This month in Linguistics from Cambridge

linguistics out this month 1

What are the most popular English language children’s books?

Blog post based on an article in Journal of Child Language, written by Carla Hudson Kam

It is obvious that language learning in children is affected by input: children exposed to English learn English and children exposed to Mandarin learn Mandarin. But the relationship between the input children receive and what they learn is more specific than that.

For instance, we know that children whose caregivers produce lots of complex sentences produce complex sentences earlier than children who hear fewer of them. Children’s input comes from sources beyond their caregivers’ natural speech, however, and researchers have become increasingly interested in input from these other sources. My co-author and I were interested in the prevalence of a specific type of information in children’s books but needed to know which books we should analyze (if you’re interested in books as input, presumably you should analyze books that children are actually being exposed to).

We conducted a survey of parents and caregivers asking about the English-language books they were reading to their child, to help us select our books for analysis.  Although we initially created this dataset to conduct our own research, we quickly realized the potential the dataset had, and so decided to share it with the wider research community.

The resulting database – which we call the Infant Bookreading Database (or IBDb) – includes responses from 1,107 caregivers of children aged 0-36 months, who answered questions about the five books they were reading to their child most often at the time. The dataset also includes demographic and language development information, so the data can be analyzed separately for children of different ages, genders, or language skill levels, or for the caregiver’s age, gender or education level.

There were 2,227 unique titles listed by caregivers, and 1,617 are identifiable (meaning we could figure out exactly which book the respondent was referring to). One of the most striking things about the identifiable titles is how much variation there is in which books children are hearing. Only one book was listed by more than 200 respondents (Goodnight Moon by M. Wise Brown), two were listed more than 100 but less than 200 times (The Very Hungry Caterpillar by E. Carle and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See? by B. Martin and E. Carle), and only four books were listed 50-99 times (so by at least 4.5% of our sample). The overwhelming majority of titles were only listed by one or two respondents. So while there are a small number of fairly popular books that show up again and again in our data, most books are being read to only one or two children in our sample.

Read Introducing the Infant Bookreading Database (IBDb) for free.

The IBDb is available for download for use by researchers (and anyone else who is interested) at

Hipsters in the hood: Authentication in young men’s hip hop talk

UntitledBlog post based on an article in Language in Society, written by Pia Pichler and Nathanael Williams

How do we ‘authenticate’ our own identities? Can hip-hop help us in this process? If so, what might we ‘invoke’ and what are the implications for social class and various other aspects of identity?

In this article we look at the spontaneously occurring conversation of four ethnically mixed, working class young men from South London. The data recorded by these young men soon led us to appreciate the significance of hip hop talk to the authentication and identification processes within this group. We found that the data contains many phonological, grammatical, and lexical markers that are indexical of what we call Hip Hop Speech Style (HHSS). However, our data also shows how difficult it is to differentiate between HHSS and the kind of multiethnolect spoken by many young Londoners.

Our own study aims to demonstrate the value of moving the study of authenticity in relation to hip hop from a consideration of (the indexicality of) linguistic style towards a focus on discourse and ideological meanings. A limited number of studies have approached the topic of hip-hop authenticity with an analytic focus on discourses/ideologies rather than linguistic style and even fewer studies have investigated what we might call ‘third sphere’ of hip hop, that is, interaction among Hip Hop fans and activists.

In our analysis we focus on terms and expressions that not only index, or, in other words ‘invoke’ or ‘point to’ various aspects of hip-hop culture, but that also need to be understood in relation to wider macro-sociological concepts. These cultural concepts in turn ‘index’ or ‘invoke’ unconscious sociocultural knowledge and allow speakers to position themselves in relation to these concepts and to one another. This often indirect relationship between linguistic forms and social meaning, and between different levels of indexicality, is at the core of indexicality studies.

Thus, when the young men talk about ‘white girls from The Hills’, or ‘hipsters moving into the hood’, or, in reference to the local gang, ‘dhem man will spray the matic out da Porsche’, they not only evaluate the authenticity of their own and others’ identity performances in relation to hip-hop culture, but hip-hop culture in itself is presented as indexical of various aspects of larger-scale practices and structures.

The speakers position ‘white posh girls from The Hills’, ‘hipsters moving into the hood’, ‘white boys from Cambridge’, as well as the pop star Miley Cyrus in opposition to hip-hop culture. What is interesting is that many of these individuals take part in cultural practices that in themselves index allegiance with hip-hop or street culture, for example, by producing World Star Hip Hop videos, by moving to or living in the hood or in rough London estates, by having extensive knowledge about hip hop, or by ‘twerking like a mutha *****’. These attempts to index hip-hop or street authenticity, however, are not accepted by the group.

Read the full article ‘Hipsters in the hood: Authenticating indexicalities in young men’s hip-hop talk‘ for free through 30th November 2016.

Essential reading in applied linguistics: The Language Teaching reading pack for MA/PhD students

BookshelfThe Applied Linguistics Reading Pack from Language Teaching has been a popular collection of articles since 2011, generating more than 30,000 downloads. Providing an overview of key content for anyone looking for an MA or PhD topic or anyone taking on a new group of MA or PhD students, the pack and the journal itself have been an essential resource for language professionals and a starting point for all things related to the discipline of applied linguistics.

Hand-picked by Language Teaching editor Dr Graeme Porte, this collection has recently been updated to include new articles, research and replication studies, and is also a useful sampler of the journal. This new package can be accessed by visiting

State-of-the-art articles: Critical survey articles of resent research

Review of washback research literature within Kante’s argument-based validation framework
Liying Cheng, Youyi Sun and Jia Ma

Research Timelines: Graphic overviews of the most significant bibliographies in the area

Research Timeline: Form-focused instruction and second language acquisition
Hossein Nassaji

Replication Studies

Learning vocabulary through meaning-focused input: Replication of Elley (1989) and Liu & Nation (1985)
Stuart Webb

Thinking Allowed: Research Agendas and Classroom Applications of Research

International teaching assistants at universities: A research agenda
Greta Gorsuch

Research into practice: Grammar learning and teaching
Diane Larsen-Freeman

Plenary Speeches

Interactive alignment: A teaching-friendly view of second language pronunciation learning
Pavel Trofimovich

For more Language Teaching, visit the journal home page or learn more about the journal’s thematic sections.

Hillary Clinton talks more “like a man” the more powerful she becomes

Photo: Krista Kennell -

Photo: Krista Kennell –

Blog post based on an article in Perspectives on Politics, written by Jennifer Jones

Over the course of her historic presidential campaign, reactions to Hillary Clinton’s speeches and debate performances have focused less on what she says, and more on how she says it. In 2016 alone, Clinton’s style of speaking has been criticized for coming across as unrelaxed, hair-raising, nagging, and grating.

As a leader, Clinton is compared against traditional masculine qualities that we have come to associate with leadership—strength, determination, self-confidence, decisiveness and more. She is criticized when she fails to display these masculine qualities and yet she is criticized and disliked when she fails to display her warmth and femininity—a classic “double-bind” that women in politics and other leadership positions often confront.

By tracking her subtle linguistic behavior over time, my research shows how these forces manifest in Hillary Clinton’s self-presentation. My findings suggest that as the Democratic nominee transitioned from First Lady to U.S. Senator to Secretary of State, she spoke in an increasingly “masculine” way.

James Pennebaker and colleagues find that language encodes gender in very subtle ways—not by what we say, but how we say it. Women tend to use higher rates of pronouns (you, theirs), especially first-person singular pronouns (I, me) than men. Women also use common verbs and auxiliary verbs (is, has, be, go), social (friend, talk), emotional (relieved, safe, kind), cognitive (think, because), and tentative (I guess, maybe) words at higher rates than men. Men tend to use first-person plural words (the royal “we”), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (of, to, under), big words (over six letters), words associated with anger (destroy, kill), and swear words ([redacted]) more frequently than women.

Utilizing this insight, I examine whether Clinton talked “like a man” as she navigated a path toward political leadership by conducting a quantitative textual analysis of 567 interview transcripts and candidate debates between 1992–2013.

Read Jennifer Jones’ article on the linguistic styles of Hillary Clinton, “Talk ‘Like a Man’: The Linguistic Styles of Hillary Clinton, 1992-2013” for free through election day on 8th November, 2016.

How caregivers combine tactile and linguistic cues

Blog post based on an article in Journal of Child Language, written by Rana Abu-Zhaya

Studies have shown that both caregiver touch and speech play an important role in the early development of infants. Research examining early caregiver-infant interactions showed that touch is prominently present and is a key component of those interactions.

Among other significant effects, touch plays a role in directing infants’ attention and regulating their arousal. On the other hand, studies that have examined speech that is directed to infants showed that adults modify their speech when interacting with young infants. These modifications result in what researchers call “infant-directed speech”, which has been shown to aid in language learning. However, despite the common use of speech and touch in early interactions, very little is known about how they are naturally combined during interactions with infants.

In a study designed to specifically examine how touch and speech are combined and used in early interactions, mothers were asked to read to their 5-month-old infants a book about body-parts and one about animals. In order to keep the interactions as naturalistic as possible, mothers were asked to read the books to their infants the way they would normally do at home. The interactions were videotaped and audio-recorded; analyses were performed on the video stream separately from the audio stream.

The results of the study revealed some interesting features of mother-infant interactions. First, the study confirmed the finding from previous research that touch is a common component of early interactions and is produced naturally by caregivers without specific elicitation. More importantly, the study showed that touch+speech events are different from touch alone or speech alone events. Specifically, touches that were produced with speech were longer in their duration than touch alone events. Further, an examination of a specific set of words, i.e. body-part words and animal names, revealed that when words were accompanied by touch, they were produced with a higher average pitch than words that were spoken without any touches. Hence, when touch and speech are produced together creating multimodal events, they have more exaggerated features than when each is produced separately.

Further, the results suggest that maternal touches tend to be well aligned with their speech and that mothers tend to touch their infants in locations that are congruent with names of body parts they are producing while touching their infant.

The significance of these findings lies in the fact that infants are presented with language in a rich multimodal context and understanding the way different cues are naturally combined with speech can help researchers better characterize the early input that infants receive. The better the knowledge researchers have on how language is presented to infants, and how various cues (such as touch) are used and weighted differently throughout development, the better is their ability to aid infants and children who are struggling in learning language.

Access ‘Multimodal infant-directed communication: how caregivers combine tactile and linguistic cues‘ for free through 31st October.

Why all John’s friends are Dutch, not German

all john's friendsBlog post based on an article in Journal of Germanic Linguistics, written by Robert Cirillo

A genitive construction involving the universal quantifier all, such as All John’s friends, is very natural and commonplace in English. The same can be said of the equivalent construction in Dutch, which would be Al Jans vrienden.

Until now, it has totally escaped the attention of linguists that the same construction is not possible in German, despite the close genetic and geographical relationship that German has with Dutch and English. The German phrase All(e) Johanns Freunde is simply not possible. The correct word order is Alle Freunde Johanns.

The purpose of this article is to offer an explanation for this discrepancy between German and its sister languages. It is argued that there are three principal factors that combine to cause German to behave differently from Dutch and German.

The first of these has to do with the nature of the Saxon genitive in the three languages. In German, it is a true case. It is different from the standard (non-Saxon) genitive, but it is nonetheless a true genitive case that is assigned in Spec, NP just like the standard genitive.

In Dutch and English the Saxon genitive is not a case but a determiner-like element that originates as the head of a Possessive Phrase in the same way as a possessive adjective such as my or his or our.  Furthermore, unlike German, Dutch and English do not allow the assignment of genitive case in Spec, NP (without preposition insertion), which under some circumstances may necessitate the movement of a possessor to a higher position for case assignment.

The second factor that plays a role in causing the difference between German and the other West Germanic languages is the fact that in all the Germanic languages if a DP is definite either D or Spec, DP must be overtly occupied.  If one of these positions is overtly occupied, and if genitive case has already been assigned in Spec, NP, the movement of a genitive phrase to D or Spec, DP is unmotivated and causes ungrammaticality.

The third factor is that the -e ending on the universal quantifier alle behaves like a D-element in German and Dutch. It is very possibly the phonetic realization of the definiteness feature on D.

This article shows how these three factors come together to create the discrepancy between German and Dutch/English in how a universal quantifier can combine with a genitive.

View and download Why all John’s Friends are Dutch, Not German: On the Determiner-Like Characteristics of the Inflection on the Universal Quantifier in West Germanic, by Robert Cirillo, for free during the month of August.

When is bacon not bacon?

An American asking for bacon in Britain would be in for a surprise.

An American asking for bacon in Britain would be in for a (delicious) surprise, and vice versa.

Blog post based on an article in English Today, written by M. Lynne Murphy

In the most recent issue of English Today, I discuss some words of general English whose apparent similarities hide some subtle differences in meaning. Words like sandwich, soup and bacon might have similar dictionary definitions in the UK and US, but Britons and Americans have different expectations when they order these things in a restaurant.

The ‘prototype approach’ to meaning helps us to describe and explain these differences. According to that approach, meanings are organized around some idealized view of a ‘typical’ example of the category (a prototype).

So, for example, whether something is called a cup depends on the degree to which it matches the ideal of ‘cup-ness’ and whether it echoes ‘ideal cup-ness’ better than it echoes ‘glass-ness’ or the ‘bowl-ness’ ideals.

This is in contrast to a ‘classical’ view of meaning where something would be called a cup if it had all the properties that all cups have, and if those properties together are sufficient to distinguish cups from glasses, mugs or bowls. (That approach doesn’t work because there may be no properties (a) that all cups have and (b) that are collectively sufficient to distinguish cups from other vessels.)

This means that the things we call cups can be very different from one another (china teacups, disposable foam coffee cups, plastic beer cups, medicine cups), and that some things are more likely to be called cup than others.

When we look at cross-dialectal differences, as in the meaning of soup, the word initially looks like it has the same meaning across dialects because there are a lot of things that all English speakers would call soup. But at the boundaries of the category, there are things that Americans would call soup that Britons would call stew – because the prototype for soup in British English is ‘smoother’ than the prototype for soup in American English.

In the article, I mention the word boot, which Willett Kempton investigated in Texas and Britain. He showed that the two groups varied in their ideas of what constituted a typical boot, with the Texan prototype extending further above the ankle than the British one. The Texan prototype fits better with cowboy boots, the British one with walking boots or army boots.

This means that, say, if asked to draw a boot, the Texans would draw taller ones than the Britons would. But still, Texans and Britons still use the word boot to refer to ankle boots, riding boots, combat boots—mostly the same things, because they’re all ‘close enough’ to the boot ideal—which includes other properties like being closed (as opposed to gladiator sandals), sturdy (as opposed to slippers), weather-proof, etc.

Since writing the article, though, I’ve been struck by a particularly British use of boot: to refer to a certain style of Converse-brand footwear. The ‘Chuck Taylor’ or ‘All-Star’ shoe comes in an above-the-ankle style or the ‘low-cut’ or ‘Oxford’ style. In American English, when you need to distinguish between the two, the taller ones are high-tops. But in Britain, I’ve often heard them called Converse boots. Indeed, as I write this (28 July 2016), the News on the Web corpus (2010-yesterday) has 12 instances of Converse boots: 10 from Britain, 2 from Ireland. To an American ear, using the word boots for canvas high-top sneakers seems just weird. Converse high-tops comes into the corpus 7 times: 4 from the US, 3 from Canada.

The difference between my aversion to calling the ankle-high version boots and my English spouse’s everyday “Have you seen my grey Converse boots?” can be explained by our differing prototypes for boot. In neither dialect are Converses at the centre of the ‘boot’ category. If I asked the spouse to grab some boots for me to pack for a trip, he’d go for leather knee-high things before he’d go for the Converses, because the leather ones satisfy more ‘typical’ properties of boots: they’re sturdy, weatherproof, reach above the ankle, etc.

But when we get to a kind of footwear for which British English lacks the vocabulary, the Converses come close enough to the ideal category to be allowed into the category of “things that can be called boots”. It works for British because even though canvas shoes aren’t sturdy or waterproof or anything else that ‘typical’ boots are, they do reach the place on the leg the British ‘typical boots’ reach. For Americans, they’re just not booty enough to be called boots because, in addition to their non-sturdiness, they’re not particularly high.

And so Americans had to come up with a new word for shoe styles that are not-quite boots: high-tops. (This happened at least 20 years before the Converse started making shoes, because other shoemakers had ‘high-top’ and ‘Oxford’ styles.) Converse does make a version of the All-Star that comes all the way up to the knees. In my American idiom, I’d have no problem calling those boots because they better match the American idea of bootiness.

The more I think about names for human-made things, the more I find British/American prototype differences. They rarely cause interruptions to communication, but they do make one wonder: how often do we not-quite-communicate without noticing?

For more information, and to delve into detail on the differences between British and American bacon, read The differences behind the similarities, or: why Americans and Britons don’t know what the other is talking about from the latest issue of English Today. View and download the article for free through 31st August.

Phonology: A Coursebook

Blog post written by Robbert Kennedy, University of California, Santa Barbra

Phonology A Coursebook by Robert Kennedy I am excited to share Phonology: A Coursebook with instructors everywhere. This textbook represents the culmination of many years of thinking about how to make the content of phonology courses more accessible and engaging to students, and I can share a few examples of what is new about it here.

I have always believed phonological analysis to be an important skill for linguists of any stripe, so I think it’s crucial that students establish a solid understanding of its central concepts. But Linguistics is growing as an academic field, with its traditions of structural analysis and documentation joined by those interested in the study of language through the lens of identity, technology, and many other angles. The growth in size and range of our undergraduate population (at my home institution, and surely many others) reflects this. My personal motivation for writing a phonology textbook thus comes from my classroom observation of the varying interests and learning styles among students, not just in phonology courses but in other linguistics courses as well – so that even if the student is not planning on specializing in phonology, they can still experience the course as a practicum in the procedures of the scientific method.

With this in mind, I have structured this book around a mindset of the primacy of data: its chapters are organized around types of phonological processes and patterns, with assimilation, deletion, insertion, harmony, syllabification, stress, and tonal phenomenal all highlighted as objects of phonological analysis. While I have included familiar classic problem sets, including data from languages such as Yokuts, Turkish, Hungarian, Japanese, Kongo, and Polish, I have enriched them with many others that are either less canonical or newly developed, with notable exercises on syllabification, tone, and prosodic morpho-phonology. Moreover, I have used the data to guide the use of formalisms like features, or rules, or tiered representations.

Meanwhile, I have observed in the past that some students have difficulty seeing phonology and the input-output relationship when following the standard teaching practice of introducing them with distributional facts and phonemic analysis. To address this, I introduce the concepts of underlying representations and processes that operate on them with more concretely observable examples of morphophonemic alternation before exploring phonemic analysis and complementary distribution.

 This gives students something more tangible to grasp early on – the idea that a single underlying phoneme could have multiple surface allophones is more plainly obvious when the forms of specific morphemes alternate by their phonological context. In practice, teaching about phonemes by using complementary distribution and mutual exclusivity, which are more circumstantial in their evidentiality, risks a level of abstractness that is perhaps best left until later in the term. There is a parallel to be drawn with calculus, where the instructor may teach either integrals or derivatives first. Teaching derivatives first is more intuitive to many learners, but in phonology it is as if we have been teaching integrals first.

I believe this approach dovetails well with the spirit of Cambridge’s Coursebook series, in which the reader is presented with datasets and exercises, but the analytical steps are narrated procedurally to illustrate the links between detecting patterns and accounting for their nuances and complexity.

The second novel component is a deeper integration of typological generalizations as an element of phonological argumentation. In class when leading students on how to decide among competing analyses, I often find myself turning to typological evidence, yet note that this information is not readily at the hands of undergrads. The organization of the book by processes clarifies that there are certain types of phenomena that are typologically prevalent, and I use this to argue for the student that the formal tools should reflect these trends.

Another deliberate aspect of this textbook is how it treats the role of features and representations. Feature charts and derivational conventions are so rich with detail and precision that students can get lost trying to remember them all, especially if they think of the best analysis as one that uses the correct features.  I often see students struggling to memorize feature charts for IPA symbols rather than thinking of natural classes in more concrete terms. Thus I emphasize in the text that the features are valuable analytical tools, but what a student employs in a given analysis must primarily distinguish groups of sounds that behave differently.

This textbook is aimed at introductory phonology classes, particularly for students who have completed an introductory course in linguistics and/or phonetics and have working knowledge of IPA transcription and some basics of morphological analysis. Nevertheless the datasets are numerous and rich enough to be useful for more advanced students of phonology as well.

I look forward to using this textbook in the classroom and sincerely hope other phonology instructors will find it both useful and engaging as a resource for their students.


Teaching a course on this topic?

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The influence of German on the English language

'Pils' is one German word that has become a part of the English lexicon

‘Pils’ is one German word that has become a part of the English lexicon

Blog post based on an article in English Today, written by Julia Schultz

While there is a multitude of studies on the influence English has exerted on German, the converse language contact scenario has been comparatively neglected. German borrowings which have recently been assumed into English have as yet received little attention in current research. The present paper intends to shed light on the impact of German on the English vocabulary in the 20th century, filling an essential gap in the literature of borrowings and constituting an important update to previous investigations of the German-English language contact situation.

Dictionaries available in electronic form have become valuable sources for linguistic research. For example, the digitalized form of the Oxford English Dictionary Online makes it possible to carry out a precise count of all the lexical items which show a German origin in their etymologies. The findings presented in this paper are based on the analysis of a comprehensive lexicographical corpus of 1958 German borrowings retrieved from the OED Online.

The German borrowings taken over into English in the last few decades have been grouped into manifold domains with their different subcategories in order to give a rounded picture of the different subject areas and spheres of life enriched by German in the recent past. These include, for instance, the fine arts, cooking, wine, beer, politics, war and the military, language and linguistics, entertainment and leisure activities, sports, people and everyday life, electronics, telecommunication and computing, mathematics and the humanities, the natural sciences, and others.

Vocabulary adopted from German into English in recent times is characterized by its great variety. It encompasses a considerable number of specialized terms, such as Waldrapp (specifying a variety of bird) and inselberg (a technical term in geomorphology for a type of mountain or hill), which are borrowings only known to the specialist, as well as words which have made it into common usage and relate to everyday matters. Some illustrative examples of 20th century German borrowings which appear to be on everyone’s lips are rollmop, bratwurst, Pils, angst, dirndl, autobahn, blitzkrieg, Third Reich, to abseil, Bauhaus and pH.

For more information, view and download the article from English Today with complimentary access (not even a single Deutsche Mark) through 31st August.