This month in Linguistics from Cambridge

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Text Messaging and the Downfall of Civilization

By Abby Kaplan author of Women Talk More Than Men and Other Myths about Language Explained

For years now, observers have been alert to a growing social menace. Like Harold Hill, they warn that there’s trouble in River City — with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for Phone.

Mobile phones are a multifaceted scourge; they’ve been blamed for everything from poor social skills to short attention spans. As a linguist, I’m intrigued by one particular claim: that texting makes people illiterate. Not only are text messages short (and thus unsuited for complex ideas), they’re riddled with near-uninterpretable abbreviations: idk, pls, gr8. Young people are especially vulnerable to these altered forms; critics frequently raise the specter of future students studying a Hamlet who texts 2B or not 2B.

The puzzling thing is that none of these abominable abbreviations are unique to text messaging, or even to electronic communication more generally. There’s nothing inherently wrong with acronyms and initialisms like idk; similar abbreviations like RSVP are perfectly acceptable, even in formal writing. The only difference is that idk, lol, and other ‘textisms’ don’t happen to be on the list of abbreviations that are widely accepted in formal contexts. Non-acronym shortenings like pls for please are similarly unremarkable; they’re no different in kind from appt for appointment.

Less obvious is the status of abbreviations like gr8, which use the rebus principle: 8 is supposed to be read, not as the number between 7 and 9, but as the sound of the English word that it stands for. The conventions for formal written English don’t have anything similar. But just because a technique isn’t used in formal English writing doesn’t mean that technique is linguistically suspect; in fact, there are other written traditions that use exactly this principle. In Ancient Egyptian, for example, the following hieroglyph was used to represent the word ḥr ‘face’:Language Myths Blog

It’s not a coincidence, of course, that the symbol for the word meaning ‘face’ looks like a face. But the same symbol could also be used to represent the sound of that word embedded inside a larger word. For example, the word ḥryt ‘terror’ could be written as follows:Language Myths Blog

Here, the symbol has nothing to do with faces, just as the 8 in gr8 has nothing to do with numbers. The rebus principle was an important part of hieroglpyhic writing, and I’ve never heard anyone argue that this practice led to the downfall of ancient Egyptian civilization. So why do we think textisms are so dangerous?

Even if there’s nothing wrong with these abbreviations in principle, it could still be that using them interferes with your ability to read and write the standard language. If you see idk and pls on a daily basis, maybe you’ll have a hard time remembering that they’re informal (as opposed to RSVP and appt). But on the other hand, all these abbreviations require considerable linguistic sophistication — maybe texting actually improves your literacy by encouraging you to play with language. We all command a range of styles in spoken language, from formal to informal, and we’re very good at adjusting our speech to the situation; why couldn’t we do the same thing in writing?

At the end of the day, the only way to find out what texting really does is to go out and study it in the real world. And that’s exactly what research teams in the UK, the US, and Australia have done. The research in this area has found no consistent negative effect of texting; in fact, a few studies have even suggested that texting might have a modest benefit. It seems that all the weeping and gnashing of teeth about the end of literacy as we know it was premature: the apocalypse is not nigh.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should all spend every spare minute texting. (I’m a reluctant texter myself, and I have zero interest in related services like Twitter.) There are plenty of reasons to be thoughtful about how we use any technology, mobile phones included. What we’ve seen here is just that the linguistic argument against texting doesn’t hold water.

View the Women Talk More Than Men…and Other Language Myths Explained Book Trailer or by clicking on the image below…

Book Trailer

SSLA Announces the 2016 Albert Valdman Award Winner

Cambridge University Press and Studies in Second Language Acquisition are pleased to announce that the recipients of the 2016 Albert Valdman Award for outstanding publication in 2015 are Gregory D. Keating and Jill Jegerski for their March 2015 article, “Experimental designs in sentence processing research: A methodological review and user’s guide”, Volume 37, Issue 1.  Please join us in congratulating these authors on their contribution to the journal and to the field.

Post written by Gregory D. Keating and Jill Jegerski

We wish to express our utmost thanks and gratitude to the editorial and review boards at SSLA for selecting our article, ‘Research designs in sentence processing research: A methodological review and user’s guide,’ (March, 2015) for the Albert Valdman Award for outstanding publication. The two of us first became research collaborators several years ago as a result of our mutual interests in sentence processing, research methods, research design, and statistics. With each project that we have undertaken, we’ve had many fruitful and engaging conversations about best practices in experimental design and data analysis for sentence processing research. This article is the product of many of our own questions, which led us to conduct extensive reviews of existing processing studies. Our recommendations are culled from and informed by the body of work we reviewed, as well as our own experiences conducting sentence processing research. Stimulus development and data analysis can pose great challenges. It is our hope that the information provided in our paper will be a useful resource to researchers and students who wish to incorporate psycholinguistic methods into their research agenda and that the study of second language processing will continue to flourish in the future.

Why We Gesture: The surprising role of hand movements in communication

Blog post by David McNeill author of Why We Gesture: The Surprising role of the hands in communication

Why do we gesture? Many would say it brings emphasis, energy and ornamentation to speech (which is assumed to be the core of what is taking place); in short, gesture is an “add-on.” (as Adam Kendon, who also rejects the idea, phrases it). However,the evidence is against this. The lay view of gesture is that one “talks with one’s hands.” You can’t find a word so you resort to gesture. Marianne Gullberg debunks this ancient idea. As she succinctly puts it, rather than gesture starting when words stop,gesture stops as well.  So if, contrary to lay belief, we don’t “talk with our hands”, why do we gesture? This book offers an answer.

The reasons we gesture are more profound. Language itself is inseparable from it. While gestures enhance the material carriers of meaning, the core is gesture and speech together. They are bound more tightly than saying the gesture is an“add-on” or “ornament” implies. They are united as a matter of thought itself. Thought with language is actually thought with language and gesture indissolubly tied. Even if the hands are restrained for some reason and a gesture is not externalized, the imagery it embodies can still be present, hidden but integrated with speech (and may surface in some other part of the body, the feet for example).

The book’s answer to the question, why we gesture is not that speech triggers gesture but that gesture orchestrates speech; we speak because we gesture, not we gesture because we speak. In bald terms, to orchestrate speech is why we gesture. This is the “surprise” of the subtitle—“The surprising role of the hands in communication.”

To present this hypothesis is the purpose of the current book. The book is the capstone of three previous books—an inadvertent trilogy over 20 years—“How Language Began: Gesture and Speech in Human Evolution,” “Gesture and Thought,” and “Hand and Mind: What Gestures reveal about Thought.” It merges them in to one multifaceted hypothesis. The integration itself—that it is possible—is part of the hypothesis. Integration is possible because of its central idea—implicit in the trilogy, explicit here—that gestures orchestrate speech.

A gesture automatically orchestrates speech when it and speech co-express the same meaning; then the gesture dominates the speech; syntax is subordinate and breaks apart or interrupts to preserve the integrity of the gesture–speech unit.Orchestration is the action of the vocal tract organized around a manual gesture. The gesture sets its parameters, the order of events within it, and the content of the speech with which it works. The amount of time speakers take to utter sentences is remarkably constant, between 1 and 2 seconds regardless of the number of embedded sentences. It is also the duration of a gesture. All of this is experienced by the speaker as the two awarenesses of the sentence that Wundt in the 19th C. distinguished.The “simultaneous” is awareness of the whole gesture–speech unit. It begins with the first stirrings of gesture preparation and ends with the last motion of gesture retraction. The “successive” is awareness of “…individual constituents moving into the focus of attention and out again,” and includes the gesture–speech unit as it and its gesture come to surface and then sink again beneath it.

The gesture in the first illustration, synchronized with “it down”, is a gesture–speech unit, and using the Wundt concepts we have:

“and Tweety Bird runs and gets a bowling ba simultaneous awareness of gesture–speech unity

starts[ll and ∅tw  drops gesture–speech unity enters successive awareness it down gesture–speech unity

leaves successive awareness the drainpipe]simultaneous awareness of  gesture–speech unity  ends.”

The transcript [1] shows the speech the gesture orchestrated and when – the entire stretch, from “ball” to “drainpipe” is the core meaning of “it down” plus the image of thrusting the bowling ball into the drainpipe in simultaneous awareness. The same meaning appeared in successive awareness, the gesture stroke in the position the construction provided, there orchestrating “it” and “down”together.

Why We Gesture

The “drops” construction provides the unpacking template and adds linguistic values. Its job is to present the gesture–speech unit, including Tweety’s agent-power in the unit. Gesture–speech unity is alive and not effaced by constructions. To the contrary,Sylvester-up/Tweety-down conflict in socially accessible form. This unit must be kept intact in the speech flow. What is striking and why the example is illustrative, is that “it down” was divided by the construction into different syntactic constituents (“it”the direct object, “down” a locative complement), yet the word pair remained a unit orchestrated by the gesture. In other examples, speech stops when continuing would break up a gesture–speech

it controls them.  A gesture–speech unity dominates.

How did it all come about? It occurred because “it down,” plus the co-expressive thrusting gesture, was the source (the “growth point”) of the sentence. The growth point came about as the differentiation of a field of equivalents having to do with HOWTO  THWART  SYLVESTER: THE  BOWLING  BALL DOWN.   It unpacked itself into shareable form by “summoning” the causative construction (possible because a causative

Why We Gesture 2 meaning was in the gesture–speech unit from the start of the preparation – the speaker’s hands already in the shape of Tweety’s “hands” as the agent of thrusting). Thus “it down”and its stroke were inviolate from the start: the stroke orchestrated the two words as a unit, and the gesture phrase the construction as a whole. I believe the situation illustrated with “it down” permeates the production of speech in all conditions and different languages.


1 Participants retell an 8-minute Tweety and Sylvester classic they have just watched from memory to a listener (a friend, not the experimenter). Using Kendon’s terminology and our notation, the gesturephrase is marked by “[” and “]”.  The stroke, the image-bearing phase and only obligatory phase of the

gesture, is marked in boldface (“it down”). Preparation is the hand getting into position to makethestrokeandisindicatedbythespanfromtheleftbrackettothestartofboldface(“ba[lland∅twdrops”).Preparation shows that the gesture, with all its significance, is coming into being – there is n oreasonthe hands move into position and take on form than to perform the stroke. Holds are cessations of movement, either prestroke (“drops”), the hand frozen awaiting co-expressive speech, or poststroke

(“down”), the hand frozen in the stroke’s ending position and hand shape after movement has ceased until co-expressive speech ends. Holds of either kind are indicated with underlining. They provide a precise synchrony of gesture-orchestrated speech in successive awareness. Retraction is also an active phase, the gesture not simply abandoned but closing down ( “the drainpipe,” movement ending as the last syllable ended – in some gestures, though not here, the fingers creep along the chair arm rest until this point is reached). In writing growth points – a field of equivalents being differentiated and the psychological predicate differentiating it–we use FIELD OF EQUIVALENTS:PSYCHOLOGICAL PREDICATE (“HOW TO THWART SYLVESTER: THE BOWLING BALLDOWN”).


A “strong prediction.” Our arguments predict that GPs in successive awareness remain intact no matter the constructions that unpack them. This follows from the expectation that unpacking will not disrupt a field of equivalents or its differentiation. Belonging to different syntactic constituents – the “it” with “drops” and the“down” with “the drainpipe” – did not break apart the “it down” GP. Instead, syntactic form adapted to gesture. The example shows that gesture is a force shaping speech not speech shaping gesture. Gesture–speech unity means that speech and gesture are equals, and in gesture-orchestrated speech the dynamic dimension enters from the growth point. In a second version of the “strong prediction,” speech stops if continuing would break the GP apart. The absolute need to preserve the GP in successive awareness then puts a brake on speech flow, even when it means restarting with a less cohesive gesture–speech match up that doesn’t break apart the GP.

Gestures of course do not always occur. This is itself an aspect of gesture. There is a natural variation of gesture occurrence. Apart from forced suppressions (as informal contexts), gestures fall on an elaboration continuum, their position an aspect of the gesture itself. The reality is imagery with speech ranging over the entire continuum.It is visuoactional imagery, not a photo. Gesture imagery linked to speech is what natural selection chose, acting on gesture–speech units free to vary in elaboration. As what Jan Firbas called communicative dynamism varies, the gesture–speech unit moves from elaborate movement to no movement at all. To speak of gesture–speech unity we include gestures at all levels of elaboration, including micro-level steps.

An example of the difference it makes is a word-finding study by Sahin et al of conscious patients about to undergo open-skull surgery, from which the authors conclude that lexical, grammatical and phonological steps occur with distinctive delays of about 200 ms, 320 ms and 450 ms, respectively. We hypothesize that gesture should affect this timing for the 1~2 seconds the orchestration lasts(no gestures were recorded in the Sahin study). If the idea unit differentiating a past time in a field of meaningful equivalents begins with an inflected verb plus imagery,does the GP’s on flashing wait 320 or 450 ms? Delay seems unlikely (although would be fascinating to find). It may be no faster (and perhaps slower) to say “bounced” in an experiment where a subject is told to make the root word into a past tense than to differentiate a field of equivalents with past time gesturally spatialized and the gesture in this space.

To see gesture as orchestrating speech opens many windows—how language is a dynamic process; a glimpse of how language possibly began; that children do not acquire one language but two or three in succession; that gestures are unique forms of human action; that a specific memory evolved just for gesture–speech unity; and how speech works so swiftly, everything (word-finding, unpacking, gesture–speech unity, gesture-placement, and context-absorption) done in a couple of seconds with workable (not necessarily complete)accuracy.

Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals – My Linguistic & Political Awakening

Chomsky Ideas and Ideals

Credit to

Blog post by Neil Smith, co-author of  the recently published third edition of Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals

Neil Smith disuses his experience of the 60’s and explains what Chomsky’s lectures at MIT were really like…

1962: I had embarked on a linguistics PhD on the Northern Nigerian language Nupe. To do the necessary fieldwork I hitch-hiked to Nigeria and lived in a mud hut for a year. It was an exhilarating if sometimes lonely time.

1964: On the basis of my PhD I was given the position of lecturer in West African languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London – it was easier in those days to get a tenured University job than it is now to get a new carpet.

1966: After two years I was getting desperate. SOAS was claustrophobic and faintly racist. The standard position in the Africa department was that “African languages are not like other languages” so cannot be described by any linguistic theory, least of all any American linguistic theory. I needed to escape. So I applied for a Harkness Fellowship and went to MIT to try to find out what Chomsky was doing.

To my dismay, when I arrived Chomsky was away on sabbatical. But waiting for his return (in January 1967) gave me time to catch up with what was going on since Aspects had been published in 1965. I discovered that Generative Semantics was rampant: J.R. (Haj) Ross and George Lakoff were in the ascendant, giving phenomenally popular lectures, and the consensus was that Chomsky’s edifice was crumbling.

At this point Chomsky began the course of lectures that became “Remarks on Nominalization”, published in 1970. They were amazing for the clarity of his analyses, the rapier-like thrust of his argumentation, and the originality of his position. Among other contributions these lectures saw the beginning of X-bar theory, the first sketch of the lexicalist hypothesis, and the further development of feature theory with the startling suggestion that the distinction between features and categories might be eliminated. These lectures led to the rout of his opponents and presaged the demise of Generative Semantics. This was despite the fact that the ostensible target of his lexicalist position was Bob Lees rather than Ross and Lakoff (who were in the audience) or Jim McCawley and Emmon Bach (who put in occasional appearances). It was some years before I really understood all the issues – and 1999 before the first edition of Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals appeared. This was my linguistic awakening.

The obvious power and breadth of Chomsky’s mind become even more apparent when one realises that throughout this period he was spending most of his time on activism against the Vietnam War. This was a time of turmoil in the States: Students for a Democratic Society were encouraging draft resistance, confrontations between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators on Boston Common were commonplace: often with the police having to defend those like Chomsky who were protesting against the war from those defending it. I had barely been aware of the Vietnam War – I had just accepted the jingoistic characterisations in the media of episodes like the debacle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. As always, Chomsky was able to put things in a wider perspective on the basis of an encyclopaedic grasp of the literature, most strikingly demonstrated when he quoted a 700 page dissenting position by one of the members (Pal) of the Tokyo Tribunal. I hadn’t even heard of the Tokyo Tribunal. My political naiveté was beginning to be dispelled in the same way as my linguistic naiveté. This was my political awakening.

2015: Half a century later Chomsky is still contributing fresh ideas in linguistics, and he is still dissecting the lies and misrepresentations of government and big business. It is hard to keep up, but the third edition of Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals, written jointly with Nicholas Allott is about to appear. That will bring you up to date.

The Press Language Research team confirms the growing consumerism of Christmas

Seasons-Greetings-Cambridge ExtraPost written by Louisa Ackermann, Communications Executive, Cambridge University Press

The Language Research Team at Cambridge University Press have investigated the language surrounding Christmas and they have confirmed that the way we talk about the festive season has become increasingly consumerist.

The researchers have reviewed more than 2 billion words from their English Language Corpus and compared the language we use about Christmas today with data collected in the 1990s. They found that twenty years ago, people across the English-speaking world were far more likely to mention carols, pantomimes, pudding, stockings and crackers when they referred to Christmas.

But today, the words sales, spend, shopping and retailers were amongst the most highly associated with Christmas.

The study identified that excess is now on our minds in more ways than one. The words party, goodies, bash, frolics and knees-up were also all on the rise in the more recent data… and we’re paying the price. Since the 1990s, hangover has become one of the 50 top words commonly associated with Christmas.

Laura Grimes, Language Researcher at the Press, said: “With wall-to-wall advertising from retailers and increasing mentions in the media, we would expect to see a rise in the frequency of materialistic words in the recent data.

“What is surprising is how prominent the influx of these words has been and how they now account for such a significant proportion of the words used in association with Christmas. If that appears a depressing finding, we can take heart from the fact that Father Christmas, tree, cards and decorations remain amongst the most common language associations with the holiday season.”

The Cambridge festive study is still ongoing with the team continuing to gather more data in the run up to Christmas. The aim of this research is to identify the countries where people are most and least excited about the festive season and how our moods change throughout the holidays. A visual representation of the real-time data from social media can be found here: ​​

5 New Linguistics Textbooks from Cambridge University Press

Blog post by James McKellar, Retail Marketing Executive for Linguistics at Cambridge University Press.

I wanted to share a post with our linguistics followers about a few exciting new textbooks we have recently published here at Cambridge. For lecturers looking for inspection copies please follow the links through to the relevant books pages to order. Enjoy!

 5) Introducing Morphology 2nd edition by Rochelle Lieber

Introducing Morphology I Cambridge University Press Morphology is the study of how words are put together. A lively introduction to the subject, this textbook is intended for undergraduates with relatively little background in linguistics. Providing data from a wide variety of languages, it includes hands-on activities such as ‘challenge’ boxes, designed to encourage students to gather their own data and analyze it, work with data on websites, perform simple experiments, and discuss topics with each other. There is also an extensive introduction to the terms and concepts necessary for analyzing words. Unlike other textbooks it anticipates the question ‘is it a real word?’ and tackles it head on by looking at the distinction between dictionaries and the mental lexicon. This second edition has been thoroughly updated, including new examples and exercises as well as a detailed introduction to using linguistic corpora to find and analyze morphological data.

Find out more about Introducing Morphology 2nd Edition by Rochelle Lieber

4) El Español de los Estados Unidos by Anna Maria Escobar & Kim Potowski

El Español de los Estados Unidos I Cambridge University PressHow long has Spanish been spoken in the US and how many people speak it today? Is Spanish being passed down through generations? What role does Spanish play in US Latino identity? Analysing and synthesising data from a wide variety of sources, Escobar and Potowski explore these questions and more in this up-to-date textbook for students of Spanish language, linguistics, bilingualism, sociolinguistics, culture, and history. • Over 150 exercises help students engage with the linguistic characteristics of Spanish, Spanish-dialect contact, bilingualism, and Spanish communities in the US • Exercises and examples refer students to external, online sources so they can experience Spanish through a range of media • Concepts are clearly defined with detailed examples for readers who may not have a background in linguistics • Misconceptions about Spanish varieties and Latino communities are addressed, ensuring readers will emerge with a clear understanding of how Latino communities vary linguistically and socioculturally.

Find out more about El Español de los Estados Unidos

3) Second Language Speech by Laura Colantoni, Jeffrey Steele & Paola Escudero

Second Language Speech I Cambridge University Press

Second language acquisition has rapidly grown as a field over the past decade, as our knowledge of the ways in which children and adults learn and use a second language has become crucial for effective language teaching. In addition to this important ‘applied’ function, research into second language acquisition has also informed the fields of linguistics and psychology in general, as it has shed light on the differences between native and non-native models of human language and cognition. The focus of this accessible new book is second language speech – that is, how speakers perceive, process, understand and pronounce the sounds of a second language. Each chapter includes review questions, and most chapters include ‘tutorial’ and ‘lab’ sections with practical exercises based on the University of Toronto Romance Phonetics Database (available online for free). The book also has a companion website, containing illustrated answers to the exercises, scripts for running acoustic analyses and useful weblinks.

Find out more about Second Language Speech Theory and Practice

 2) Exploring Language and Linguistics by Natalie Braber, Louise Cummings & Liz Morrish

Exploring Language and Linguistics I Cambridge University Press

Exploring Language and Linguistics considers the key concepts of linguistics and the application of these concepts to real-world settings. The first eight chapterscover the standard topics of introduction to linguistics courses, while subsequent chapters introduce students to applied topics such as media discourse, literary linguistics and psycholinguistics. Each chapter has been written by a subject expert and experienced teacher, ensuring that the text is both up-to-date and clearly presented. Numerous learning features provide extensive student support: exercises allow students to review their understanding of key topics; summaries encourage students to reflect on the main points of each chapter; figures, photos, tables and charts clarify complex topics; and annotated suggestions for further reading point students to resources for self-study. A companion website, with 170 self-test questions, suggested group exercises, audio files and links to additional web resources, completes the learning package.

Find out more about Exploring Language and Linguistics

Click the video below to watch an interview with Natalie Braber on Exploring Language and Linguistics

Exploring Language and Linguistics I Cambridge University Press

Natalie Braber Author Interview

 1) Pragmatics and Discourse Disorders by Louise Cummings

Pragmatic and Discourse DisordersAn essential study aid for students of speech and language pathology, this highly practical workbook includes short-answer questions and data analysis exercises which help students to test and improve their knowledge of pragmatic and discourse disorders. The book contains a detailed examination of the causes, language and cognitive features of these disorders and includes frequently encountered clinical populations and conditions that are overlooked by other texts. The use of actual linguistic data provides readers with an authentic insight into the clinical setting. • 200 short-answer questions help students to develop and test their knowledge of pragmatic and discourse disorders • 67 data analysis exercises provide readers with real-life clinical scenarios • Fully worked answers are provided for all exercises, saving the lecturer time and allowing the reader to self-test and improve understanding • A detailed glossary of terms makes the text a self-contained reference tool • Carefully selected suggestions for further reading are provided for each chapter.

Find out more about Pragmatics and Discourse Disorders



For more information on our new and forthcoming textbooks from Cambridge please visit

Getting the Right Balance: Pragmatics in Speech and Language Therapy

Pragmatic and Discourse Disorders

Blog post written by Louise Cummings author of Pragmatic and Discourse Disorders.

The clinical education of speech and language therapy (SLT) students in the UK is a tightly regulated process. No less than three bodies have SLT education within their purview. These bodies are the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT), the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). Each of these bodies has a particular role to play in SLT education. The RCSLT provides curriculum guidelines and sets good practice guidelines for the education and training of SLTs and for their continuing professional development. The QAA provides subject benchmarks for SLT. These benchmarks stipulate baseline outcomes which a graduate in SLT will have achieved at the time of graduation. The HCPC is the statutory regulatory body for SLTs and other healthcare professionals. It specifies standards of education and training for SLTs among a range of other standards (e.g. standards of conduct, performance and ethics). Linguistics is so integral to SLT education that each of these bodies makes reference to it within their respective requirements for education providers. Within its guidelines for pre-registration SLT courses in the UK, the RCSLT states that:

‘The content of the linguistics and phonetics strand of the curriculum should facilitate an understanding of those concepts and constituents of Linguistics which underpin speech and language therapy theory and practice. The curriculum should address both typical/atypical patterns and processes of linguistics and phonetics. Study in this area must include linguistics (phonetics/phonology, semantics, lexicon, morphology/syntax and pragmatics), psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, sociolinguistics and multilingualism’. (2010: 34)

However, when one examines these guidelines in depth, it becomes clear that not all branches of Linguistics are afforded the same significance. The phonetics provision of SLT curricula is specified in considerable detail across the areas of articulatory phonetics, acoustic phonetics, hearing and speech perception. The requirements to provide a clinical education to SLT students in conversation and discourse analysis are addressed within just two bullet points.

Students must have an understanding of:

• Theoretical models and frameworks of conversation and discourse

• Current approaches to analysis of pragmatics, conversation and discourse

It was with a view to redressing this imbalance in the Linguistics education of SLT students that I wrote Pragmatic and Discourse Disorders. This workbook sets out from the position that pragmatic and discourse disorders have been marginalized for too long in the clinical education of SLT students and that it is now time for these disorders to have the same status as speech sound disorders or disorders which affect the syntax and semantics of language (e.g. specific language impairment). There are two reasons why this should be the case. Firstly, it is pragmatic aspects of language which are most closely associated with social communication between speakers and hearers. The importance of social communication to psychological well-being and social functioning is increasingly being recognized. This relationship is acknowledged by the inclusion of Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder for the first time in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Secondly, if the ‘development and consolidation of skills in practical phonetics […] entails a considerable investment of time over an extended period’, as the RCSLT guidelines state, then the same is true of skills that are needed to assess pragmatic aspects of language. A workbook which has those skills as its focus is the place to begin that development.


American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Cummings, L. (2015) Pragmatic and Discourse Disorders: A Workbook, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (2010) Guidelines for Pre-Registration Speech and Language Therapy Courses in the UK, London: Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.


Acceleration in the bilingual acquisition of phonological structure: Evidence from Polish–English bilingual children

BIL SI Cover 2015Blog post written by Marco Tamburelli based on an article in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 

The Polish language is well known for its broad range of consonant sequences. Among other things, Polish words may begin with consonant sequences that in languages like English are only allowed in word-medial or word-final position. The sequence /pt/, for instance, is found in the middle and at the end of English words such as raptor or apt, but never at the beginning. In Polish, however, we find words such as ptak (meaning ‘bird’), with the sequence /pt/ occurring word-initially. English does have some types of word-initial sequences that are similar to the /p/> type, notably /st/ as in “stain”,  /sp/ as in “spin”, and /sk/ as in “skate”, but these are a proper subset of the sequences found in Polish.

In this paper we wanted to investigate whether children who acquire English together with Polish might be at an advantage when it comes to consonant sequences. We reasoned that Polish-speaking children might rely on their knowledge of the phonological “superset” provided by the Polish system to buttress their development of a “subset” system such as the one required by English consonant sequences. To test this hypothesis, we examined the production of consonant clusters in simultaneous Polish–English bilingual children and in language-matched English monolinguals (aged 7;01–8;11) using a nonword repetition task. The “nonwords” were made up of sound sequences that follow English phonotactics but that are not actual English words, in order to control for potential prior learning effects.

Our results showed that the Polish-English bilinguals consistently outperformed the English monolinguals in the production of English-like nonwords beginning with /st/, /sp/, and /sk/. These results indicate that exposure to a language with a broad range of word-initial consonant sequences can accelerate the development of a second language whose consonant sequences are a proper subset of the first. While crosslinguistic influence in bilinguals has been reported numerous times, this is the first time it has been found to positively affect word-initial consonant sequences.

These findings have a number of implications for our understanding of the development of bilingual phonology as well as for competing views of phonological organisation and phonological complexity.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Acceleration in the bilingual acquisition of phonological structure: Evidence from Polish–English bilingual children’ here

Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 2)

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

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

Old World Map

Image: via Creative Commons.

Bones and pots found in archaeological digs do not talk. Yet, as discussed in detail in our book, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, we can use the tools of paleo-linguistics to search for the PIE homeland. The general idea is simple: the reconstructed vocabulary of the ancestral language is examined for clues as to its speakers’ physical environment and modes of subsistence. Thus, speakers of a language that has words for ‘snow’, ‘sleigh’, ‘reindeer’, and ‘seal’ must live in a very different place from those of a language with words for ‘palm’, ‘coconut’, ‘rice’, and ‘elephant’. Based on the consensus reconstructions of PIE, its speakers must have lived in a temperate environment, where snow, birch trees, beech trees, and wolves were common features, but salt-water bodies were not. Reconstructions of words for ‘rye’, ‘barley’, ‘sickle’, and ‘to plough’ tell us that PIE speakers had agriculture, while words for ‘sheep’, ‘goat’, ‘pig’, and ‘cattle’ mean that they raised animals. But perhaps most revealing, and at the same time most controversial, are the reconstructed roots *ek’wos- ‘horse’ and *kwekwlo- ‘wheel’ (which survived in English in equestrian and wheel). Since the earliest archeological evidence of wheels and horses dates from about 3500 BCE, the logic of the paleo-linguistic argument tells us that PIE could not have been spoken earlier than that—a timeframe compatible with the Steppe but not the Anatolian theory. The steppe zone is also the most likely place in which humans first came into close contact with wild horses and eventually domesticated them. Other clues, which likewise strengthen the Steppe theory, can be found among loanwords from neighboring languages such as Proto-Uralic, the ancestor of today’s Finnish, Hungarian, and Samoyedic languages, spoken in northwestern Siberia.

But words alone, Martin Lewis and I argue, cannot tell the whole story and sometimes can be highly misleading. Approaches to the Homeland Problem relying exclusively on lexical data—from glottochronology, which was first explored in the 1950s and has since been discredited, to the Bayesian phylogenetic methods employed by Russell D. Gray and his colleagues in recent work—produce notoriously unreliable results because words are subject to speakers’ conscious choices and are easily and frequently borrowed from one language into another. Grammatical structures offer more reliable evidence of family relationships but they are harder to convert into workable binary input for Bayesian calculations. For example, models that rely on lexical data usually show Romani, the language of the Gypsies, as much more distinctive within the Indo-Aryan branch than it actually is, dating its divergence to 2,500-3,500 years ago. In reality, Romani gained a distinctive lexicon not because it diverged from its “sibling languages” a long time ago but rather because it was in contact with, and picked numerous words from, other languages on its path from northern India to Europe, such as Persian, Armenian, and Greek. A look at its structural properties, such as its gender and case systems, indicates that Romani must have split off from the other Indo-Aryan languages only about 1,000 years ago. This more recent date of the Roma exodus from northern India is now confirmed by genetic studies.

Rapid migrations, such as the trek that the Roma made at the turn of the second millennium CE, are key to understanding both population distribution and the spread of languages. In the historical record of the Indo-European language family, such swift population movements, almost instantaneous at the relevant time scale, happened many times: Latin spread with the growth of the Roman Empire, Russian advanced east with the colonization of Siberia, and Norse speakers settled the previously uninhabited Iceland (and for a while also Greenland), to give just a few examples. Yet, recently proposed computational models often take into account only one mechanism of language spread: demic diffusion, a slow and random population movement in all directions, impeded only by water. Such models cannot handle quick migrations, and hence necessarily postulate a much slower spread of Indo-European languages and, as a result, a much earlier date for PIE.

The preceding discussion of the importance of migration, however, should not obscure another well-known fact: although languages often spread through the movement of the people who speak them, they do not always travel with genes. Consider, for example, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. In addition to the physical descendants of the Anglo-Saxon invaders, Roman soldiers stationed in Iberia, and East Slavs from the Kievan Rus’, these languages are spoken today by millions of genetically-unrelated individuals—and entire indigenous groups—found in such regions as in Alaska, the Andes, the Amazonian rainforest, Australia, the Caribbean, and Siberia. Consequently, genetic studies that reveal patterns of migration and admixture of various groups sometimes help us figure out certain pieces of the Indo-European puzzle, but they cannot provide conclusive evidence of the PIE homeland.

As the book unfolds, Martin Lewis and I take the reader through a maze of findings from historical linguistics, archaeology, historical geography, and genetics, allowing one to interpret and reconcile these findings within a coherent narrative. Thus, the book is as much about methodology and epistemological issues—how we acquire or fail to acquire knowledge of the human past—as it is about the location of the Indo-European homeland itself. At the time when scientific research becomes increasingly collaborative and interdisciplinary, and when the general public increasingly needs to be able to assess scientific findings on a broad range of issues—from genetic history to climate change and genetically-modified foods—rethinking such epistemological issues becomes ever more critical.