Several long, tedious hours in the life of a philologist

One of the things I’ve been looking at recently is a particular grammatical pattern in various languages including Middle English (i.e. English as spoken in the period 1066 to 1470-ish). Simplifying matters a bit, in older varieties of English some verbs employed have in the “perfect” construction, whereas other verbs took be:

(1) I am comethou art gonehe is fallen …

(2) I have workedthou hast madeshe hath said …

In present-day English we basically only use have, so we use the following forms in place of those in (1):

(3) I have come, you have gonehe has fallen …

But when exactly did Middle English use have and when did it use be? The best way to answer this (the best I’ve been able to come up with at any rate) is to trawl through a great deal of text and see what patterns emerge. A body of texts put together for the purpose of trawling through to look for answers to particular questions in this way is known as a corpus. The corpus I’ve been using is the Helsinki corpus, a collection of texts up to the year 1710 – specifically the 609,000 words of texts from the period 1150-1500.

Obviously 609,000 words is a lot of words (The Lord of the Rings is about 480,000, for comparison, and my copy is 6.3cm thick in very small font). And the frequency of instances of what I’m looking for are pretty small: as a rough estimate, there about 6 instances of the perfect constructions in every thousand words, and only about 5% of all these constructions use be rather than have.

Thankfully advances in modern technology (specifically, in my case, the Microsoft Word search function) mean I don’t have to read through the entire length of the corpus hoping to spot the relevant constructions on the rare occasions when they do turn up. But even with the aid of the search facility, the process is still a rather drawn out one. There are two reasons for this: firstly, the irregularity of the verb to be, and secondly, the irregularity of English spelling in the period in question.

Regarding the first, observe that be in English has multiple different forms: beamareiswerewas etc. For one thing, there are simply more forms than we find for any other verb: compare the following:

(4) I am, you areI was, you were (different forms for different persons)

(5) I love, you loveI lovedyou loved (same forms in each tense regardless of person)

For another, many of the forms of be are completely different from each other, with no shared material. Thus, whilst all the forms of love begin with the letters lov- (love, loves, loved, loving), there is no sequence of letters which is common to all the forms of be.

To make matters worse, in Middle English there were even more forms of be. art, as in thou art, was very common, and there were also forms like they weren (= they were), sindan (= they are), he/she bið (= he/she is). To get the full picture, these need searching for as well.

This is compounded still further by the second problem: spelling. Spelling in Middle English wasn’t standardised and there was a great deal of variation in how words were spelled. Even for a little word like is spellings found include isissesse, ysyssehishys, hes, yes and so on and so forth. am is spelled ameomeamæm, ham … All these various spellings need to be taken into account for a comprehensive survey.

Some corpora may allow you to get around this sort of problem through tagging. In a tagged corpus, each word is associated with a tag which tells you what sort of word it is. The tags used vary, but some corpora specifically mark forms of be and have with their own particular codes, which makes them a lot easier to track down. Obviously, though, the corpus has to be tagged in the first place, which is a lot of work. This can be mitigated to some extent by getting a computer to do it for you, although computers aren’t 100% accurate at this sort of thing so it still needs to be checked by a real person.

After all this, what have I discovered? I’m approaching my word limit, so I’ll have to be quick, but basically verbs in English which took be in the perfect seem to have been either “change of location” verbs like gocome, fall or “change of state” verbs like become. This is interesting because – whilst languages which have this construction vary in how many verbs take be rather than have – there’s been a prediction that if any verbs take be they will include the change of location verbs, and if the class of be verbs is any larger than that it will include the change of state verbs. So Middle English supports that prediction.

In fact, the class of verbs which took be in Middle English is much the same as in modern French (where you say je suis allé(e) “I am gone” and not *j’ai allé “I have gone”). Might this be due to contact between English and French? Probably not, because the French spoken at the time of Middle English allowed be with a much larger set of verbs. This suggests we need to seek out a deeper explanation for the similarities, rooted in the psychology of linguistic processing.

Ultimately, then, I’ve found something out, and so all this corpus-trawling has been worth it.

Do you pronounce your ahs or your ars?

Do you pronounce your ars or your ahs?

One of the most salient differences between different varieties of English—most famously between the standard, prestige varieties of North America and those of most of the rest of the English speaking world—concerns rhoticity. Even if you’ve never heard the term, or given any particular thought to the phenomenon, I can almost guarantee that you’ll recognise it.

Rhoticity has to do with a sound change which began to affect some English varieties in the fifteenth century and then had its main period of fast expansion in the eighteenth century. This sound change deleted an /r/ (by then already pronounced in different ways in different dialects) in coda position—in layman’s terms, in all positions except before a vowel (for this reason linguists also sometimes use the term ‘nonprevocalic r’ to refer to the /r/s affected by this change). It left some traces on the pronunciation of the preceding vowel, lengthening it and for some vowels also changing their quality. This sound change has affected some varieties of English, such as British RP, but not others, such as General American—the two types are then referred to as non-rhotic and rhotic varieties respectively. The difference should be clear if you compare typical GA and RP pronunciations of words like ‘sister’, ‘car’ and ‘work’:

rhoticity sample words

In each case, the GA pronunciation preserves some relatively r-like gesture in the position where historically there was an /r/: a ‘retroflex’ gesture, involving curling the tongue-tip back towards the hard palate, which is relatively similar to the GA pronunciation of /r/ as a consonant before a vowel. By contrast, the RP pronunciation has no such r-like gestures: in ‘work’, the trace of the historical /r/ is shown by the fact that vowel is lengthened and has a different quality than it once had (as shown by the spelling, this word would once have had an ‘o’-like sound, perhaps [ɔ] or [o]); in ‘car’ the only trace is the lengthening of the vowel; and in ‘sister’, no trace remains at all.

The distribution of this sound change in different dialects is actually much more complicated than just American English vs. British English varieties. In the UK, it originally affected a series of varieties in the South East of England, the Midlands, the North of England (excluding some areas in the North West), and most of Wales—that is, the English spoken in these areas became non-rhotic. This left Scottish English, Irish English, and the varieties spoken in the West Country and some of the North West of England as rhotic varieties. However, the variety that has become most prestigious, at least in England—meaning that it has become associated with financial and political success and influence—is RP, which happens to be a non-rhotic variety. Because of its prestige, RP has exerted a lot of influence on other varieties in the UK, and as a result rhoticity has been consistently retreating into smaller and smaller regions. In some of the regions it was once completely general, such as the West Country, rhoticity is now primarily only found in the speech of older speakers, as young people are switching more to eastern, non-rhotic pronunciations.

Almost the inverse picture is found in North America. Here, immigrants from different parts of the UK brought different varieties with them: some rhotic, and some non-rhotic. Non-rhotic varieties were particularly well-established in the Southern States of the US and in New York City. However, the variety which has gained the most prestige in the US and Canada happens to be a rhotic one. As a result, the areas which preserve non-rhoticity have long been shrinking, often leaving older speakers with non-rhotic pronunciations while younger generations switch to rhotic ones.

These differences in the sociolinguistic and historical status of rhoticity in North America and the UK often make themselves felt in speakers’ creative and socially marked uses. As African American Vernacular English is a non-rhotic variety, in contrast to the prestige norm, speakers can choose to spell words in a way which indicates non-rhotic pronunciations to indicate that AAVE is the variety they speak: consider book titles like The Savvy Sistahs by Brenda Jackson, track titles like Whateva Man by Redman, or the stage name of rap artist DeAndre Cortez Way, Soulja Boy. This may be completely lost on speakers of British English varieties, for whom the non-rhotic pronunciation is the prestige norm.

Album cover by US rap artist Soulja Boy, demonstrating non-rhotic spelling  for

Album cover by US rap artist Soulja Boy, exhibiting non-rhotic spelling <Soulĵa> for <Soldier>

Nevertheless, non-rhotic spellings are also used in a creative way by speakers to communicate social information in the non-rhotic parts of the UK. However, here, the subtle difference is that such spellings do not point towards any specific variety spoken by the writer, and so don’t carry any particular ethnic or regional connotations: instead, they work simply by subverting the arbitrary, prestige orthographic norm. What connotations they carry thus have more to do with social background and attitudes to education and authority than they do with ethnicity.

Graffiti on the London overground showing non-rhotic spelling <neva> for <never> (taken from

Graffiti on the London overground, exhibiting non-rhotic spelling of <neva> for <never> (taken from

There’s lots more to say about the history and sociolinguistics of rhoticity in English, so I may return to it in a future post. For the time being, though, I’ll leave you with a hint about another interesting, related phenomenon: if you’d call something that tasted like oranges ‘organgey’, what would you call something that tasted like banana?

Instruments don’t kill people, Agents do

This is essentially a follow-up to my previous post, with a more practical focus, but it shouldn’t be necessary to read the earlier post to understand this one.

The pro-gun activists in the United States have a slogan: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” (parodied by Welsh rap act Goldie Lookin Chain in the song Guns Don’t Kill People, Rappers Do.) The basic idea, presumably, is that guns, being inanimate objects, clearly cannot take responsibility for killing: rather, the responsibility for killing lies with people who use guns to that end. (And therefore we should, the argument goes, focus our attentions on stopping people from using guns to kill people, not on getting rid of guns themselves.) Even if we disagree with the sentiments behind this, we have no trouble understanding what is meant.

This is an interesting use of language because, from a strictly literal viewpoint, it’s undeniable that guns do kill people. Not as animate, volitional “agents”, of course, but nevertheless Guns kill people is a perfectly acceptable English sentence. And indeed, it’s quite normal for inanimate, non-volitional “instruments” to be used as subjects: there’s nothing syntactically or semantically wrong with Scissors cut paper or The knife sliced easily through the soft, white cheese.

Perhaps, we might argue, kill is different from cut or slice – it requires an animate agent as its subject. (Maybe it’s a bit like eat, which can’t take an instrument as its subject: as I pointed out in my last post, we can’t usually say The fork ate the peas to mean “someone ate the peas with the fork”.) But this is clearly false: surely nobody has any problem with The avalanche killed the skier or Trains kill people who ignore red lights at level crossings.  

No, Guns kill people is fine (strictly speaking, at any rate). But the aforementioned slogan does highlight something interesting about attitudes to language: although there’s nothing ungrammatical or unmeaningful about a sentence with an instrument as its subject, there is nevertheless a feeling that volitional agents make better subjects, and perhaps that it may even be in some sense incorrect to use an instrument as a subject when an agent would be available instead.

We see something similar in the arguments by cycling campaigners (e.g. this article) regarding the use of language in journalism relating to road collisions. Often, newspapers phrase things along the lines of A car collided with a cyclist or A lorry ran over a pedestrian. This, the cycling lobby claims, is undesirable because it appears to remove responsibility from the drivers of motor vehicles: cars and lorries do not generally run into things of their own accord, but because of actions taken by their drivers. In other words, given that in such incidents there is an agent (the driver), it is infelicitous to promote an instrument (the vehicle) to the status of subject.

Of course, in parallel with the gun case, an inanimate thing like a car or lorry is a perfectly acceptable subject of a verb like collide or run over as far as grammar or literal meaning is concerned. But the cyclists’ arguments nevertheless highlight, and indeed rest upon, an intuition that volitional agents are once again “better” subjects than instruments. Ordinary users of English have an impression that some types of construction are preferable to others, even when both are technically acceptable: an impression which links closely to what linguists have described as “thematic roles” like agent and instrument. This intuition may seem to support the linguistic analysis that agents are subjects by default, and instruments are only promoted to subject status when an agent is absent.

(In other cases the line between what is merely inappropriate and what is grammatically/semantically unacceptable becomes blurred. The article I linked to gives the example of [the cyclist] collided with a van, referring to an incident where the van was driven into the cyclist from behind. We would probably think of the cyclist here in terms of the thematic role of “patient”: he was not the principle cause of the action, didn’t bring it about on purpose and was the participant most affected by it. Is the use of a patient as a subject syntactically acceptable (as the journalist would appear to think), even if it is an undesirable phrasing, or is it just wrong in every way?)

So: even though things like thematic roles may seem like quite abstract linguistic concepts, it appears that they do have a role to play in the ways in which even non-linguists think about language – and in what is deemed advisable not merely semantically and syntactically, but socially as well.

Silent Phonology

Something you might find surprising if you delve into sign language literature is the familiarity of the terminology. When you see the word phonology you probably think about the study of sounds. You might even be shocked to discover that there is phonology for sign languages. This post will explain how the phonological terms of spoken languages can be applied to sign languages.

Spoken language phonology identifies the smallest contrastive sound units of language. In spoken languages phonemes differ in various ways (for example, place of articulation, voicing or aspiration). We know that phonemes are contrastive in a certain language when we find minimal pairs where only one of these features differs. For example, when we say the English words came and game, we know that the only difference between them is the voicing of the first consonant but this contrast is enough for them to be considered two different words. Place of articulation (PoA) is also contrastive. Game and dame both start with voiced stops, but one is velar and one is (usually) alveolar and this marks them as separate words. However, certain speakers pronounce dame with a dental stop (some Scottish accents, for example). As alveolar and dental stops are not contrastive in English, both would be considered acceptable variations of the same word. What this tells us is that not all contrasts are meaningful in all languages. We find the same situation when we look at contrastive units of sign languages.

PoA is contrastive in sign languages as well as in spoken languages. In sign languages PoAs are not places along the vocal tract but are various body parts where a sign takes place. These are called Locations. The same exact sign produced in two different Locations yields two different meanings. SEE and TELL in British Sign Language (BSL) are identical apart from their Location (from the eyes for SEE and from the lips for TELL) and this difference is what gives them separate meanings. Location is the first of five parameters that make up the phonology of signs.

The second parameter is Handshape. There are many possible handshapes and each sign language uses a certain sub-set of these as meaningful components of the language. Again, we can identify the handshapes used in a particular sign language by looking for minimal pairs. BSL, for example, has a contrast between a fist with the little finger raised (the [I] handshape) and a fist with the thumb raised (the [Ȧ] handshape). When we keep all other parameters the same and change just the handshape, two different signs are produced, for example PRAISE and CRITICISE. There are also handshapes that are contrastive in other languages but not contrastive in BSL. In American Sign Language there is a contrast between a fist made with the thumb over the fingers and a fist made with the fingers resting on the thumb. BSL does not have this distinction and use of either handshape for a sign such as EUROPE would not alter its meaning.

The orientation of the hand used in a sign is the third parameter. Orientation is the exact direction in which the handshape faces (upwards/downwards, leftwards/rightwards and towards/away from the signer). Even in gesture we can see how important hand orientation is, as we get a very different meaning if we turn the two-fingered peace sign around. In Britain this is offensive, yet this orientation may be seen as simply a variant of the same meaning in other cultures. Again, we can find minimal pairs in BSL where the only difference between signs is the orientation of the hand, for example NOW (in some varieties) and BRITISH (the former having the handshape oriented palm up and the latter palm down).

Young Bieber has no idea how offensive he is being to Brits (and not just with his singing).

The fourth parameter in sign language phonology is Movement. This parameter concerns exactly how a handshape moves in a sign. LIVE and FEEL have the same location, handshape and orientation, but the movement (repeated up and down Movement or short upwards Movement) marks them as distinct signs.

The final parameter concerns the non-manual features (NMFs) of the sign. This parameter includes facial expressions and lip patterns. There are some signs that share the same Location, Handshape, Orientation and Movement and are only differentiated by NMFs. By including English mouthing alongside the sign, we can clarify whether a sign means GARAGE or GERMANY. As well as mouthing, there are facial expressions in sign languages that distinguish between signs. For example, the signs DEPRESSED and RELIEVED are differentiated only by the facial expression displaying these two emotions. There is also an NMF that marks negation (head shakes, mouth turns down and eyebrows raise and furrow). The sign MILK with the negation NMF becomes NO-MILK. At sentence level, NMFs can also turn a plain form into a question (through raising of the eyebrows and head tilt) so ALL-RIGHT can become the question form ALL-RIGHT?

These five parameters are the same across all sign languages and, like spoken language phonology, each sign language has restrictions on the way in which these parameters may combine. Certain combinations of these parameters are phonotactically illegal (for example, some Handshapes are not made in certain Orientations). Orfanidou et al (2009) found that when they presented BSL signers with phonotactically illegal nonsense signs, signers often used phonotactic knowledge to correct them. This suggests that native signers, like native speakers, have an underlying understanding of the phonotactics of their language.

Although phonology may at first seem about as far away as possible from the study of sign languages, I hope this post has shown that spoken language terminology and concepts can be successfully applied to another language modality. If you enjoy reading about sign linguistics, have a look at BSL QED’s short linguistics notes on BSL for more.

Sutton-Spence, R., & Woll, B. (1999). The linguistics of British Sign Language: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Orfanidou, E., Adam, R., McQueen, J. M., & Morgan, G. (2009). Making sense of nonsense in British Sign Language (BSL): The contribution of different phonological parameters to sign recognition. Memory & Cognition, 37(3), 302–15.

Sign BSL Dictionary

BSL SignBank


Edited18/03/15 to revise and clarify section on NMFs

Again again!

Again. A useful little word. Rather common. Rather uninteresting? Absolutely not! It’s kept a considerable number of linguists in work for the past 40 years. Consider this sentence.

Frederick opened the door again.

Now, what does ‘again’ add to the information conveyed here? It must be the case that Frederick had opened the door at some point before. This makes ‘again’ a presupposition trigger. The sentence it is part of does not just assert something – the proposition that Frederick opened the door – but also presupposes, or assumes, something else – that he had done it another time, and that other time was before the time that is asserted. This means that ‘again’ joins other additive particles like ‘too’, and ‘as well’ which behave in a similar way (consider, ‘Frederick opened the door too’, which presupposes that someone else also opened the door).


But the fun doesn’t stop there. Have a look at these two contexts for our ‘again’ sentence:

A: Frederick opened the door. The wind blew it shut.
B: Frederick closed the door.
Frederick opened the door again.

Context A is what we’ve been thinking about already. The important thing is that Frederick had opened the door before, somehow it was shut, and now he’s doing it for a second, or nth, time. But would you agree that Context B also works as a background for our sentence? And here Frederick has not opened the door before; he’s reversing what he’s just done, restoring the door’s state of being open. For this reason, the reading in Context A is often called repetitive, and in Context B restitutive.

Perhaps you’re thinking: what’s so surprising about this? Doesn’t this just make ‘again’ like loads of polysemous words that have several related meanings. (Think of ‘newspaper’ here: I read the newspaper that my friend works at). Well, some linguists (like Fabricius-Hansen, 2001) would agree with you. Others, noticing that in both cases there is repetition – either of the whole event of Frederick’s opening the door, or of the door’s state of being open – have tried another approach, one that has been fundamental to the development of decompositional semantics (Dowty, 1979).

The problem is that in Context B, what is repeated is not the action of opening the door (the verb ‘open’), but only part of that meaning, the end result – the state of the door’s being open. How can ‘again’ effect (or scope over, to use the technical phrase) only part of a verb’s meaning? Perhaps it’s because the verb’s meaning itself is made up of more basic building blocks. One solution (Dowty, 1979; von Stechow, 1996, Beck, 2005) is to decompose ‘open’ into CAUSE, BECOME, open (the capitals just tell us that these aren’t the same as English words, but rather semantic operators). Very informally, you then get something like this:

CAUSEFrederick (BECOME (openthe door))

We can then drop ‘again’ in at different spots, giving us the repetitive reading (a), and restitutive reading (b) – ‘again’ scopes over what comes in the brackets to the right:

a. again (CAUSEFrederick (BECOME (openthe door)))
b. CAUSEFrederick (BECOME (again(openthe door)))

This may seem neat, or it might strike you as like constructing a theoretical Taj Mahal to house a guinea pig. But actually it’s more appealing than that, because we can see that lots of telic verbs (that’s verbs with an inherent endpoint) work in the same way:

Mary closed the window again.
Bob locked the gate again.
Jane emptied the bucket again.
Philip painted the wall blue again.
Ted remembered the shopping list again.

Plus a host of other types of verb, that we don’t have time to get into here.

CC Yarl

CC Yarl

One intriguing point, though, is that breaking down the verb meaning into these more basic building blocks, between which, at the semantic level, ‘again’ can nestle, opens up perhaps more possibilities than we want.

CAUSEFrederick (again(BECOME (openthe door)))

What context would make this semantic structure true? Context A, certainly, but also C:

C: Gerry opened the door. Maureen closed it.
Frederick opened the door again.

Here the action of the window’s being opened is repeated, but not the whole event including the agent (Frederick). Do we ever get this interpretation? It’s hard to tell, because such Context C also entails Context B (repetition of the door’s being open), and it’s hard to disentangle our intuitions. In a study for my masters degree, I looked into real speakers’ intuitions (not those dodgy linguists’) about such sentences and got mixed results for whether scenarios like this are acceptable:

The recital began. Sue played the piano, then Anthony read poetry, then Sue played the piano again.

What do you think?

And that’s just the start of the fascinating properties of that innocent word ‘again’. Look out for another post, where I explore ‘again’, again!


Beck, S. 2005b. “There and Back Again: A Semantic Analysis”. Journal of Semantics 22, 3-51.

Dowty, D. 1979. Word Meaning and Montague Grammar. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Fabricius-Hansen, C. 2001. Wi(e)der and Again(st). In C. Féry and W. Sternefeld (eds), Audiatur Vox Sapientiae. A Festschrift for Arnim von Stechow. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. 101–130.

von Stechow, A. 1996. The different readings of wieder ‘again’: A structural account. Journal of Semantics 13: 87–138.

von Stechow, A. 2003. How are results represented and modified? Remarks on Jäger & Blutner’s anti-decomposition. Modifying adjuncts, 416–451.

A Secret Vice: Conlanging Tolkien-style

A secret vice – this was how J.R.R. Tolkien described his love of creating, crafting and changing his invented languages. With the popularity of his books and the modern film adaptations, the product of this vice is no longer as ‘secret’ as it once was – almost everyone will have heard of Elvish by now; some will have heard of Quenya and Sindarin; and a small number will have heard of more besides …

I started thinking about the theme of this post having read this article from the Guardian on constructed languages (or ‘conlangs’):

Conlangs can be used to add depth, character, culture, history among many other things, but I think that Tolkien’s invented languages are in a class apart from other famous invented languages, e.g. Klingon, Na’vi, Dothraki, Esperanto, etc.

What many people don’t know is that Tolkien’s Elvish languages weren’t ‘invented for’ the Lord of the Rings, or the Hobbit or even what was to become the Silmarillion. In fact, in many ways it is more accurate to say that these stories and legends were invented for the Elvish languages!

Tolkien’s Elvish languages began to grow at about the time of the First World War, and they continued to grow for the rest of Tolkien’s life. Tolkien gave to two of these languages, Sindarin and Quenya, the aesthetic of two of his favourite languages, Welsh and Finnish respectively. However, rather than develop comprehensive dictionaries and grammars of the Elvish languages, Tolkien approached their invention from a primarily historical and philological perspective – something that the other famous conlangs do not do to anywhere near the same extent.

Sindarin and Quenya were designed to be natural languages, i.e. languages with their own irregularities, quirks and oddities (like real-world languages) but whose peculiarities would make sense when looked at from a historical linguistic perspective. Furthermore, Sindarin and Quenya are related languages, i.e. they share a common (and invented!) ancestor. Whenever Tolkien compiled anything like a dictionary, it was more akin to an etymological dictionary or a list of primitive roots and affixes. He would build up a vocabulary using these roots and affixes then submit the results to various phonological changes (as well as language contact effects, borrowings, reanalyses, etc thrown in for good measure! Did you know that the Sindarin word heledh ‘glass’ was borrowed from Khuzdul (Dwarvish) kheled?). The result is a family of related languages and dialects.

But these languages and dialects needed speakers, and their speakers needed a history and a world in which this history could play out. Tolkien believed that language and myth were intimately related – the words of our language reflect the way we perceive the world and myths embody these perceptions and are couched in language, yielding a rich melting pot of associations. To appreciate something of what Tolkien might have felt consider the English names for the days of the week or the months of the year. Why do they have the names they do? What does this tell us about our heritage and cultural history? What does it say about what we used to think and feel about the world? Now imagine thinking like this about other words … I found out earlier this week that English lobster is from Old English lobbe+stre ‘spider(y) creature’ (incidentally, lobbe ‘spider’ provided Tolkien with the inspiration for Shelob, the giant spider from The Two Towers (or, if you’re more familiar with the films, The Return of the King)). That is the kind of philological delight Tolkien wanted Sindarin and Quenya to have, and they do (nai elyë hiruva)!

Do happiness and sadness taste like sweet and sour chicken?

It may sound a bit weird to you when you see this title; it did to me when I was invited to answer that question on a Chinese question website – ‘in Chinese, why do we use the same word sour to represent the taste of vinegar and the sad feeling when you hear a touching story?’ Several similar questions can be found on that website, such as ‘why do we use up/high for something good while down/low for something bad’, or ‘why does English use in to talk about time relation’. Fortunately (or not), my current work is about semantics, specifically about metaphor, which meant I could give an answer when they turned to me. And today, my blog starts from that story and will go slightly beyond to discover the question: when we mean ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ by saying ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’, do we really taste that in mind?


CC stu_spivack

CC stu_spivack

The whole story comes from the development of the so-called ‘contemporary theory of metaphor’ (henceforth CTM), which comes out of the field of cognitive semantics and is represented by Lakoff and Johnson and their book Metaphors We Live by (1980). Lakoff and Johnson’s idea is about the cognitive realisation and conceptual formation of metaphor. They classify metaphor as a mapping between two concepts in different conceptual domains, which turns ‘metaphor’ into a phenomenon at the level of concept formation. Lakoff and Johnson believe that metaphor, as a mirror, faithfully reflects our perception and cognition of the whole world, and such reflection is embedded in our daily language. The reason we use ‘up’ for happiness (e.g. ‘cheer up’) and ‘down’ for sadness (e.g. ‘his mood is low’) is not simply because we want to make our speech fancier; instead, we do feel ‘high’ and jump ‘up’ when we are full of joy, while we lower our heads when we are disappointed. They also claim that these metaphor mappings should be universal, since human beings should perceive these events in a similar way – which is also a fundamental proposal of cognitive linguistics.

The presence of CTM leads to an earthquake-like shift in the field of metaphor research. Our definition of ‘metaphor’ changes drastically due to their proposal ‘metaphor is a mapping at the conceptual level’. In the traditional view, such as a Gricean account (Grice 1989), a metaphorical sentence is always non-literal, and we can always sense the deviance when we hear someone saying to his lover ‘you are the cream in my coffee’. Under the framework of CTM, however, even some typical literal sentences can contain a conceptual metaphor. For instance, ‘her voice is sweet’, which sounds quite literal to most of native speakers of English and a lot of English learners, contains a conceptual metaphor PLEASURABLE EXPERIENCES ARE SWEET FOOD. (When we refer to conceptual metaphors, we use small capital letters to show that it is the mapping at the level of concept: ‘Pleasurable experiences’ is the target domain of the metaphor, and ‘sweet food’ is the source domain – see Barcelona 2000 for more examples). Pleasurable experiences could bring people a good mood, just like what sweet food does. The linguistic realisation of a conceptual metaphor is called a ‘linguistic metaphor’, although it may be classified as ‘literal’ in the traditional semantic view. Iconic conceptual metaphors identified by Lakoff and Johnson include argument is war, time is space, life is a journey and so on, – you won’t miss them if you read any article on CTM.

Let’s go back to our sweet and sour examples, with some analyses and counterexamples. Based on CTM, a series of interpretation of ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’ sentences are produced, which makes use of conceptual metaphors like PLEASURABLE EXPERIENCES ARE SWEET FOOD (Dirven 1985; Barcelona 2000), UNPLEASANT EXPERIENCE ARE SOUR OR BITTER FOOD (Barcelona 2000) and JEALOUSY IS SOUR/BITTER (Yu 1998; Buss 2000). These observations show that cross-linguistically sweetness is associated with pleasant experiences and joyful objects, while sourness is associated with the opposite. The reason for such association, as is inferred from the spirit of CTM, is that both the source domain and the target domain could evoke some similar cognitive effects. However, soon we will see that these basic conceptual metaphors cannot cater for all the possibilities that ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’ can present in different languages.

Although Lakoff and Johnson claim that conceptual metaphors exist across languages and cultures, the realisation of these conceptual metaphors varies in different languages, which means the mapping may not be really ‘universal’. Take our favourite example ‘sweet’. In a number of languages, the word ‘sweet’ is associated with nice feelings and delicate objects, for instance, ‘sweet music’ and ‘sweet voice’ in English, or ‘xinli ganjue hentian’ (feeling sweet in one’s heart) and ‘tianyan miyu’ (sweet sentences and honey words) in Chinese. But an extraordinary example is discovered in Japanese: the Japanese correspondence ‘amai’ (sweet) can be used to describe a naive person without any knowledge, which has an obviously negative implication. Such use is also transferred to Chinese, and I was totally surprised when one of my close friends said ‘ta taitian-le’ (he is too sweet) while her intention was ‘he is so naive’. There is even a semi-formulaic popular expression in Chinese ‘sha bai tian’ (lit. stupid, white and sweet) to describe ‘a super naive, super foolish person’. The use of ‘sweet’ for naivety is clearly not a part of the conceptual metaphor PLEASURABLE EXPERIENCES ARE SWEET FOOD.

Another interesting example is that both English and Japanese demonstrate the use (although limited) of ‘sweet’ when describe ‘a large amount’, which is reflected in ‘a sweet amount of time’ and ‘mizu ga amai’ (lit. the water is a large amount); in Chinese, however, this expression is absent. It is also difficult to cover the meaning ‘a large amount’ if we apply the conceptual metaphor PLEASURABLE EXPERIENCES ARE SWEET FOOD.

Such cross-linguistic differences lead me to question whether these associations are systematic or merely coincidental, or a combination of the two. It is clearly shown in the case above that the use of ‘sweet’ for ‘naive’ in Chinese is a borrowing from Japanese, while in English, the connection ‘naivety is sweet’ is totally absent. At that stage, we have three choices to explain this phenomenon. First, maybe we do have a conceptual metaphor NAIVETY IS SWEET FOOD; this argument is difficult to prove, because cognitively we cannot directly associate naivety with sweetness, and we also need to find the reason to explain why it only appears in a limited number of languages. Second, maybe ‘naivety is sweet’ is derived from some existing conceptual metaphors which have not been discovered yet, since ‘naivety’ is definitely not a pleasant experience; it is no less difficult to find the conceptual metaphor, however. Third, it is a mere coincidence that Japanese uses ‘sweet’ for naivety, which makes the seeming-conceptual-metaphor nothing. The use of ‘sweet’ for ‘a large amount’ in English and Japanese faces the same problem. Either we need to find a valid conceptual metaphor to cater for these expressions and explain why it is only present in some languages, or we should admit that it is not a metaphor at all, even though it involves some domain mappings.

These are the problems that challenge CTM today. Maybe humans systematically use ‘sweet’ to represent happiness because they feel good when they encounter the sweet flavour, but before we research all the possibilities in different languages and cultures, we cannot claim that this usage is universal, and we cannot attribute all the different usages to human cognition. We should always keep in mind that those cross-linguistic similarities might only be a coincidence or a result of semantic borrowing. When we use ‘sweet and sour’ to describe the mixture of happiness, unease and anxiety, it is possible that we use it only because it is a linguistic convention. Maybe we do not have a plate of sweet and sour chicken in our mind after all.

For more sweet and sour feelings, have a look at these references:

Barcelona, Antonio. 2000. ‘On the plausibility of claiming a metonymic motivation for conceptual metaphor’, in Antonio Barcelona (ed.), Metaphor and Metonymy at the Crossroads: A Cognitive Perspective (Walter de Gruyter), pp. 31–58

Buss, David M. 2000. The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex (Simon and Schuster)

Dirven, René. 1985. ‘Metaphor as a basic means for extending the lexicon’, in Wolf Paprotté and René Dirven (eds.), The Ubiquity of Metaphor: Metaphor in language and thought (John Benjamins Publishing), pp. 85–119

Grice, H. Paul. 1989. Studies in the Way of Words (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press)

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press)

Yu, Ning. 1998. The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor: A Perspective from Chinese (John Benjamins Publishing)

Tones like to move it

In my last post, I wrote about some characteristics of tones (among others, they can “float”) and the theory of their origin – the science of tonogenesis. I mentioned that tones are highly areal: They either have a huge presence in a language family (Niger-Congo & Sino-Tibetan) or hardly show up at all (Indo-European). Even among regions where tones show up in large numbers, there are still significant differences in how they typically behave. Traditionally, tonologists tend to concentrate on either African (esp. Bantu) tone languages or Asian (esp. Chinese) ones, with relatively little conversation between the two camps. This is partly due to historical reason, partly because the points of interests are so very different between these two groups of languages. I will use today’s and my next post to introduce salient characteristics of African and Asian tone languages, and show how their impact on our understanding of phonology and of course, language.

African tones are famous for their mobility. The Bantu language of Chizigula (aka Zigula), spoken in Tanzania and Somalia, provides a particularly striking example. In this language, a verb is either toneless, or one of its syllables carry a H (high) tone. When I talk about verbs, I am really referring to verbal stems, which you can think of the basic form of a verb without all the affixes. As it often happens in African languages, Chizigula has a rich morphological system, with potentially layers of affixes. The interesting thing is, when a Chizigula verbal stem with an H tone gets suffixes, the H tone always moves to the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable in the newly affixed verb. I said “always”, because the H tone is absolutely hellbent on moving, no matter how many syllables it has to jump in doing so. Consider the Chizigula verb for “request”, with and without suffixes, in (1).

(1a)     lómbez                    ‘request’

(1b)    ku-lombéz-a             ‘to request’

(1c)     ku-lombez-éz-a            ‘to request for’

(1d)    ku-lombez-ez-án-a       ‘to request for each other’

Example (1a) shows the verbal stem, /lómbez/, where the H tone is attached to the segment /o/, marked with an accute accent. We take this tonal assignment to be basic and “underlying”, given the verbal stem appears in isolation here. In (1b), with the addition of suffix -a, the H tone moves to the right to the now second-to-last syllable, /be/. In (1c) and (1d), with progressively more suffixes added, the H tone moves further and further to the right (no pun here, for those politically conscious), but true to its form it always ends up with the penultimate syllable, even when this means moving three syllables away from its underlying position.

So Chizigula tone is a travel freak. What’s so interesting about that? Well, as I alluded to in my last post, the consequence of this and other findings about tonal mobility is nothing short of revolutionary for phonological theory. One resultant insight is that tones are “autosegments”: they are autonomous and independent from segments, from which they can leave, across which they can move and onto which they can dock. Phonologists formalise this insight by positing separate tonal tier and segmental tier, linked by association lines. I won’t go deeper into the fine theory, except to say that this formalism, in essence, is what we today know as Autosegmental Phonology. The following graph depicts how the itinerary of Chizigula H tone is represented in this scheme.

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 20.04.23

H de-linking and re-association

The H tone is originally linked to the syllable /lom/; under the pressure to have all H tones docked onto the penultimate syllable, the H is delinked from /lom/ and re-links with the penultimate /be/. You can easily extend this scheme to (1c) and (1d): all you have to do is do the same delinking operation, and then re-link the H tone to /ze/ in (1c) and /za/ in (1d).

Another insight gained from Chizigula tones’ unusual migration pattern has to do with the problem of locality. Linguists tend to think that linguistic objects like tones can’t walk around unrestrained from where they should’ve been. In other words, there must be some kind of “locality condition”, by which objects only move to an adjacent position. Chizigula tones moving three syllables away from their underlying position obviously stretches our definition of adjacency. In response to this and other so-called long-distance processes, phonologists now recognise “relativised locality”, in contrast to the stricter version of “absolute locality”. In a nutshell, it’s not the absolute distance (x syllables or y segments) that determines adjacency, but whether there are obstacles along the path of movement. Chizigula tones can do long-distance travel because nothing intervenes on their path; if there were low tones in Chizigula and one of these should stand between H tone and the penultimate syllable, the H tone may well have to cancel its travel plan. One of the languages that do have this blocking effect is Luganda, where H tone spreads freely until encountering an L tone.

(2a) à-, bala, e-, bi-, kópo

(2b) à-bálá é-bí-kópo        ‘he counts cups’

When all the stems and affixes in (2a) stand alone, only the first syllable of /kópo/ has a H tone, and the prefix /à/ has a L tone; the rest are toneless. When these are strung together to form the sentence in (2b), the H tone has spread and occupied four syllables until stopped by the L tone on /à/. This is but one small example illustrating relativised locality – more examples can be found in vowel and consonantal harmony processes.

Thus in just one tonal process, a data point from a language spoken by around 20000 people, we have seen so much of tonal phonology, and tonal phonology at its best. From the way Chizigula H tone moves (and Luganda H tone stops moving), we have a solid piece of evidence showing how our brain manipulates mental objects – the autonomous movement of tones (Autosegmental Phonology) and the condition on their movement (relativised locality). Things will get still better, however, when we move to Chinese tone sandhi next time.

Further reading:

1. Autosegmental Phonology

Goldsmith, John A. 1976. An overview of autosegmental phonology. Linguistic Analysis 2. 23–68

Excellent slides on autosegmental phonology by Jochen Trommer. The figure from this blog is taken from his lide

2. Relativised locality

Nevins, A., & Vaux, B. (2004). The transparency of contrastive segments in Sibe: Evidence for relativized locality. GLOW, Thessaloniki.

Vaux, B. (1999). Does Consonant Harmony Exist. Presented at the Linguistic Society of America Annual Meeting.

How easy is it for somone to change their own grammar?

A few days ago, a friend of mine engaged me in conversation about gendered pronoun usage in English. After spending some time considering the topic, they’d decided it would be a positive political move to start using gender neutral terms by default—not assuming, in other words, that they could automatically guess the gender identity and pronoun preference of anyone they met. They wanted my view—as a linguist, as well as someone interested in queer and feminist politics—on the practicality of switching to entirely gender neutral pronoun use, and on which pronoun was the best option.

A lot of ink, both figurative and physical, has been spilt on the issue of pronoun choice and gender neutral pronouns. Most mainstream discussion of the topic has concerned how to refer to individuals of unspecified gender in formal writing. Traditional style manuals advocated using ‘he/him/his’ in this context, but this has been criticised from a feminist standpoint for a long time. To my ears—and, I assume, to others of my generation—using ‘he/him/his‘ to refer to individuals of unspecified gender now sounds stylistically weird nearly to the point of ungrammaticality. You’ll more commonly come across other solutions in formal writing, like ‘she or he / her or him / her or his’ or ‘they/them/their’.

In queer politics, the same need for a gender neutral pronoun also arises for a different reason. People who are neither female or male, or not solely female or male, such as nonbinary trans* people, may feel the need for a pronoun that doesn’t misgender them. In these spheres ‘they/them/their’ is common, but other alternatives are also used such as the so-called Spivak pronouns ‘E/Em/Eir’ as well as the gender neutral pronoun ‘ze/hir/hir’ used by some online genderqueer communities.

My friend’s proposal is radical, but is not unique. One similar example you may have come across in the news in the last few years comes from Sweden. Some preschools in Sweden such as Egalia in Södermalm practice genuspedagogik—pedagogy focused on highlighting the effect of gender on children in educational contexts—and aim to use the recently coined gender neutral pronoun ‘hen’ (instead of feminine ‘hon’ or masculine ‘han’) for all children. This pronoun is a convenient fit in Swedish: it obviously resembles the feminine and masculine forms, and it happens also to have the same form as the (gender neutral) 3rd person pronoun in neighbouring Finnish. It is beginning to gain a little ground in Swedish: it has been used in children’s books, in parliament and even in a published legal judgement.

In this post, however, our focus is on the linguistic issues involved. So can you just choose to use a new, gender neutral pronoun in lots of contexts where your native grammar specifies you should use a gender marked form? Will people understand you? If it is possible, which of the various options are preferable?

Introducing a new pronoun into a language is an unusual enterprise. Languages add new words all the time and speakers have no trouble acquiring and using them, but these are what are referred to as ‘open class’ words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs. These classes of words are open in the sense that they can be added to and speakers have many strategies (derivational morphology) in their grammars for doing this. Consider a recently coined word like ‘selfie’: it’s immediately obvious how it has been formed and how that composition relates to its meaning. However, ‘closed class’ or grammatical words, such as pronouns, auxiliary verbs and prepositions, are much harder to coin. Speakers have no strategies for creating these words, but instead seem to list them as a fixed—closed—set in their mental grammars. So when we try to add a new one, we’re not really engaging in a normal linguistic process, and accordingly it’s a lot harder for such usage to become entirely automatic and unconscious in the way that most of our language use is. Anyone at home in queer social spaces is probably aware of how easy it is to make mistakes in using others’ preferred pronouns, especially when those pronouns are neologisms such as ‘E/Em/Eir’ or ‘ze/hir/hir’.

Nevertheless, there’s no reason to believe it an impossible task, and, I think, several good reasons to assume that it’s quite feasible. Speakers clearly do change their grammars over the course of their lifetimes, at least in minor ways, as they’re exposed to new grammatical variants through diffusion (that’s the spread of new forms between speakers). This is one of the normal processes of language change, and is going on all the time. Although this individual change is limited, the evidence is that the sort of changes that are easiest for adult native speakers to acquire are structural mergers—changes which remove a previously maintained grammatical distinction. And the introduction of a gender neutral pronoun is effectively just such a merger.

In addition, the target situation—one in which the 3rd person singular pronoun used in many, most or even all situations doesn’t encode gender—is perfectly normal, cross-linguistically. The map below (reproduced from WALS) shows gender distinctions in independent pronouns in languages across the world: white dots represent languages with no gender distinctions, and it’s easy to see that they’re pretty common.


So which gender neutral pronoun should my friend pick? Obviously this is primarily a political question. Nevertheless, I think that we get can another interesting insight here by comparing the introduction of a gender neutral pronoun to ‘normal’ (that is, not consciously initiated) language change. Generally, when innovative forms or usage patterns enter into a language, they do so by gradual spread along many axes: they spread between adjacent geographical areas, between interconnected social groups, by a gradual increase in frequency, and, crucially, gradually from linguistic context to linguistic context. A new form is generally innovated in a particular grammatical context from which it spreads, first to very similar grammatical contexts and eventually to very different ones. As a result, we’re relatively used to coming across and acquiring new usages that are partially familiar to us but have been extended to related-but-slightly-different contexts.

The proposed gender neutral pronoun that most resembles this ‘natural’ situation of language change is ‘they/them/their’. This already exists in most varieties of spoken Modern English as a gender neutral pronoun used in contexts where the gender of the referent is unknown or the referent is non-specific—in speech, sentences like ‘if someone wants a piece of cake, they should have one’ don’t sound at all marked. You might even come across it used by speakers where they are intentionally avoiding mentioning a referent’s gender, such as when maintaining the anonymity of someone in an anecdote. So where for the other proposed pronouns it would be necessary to introduce an entirely new form, for ‘they/them/their all that’s needed is to extend the use of an existing form into new—but clearly related—contexts.

Who or what does what or who or what has what done to it (with what) and different ways of saying this

Traditional grammar makes use of the terms “subject” and “object” to describe the roles of nouns in a sentence. Prototypically a subject does the action; an object has the action done to it, for example:

(1) Lucy reads the book
subject   object

Now this is all very well up to a point but when we want to use “subject” and “object” as general labels referring to the meaning of a noun in relation to an action, we run into problems even within a language like English (for some problems that arise cross-linguistically see my previous post). Consider the following:

(2) the book is read by Lucy

In this (passive) sentence, the book has the same relation to the action described by the verb as before, but it appears as the subject not as the object. In case there’s any doubt about this, consider the following pair of examples:

(3) Lucy loves me
subject   object
(4) I am loved by Lucy

I in (4) behaves exactly like a subject: it is in the nominative case (I and not me) and it triggers agreement with the verb (I am), as well as preceding the verb. Yet its relation to the act of loving is pretty much the same as in (3).

Linguists have dealt with this problem by coming up with the notion of thematic roles, employing labels like AGENT and PATIENT to describe them. Unlike the relations of subject and object, these remain constant whether the sentence is active or passive:

(5) Lucy reads the book
(6) the book is read by Lucy

Lucy is the agent in both sentences; the book is the patient.

Whilst linguists have not yet managed to come to any sort of agreement as what all the different thematic roles actually are, the notion nevertheless helps us in making a number of interesting observations. For example, a lot of verbs denoting changes of state can occur both as intransitives (with only one noun, or “argument”, involved in the action) or as transitives (with two arguments). This is the case for example with freeze (the words in capitals refer again to thematic roles):

(7) Nick froze the ice cream
(8) the ice cream froze

What happened to the ice cream is the same in both instances (it froze), and therefore it seems rational to give it the same thematic role (here labelled EXPERIENCER). In (7), though, the ice cream is an object; in (8) it is the subject. One possible analysis of this is that when the CAUSE argument (e.g. Nick in (7)) – to be understood simply as the argument which causes the change of state described by the verb to occur – is not expressed overtly, an EXPERIENCER is “promoted” into the now-vacant subject position.

This might, in fact, be similar to what we see in the passive. Compare example (4) above with example (9) below, where in the absence of an agent the patient is promoted to subject:

(9) the book is read

As a general rule, we might want to say that all sentences require subjects, and that while these are preferentially agents or causes, they may be patients or experiencers too if no agent or cause is available.

Another thematic role which has been suggested is that of INSTRUMENT. In the following example, this is the role of the knife:

(10) Tiberius sliced the bread with the knife

An instrument, informally speaking, is the thing which the agent uses to effect the action. But instruments can also occur in subject position, e.g.

(11) the knife sliced the bread

the knife here can still be considered an instrument: unlike a typical agent, it isn’t doing the action of its own accord, and we assume there is still some unexpressed agent responsible for the slicing. So we have another type of possible alternation: where an agent is omitted, an instrument may be promoted to subject position in its place.

It’s fascinating that as a result of alternations like this the subject of a verb can actually be associated with multiple possible meanings. To give some more examples, the following show that a subject of break might be associated with at least three different roles:

(12) Wilhelmina broke the window (with the snowball)
(13) the snowball broke the window
(14) the window broke

Equally fascinating is that in some cases these alternations can’t occur. For example, in Imhotep ate the peas with a fork, we have an instrument a fork – but eat can’t take an instrument as its subject like break or slice can: we can’t (generally) say *A fork ate the peas to mean “some unspecified person ate the peas with a fork”.

These possible and impossible alternations seem to suggest a lot about the nature of the lexicon and/or the grammar. They are therefore invaluable tools to linguists seeking to understand better how languages work.