“Analysing English Sentences” – A. Radford

By Susan E. Holt

My love affair (and it really is love) with linguistics began back as a nine year old watching “My Fair Lady” for the first time.  After the initial romance, it was time to make a serious commitment and that came in the form of saying “I do” to a university place at Durham studying English Language and Linguistics.  This marriage was solemnized in the presence of a holy book: “Analysing English Sentences” by Andrew Radford.

So my venture into the book began in the first week of university.  The heaviest of all  the books on our booklist, myself and my new linguistics friends quickly (and correctly) figured it must be important.  During first year syntax, the red book was omnipresent in our tutorials and on our study desks: all those tree diagrams and what is more, we were beginning to understand them!  So many did we have to draw that we came up with the idea of manufacturing tree diagram stencils.  This idea was a bit of a non-starter as every subsequent chapter seemed to add more layers and labels. That’s why this book works: it guides you through at an effective pace.  Anyhow, destined to complete our first year of university rather than enter a design and manufacturing career, we came to be really appreciative of Radford’s explanations.  

At my university, we quickly came to understand that at the heart of every course was Noam Chomsky.  What is more, our Professor, his PhD tutor was Noam Chomsky himself; ergo, we were just one step from the big guy himself!  We were curious as to why no Chomsky books were on our reading list for our linguistics course.  And so one day we marched to our university library in search of Chomsky’s work after all, we were studying him and thus it made perfect sense to us.  So full of first year thirst for betterment, enlightenment and knowledge, we approached the linguistics shelf in the library and to our initial delight we were presented with gleaming spines reading “Chomsky”.  Finally, we could read Chomsky’s work.  So we took one of his books from the shelf and opened it.  We opened the cover and began reading.  Yikes.  We ever so quickly realised our eminent tutors, Doctors and Professor had in fact been shielding us from what we were striving towards, they were packaging up Chomsky’s ideas into piecemeal chunks and knew that seeing the work in the original would have scared us silly – as indeed it had done in that university library that day.

And so it was with renewed love and affection that we turned back to our beloved Radford book “Analysing Sentences”.  Radford’s book was to be our map through the forest of syntactic trees. Overlooking the green lawn, every tutorial was filled with the trees of Radford’s exercises.  Whilst they seemed tricky back then, it was all part of the learning process and actually we all found them fun.

Radford’s textbook didn’t just serve us well in our first year, many of us were still using it through our finals.  Whilst we may have moved on to learning about government and binding theory and the minimalist approach, our first love of the big red book would never wane.  So much so was our love of the book that as undergrads we did in fact send an email of thanks for his helpful book. Now, sending an email at that time was in itself very exciting as email and the internet was just starting, however what was even more thrilling was an email reply from Andrew Radford!  Radford responded so kindly, informatively and not a tree in sight (tricky in an email back in those days I guess).  What a boon to our quest for scholarly enlightenment: forget being one step from Chomsky, we had just received an email from the author of the book which made all linguistics learning possible.

And so my love of linguistics was enhanced by this book and whilst I may not read the book every night, I can never think of syntax without a smile of gratitude for Radford’s book and all of his trees.


Find out more about the new second edition of Analysing English Sentences by Andrew Radford

Andrew Radford Analysing English Sentences

Tasks, methodological transparency and the IRIS database of research materials

Commentary by Emma Marsden, University of York and Margaret Borowczyk, Georgetown University

IRIS is a repository of instruments used in second language research. It was created to increase access to the variety of materials used to elicit data for empirical studies (e.g. pictures, participant instructions, language tests, response options, working memory tests, videos, software scripts). These materials are so often left out of research reports, mainly due to publishers’ space constraints. IRIS allows consumers to more directly evaluate the validity of certain research and improves the speed and accuracy of replication research.  It is a free, theory agnostic, database that is searchable across over one hundred different search criteria (such as ‘type of instrument’, ‘research area’, or ‘language’). IRIS currently holds more than two and a half thousand files, bundled into almost a thousand complete sets of data collection tools. Most instruments are downloaded by Ph.D. students (4,600 downloads to date), followed by Master’s students (4,400) and language teachers (2,370). This suggests that new generations of second language researchers are making productive use of this resource and building their studies on pre-trialed and peer-reviewed instruments, which will help to develop more tightly related research agendas and increase our understanding of the validity and reliability of the tools that we use. Critically, materials downloaded from IRIS can be adapted by others to suit the particular context under investigation.

The Annual Review of Applied Linguistics began to publish its first empirical articles with the 2016 issue, which focused on tasks. (Prior to this, ARAL had published exclusively reviews). All the instruments used for the studies in the 2016 issue are part of the IRIS repository. ARAL will continue to publish empirical studies (as well as review and position papers) and all instruments used for ARAL articles will be shared via the IRIS database, to benefit the second language research community. Indeed, ARAL is an official journal of AAAL, and AAAL, in line with the methodological reform movement in applied linguistics and beyond, now highlights IRIS in its publication guidelines.

The 2016 ARAL issue on tasks contains several articles that used valuable instruments, each with very wide appeal. For example, Plonsky and Kim (2016) provided a meta-analysis of 85 studies that analyzed task-based learner language, and shared their coding scheme (an Excel file) with IRIS. Their instrument makes explicit the target features (e.g. grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, pragmatics), methodological features (e.g. study designs, sampling, analyses, reporting practices), and contextual and demographic variables that entered into their analysis. IRIS contains six other meta-analysis assessment instruments, including coding schemas for meta-analyses of L2 strategy instruction (Plonsky, 2011), learner corpus research (Paquot & Plonsky, in press), test format effects on reading and listening test performance (In’nami & Koizumi, 2009), and task and rater effects in L2 speaking and writing (In’nami & Koizumi, in press). Overall, these instruments have proven to be popular, with meta-analysis assessments garnering over 100 downloads as of February 2017.

Révész and Gurzynski-Weiss (2016) contributed an article that combined introspective and behavioral data from teachers to examine what made tasks easy or difficult from teachers’ perspectives. The researchers asked 16 ESL teachers to look at slides that detailed four tasks and 1) assess the linguistic ability students would need to carry out the tasks and 2) consider how they would adapt the tasks to suit the needs of learners at lower and higher proficiency levels. As the teachers contemplated these questions, they were asked to vocalize what they were thinking about, and their eye movements were tracked to provide information about the extent to which they interacted with the task instructions and pictorial input. The slides that Révész and Gurzynski-Weiss used to elicit these data are available on IRIS. The repository contains many other think-aloud protocols which have been used in studies of semantic implicit learning (Paciorek & Williams, 2015), the reactivity of verbal reports (Bowles, 2008), strategy instruction of reading comprehension (Karimi, 2015), and numerous others. As second language research communities working with think-aloud and psycholinguistic data expand, we expect IRIS to be an invaluable resource.

Finally, in the 2016 task issue of ARAL, Li, Ellis, and Zhu (2016) conducted a study comparing the effectiveness of task-based and task-supported instruction for the acquisition of the English passive construction. The effect of four treatments (no instruction, pre-task explicit instruction, within-task feedback with no instruction, and within task feedback with explicit instruction) was measured using a grammaticality judgment test (JT) and an elicited imitation test (EIT). Both instruments are available on IRIS. Searching for ‘elicited imitation’ shows another 45 similar materials are accessible in a wide range of languages, including Arabic, Japanese, Russian and Vietnamese. This is an indication of the growing interest in this method, not only as a measure of sensitivity to specific language features but also as a potentially reliable proxy for general language proficiency. JTs (the other instrument used by Li, Ellis, and Zhu) are, in fact, the second most downloaded instruments on IRIS (following questionnaires, which elicit data on, for example, language awareness, language background, learning strategies). JTs from 425 studies across a wide range of subfields are available, providing an incredibly varied and comprehensive assortment from which to draw. 315 of these JTs have been sourced for an IRIS ‘Special Collection’ (see the button on the Search and Download page) as they are linked to a methodological synthesis of this hugely popular technique (Plonsky, Marsden, Gass, Crowther, Spinner, in preparation). Another Special Collection on IRIS holds approximately 60 self-paced reading tests, also linked to a methodological synthesis (Marsden, Thompson & Plonsky, under review). Other researchers are welcome to develop such collections that are linked to syntheses or meta-analyses they are undertaking

Materials, including data and analysis protocols, are eligible for upload to IRIS if they have been used for any publication that has been peer-reviewed, including Ph.D. theses. In tandem with methodological reform movements in other fields, ARAL, as well as thirty other journals in the field, encourages its authors to make their materials available on IRIS. For further information, see FAQs or contact iris@iris-database.org.

The American Association for Applied Linguistics and the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics: New format/closer ties

Commentary by Kathleen M. Bailey, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and President, AAAL and Alison Mackey, Georgetown University and Lancaster University and editor of ARAL

Every year for almost four decades, ARAL has served a pivotal role as an official journal of AAAL. ARAL has long been a preeminent source for state-of-the-art reviews and syntheses of timely topics within the field of applied linguistics, thus providing a kind of compass indicating interests and developments in applied linguistics. It will retain this function, in addition to becoming a source for position pieces, methodological critiques, and empirical articles that stay on the pulse of new approaches to the field.

On a few occasions, ARAL’s theme has coincided with the theme of the AAAL conference, with plenary and colloquia speakers contributing articles, thereby extending their conversations across the written pages and conference spaces. For instance, in 2015, all of the speakers in the “Identity in Applied Linguistics” colloquium at AAAL contributed articles to the 2015 Identity issue of ARAL (one of which, by Darvin & Norton, won the annual TESOL Award for Distinguished Research).

New Annual Commentary paper:

In 2016, the topic of ARAL was task-based language teaching (TBLT). Now, one year later, timed to coincide with the 2017 AAAL conference and the 2017 TBLT conference, ARAL is, for the first time, publishing a [forthcoming] Commentary, made up of short responses to the TBLT issue written by leading scholars in the field (Martin Bygate, Susan M. Gass, Rhonda Oliver and Peter Robinson). These knowledgeable voices express views that are sometimes complementary, sometimes questioning and often entertaining. The Commentary will only appear online, a new move for the journal. It will appear in conjunction with the annual AAAL conference every year, giving members the opportunity to review the journal’s contents from their colleagues’ perspectives as well as their own.

New blogs:

In addition to the Commentary, in another new move for ARAL, short pieces by AAAL members and other applied linguists will also appear here, in the Cambridge Extra blog. The first blog after this one explains how, like almost all journals in applied linguistics, we ARAL now requests that all instruments used in empirical articles be made available on the online free, searchable IRIS materials repository. This will increase the accessibility of valid and reliable measurement tools and materials, providing a resource for existing and future generations of applied linguistics researchers. This is outlined in the blog by Marsden and Borowczyk.

Both AAAL and ARAL benefit from the recent changes to the journal’s scope and online presence. The decision to expand the scope of the journal to include reviews, position papers, and empirical articles will help keep conversations generated by the journal current and prospective, as well as retrospective, to reflect the interests of the membership. We expect that this move will expand the reach and appeal of the journal to scholars, educators, and students who might be better served by any of the new genres. Consistent with AAAL’s strategic plan, which promises to provide members with resources and opportunities for professional development and valuable benefits beyond the conference, ARAL’s commitment to making top-notch research accessible to communities of applied linguists, educators and students, and providing resources for young researchers in the form of materials and instruments, will be central in furthering our mission.

AAAL and ARAL leadership look forward to working together to reflect and promote the field of applied linguistics towards a future where it can be pedagogically impactful and theoretically robust, and we believe the new format of the TBLT issue is an exciting step in that direction.

Read the TBLT issue here

The merits of a case study approach in communication disorders

Blog post by Louise Cummings, Nottingham Trent University.

The case study has had something of a bad press in recent years. How often do we hear that they provide low-quality evidence of the effectiveness of an intervention in speech and language therapy? The emphasis on evidence-based practice in healthcare has seen the case study relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy of evidence. From this lowly position, the case study is seen to fall of scientific objectivity and rigour which are the hallmarks of other types of investigation, most notably systematic reviews and randomized controlled trials. The result is that researchers, teachers and practitioners in a wide range of disciplines feel almost duty-bound to preface their use of case studies with a health warning – these studies are of limited scientific value and should be treated as such. I have no intention of issuing health warnings or adopting an apologetic approach to the use of case studies. Indeed, I believe they offer immeasurable benefits in instructional and research contexts in communication disorders and elsewhere. These benefits are threefold.

First, case studies are the most effective way of introducing students of communication disorders to the key skill which all clinicians must possess, namely, clinical decision-making. Speech and language therapists must make decisions on a daily basis about how best to assess and treat their clients, when to terminate a course of therapy and refer clients to other medical and health professionals, and how to measure the outcomes of intervention. Of course, it is true that clinicians acquire and refine most of their skills of clinical decision-making ‘on the job’. But it is also possible to get a head start on this process by interrogating the basis of decisions that are taken in the management of actual clients. This is where the case study comes into its own. By exploring the basis of the full gamut of decisions which clinicians must make in relation to a client, students can begin to assimilate the very essence of this most elusive of clinical skills. The case study is not just the most effective, but the only, method by means of which this can be achieved.

Second, case studies provide an invaluable opportunity for students of communication disorders to put their skills of linguistic analysis into practice. The narrative produced by an adult with a traumatic brain injury or the conversational exchange between a client with aphasia and his or her spouse is the richest possible data on which to fine tune these skills. I will not be alone in lamenting the lack of such data in modern research articles in communication disorders, the emphasis of which is on the reporting of largely quantitative results in the shortest space possible. It is something of an irony that as electronic publications have surpassed print publications, in journals at least, the extended extracts of language often seen in older research papers have all but disappeared in more modern articles. If anything, an electronic format should make the inclusion of client narratives and conversational exchanges more, not less, likely to be published. There is simply nowhere for the student of communication disorders to get this practice other than through case studies.

Third, all medical and health professionals are encouraged to see the client first, and their medical condition or other disorder second. This is no less the case for speech and language therapists who must learn that aphasia, dysarthria and other communication disorders sit alongside an array of factors which can influence a client’s adjustment to communication disability. Case studies are the best context in which to appreciate the complex interplay that exists between communication disorders and these factors.

For all these reasons, I have championed a case study approach to communication disorders in my recent book Case Studies in Communication Disorders (Cambridge University Press, 2016). I urge other researchers, teachers and practitioners in speech and language therapy to do likewise.

Click here for a free extract

Cambridge Applied Linguistics Series

Cambridge Applied Linguistics Series Cambridge University Press

Blog post written by Carol A. Chapelle & Susan Hunston, Series Editors

The Cambridge Applied Linguistics Series highlights key topics in the field. Topics reflect the broad range of current interests in Applied Linguistics and include aspects of Language Acquisition, Language Teaching, Learning and Testing, Sociolinguistics, Cognitive Linguistics, Discourse Studies, and Research Methodologies. Although the series in the past has prioritised titles relevant to English Language Teaching, our current location within Cambridge Academic means that we are able to welcome titles with a broader remit.

All our books present original research, and many introduce important new concepts or offer significant novel contributions to existing debates. These titles are of particular interest to researchers. The series also includes books which address the concerns of students taking graduate courses in Applied Linguistics and TESOL. These survey key themes in Applied Linguistics, offering an authoritative contemporary account.

The series editors welcome proposals for new titles on a range of topics. We publish a mixture of single- or co-authored books and edited collections. If you have an idea for a book that you would like us to consider for the Cambridge Applied Linguistics Series, please contact one of us.

Series Editors:

Carol A. Chapelle – carolc@iastate.edu

Susan Hunston– s.e.hunston@bham.ac.uk

Commissioning Editor, Cambridge University Press:

Rebecca Taylor – rtaylor@cambridge.org

Trump’s Monolingual Disadvantage

Blog Post by Douglas Kibbee, author of Language and the Law: Linguistic Inequality in America

Early in the fall of 2016 several news agencies speculated that Donald Trump might be suffering from early onset dementia.  Could this be related to his adamant monolingualism?  During his campaign Donald Trump rebuked Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish, telling him to talk English, he’s in America (2015).  In the campaign against Hilary Clinton, Trump dismissed bilingual communities, refusing to advertise in languages other than English. America will not be made great by making it monolingual.  Monolingualism is not just a threat to national security and economic competitiveness.  It’s a threat to public health.

One of the greatest weaknesses of our educational system is the decline in foreign-language education, confirmed in a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (The State of Languages in the U.S. A Statistical Portrait, https://www.amacad.org/multimedia/pdfs/publications/researchpapersmonographs/State-of-Languages-in-US.pdf).  The Academy’s report describes a decline in offerings of foreign language education and the widening gap between American education and the rest of the developed world.  In the U.S. only a fifth of K-12 students are enrolled in languages other than English, compared to more than half of European students.   Middle schools offering other languages have dropped from 75% to 58%, effectively foreclosing the possibility of advanced competency.  At the same time, the benefits of dual-language immersion are substantial : by the eighth grade students in dual-language immersion programs are a full year ahead of their counterparts in English language skills.  A study by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University placed Mr. Trump’s English skills at a 5th-6th grade level, by far the lowest of any of the serious candidates from either party.

As a policy issue, the decline in foreign-language education may reflect a fundamental misconception of education’s role. The fragmentation of education represented by home schooling and the charter school movement is a means to make education confirm what students (and their parents) already believe, rather than to challenge them to understand a diverse world. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of Education, spins this as a rejection of “one size fits all” education, but in fact it’s a rejection of very foundation of education.  Self-segregation by race or religion is on the rise, while students avoid exposure to other ways of thinking, including language.  Eva Moskowitz, CEO of one of the largest charter school groups (Success Academy in New York) bragged to the American Enterprise Institute about dropping foreign language education at her schools, serving, or disserving, 10,000 students in New York.

Apart from the social, economic and political consequences, monolingualism turns out to be bad for public health.  Scientific evidence for a bilingual cognitive advantage has been building.  Numerous studies have demonstrated that knowing two languages significantly improves transferable brain skills, an advantage psychologists call the “executive function system” of the brain.  The development of this sytem, located in the prefrontal cortex, is described by Canadian psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Fergus Craik as “the most crucial cognitive achievement in early childhood”.  The executive function system allows children to focus their attention, to distinguish relevant from distracting information, and to remember more accurately sequences of colors or shapes.

The scientific evidence is sometimes contested and certainly merits more, and more sophisticated, research, but it is clear that over one’s lifetime there are advantages to bilingualism.  Most clearly, Bialystok and her team found that for bilinguals the onset of dementia was delayed by over four years, compared to the onset age for monolinguals.  The advantages of lifelong bilingualism were confirmed in recent PhD research by Henrietta Boudros of Central Michigan University.

Computer brain games to maintain cognitive function have become a multibillion dollar industry, but the claims of the commercial applications are largely unsubstantiated.  A recent review of the research concluded “the evidence larely does not support claims of broad cognitive benefits from practicing the sorts of cognitive tasks used in most brain-training software” (Simons et al 2016, 172).  In short, the computer brain games make you better at playing computer brain games, but have little or no proven effect on cognition.

Instead Simons and his team found that “the development of such capacities appears to require sustained investment in relatively complex environments that afford opportunities for consistent practice and engagement with domain-related challenges” (2016, 112)  – exactly the challenges that learning and maintaining a second language provide.

Instead of mocking foreign language knowledge we, as a nation, should encourage it, both in educating our children and in supporting our bilingual communities.  We have done this in the past, as my book demonstrates; now more than ever it is essential that we embrace bilingualism.  Denial of language education and the suppression of bilingualism is not just a threat to national security, to international economic competitiveness, but also to public health.  It’s never too late to start learning another language, Mr. Trump.  Maybe Russian?

The Study of Language 6th edition by George Yule

Blog Post written by James Mckellar, Cambridge University Press

The Study of Language George Yule

The Study of Language by George Yule 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. The book has been recognised internationally for being easy to follow, simple to understand, and fun to read, with its quirky anecdotes and examples of languages from around the world.

Cambridge University Press are proud to announce the publication of the 6th edition and would like to share with you some of the new material and key features. The Study of Language clearly explains the major concepts in linguistics through all the key elements of language. The sixth edition has been revised and updated throughout, with substantial changes made to chapters on phonetics, grammar and syntax, and the addition of 30 new figures and tables and 80 new study questions. To increase student engagement and to foster problem-solving and critical thinking skills, the book also includes 20 new tasks. An expanded and revised online study guide provides students with further resources, including answers and tutorials for all tasks, while encouraging lively and proactive learning. This is the most fundamental and easy-to-use introduction to the study of language.

A significant teaching challenge faced by instructors is that of providing a survey of language as an area for study within a short period of time (typically a single semester) for students with no or very little prior knowledge of the subject. Yule’s approach condenses technical terminology into concise bite sized chapters, allowing flexibility in teaching.

Table of Contents 

Preface, 1. The origins of language, 2. Animals and human language, 3. The sounds of language, 4. The sound patterns of language, 5. Word-formation, 6. Morphology, 7. Grammar, 8. Syntax, 9. Semantics, 10. Pragmatics, 11. Discourse analysis, 12. Language and the brain, 13. First language acquisition, 14. Second language acquisition/learning, 15. Gestures and sign languages, 16. Written language, 17. Language history and change, 18. Regional variation in language, 19. Social variation in language, 20. Language and culture, Glossary, References, Index.

To find out more about the 6th edition click here ,To read a free extract click here

This month in Linguistics from Cambridge

linguistics out this month 1

Imagery in Albert Camus’s L’Étranger (1942)

Blog post written by Dr Ronald Batchelor, the author of A Reference Grammar of French (2011) & A Student Grammar of Spanish (2006).

The flat, lifeless, may we venture monotonous? style of Camus’s L’Étranger, a seminal work in mid-twentieth century French literature, would seem to offer the sharpest of contrasts with any reference to its imagery. The protagonist narrator, Meursault, writes in a moral vacuum, a Godless, valueless universe which promotes an apparently pointless presentation of events leading to the shooting dead of an Arab on a sun-drenched beach near Algiers: a murder leading to the trial, conviction and guillotining of the hero. The first person point of view, the unconventional, even uniquely focussed narrative in the perfect tense as opposed to the traditional preterite or past historic, the marked lack of explanatory or modifying conjunctions such as “et”, “mais” and “tandis que” (and/but/while), the striking brevity of the sentences, they all converge on the meaningless process of the existence of an alienated hero, having attracted numerous critical comments, including those of the present author. The reader is left with a linear, rigorously non-analytic presentation of the experience of life’s absurdity, and the main character’s failure to connect with society.

Clearly, the entire novella follows a repetitive, neurotic pattern, uninterrupted save for one crucial point in the centre of the novel, and it is upon this pivotal feature that the whole narrative hangs. L’Étranger divides neatly into two parts, “Première Partie” and “Deuxième Partie”, and it is precisely at the very end of part one that a surprisingly abrupt change in stylistic technique occurs. In other words, the reader’s attention is suddenly, unexpectedly jolted from a seemingly lacklustre arrangement of words to an unrestrained flourish of sustained images, largely similes and metaphors. This febrile recourse to imagery, and we insist on “febrile”, perfectly illustrates Meursault’s temporary transformation from a dispassionate, unresponsive character to a man of  uncontrolled fear. He shoots the unknown Arab for self-protection, only guessing that he might be in danger from a knife he is carrying.

The murder is explained less by psychological analysis than by a skilfull, cumulative use of images that slowly rise in a crescendo to a paroxysm of loss of self-control. The unrelenting use of metaphor and simile cuts the novel in two, punctuating it at the very point where Meursault’s life is violently disturbed from an experience of happy indifference. Only a very close reading of the text enables the reader to perceive the change in the character’s awareness and experience. It is all a question of tacit suggestion rather than clarity of explanation.

A study of the tropes, or figurative language, henceforth indicated by words placed in bold, offers us access to what is going on in Meursault’s mind during the murder scene, the beginning of which occurs on page 1166 of the Pléiade Edition of Camus’s writings (Théâtre, Récits, Nouvelles, Paris, 1962): “Je l’a accompagné jusqu’au cabanon…” (I accompanied him ((Raymond, another character)) as far as the small house). The unbearable exposure to the heat of the Algerian summer sun overwhelms Meursault who undergoes a sense of disorientation. We read in rapid succession: “la tête retentissante de soleil” (my head reverberating with the sun); “Toute cette chaleur qui s’appuyait sur moi et s’opposait à mon avance” (All this heat that was bearing down on me and was preventing me from moving forward). For brevity’s sake, we omit several further tropes until we read of the throbbing sensation of the sun’s heat: “Je ne sentais plus que les cymbales du soleil” (I could only feel the cymbals of the sun); “pleuvoir du feu” (to rain fire).

Intertwined with intense heat is the dazzling onslaught of a brilliant sun: “la pluie aveuglante qui tombait du ciel” (the blinding rain falling from the sky); “La lumière a giclé sur l’acier”  (The light squirted on the steel); “et c’était comme une longue lame étincelante qui m’atteignait au front” (and it was like a long sparkling blade striking me on the forehead). Allusions in these last two examples are to the Arab’s knife, the danger of which is stressed by the alliterative “l”=longue lame éincelante”. The culminating, metaphoric point is reached in the sentence: “Cette épée brûlante rongeait mes cils et fouillait mes yeux douloureux” (The burning sword gnawed at my eyelashes, searching into my painful eyes). Meursault no longer sees what is happening to him. He blindly pulls the trigger on the Arab. The killing of the Arab is to be construed as an act of self-defence, justification denied by the subsequent court hearing. The art of the imagery is too intimate and personal for this truth to be seized upon by society’s laws.

An integral part of Camus’s figurative art is the frequent use of pathetic fallacy which invests nature with human attributes. Its function emphasizes, once again, intensity of sensation, and the universe’s collaboration in Meursault’s downfall. Thus we read: “La mer haletait de toute la respiration rapide et étouffée de ses petites vagues” (The sea panted with all the quick, stifled breathing of its small waves); “…soleil et de cette ivresse qu’il me déversait” (…sun, and of this opaque drunkenness that it waa pouring over me);  “Le bruit des vagues était encore plus paresseux” (The sound of the waves was even lazier); “Mais toute une plage vibrante de soleil se pressait derrière moi” (But a whole vibrant beach was crowding behind me).

The sharpness of sensation increases with several references, sometimes oblique, to the Arab’s knife, his “couteau”: “à chaque épée de lumière” (at each sword of light, i.e. shaft); “acier” (steel); “lame” (blade); “glaive éclatant” (shining sword). These references stress the cutting edge of the knife, the vulnerability of human flesh, constituting a forerunner of bullets sinking into the Arab’s body.

The entire passage ends on one short, premonitory, fateful and harrowing sentence built upon a simile and a metaphor, following the one bullet, then four more, that Meursault shoots into the Arab’s flesh: “Et c’était comme quatre coups brefs que je portais sur la porte du malheur” (And it was like four sharp blows that I gave on the door of misfortune). Part two sees Meursault immediately in prison. He has gone through this door of misfortune, irrevocably.

All the preceding instances of imagery leading to the death of an anonymous Arab are already contained in, and tacitly announced by, the protagonist’s very name, unusual although not unique in the French-speaking world : Meursault: (je) meurs=(I) die, “sault” suggesting “soleil”. i.e. sun. Emblematic conclusion: death in the sun.

The sustained use of imagery exclusively applied to the murder scene is designed to offer the reader a privileged insight into the reasons for Meursault’s behaviour while, at the same time, denying this insight to the court and the condemning magistrate. Camus’s well-known and oft-commented-upon preoccupation with the inhuman legal machinery of the death sentence requires no further remark.

One final point: why does Meursault, an ordinary office worker with no obvious claim to literary acumen, indifferent to and alienated from, his society he regards as fruitless and irrelevant, indulge in such a wealth of richly powerful, highly charged and apposite language? How can he reconcile a randomly pursued life and a carefully crafted work of art? An insoluble contradiction inherent in the application of his particular first person viewpoint.

Read more blog posts from Dr Ronald Batchelor here

Language, cats and extra-terrestrials

Blog post written by Ian Roberts, University of Cambridge

Ian Roberts CatI’d like to begin by talking about my cat, Clover. He really is very intelligent: he knows exactly how to wake me up in the morning, exactly which shelf in which cupboard his food is kept on, where his bowl is, how to get let out, and lots of other things. You won’t catch the average ant, starfish or parsnip doing any of that. By the standards of nearly everything in the known universe, he really is smart.

But of course we’re much smarter. There are plenty of things in the world, especially in our mental world, that poor Clover has absolutely no inkling of: notably such things as nouns, quantifiers and syllables, i.e. language. These things are every bit as much beyond Clover as waking me up to get me to feed it would be for a parsnip or a starfish. Obviously the fact that we have language has a lot to do with this cognitive gulf between us and our pets, but that may not be the whole story.

But a natural question to ask is: is there a similar cognitive gulf between us and other forms of intelligence? We seem to be smartest creatures on our planet, but this is where the extra-terrestrials come in. Here I’m not interested in various forms of slime that might be around on Mars or elsewhere, but intelligent extra-terrestrials, the sort that might build spaceships. Could there be extra-terrestrials so much smarter than us that they would keep us as pets? Or (cue the creepy sci-fi music), are we already pets but we just don’t know it? After all, Clover doesn’t know he’s my pet. Are there, in other words, concepts as impossible for us as the concepts three, verb or phoneme are for Clover?

If the answer is yes, then we’d better keep out of the way of the smarter extra-terrestrials. Nothing good for us can come of contact with such creatures; the best we can hope is to be treated as pets. You don’t want to think about the worst.

But the answer doesn’t have to be yes. It is also quite possible that we have crossed a cognitive threshold. Our capacity to express anything, through the recursive syntax and compositional semantics of natural language might have taken us into a cognitive realm where anything, everything, is possible. Effectively, having language has made us the equal of any extra-terrestrial (who would have to have something like language in order to build their spaceships).

In the movie 2001: A Space Odessey, Stanley Kubrick made one of the most brilliant associative cuts in movie history. The film starts in prehistory, and shows a bunch of ape-men fighting over a water-hole. Then one day one of them comes across a monolith which makes a weird noise. This is an alien artefact which somehow transmits intelligence. Next time he squares up to the enemy ape-men at the water-hole, this one picks up a bone and smashes the enemy’s head in. In jubilation at this discovery of a weapon, he throws it up into the air and as it spins around Kubrick cuts to an image of a spaceship orbiting the earth.

Kubrick’s message is clear: once you’ve figured out how to use tools, it’s a short step to spaceships. That movie was made in the 1960s at a time when many people thought that Man the Tool-Maker was the key to the differences between us and other species, and hence that inventing tools was a crucial step in human evolution. We now know that’s not true, as quite a few other species use tools of various kinds. But Kubrick’s basic idea that there might have been a crucial mutation in human evolution which led, in almost no time from an evolutionary perspective, to space travel might have been right. And it’s a plausible speculation that the mutation in question was whatever it is that makes our brains capable of computing recursive syntax. It’s a short step, not a great leap, from syntax to spaceships.

The Wonders of Language Anyway, something (God, natural selection, a random mutation, an alien monolith) has given us our extraordinary minds with our extraordinary capacity for generating, storing and transmitting knowledge. Language really must be central to these abilities. My new book The Wonders of Language, or How to Make Noises and Influence People, is an introduction to what linguists have discovered about this truly remarkable phenomenon.  Understanding language means understanding a very big part of what it is to be human, what it is to be you.

An Interview with Ian Roberts, the author of The Wonders of Language :

Ian Roberts The Wonders of Language