The Atoms of Language

LIN 2015 CoverArticle written by Bozhil Hristov based on an article in Journal of Linguistics 

In line with what is expected of this type of publication, my review article of Anna Kibort & Greville G. Corbett (eds.), Features: Perspectives on a key notion in linguistics (Oxford Linguistics). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xi + 333, sets itself several targets. The primary goal is to summarise and assess the book, while also seeking to take up and further develop some of the central ideas. In addition, it places the book in its wider linguistic context by drawing attention to some of the current debates and preoccupations of the field.

The opening sections summarise and evaluate the contents of the edited volume, attempting to do justice to the wealth of perspectives it offers. Its chapters deal with long-established linguistic features such as case, gender, tense, or animacy, which can be thought of as equivalent to the atoms of chemistry. The book considers various features (phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic) from the vantage points of approaches as diverse as typology (the study of the common properties and structural diversity in the languages of the world), computational linguistics, and formal theories like Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar or Minimalism, which normally provide competing explanations of observed linguistic phenomena.

The discussion section of the article then takes up several of the unifying threads that run through the volume, including how valid or real features are and how they correspond within a single language, as well as cross-linguistically. Another key issue concerns the boundaries between the traditional areas of morphology, syntax and semantics. I argue for a syntactic treatment of what has been referred to as periphrastic tense constructions in Bulgarian, including the future and the perfect, where a category is expressed with more than one word. I believe that the syntactic treatment of those structures ensures greater language-internal and cross-linguistic consistency in setting up features and assigning their values. After briefly examining animacy in Bulgarian, I conclude that it is sometimes especially difficult to draw boundaries between the fields of semantics and morphosyntax in view of the operation and classification of features. Finally, a case is made for treating tense at least as partly morphosyntactic in English, due to the so called backshift or sequence of tenses – essentially morphosyntactic agreement in tense. I take issue with the prevalent current assumptions about the strictly morphosemantic nature of tense across the board, as they relegate it to the ranks of the morphologically marked categories which only express semantic (i.e. meaning) distinctions, without participating in syntactic processes.

Throughout the article, we keep coming up against fuzzy boundaries which undermine neat classification. Nowhere is this pervasive reality of human language seen more clearly than in examining the ubiquitous and indispensable features that constitute its complex grid of atoms. And yet, the article and the book it reviews show equally clearly how linguists try to bring order out of chaos in a valiant attempt to improve our understanding of this challenging inherent complexity.

 View the full review without charge here

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

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.

A Cognitive Grammar account of the semantics of the English present progressive

LIN 2014Post written by Astrid De Wit & Frank Brisard based on an article in Journal of Linguistics

It is well known that the progressive in English can be used in a notably wide range of contexts: it may express ongoingness at a specific reference point (Be quiet, please, I’m working), habits with limited duration (I’m eating a lot of chocolate this winter), or futurity (I’m coming home tomorrow), just to name a few. Various studies also note the use of the progressive in so-called “emotional contexts”, in which it indicates, for instance, intensity or irritation (She’s always complaining). In addition, our corpus research shows that the progressive can be used to reinterpret an event previously introduced in discourse, as in He talks about minorities, but he’s really talking about African Americans. Given this notable variety of uses, studies that address the semantics of the English progressive almost invariably refrain from positing one, unifying meaning for the construction. In other words, the various uses of the English progressive are typically considered the result of homonymic coincidence, and the possibility of there being semantically motivated relationships between them is discarded.

On the basis of a study of the use of the English present progressive in the Santa Barbara corpus of American English (part 1), we suggest that a monosemous account of the construction is nevertheless possible, provided that the basic meaning of the construction is conceived of in modal (epistemic) terms rather than in purely aspectual or temporal ones. The theory of Cognitive Grammar, as laid out by Langacker (1987; 1991), provides the tools needed for such an epistemic account. We propose, more specifically, that the English (present) progressive indicates that situations are construed as contingent with respect to the speaker’s conception of reality, and that it thus contrasts with the simple present which construes situations as having a structural status. That is, the simple present involves situations whose occurrence and evolution can be predicted, whereas the progressive involves more phenomenal situations. For instance, in She always complains the subject’s complaining is conceived of as a typical, expected characteristic, whereas in She is always complaining the situation is construed as more atypical, irritating, and possibly (preferably) changeable.

In our paper, we demonstrate that the meaning of epistemic contingency underlies all the uses of the present progressive in English, and that more specific, aspectotemporal uses constitute elaborations of this schematic meaning. We show how these uses are connected to one another and to the schematic meaning of contingency via cognitively motivated branching principles, and summarize our findings in the form of a semantic network.

Access the entire article ‘‘A Cognitive Grammar account of the semantics of the English present progressive’ without charge until 31st July 2014

Reduced auxiliaries in early child language: Converging observational and experimental evidence from French

Post written by Dr. Cristina D. Dye based on an article in Journal of Linguistics 

Since the early studies in language acquisition, scholars have noted that certain grammatical elements, among which auxiliaries and verb inflections, often appear to be missing in early child speech, with the result that child utterances sometimes exhibit verb forms with non-finite morphology in seemingly matrix clauses. This observation has led to a deprivationalist conception of child syntax.

In contrast with previous studies, this article explores the possibility that the child’s PHONOLOGY may considerably impact her overt realization of auxiliaries. Specifically, it examines the hypothesis that non-finite verbs in early speech are in fact attempted periphrastics (i.e., auxiliary/modal + non-finite verb) in which the auxiliaries are just reduced phonetically, often to the point where they remain unpronounced.

This study involved 28 normally-developing French-speaking children aged between 23 and 37 months. New observational data revealed a continuum in a given child’s phonetic realizations of auxiliaries. Children showed various levels of auxiliary reduction, suggesting that their non-finite verbs are best analyzed as being part of periphrastics involving an auxiliary form that represents the endpoint on this continuum, i.e. is (completely) deleted. Further examination of these verb forms showed that their semantics corresponds to the semantics of adult periphrastics. Additionally, the results of an experiment where children imitated sentences with either periphrastic or synthetic verbs showed that responses with non-finite verb forms were predominantly produced when the target sentence involved a periphrastic, rather than a synthetic verb.

These findings open the door to investigation of other factors that might affect auxiliary reduction (e.g., memory, sentential complexity, fine-grained syntax problems), other populations (bilingual children, SLI), and other grammatical elements (e.g., determiners, complementizers). They also invite new research into the specific aspect(s) of phonology that might account for child reduced/deleted auxiliaries (e.g., phonological realization processes, phonological representations, prosodic representations, production/articulation difficulties).

Read the entire article from issue 47/2 of Journal of Linguistics here.

Email contact:  [email protected]

Links to some of the press received by this article:

Science Daily
Huffington Post
Futura Science 

Access free articles to celebrate 15 years of CJO

 

 

Cambridge Journals Online launched in 1997, and one and a half decades later continues to evolve. At Cambridge Journals, we’re extremely proud of what we’ve achieved over the past fifteen years. CJO is arguably as close to a tailor-made resource as you’ll find in academic publishing. Developed, built and maintained by a crack team of software developers based in Manila. Nurtured and specified by in-house editors, marketers and production staff. Informed by consultation with journal editors, societies, academics and librarians. CJO is loaded with fresh new features three times a year, available on all platforms (including mobile), twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

For the next fifteen days (until the 3rd October) we’ve decided to make a birthday gift. Go to any journal homepage, and you’ll find a new, golden tab. There, the fifteen most-downloaded papers from that journal are available to read for free. We’ve done this for every single journal we publish. Make your way there by browsing our full list of Language and Linguistics journals. As well as being able to download papers to your desktop, or read them on your phone or tablet, you’ll be able to send papers to your Kindle to read at your leisure. Just look for the Send to Kindle links in the left hand article menu and in the headers.

We’re sure you’ll find something amongst all that free content to illuminate and inspire. By all means, spread the word. We’ve introduced some handy links on most pages to tweet, like, +1 or otherwise share articles or this post.

So feel free to explore CJO and let us know what you think. We’re extremely keen to make CJO the best resource that we can, and your input is absolutely invaluable. Post a comment below, tweet us at @CambridgeJnls or drop by our Facebook page.

Here’s to the next fifteen years!