W(h)ither the /r/ in Britain?

Weighing up a new style of pronunciation

ENG-Dec-14-pronunciationPost written by Michael Bulley, based on an article in the latest issue of English Today 

In this article, I express my disapproval of a recent development in pronunciation found in an increasing proportion of native speakers of British English. I thereby run the risk not only of offending those who have the feature I criticize but also of being frowned upon by linguistics professionals who think aesthetic judgements have no place in the discipline.

The sound in question is a pronunciation of the letter ‘r’, in words like ring, bread and around, that is closer to a /w/ than to a ‘traditional’ /r/. The BBC television news contains many presenters and reporters who exhibit this feature. Academic studies, sound archives and my memory confirm that this style of /r/ was rare until the 1970s. In fact, until quite late into the last century, it might well have been diagnosed for adults as a speech defect needing treatment.

My criticism is on two fronts: first, that it narrows the distinction between /r/ and /w/ with no apparent compensatory benefit to the language and, secondly, that it can sound childish, inappropriately so in a serious context. The origins and cause of this ‘w-for-r’ are not clear. I speculate that children’s television may have had an influence, with adult presenters imitating the pronunciation of their audience.

The controversial aspect of the article is my suggestion that this topic should become a public issue, so that people may choose how to pronounce this phoneme. As examples of the influence of social factors on pronunciation change, I point to the demise of the old RP [æ] and the rise and fall of upspeak in Britain. To counter a possible accusation of ‘prescriptivism’, that is, of promoting certain usages as inherently superior to others, I propose that language should be considered as ‘man-made’, in the same way as many other features of our environment, and thus open to aesthetic judgement. I argue that the wish to speak and write well remains valid, even if there may be no objective criteria to judge one usage against another. I invoke the concept of ‘responsibility towards the language’.

This leads on to a more general consideration of the nature of language study. I argue that the view of language as qualitatively neutral is mistaken and has wrongly persuaded many university professionals to assert that linguistics should be regarded as a science. It seems to me more appropriate to treat most language study, especially where meaning is involved, as a humanity. Objectivity must still be paramount, but where the topic lends itself to it, judgements, including aesthetic ones, can properly be made.

Read the full article ‘W(h)ither the /r/ in Britain?’ here



English in rural Bangladesh

Blog piece by Elizabeth J. Erling based on an article written by Elizabeth J. Erling, Philip Seargeant and Mike Solly in the latest issue of English Today

Having worked in an educational project that sought to enhance English language teaching across Bangladesh brought me to visit schools in rural areas. Once there, I sometimes wondered: what is the value of English learning for these communities? The schools often didn’t have electricity, the villages were difficult to access, or even impossible during certain parts of the year. Literacy rates in the country still hover around 55 per cent, and 30 per cent of the population live below the international poverty line. Surely there were more pressing development needs than English language learning?

With this in mind, this research project set how to examine how English is perceived in rural Bangladesh and whether people in these communities viewed English language learning as a positive and, in some sense, necessary resource for development. The article investigates what it is that these communities feel that English can offer both in practical and in socio-cultural terms for the developmental challenges they face. In order to examine these questions the article draws on results from an ethnographical survey of two rural areas in Bangladesh which investigated the attitudes and aspirations of local community members to the potential impact of English-language education on their social prospects and cultural identities.

The research found that, overall, there is a strong belief in the power of English and a desire to be one of the many who speak the language for reasons of practicality and prestige. Knowledge of English was associated with education in general, and often a good education, with higher level professions, and with providing a service to the community. English was also found to provide access to privileged information and resources that were beneficial to individuals and the community. In some cases, however, knowledge of English was unrealistically perceived as a general panacea. Because of this, some people appear to be willing to invest significantly in English language education, making sacrifices for their children’s education and putting it before other resources, which may also be (more) needed in such contexts.

These findings therefore suggest a need for development programmes in contexts such as this to be aware of these strong beliefs in the power of English, so that they can both manage expectations and focus on providing English language learning for specific, local purposes that enhance opportunities for economic and social development, while providing the circumstances for people to sustain and promote local concerns and values.

Read the full article English in rural Bangladesh: How is language education perceived as a resource for development in rural communities? here

The dangling participle – a language myth?

ENG-Leiden-imageArticle written by Carmen Ebner based on an article in the latest issue of English Today

In our research project Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public at Leiden University we would like to encourage a critical discussion of so-called usage problems between the three involved groups. What constitutes a usage problem, however, is not always an question with an easy and straightforward answer.

In my English Today feature I am discussing the dangling participle, which is often said to cause ambiguity and misunderstandings due to the lack of a suitable subject in the participle clause. I have conducted an online questionnaire which includes an example of the dangling participle. The results of this survey show that the acceptability of using the dangling participle has increased in comparison to an earlier study conducted by W.H. Mittins and his colleagues at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the late 1960s. By discussing a few of responses my informants in detail, I am trying to highlight the role context plays in deciding on the acceptability of the dangling participle.

What do you think? Do you think context can make up for the lack of a suitable subject? Or do you condemn the dangler openly and strongly? Find out more about the dangling participle in my feature. To join the discussion, visit our blog and fill in the online questionnaire.

Read the full article ‘The dangling participle – a language myth?’ here

Read more about the collaboration between English Today and Bridging the Unbridgeable here

‘[The Irish] find much difficulty in these auxiliaries […], putting will for shall with the first person’

ELL 18 2Blog post written by Kevin McCafferty based on an article in the latest issue of  English Language and Linguistics

The decline of first-person shall in Ireland, 1760–1890

The Irish just don’t use first-person shall, and they never have. They’ve always said Will I close the window? and We will be there soon. That’s the consensus of grammarians and other commentators from the eighteenth century onwards. And linguists who have studied Irish English in recent decades agree that shall is virtually non-existent in the English of the Irish. So ingrained is this view that the decline of shall in North America – which is now affecting British English, too – is even attributed to the influence of Irish immigrants.

This study uses the Corpus of Irish English Correspondence to look at shall/will usage in Irish English over a period of 130 years. Contrary to the grammarians’ accounts, shall was the predominant form with first-person subjects in eighteenth-century Ireland. The present-day situation, with only will being used in Irish English, did not emerge until late in the nineteenth century. This was not unique to Irish English: comparison with Canadian English shows this shift happening at roughly the same time in both varieties, raising questions about the role of the Irish in the decline of shall in North America.

We suggest that the change from shall to will in Irish English might have be due to simplification during the process of language shift. Also, since first-person will was retained in nonstandard varieties even in England long after shall was established in the standard language, increased use of will might have arisen as a result of growing literacy and the colloquialisation of English: as more texts like letters were produced by members of the lower social strata, their more nonstandard or vernacular usage made it into writing. The shift to first-person will that is apparent in Irish English would then be the outcome of language shift and greater lower-class literacy.

Read the full article ‘‘[The Irish] find much difficulty in these auxiliaries . . .putting for with the first person’: the decline of first-person in Ireland, 1760–1890′ here

Article written by Kevin McCafferty and Carolina P. Amador-Moreno

Bilingual Cognitive Advantage: Where Do We Stand?

Bilingual-post-Nov-14---V2Linguistic experience and its effect on cognition.

The following post by Dr. Aneta Pavlenko appeared on the Psychology Today blog, “Life as a bilingual”

Like all other walks of life, academia is not immune to fashions. In the study of bilingualism, one such trend has been the study of “the bilingual cognitive advantage”, the theory that experience of using two languages – and selecting one, while inhibiting the other – affects brain structure and strengthens ‘executive control’ akin to other experiences, such as musical training, navigation, and even juggling. This strengthening has been linked to a variety of findings: the superiority of bilingual children and adults in performance on tasks requiring cognitive control, resistance of bilingual brains to cognitive decline, and the delayed onset of dementia (see here).

Touted in the popular media, these findings captured our hearts and minds and for good reason: for those of us who are bi- and multilingual, this is good news and the focus itself is a pleasant change from concerns about bilingual disadvantage that permeated many early debates on bilingualism. But has the pendulum swung too much in the other direction? Has bilingualism become a commodity we are trying to sell, instead of an experience we are trying to understand? And is there, in fact, a consensus that the knowledge of more than one language offers us something more than the joys of reading and conversing in two languages and a leg up in learning the third, among other things?

For the remainder of the post, please click here

Baum, S. & Titone D. (2014). Moving towards a neuroplasticity view of bilingualism, executive control, and aging. Applied Psycholinguistics, 35, 857-894.
Valian, V. (2014, in press) Bilingualism and cognition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.



Repetitions which are not repetitions: The non-redundant nature of tautological compounds

ELL-NOV-14Blog post written by Réka Benczes, based on an article in the latest issue of English Language and Linguistics 

One of the most intriguing – and least studied – areas of English word-formation are so-called “tautological compounds” that are formed out of synonyms (such as subject matter), or where one of the constituents is already included in the meaning of the other constituent (such as oak tree).Their oddity can be attributed to two main reasons. First, as their name, “tautological compound” implies, at face value such combinations can be considered as prime examples for the redundancy of language. Second, they do not follow normal compound-forming rules in the sense that both constituents can function as the semantic head – as opposed to “normal” English compounds, where the head element of the compound is always the right-hand member (hence apple tree is a type of tree, and not a type of apple).

Perhaps due to their quirkiness not much has been said about tautological compounds in traditional accounts of compounding, which typically relegate them to a marginal area of English. However, there is more to tautological compounds than meets the eye. First of all, the study demonstrates that the term “tautological compound” is a misnomer, as such combinations are far from being tautological or redundant in their meaning. Accordingly, the paper differentiates between hyponym-superordinate compounds (such as tuna fish and oak tree) and synonymous compounds (such as subject matter or courtyard) and claims that both types play important roles in language.

Hyponym-superordinate compounds are remnants of our early acquisition of taxonomical relations by making the link between the hierarchical levels explicit. At the same time, hyponym-superordinate compounds are also used to dignify and upgrade concepts via the conceptual metaphor more of form is more of content, whereby a linguistic unit that has a larger form is perceived to carry more information (that is, more content) than a single-word unit.

Synonymous compounds have been shown to possess an emphatic feature, which has been exploited mainly in poetic language (as in the works of Coleridge). However, synonymous compounds are still very much present in everyday language, though in a slightly different form – as synonym-based blends (e.g., chillax “to calm down or relax” from chill+relax, or chivers “chills or shivers” from chill+shivers).

While tautological compounds have been around for a rather long time in the English language, they have received only very little attention (if at all) from linguists. Yet they provide fascinating insights into the motivational processes behind compounding, thereby making it necessary to assign this much-neglected category to its proper, well-deserved place within English word formation.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Repetitions which are not repetitions: the non-redundant nature of tautological compounds’ here

Left edge topics in Russian and the processing of anaphoric dependencies

LIN Nov 14Post written by based on an article in Eric Potsdam the latest issue of Journal of Linguistics 

In this paper we investigate the the relative cost of processing syntactic versus extra-syntactic dependencies. The results support the hypothesis that syntactic dependencies require less processing effort than discourse-derived dependencies do, as proposed in work by Eric Reuland and Arnout Koornneef. We do this by investigating a novel paradigm in Russian in which a preposed nominal stranding a numeral can show number connectivity (PAUCAL) with a gap following the numeral or can appear in a non-agreeing (PLURAL) form:

(1) a. Sobora-a v gorodke bylo tri sobor-a
cathedral-PAUCAL in town was three.PAUCAL (Connectivity)

b. Sobor-ov v gorodke bylo tri pro
cathedral-PLURAL in town was three.PAUCAL (Non-agreeing form)

Numerous syntactic diagnostics confirm that when there is number connectivity, (1a), the nominal has been fronted via A′-movement, creating a syntactic A′-chain dependency. In the absence of connectivity, (1b), the construction involves a hanging topic related via discourse mechanisms to a base-generated null pronoun, pro. The constructions constitute a syntactic minimal pair in that the structures are nearly the same but the anaphoric dependency ends in different types of elements, a trace/copy versus pro. Reuland’s proposals correctly predict that the A′-movement construction in (1a) will require less processing effort compared to the hanging topic construction in (1b). We conducted a self-paced reading study for contrasting pairs as in (1) and show a statistically significant slow-down after the pro with the hanging topic in (1b) as compared to the moved nominal in (1a). We take this to support the claim that a syntactic A′-chain of movement is more easily processed than an anaphoric dependency involving a null pronoun, which must be resolved by discourse-based mechanisms.

The work can be taken to show that null pronouns and traces are distinct elements in the syntax and hearers process them differently.

We invite you to explore the full article here.

Bilingual children cope well in noisy classrooms

Bilingual-children-Oct-14Youngsters who speak two languages maintain their focus better than monolinguals

 A new study, published in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, has found that bilingual primary school children learn more effectively than monolinguals within noisy environments such as classrooms.

Anglia Ruskin University’s Dr Roberto Filippi carried out research in Cambridge primary schools, focusing on children aged between seven and 10.

The study discovered that bilingual children were more able to maintain focus on a main task, which in this case was the identification of the subject within a short sentence in the presence of noise.

Pupils who only speak one language did not reach the same level of efficiency, showing that noise negatively affects their ability to sustain attention, especially when comprehending more difficult sentences.

Dr Filippi, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin, said: “Previous research has shown that bilingualism has a positive effect on cognitive abilities, but there were no studies investigated whether these advantages extended to learning in noisy environments.

“Primary schools are the key stages for the development of formal learning in the first years of life.  However, they are also remarkably noisy.  Therefore the ability to filter out auditory interference is particularly important within the context of an educational environment.”

Dr Filippi was joined by international researchers from Birkbeck in London and the Northwestern University in Chicago.  The study provides further evidence of the importance of learning a second language early in the UK educational system.

Following the findings of the study, the researchers have applied to the Leverhulme Trust for funding to conduct large-scale research in this area which will survey people of all ages in an attempt to track how bilingualism affects the brain throughout a person’s development.

Co-Editor of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition Dr Jubin Abutalebi comments “The elegant research carried out by Dr. Filippi and coworkers addresses an important field of enquiry within developmental psychology. In their contribution, the authors report that bilingual children have superior performance in controlling verbal interference as compared to their monolingual peers. However, as the authors underline this effect is dependent on how good bilingual children master their two languages. Dr. Abutalebi, one of the editors of ‘Bilingualism: Language and Cognition’, notes that this study may further add crucial evidence to the controversy surrounding research questions such as if and eventually how bilingualism enhances cognitive functions.”

Read the entire article ‘Bilingual children show an advantage in controlling verbal interference during spoken language comprehension’ here 

How can ESL students make the best use of learners’ dictionaries?

Dictionary-post2Blog post written by Alice Chan, based on an article in the latest issue of English Today

What will you do if you have problems understanding how a word is used?

Will you just surf the web or will you check a dictionary?

How useful is a learner’s dictionary to you?

A lot of people say that learners’ dictionaries are useful for self-learning, but why are there so many complaints about the usefulness and user-friendliness of a learner’s dictionary? Some of you may wonder: Even after checking a dictionary before using a word, I still cannot use the word correctly. Why? Is there something wrong with me or with the dictionary? Yes. You may have some wrong assumptions about a word or about what a dictionary can tell you. You may also have ignored a lot of useful information.

This article answers your questions and helps you make the full use of a learner’s dictionary. It gives you an idea what different kinds of information are available in a learner’s dictionary, what you have done wrong when you consult a learner’s dictionary, and what you can do to learn from a learner’s dictionary. If you are not an ESL student but an ESL teacher, you may also find this article useful, as it can help you design a dictionary training programme that suits your students best. Don’t throw away your dictionary or have it lying idle on your bookshelf. Follow my suggestions, and you will see how useful it is.

Access the entire article ‘How can ESL students make the best use of learners’ dictionaries?’ here

Vowel insertion in Scottish Gaelic

PHO Aug 14Post written by Michael Hammond, Natasha Warner, Andréa Davis, Andrew Carnie, Diana Archangeli and Muriel Fisher,University of Arizona

Based on an article recently published in the journal Phonology

Scottish Gaelic has a process whereby a vowel is inserted into a hetero-organic cluster when the preceding vowel is short, the first consonant is a sonorant, and the second consonant is not a voiceless stop, e.g. arm`army’ /arm/ ->[aram], seanmhair`grandmother’ /ƪɛnvɛr/ -> [ɛnɛvɛr], etc.

These have been cited as instances of excrescent vowels (Hall, 2006). One of the defining properties of such vowels is that they are phonologically inert and are not motivated by-nor do they contribute to-the syllable structure of a language. The basic idea is that excrescent vowels are essentially gestural transitions from one segment to another, without phonological motivation or consequence.

In this paper, we report on a series of six experiments tapping into native speakers’ intuitions of syllable structure in Scottish Gaelic. Our first two experiments tap into whether subjects can distinguish items with inserted vowels from those without. The general result here is that they can.

Experiments #3 and #4 ask subjects to give the number of syllables in a word, either by counting (#3) or by knocking (#4). These show that there is indeed a difference between words with inserted vowels and those without. Interestingly, the results show that inserted vowels are distinct from non-inserted vowels, they are not the same. They contribute significantly to the syllable count, but not as much

as a non-inserted vowel. Finally, experiments #5 and #6 tap into whether the syllabification of intervocalic consonants is affected by the insertion status of the following vowel. Our results show that it is indeed. In general terms, when the following vowel is inserted, the consonant is less likely to affiliate to the left, than to the right.

Our results suggest that the inserted vowels of Scottish Gaelic are not phonologically inert. These vowels contribute significantly and directly to native speaker intuitions, affecting both the number of syllables and the affiliation of consonants to those syllables. Thus, insofar as intuitions about syllable count and the syllabification reflect phonological structure, the inserted vowels of Scottish Gaelic are part of the phonology. However, our results also establish that the relevant vowels have an intermediate phonological status, distinguishing them from underlying vowels as well.

Read the full article ‘Vowel insertion in Scottish Gaelic’ here.