the language of the Gypsies, a semi-nomadic group first attested in southeastern Europe in the early 14th century, led the German scholar Johann Christian Christoph Rüdiger to conclude in 1782 that the Gypsies came to Europe from northern India, a discovery that was confirmed some 220 years later by genetic studies.

By the mid-1800s, the German scholars Franz Bopp and August Schleicher worked out a method of reconstructing a common ancestral language on the basis of its known descendants, dubbing the ancestor of Indo-European languages “Proto-Indo-European”, or PIE for short. For example, based on the words for ‘father’ cited above, the PIE word for ‘father’ was reconstructed as *pətér-. (Reconstructions are indicated by the asterisk and the hyphen means that endings were attached to this and other words to indicate grammatical meanings like case and number.) Painstaking reconstructions of the PIE sound system, and its vocabulary and grammar allowed philologists to create texts in this long-forgotten language, the first and most famous of which was written by August Schleicher in 1868. (In the nearly 150 years since, several versions of Schleicher’s tale appeared, reflecting our changing understanding of PIE.) In the late 1700s and early 1800s, scholars discovered other language families, such as Dravidian and Austronesian (discussed in my book, Languages of the World: An Introduction). Soon afterward, work began on reconstructing the ancestral languages of these and other language families.

Although we know a great deal about the words and structure of PIE, the twin questions of where and when it was spoken remain hotly debated to this day. In a recently published book, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, Martin Lewis and I review different answers that have been proposed to these questions and, more importantly, assess the validity of the different types of evidence that have been brought to bear on these issues. The book opens with a historical overview of the scholarship: over the past two centuries, the Indo-European question left the confines of historical linguistics and attracted experts from so many different fields—archeology, anthropology, genetics, and others—that James P. Mallory once compared “the quest for the origins of the Indo-Europeans” to “the fascination of an electric light in the open air on a summer night … attract[ing] every species of scholar” like moths to a flame (In Search of the Indo-Europeans, p. 143). Postulated locations for the PIE homeland range from the Baltic Coast to the Balkans, from Anatolia to Armenia, and from southern Russian steppes to northern India, while speakers of PIE have been described alternatively as sword-brandishing chariot-riding warriors, peaceful peasants, or even cannabis-consuming proto-hippies. Despite the profusion of PIE homelands postulated since Parsons’ and Jones’ discoveries, two groups— Neolithic agriculturalists from Anatolia and Bronze Age horse-riders from the steppes—have become the “front runners” in the contest for the title of the “original Indo-Europeans”.

Here’s a link to Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 2)

The truth about transitions: What psycholinguistics can teach us about writing

Blog post written by Yellowlees Douglas author of The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You A Better Writer

The Reader's Brain Journalists, particularly those writing for American audiences, practically have transitions drilled into their heads from their first forays into writing for the public. Where’s your transition? their editors persist, as they linger over each sentence. However, those editors and newsroom sages handed on advice with well-established roots in psycholinguistics—and with particularly striking benefits for the reading public. I explore what linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience can teach us about writing in my forthcoming The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. And using an abundance of transitions is perhaps the simplest advice you can follow to make your writing easy to read, in addition to bolstering your readers’ speed and comprehension of even complex, academic prose.

As a species, we evolved to learn from observing cause and effect—and from making predictions based on those observations. For example, your everyday survival relies on your ability to predict how the driver to your right will behave on entering a roundabout, just as we predict hundreds of events that unfold in our daily lives, all of which dictate our behavior. But we feel relatively minimal cognitive strain from all these predictions, mostly made without any conscious awareness, because we can make predictions based on prior experience. We expect the familiar.

Similarly, in reading, we expect sequential sentences to relate to one another. However, most writers assume that their readers see the ideas represented in one sentence as inherently connected to the preceding sentence. But sentences can become islands of meaning, especially when writers fail to provide explicit linguistic cues that inform readers how one sentence follows another.

Take, for example, your typical university mission statement, the kind invariably featured in American university catalogues and websites:

Teaching—undergraduate and graduate through the doctorate—is the fundamental purpose of the university. Research and scholarship are integral to the education process and to expanding humankind’s understanding of the natural world, the mind and the senses. Service is the university’s obligation to share the benefits of its knowledge for the public good.

Chances are, even if someone offered you the lottery jackpot for recalling this content in a mere half-hour, you’d fail—at least, not without some serious sweat put into rote memoriziation. Why? Despite the mission statement containing a mere three sentences, nothing connects any sentence to the others—aside from the writer’s implicit belief that everyone knows that universities focus on teaching, research, and service. Unfortunately, only an academic would understand that research, teaching, and service form the bedrock of any research university. As a result, we can safely guess that the writer was an academic. Sadly, the actual audience for the mission statement—the family members tendering up their retirement savings or mortgaging the house for tuition—fail to see any connections at all. As studies documented as early as the 1970s, readers read these apparently disconnected sentences more slowly and with greater activity in the parts of the brain dedicated to reading. In addition, readers also show poorer recall of sentences lacking any apparently logical or referential continuity.

Because prediction is the engine that enables readers’ comprehension, transitions play a vital role in enabling us to understand how sentences refer to one another. In fact, certain types of transitions—particularly those flagging causation, time, space, protagonist, and motivation—bind sentences more tightly together. When you use as a result, thus, then, because, or therefore, your reader sees the sentence she’s about to read as causally related to the sentence she’s just read. Moreover, when writers place transitions early in sentences, prior to the verb, readers grasp the relationship before they finish making predictions about how the sentence will play out. These predictions stem from our encounters with tens of thousands of sentences we’ve previously read. But put the transition after the verb, and your readers have already completed the heavy lifting of prediction. Or, worse, they’ve made the wrong predictions and need to reread your sentences again.

You might think that a snippet like too or also or even flies beneath your readers’ radar. Think again. Transitions are your readers’ linguistic lifelines that link sentences and ideas smoothly together, making your reading easy to understand and recall. You can discover more about not only transitions but also of how your readers’ brains work through every facet of your writing—from the words you choose to the cadence of your sentences in The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer.

Exploring Language and Linguistics

Blog post written by Liz Morrish co-author of Exploring Language and Linguistics  

Exploring Language and Linguistics I Cambridge University PressWhen we contemplated producing a new introductory textbook in Linguistics, we wanted to offer students something different. Engagement and learning gain are hot topics in higher education circles at the moment, and we feel this book is ahead of the curve. Introductory textbooks can sometimes leave the curious student unsatisfied. They can open up a subject, and then leave the reader wondering where to go next. We decided that students should begin their experience of linguistics with high-quality chapters written by internationally-recognized experts in each of the different fields. The authors have been selected for their experience in writing for an introductory undergraduate audience, to present each sub-discipline of linguistics in an accessible manner. Universities should offer research-led teaching right from day one, and we wanted to capture that aspiration in this textbook.

We also wanted to make sure that students were as engaged by theoretical chapters as much as by chapters in applied linguistics. To ensure this, we have asked authors to structure their chapters around text-box summaries, and frequent exercises (yes, the answers are in the back of the book). There is also an interactive website to support the book, with even more exercises for students to confirm understanding and get feedback. In response to an excellent suggestion by a reviewer, we have also included a group exercise for each chapter.

We were aware that linguistics courses in the US tend to emphasize more structural approaches (phonology, syntax etc.), while those in the UK feature more applied and discourse analytical approaches. In the introductory module which we as editors have co-taught for many years, we have always treated these two approaches equally. We know that students need a thorough grounding in the levels of linguistic description and the tools of linguistic analysis before they are fully prepared to progress to more advanced courses and apply their learning to real-world settings.

To give some examples of how we offer students engaging and challenging exercises:

The phonetics chapter explains the articulation of consonants and vowels, and leads students to a group exercise in making sociophonetic observations. Students will be able to confirm their understanding in the sociolinguistics chapter where the group exercise asks them to make judgements drawing on concepts in phonology, grammar, lexis and discourse in investigating data from the archive of the British Library’s website Sounds Familiar? The language and ideology chapter introduces students to analytical techniques which uncover ideologies in texts, and their relationship to power structures. In the web exercise on language and the media, groups of students are invited to bring these concepts to an examination of a website of a news organisation and critically evaluate the meanings inherent in choices of language, attribution and even pictures as they affect the reading of stories.

It could be argued that the authors of the structural chapters have had a tougher challenge in engaging students, but this has been fully met with some excellent resources and exercises:

The syntax chapter invites students to solve problems by playing with word order in noun phrases; the pragmatics chapter presents data of children with pragmatic disorders so that students can use concepts such as presupposition to diagnose clinical problems; the semantics chapter requires students to question the basis of antonymy and contrast in the lexicon.

This book is fascinating and accessible. It will structure the learning of all students, and extend the conceptual abilities of the most able. We are definitely expecting to see great results in our own modules.

Find out more about this textbook written by Natalie Braber, Liz Morrish & Louise Cummings here

Explore the latest titles on the Virtual Linguistics Bookcase…

Cambridge University Press presents the Virtual Linguistics Bookcase tour. Click the bookcase below to take a virtual tour of some of our newest titles. When you find a product that you want to find out more about simply click the link provided to be taken to the Cambridge University website for more information and to buy.


Virtual Linguistics Bookcase


Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World

Post written by Jennifer Austin, María Blume & Liliana Sánchez authors of Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World.

Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking WorldBilingualism, and how it affects language and cognitive development, is a topic of increasing relevance in an interconnected world. In Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World, we examine how the outcomes of bilingualism are shaped by factors at the individual level, such as age of acquisition and the amount and type of input, as well as societal support for the minority language in the form of dual-language education and similar initiatives. By analyzing previous research on the effects of these variables on bilingual speakers’ linguistic representations, as well as their minds and brains, we have attempted to provide a better understanding of some emerging conceptual views of the bilingual speaker. We also discuss how societal maintenance of bilingualism differs within the three multilingual communities which are the focus of this book: Peru, Spain and the United States. The status of Spanish varies between these regions; in Peru and the Spanish Basque Country, Spanish is a high-status, majority language, and in the United States, it is a minority language with varying degrees of prestige. While these three communities are linked by the common thread of bilingualism in Spanish, they provide diverse perspectives on the experience of being bilingual in distinct cultural, political, and socioeconomic contexts.

In the first chapter of the book, we examine how the concept of bilingualism has evolved from early definitions which included the expectation that bilinguals should behave like monolinguals, as in Bloomfield’s definition of bilingualism as the “native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield 1933: 55-56). Increasingly, contemporary theories of bilingualism view differences between bilinguals and monolinguals as expected and normal, rather than deficiencies on the part of the bilingual. In addition, we discuss how heritage speakers challenge previous expectations regarding bilingualism, namely that the first language acquired is always the dominant one (the “mother tongue”), as well as the language that is acquired in a “native-like” fashion.

In the second chapter, we discuss recent research showing that the two languages of a bilingual are highly interconnected at the lexical, syntactic and phonological levels. We also review evidence that the continual interaction between the languages of a bilingual has important repercussions for cognitive development in bilingual children beginning early in infancy. These include enhanced executive function skills stemming from bilinguals’ need to monitor and inhibit one of their languages, as well as enhanced literacy abilities for bilingual children acquiring same-script languages. Bilingualism also produces neuroanatomical changes in multilingual speakers, including enhanced subcortical auditory processing and increased grey matter density in the inferior parietal cortex, an effect that is modulated by language proficiency and age of acquisition. Finally in the second chapter we presented evidence regarding the factors that affect L1 and L2 attrition in bilinguals, including age of second language immersion, availability and type of input, and proficiency levels in each language.

The third chapter examines several theories which have been proposed to account for lexical and syntactic development in bilingual children and adults. While early theoretical accounts assumed that lexical and syntactic development occurred separately, more recent approaches have proposed that their acquisition is interconnected, a theoretical linguistic advance which finds empirical support in the studies of the bilingual lexicon by cognitive psychologists. In this chapter we also present research findings that have allowed the field of bilingualism to move from initial debates on unitary versus binary systems of representation to a more nuanced view of the development of the bilingual lexicon and syntax that involves the interplay of different language subcomponents.

The overall picture that emerges from this book is thatthe cognitive and linguistic effectsof bilingualism illustrate just how complex the representation and processing of language are in the human mind in ways that go beyond accounts based solely on the study of monolinguals.

To find out more about this new book published by Cambridge University Press please click here

Metonymy in a Nutshell

MetonymyPost written by Jeannette Littlemore, author of Metonymy

Metonymy is a kind of shorthand that people use all the time but don’t always think about that much, which is a shame because, when used well, metonymy can have significant persuasive powers and when used badly, can lead to severe misunderstandings. In a nutshell, metonymy is a process whereby one entity is used to refer to another. For example, in the UK we use the term ‘Number 10’ to refer to the Government, whereas in the USA it’s ‘the White House’; and in South Korea, it’s the ‘Blue House’. All of these examples involve a metonymic relationship in which a place stands for an institution. However, this is not the only kind of metonymic relationship. There are many others. The word ‘Hoover’ can be used metonymically to mean vacuum cleaner, via a producer for product relationship, or we might say that we ‘need a drink’, to refer specifically to alcoholic drink, which would evoke a whole for part metonymic relationship. We might say that we need ‘some muscle’, when what we need is a strong person to help us move some furniture, thus evoking a defining property for category metonymic relationship, and so on and so forth.

Unlike metaphor, which usually involves a comparison between two unrelated entities, metonymy is a process whereby one thing is used to refer to something else, to which it is closely related or even forms part of. The best way to illustrate this is with an authentic example such as the following from the ‘Bank of English’ (BofE) corpus:

Do you want me to pencil you in for the time being?

In this example, ‘pencil you in’ is used metonymically to mean ‘make a provisional appointment’. The secretary offers to write the appointment in pencil rather than pen so that the customer can make last minute changes if necessary. ‘Pencil in’ thus stands metonymically for what one might do with a pencil (i.e. write something down which can subsequently be erased).

This example is typical of the way in which metonymy is used in everyday language as a kind of communicative shorthand, allowing people to use their shared knowledge of the world to communicate with fewer words than they would otherwise need. In this particular example, metonymy serves a mainly referential purpose, but it can be used for a wide variety of communicative functions, such as relationship-building, humour, irony and euphemism.

Metonymic meanings can be very subtle and easily missed, especially in communication between people with different linguistic or cultural backgrounds.

In my new book with Cambridge University Press, Metonymy: Hidden Shortcuts in Language, Thought and Communication, I explore and discuss its relationship with metaphor. I then move on to discuss the various models that have been proposed within Cognitive Linguistics to explain how metonymy operates, and highlight the benefits of each. In the book, I outline some of the key functions that metonymy performs in various forms of expression (language, gesture, art, film, dance and music), whilst maintaining a key focus on metonymy as a first and foremost cognitive process, which leave sits traces in these various forms of expression. After having briefly discussed difficulties in identifying metonymy, I examine the extant research into the neuro-linguistic processing of metonymy. Finally, I look at variations and similarities in the ways in which metonymy manifests itself across these different modes of expression and across different languages and cultures. The book is illustrated throughout with real-world examples of metonymy in different forms of expression.

Find out more on Jeannette Littlemore’s book Metonymy, published by Cambridge University Press.

The Acquisition of Syntactic Structure: Animacy and Thematic Alignment

The Acquisition of Syntactic StructurePost written by author Misha Becker discussing her recently published book ‘The Acquisition of Syntactic Struture‘.

Young children are fascinated by animals and captivated when inanimate things are made to come alive. Is there some way their understanding of the difference between “alive” and “not alive” can help them learn language?

In this book I explain a well-known puzzle in linguistic theory by arguing just that. Children expect the sentence subject (often the “do-er” of an action) to be animate, alive. So when they encounter a sentence where the subject is the rock or the house they are led to revise their understanding of the sentence to create a more complex underlying structure. This is what helps them understand the difference between a sentence like The house is easy to see, where the house is the thing being seen, and The girl is eager to see, where the girl is (or will be) doing the seeing. If you didn’t know the meaning of easy or eager, as very young children will not, how would you interpret these sentences? Imagine you hear a sentence like The girl/house is daxy to see. Does it matter whether the subject is girl or house in your guess about what daxy means, and in your interpretation of the seeing event?

I came to the idea for this book when I noticed how strongly adult speakers were influenced by animacy when I tried to make them think of certain abstract structures. When presented with “The girl ____ to be tall” people were more likely to write a verb like want or claim in the blank, but presented with “The mountain ____ to be tall” they were more likely to write seem or appear. Yet the underlying structure of the sentence differs, depending on whether the sentence contains want/claim or seem/appear. In linguistic parliance, the subject of seem/appear is “derived”–it doesn’t really belong, thematically, to the verb, and in this sense the structure is more abstract and complex. It occurred to me that if adults were so strongly influenced by animate vs. inanimate subjects, then children might be as well.

This book describes numerous studies with children showing how the fundamental distinction between alive and not-alive interacts with their understanding of language and the world around them. But it also examines other facets of the animacy distinction with regard to language: how languages around the world place restrictions on animate and inanimate sentence subjects, how adults use animacy in their understanding of sentence structure, how and when babies first begin to represent the concept of animacy, and how computational models can be developed to simulate the use of a distinction like animacy in language learning. The final chapter of the book address the timeless question of where this understanding comes from–is the concept of animacy innate or learned, or both?

Find out more on Misha Becker’s new book ‘The Acquisition of Syntactic Struture‘. published by Cambridge University Press.

The Language of Organizational Styling

The Language of Organizational StylingPost written by author Lionel Wee discussing his recently published book The Language of Organizational Styling

Organizations are interesting because of the promise and problems they represent. They have promise because they allow individuals to pool their resources and scale up their activities, thus making it possible to achieve things at a supra-individual level. In fact, one might say that this is the very reason why organizations exist at all. At the same time, there is great irony in the fact that, having been created, many organizations then go on to acquire an existence and independence beyond the goals and wishes of their founders. Especially when constituted as virtual persons, organizations can make claims and exert rights that sometimes come into conflict with those of individuals.

One might say, with perhaps only slight exaggeration, that organizations are a form of artificial intelligence – created by us but then coming to have priorities and values that are not always within our control. And just like their better-known computational counterparts, organizations, too, are often portrayed in dystopian terms. Especially in popular media, big businesses are ideologically characterized as faceless, anonymous and profit-seeking entities that undermine the authentic nature of life in small towns and neighborhoods by eroding their individuality and rendering them homogeneous. Scholarly analyses are of course more nuanced, but even here, while organizations have figured prominently as direct objects of study in sociology and business studies, they have been somewhat neglected in sociolinguistics. Organizations usually come into play as part of the backdrop against which the activities of individuals or communities are constrained or enabled; they are rarely the actual focus.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, however, organizations are fascinating because – just like individual speakers – they are entities that employ various semiotic resources, in particular, linguistic resources in order to project specific kinds of identities, cultivate certain kinds of relationships with other organizations, and foster ties with the various communities. But precisely because organizations are entities sui generis, their communiqués and other linguistic activities cannot be reduced to those of the individuals who populate them without at the same time raising a number of conceptual problems. This is because the organization in principle exists above and beyond the intentions and activities of any single individual, however powerful or senior that person might be. And this raises the rather interesting question of how organizations might be best studied.

This is where the sociolinguistic notion of style proves useful, in my view. The analytical beauty of a style-theoretic framework is that it raises issues of strategy, agency and choice as being in need of more careful attention. Speakers make stylistic choices, though not always freely, which means that they have to be mindful of the social and political consequences of these choices. But curiously, the stylistic practices of organizations have not been subjected to any in-depth sociolinguistic analysis and theorizing, even though the extrapolation of style from speaker activity to organizational activity seems a natural one to make. And once this extension is seriously contemplated, we can start asking questions such as the following: Do organizations engage in styling the other? What might prompt an organization to attempt to re-style itself, and what kinds of linguistic maneuvers are involved? Given that big businesses are often seen as anathema to the preservation of a community’s identity, how do big businesses then attempt to overcome this ideological bias? How does talking about organizational styling differ from talking about branding or corporate communications? And perhaps most fundamental of all, does the application of the notion of style to organizational activity require us to revisit and re-evaluate any of our current assumptions about the nature of style (since the predominant tendency is to think of style in connection with people rather than organizations)?

The sociolinguistic study of organizations is relatively new but important, given how ubiquitous organizations are in our lives. Many of us work in organizations; we have our lives regulated by organizations; and more than a few of us join (religious, political, grassroots) organizations because we feel that the goals they pursue can give meanings to our lives.

Find out more on Lionel Wee’s new book ‘The Language of Organizational Styling’ published by Cambridge University Press.

The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy

The Rise of Writing, Deborah BrandtPost written by author Deborah Brandt discussing her recently published book The Rise of Writing 

The belief that writing ability is a subsidiary of reading ability runs deep in society and schooling. You can only write as well as you can read. The best way to learn how to write is to read, read, and read some more. Commonplaces like these are easy to find in the advice of teachers and often well-known authors as well. Reading is considered the fundamental skill, the prior skill, the formative skill, the gateway to writing. At minimum, reading is thought to teach the techniques of textuality, the vocabulary, diction, spelling, punctuation, and syntax that any aspiring writer must master. Even more profound, reading is thought to shape character and intellect and provide the wisdom and worldliness that make one worthy to write. In every way reading is treated as the well from which writing springs. We need only try to reverse the commonplace advice to appreciate the superior position that reading holds. How many would readily agree that you can only read as well as you can write? Or that the best way to learn how to read is to write, write, and write some more? Writing has never attained the same formative and morally wholesome status as reading. Indeed, writing unmoored from the instructiveness of reading is often considered solipsistic and socially dangerous.

But in the wider society and over the last fifty years or more, writing has ascended as the main basis of many people’s daily literacy experiences and the main platform for their literacy development. Millions of working adults now spend four hours or more each day (sometimes, a lot more) with their hands on keyboards and their minds on audiences, writing so much, in fact, that they have little time or appetite for reading. In the so-called information economy writing has become a dominant form of labor and production. As a result, writing is eclipsing reading as the literate experience of consequence.   Spurred on especially by digital technologies, writing is crowding out reading and subordinating reading to its needs. The rise of writing over reading represents a new chapter—and a new challenge– in the history of mass literacy, a challenge especially for the school, which from its founding has been much more organized around a reading literacy, around a presumption that readers would be many and writers would be few.

But now writers are becoming many. What are some of the changes that we need to pay attention to? Increasingly, people read from inside acts of writing, as they respond to others; research, edit or review other people’s writing; or search for styles or approaches to use in their own writing.  “Reading to write” in school has usually meant using reading to stimulate ideas or generate content, but in the wider world reading to write actually stands for a broader, more diverse, more diffused, more sustained and more comprehensive set of practices. Increasingly, how and why we write conditions how and why we read. Relatedly, we write among other people who also write. Learning to write along with other people who write (rather than from authors who address us abstractly) is a new aspect of mass literacy development. Audiences are made up not merely (or mostly) of receptive readers but also responsive writers; increasingly people write to catalyze or anticipate other people’s writing and people read with the aim of writing back.

Further, in an information society, writing is consequential. The kind of writing done by everyday people turns the wheels of finance, law, health care, government, commerce. As the power and consequence of writing courses through the consciousness of everyday people, their acts of writing are often sites of intellectual, moral, and civic reflection- but not necessarily in the same ways as acts of reading. Reading is an internalizing process. That is why the effects of literacy have been sought mostly on the inside: in the formation of character or the quality of inner life or intellectual growth.  But writing is a relentlessly externalizing process. Because writing unleashes language into the world, it engages people’s sense of power and responsibility.  It can be expected to bring more wear and tear, potentially more trouble. Writing risks social exposure, blame, even, in some cases, retaliation. It requires a level of courage and ethical conviction rarely cultivated in school-based literacy and rarely measured in standard assessments of writing ability.

We are at a critical crossroad in the history of mass literacy in which relationships between writing and reading are undergoing profound change. Writing is overtaking reading as the skill of critical consequence. Until only recently writing was a minor strain in the history of mass literacy, playing second fiddle to reading. But it is surging into prominence, bringing with it a cultural history, a set of cognitive dispositions, and a developmental arc that stand in contrast to reading. As an educational community, we have been slow to incorporate these shifting relationships into the questions we ask and the perspectives that we take. That writing remains so under-studied and under-articulated in comparison to reading is perhaps our greatest challenge.

To find out more about Deborah Brandt’s new book published by Cambridge University Press please click here