Grow your own sentences

If you’re interested in language, chances are you’ve wondered about things like how we put bits of language –sounds, meanings and words– together to create some larger expression of communicative meaning. In other words, you’ve probably wondered at some point about how to make a sentence. If you’re been particularly keen and tried to read up about how linguists examine sentences, you’ve probably come across a bunch of funny-looking, often intimidating diagrams known as ‘syntax trees’. Unsurprisingly, many people are put off by the perceived complexity of a syntax tree, and are thus unable to go much further in their quest to understand how we make sentences. This post aims to resolve this problem by showing you the basics of how to grow your own syntax tree.

Why would I want to grow my own syntax tree?

Trees are important because they help us to understand how (and perhaps even why) we put linguistic items together when creating a sentence, since the pattern underlying a sentence isn’t necessarily the same as what we see on the surface. For example, Groucho Marx’s famous line ‘I shot an elephant in my pyjamas’ is dependent on two different syntactic structures for the humorous double meaning, enabling the one-liner ‘and how he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know’. If you can ‘grow’ your own sentence tree, you’ll be able to map out the patterns, and therefore uncover the underlying differences in these structures, for yourself.

Sowing the seeds: the basics


A syntax ‘tree’

Before we start, it’s worth remembering that the theory behind growing a syntax tree is still a work in progress; although linguists tend to agree on some fundamentals, there’s not necessarily a right or a wrong way of sowing the seeds and pruning the tree. Here, our basic syntax tree has the following: a verb-based “root”, a tense “trunk” and a sentence “crown”.

Our tree is anchored by its roots: the verb from which the rest of the sentence grows. A verbal ‘root’ (“VP”; ‘P’ stands for ‘phrase’) in English could be: grow, inspect, calculate, shake, wriggle.

Of course, we can’t have a tree without a trunk: likewise, we can’t have a verb unless it is appropriately modified to illustrate tense (or similar inflection). To illustrate tense (“TP”), we might need to modify a verb to show that is an infinitive, e.g. to grow, to inspect; or a present, past or future tense: (he) shakes, calculated, will wriggle.

Tree Structure

Tree Structure template

Finally, just as a crown tops off a tree, in a syntax tree, the ‘crown’ (“CP”) tops off the structure and tells us (amongst other things) what type of sentence we’re dealing with. Question words (e.g. ‘how many?’) and subordinators (e.g. ‘that’, ‘if’) go here, indicating ‘interrogative’ and ‘embedded sentence’ respectively. For the basic trees we’re growing here, we don’t need a CP, but in a real-life sentential forest, you’d of course want to sow sentential seeds that will grow into different types of sentences.

From seeds to sapling: your first syntax tree

All units are grouped together in twos, and are represented by a binary ‘branch’ (a triangle without the bottom line) in the tree. The more our sentence grows, the more the branches on our tree grow.

'Tense' and 'Verb' slots filled in

‘Tense’ and ‘Verb’ slots filled in

The three-level structure CP-TP-VP gives us our core sentence (or ‘tree’) template, but you’ve probably noticed there’s something missing: the ‘actors’ that take part in the ‘scene’ described by the verb, e.g. she will eat a cake. Now, in the surface structure, she is higher than the tense (will) and the verb (eat), but, as you might agree, the participants are a pretty crucial part of the sentence. A participant doesn’t denote sentence type (CP) or tense (TP). Instead, sentence participants are involved in telling us who does what to whom.

We already know that the ‘doing what’ is illustrated by the verb (i.e. ‘doing’ is the action, and ‘what’ is the actual meaning of a verb), anchoring the ‘root’ of our sentence. It stands to reason that the who and to whom also anchor the sentence within its ‘roots’. Indeed, there is a lot of cross-linguistic evidence for this, but all we need to know for now in order to grow our tree is that the participants – the subject (the “who”) and the object (the “(to) whom”) – originate at the roots of our tree, too.

Since all units are grouped together in twos, we next need to work out what groups together with what: in a sentence like ‘she will eat a cake’, the verb can only group first with either the subject (‘she’) or the object (‘a cake’). This initial grouping can then group with whatever’s left over, to form a larger unit. To work out what groups with what, we can ask the following questions:

Question: What will she do?

Answer: Eat a cake. ✓


Question: What will happen to the cake?

Answer: She will eat.  

Answer: She will eat it. ✓

From the above questions, we can tell that ‘eat a cake’ (i.e. verb + object) form a complete group, whereas ‘she will eat’ (i.e. subject + verb) do not. We need to substitute in ‘it’ to complete the latter phrase, i.e. we need to put an object in to make it work. This suggests that the verb + object combination is our first grouping because it can stand alone (subject + verb cannot). The subject + (verb + object) combination must be our second grouping. Indeed, ‘she will eat a cake’ can stand alone as a functioning phrase, as exemplified by the following question:

Question: what will happen?

Answer: She will eat a cake.  ✓

Our sentence’s root structure must look like this:

Of course, ‘she’ is now in the wrong place for the sentence we are growing (note that we have grown a simple question though!). We must therefore look for somewhere where ‘she’ can move to in order for the sentence to make sense. There is only one slot remaining: just above ‘will’. And that gives us the correct surface order:

'She' moves from its origin in the VP to above the tense slot ('will'), in order to grow the correct surface structure

And there you have it. We have grown a syntax tree! Why not have a go and see if you can grow your own simple sentences? Here are some you might like to try:

  • He will dance the tango.
  • She would play a game.
  • We have read a book.
  • She shall have music.
  • You have met my mother.
  • Groucho had shot an elephant.

Does anyone speak the Queen’s English?

buckingham-palace-21976488In 2000, Jonathan Harrington and his colleagues at Macquarie University in Sydney wrote a series of publications on the Queen’s English. Literally. They compared a number of vowel sounds produced by the Queen in her annual Christmas messages from the 1950s to the same vowel sounds produced in the 1980s, and used female BBC broadcasters speaking standard Southern British English (SSBE) as a control group. The idea was to observe whether the Queen’s speech had changed over those 30 years, and whether it had moved closer to the English used by the control group. Their results indicated that not only had the Queen’s English changed quite substantially, it had changed in the direction of – though not reaching – the standard English produced by news broadcasters in the 1980s. Conclusion: the Queen no longer speaks the Queen’s English of the 1950s.

The articles, of course, sparked a lot of media interest. But is it really so strange that the Queen’s speech has changed? Firstly, with age, physiological changes to the vocal chords and vocal tract inevitably lead to changes in the voice. So the Queen’s pitch is physiologically speaking bound to have been lower in 1987 than when she was 30 years younger. Similar changes to the resonances of the vocal tract would have influenced the measures taken by Harrington and his colleagues. And secondly, language itself is not a stagnant entity. The way English is being spoken in the UK changes over time, as does the speech of smaller speech communities such as the royal family. Not even the Queen’s aristocratic English is immune to this tendency.

Does that mean the Queen will eventually end up sounding like the rest of us? The answer is, in all likelihood, no. While her speech in the 1980s does not sound quite as cut-glass as the broadcast from the 1950s, it still sounds unmistakably upperclass. Think of it this way: both her English and the SSBE English of the middle-class public are changing, so although her vowels are likely to continue to move towards Harrington et al.’s 1980s SSBE targets, the rest of us have long stopped sounding like that. In other words, she will most likely continue to speak the Queen’s English, it’s just that the Queen’s English, like any other language variety, is not likely to stay the same over time.

So what exactly has changed from the 1950s to the 1980s? If you listen to the two YouTube clips below, you’ll notice a wealth of interesting phonetic phenomena. For instance, in the clip from 1957, notice how she says the word “often” (/ɔːfən/, or orfen, around 0:55 in the clip), whereas in the 1987 Christmas message has her saying something closer to /ɒfən/ (or ofen) in the word “often” (at 2:33). Similarly, in the early clip her /uː/ vowel in “you” and “too” is very back, whereas in the later clip it’s more fronted, that is, closer to the vowel the rest of us are likely to produce. Another interesting feature to look out for is the second vowel in the word “happY”, which is produced like the vowel in “kit” in the early clip (e.g. “historY” at 1:22), but closer to the /i:/ vowel in the word “fleece” in the later clip. This latter point is further described and discussed in a later paper by Harrington and his colleagues (Harrington et al. 2006).

If you’re interested in reading more on the Queen’s English, here’s the link to a brief and non-technical paper in Nature, and here’s the longer and more phoneticsy full paper from the Journal of the International Phonetic Association.

(Thanks to Adrian Leemann, who presented Harrington et al.’s work at our Phonetics and Phonology reading group, thus providing the material for this blog post).

The Language of Light — how we imitate light with sounds

The inspiration for this blog post comes from a presentation I gave at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival (you can find my presentation here). The topic of the festival was Light and I took this as an opportunity to talk about how words in a language come to have certain meanings — and why in English we seem to use certain sounds when we refer to phenomena that have to do with light.

What does this sunset sound like?

What does this sunset sound like?

And this reflection?

And this reflection?

Consider the pictures on the right. Both of these pictures show certain types of light — I hope that you would agree that a fitting word to describe the sunset in English would be glow. In the second picture, the kind of reflection on the water can be described by the word glisten. We can repeat this with other kinds of light and chances are that you’d use words like gleamglitter, etc. So could we go ahead and suggest that words that start with the sounds [gl] always refer to light in some sense? And why would this be the case?

To explore this question, we can go ahead and formulate a hypothesis about English and see whether it is true.

Some sounds, like [gl], refer to the concept of “light”.

Signs: arbitrary and conventionalised

Before testing whether this hypothesis is true, we need to get an idea about how sounds of words and the meanings of words are put together. This is where things get interesting. The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure famously argued that the connection between sound (i.e. the way a word sounds, a signifier) and meaning (i.e. the concept a word refers to, a signified) is arbitrary.

This means that there is no inherent connection between a word like tree and the concept it refers to. There is evidence for this: the concept “tree” is referred to differently across languages and people generally don’t have any trouble associating different sounds with the same concept. (A lot more can be said about this, obviously.)

This can be taken further: the linguist André Martinet coined the notion of “double articulation” or “duality of patterning”. This means that meaningful words are made up of smaller units that are meaningless. Consider again the word tree. It is made up of three phonemes, a /t/, a /r/, and an /i:/. It is difficult to argue that /t/ refers to the trunk, /r/ the leaves, and /i:/ to the branches of a tree — or any other combination. Yet when put together in a certain order, speakers of English understand this sequence of sounds to refer to a particular concept involving a trunk, leaves, and branches (a very prototypical kind of tree).

Now this leaves us in a pickle: if de Saussure and Martinet are right, there is no way that a combination of sounds like [gl] can refer to any semantic concept: [gl] is not a “word” on its own, it is merely a sequence of sounds that do not have their own meaning. So why do we find these sounds showing up again and again in words referring to light? Before tackling that question, let’s look at a corner of language in which de Saussure’s arbitrariness is less pronounced (pun intended).

De Saussure was aware that not all signs are completely arbitrary: certain sounds are iconic. This means that the way they sound reflects the concept that they refer to. A well-known phenomenon of this sort is onomatopoeia (for lovers of Wikipedia lists, I recommend this gem). Onomatopoeia is interesting because it seems to provide counterexamples to the claim that all signs are arbitrary: is it a coincidence that words referring to snoring across languages have [r], [k] and [s] sounds in them?

These sounds obviously try to imitate the extralinguistic phenomena that they refer to, so in this sense they are not arbitrary. But they are not fully iconic either: as de Saussure also suggested, arbitrariness is one side of the sign-meaning coin. The flip side is “conventionalisation”. This means that while the sign-meaning connection is often arbitrary, it is not fully arbitrary. Not everyone makes up their own arbitrary sounds when they refer to trees! A language community uses certain sounds that are generally agreed upon to refer to a certain concept by convention.

Interestingly, the same holds for onomatopoeia. While snore might sound more like snoring than tree sounds like, err, a tree, when using the concept of snoring as a verb, speakers of English cannot help but use the conventionalised verb snore rather than merely imitate a snoring sound. The same force of conventionalisation can also be seen when comparing how different languages express animal noises, a classic example of onomatopoeia. In Hungarian, a pig’s grunt is referred to by röf röf. In English, it is oink oink. Both of these sounds are said to be iconic, yet they don’t even share a single sound! Part of the reason is that languages have different inventories of sounds, so röf röf wouldn’t even be a possible English word.

In an English speaking community, I cannot go around and expect people to understand what I’m referring to if I say röf röf, even if it sounds more like a pig than oink. In Hungarian and English, respectively, these two different sounds are the conventionalised ways of referring to pigs’ sounds (listen to a pig here).

Is there a language of light, then?

Where does this leave us with respect to light? We have seen so far that arbitrariness and conventionalisation exert a certain force on words in a language. There is an elephant in the room here, however. If onomatopoeia refers to words that sound like what they describe, how can we talk about iconic words referring to light? Light does not “sound” at all, so why should something like [gl] refer to light? How can a sound be iconic and refer to something visual?

An answer here is that this is due to history: in Proto-Indo-European, a hypothetical language spoken some 5500 years ago, a word like *ghel- (the “*” indicates that this is a reconstructed form)  meant shine ( This word was very successful and has survived thousands of years in forms like glow, yellow and others like glass, glitter, etc. So this is where the connection between [gl] and light in English comes from.

Speakers of English (or any other language), however, are not living etymological dictionaries, however, and this piece of information has to be looked up. Thanks to scores of Indo-Europeanists, we can actually do that (go and thank your favourite Indo-Europeanist now!). But what speakers of a community can do is associate a sound like [gl] with a concept like “light” because there are many words that sound similar and have similar meanings.

Back to our hypothesis: do sounds like [gl] refer to light? In a way, they can, but at the same time, words with [gl] do not have to refer to anything that has to do with light. Think glove. So our hypothesis is wrong, although we have seen that it is not straightforwardly wrong, and that there is a lot to say about “the language of light”.

One last thing — sign language!

Just like it might be strange to think about spoken language words imitating soundless phenomena like light, one can ask how onomatopoeia and iconicity work in sign languages. Isn’t sign language more likely to have an iconic expression for tree than spoken language is? A tree, after all, can be sensed visually more then by listening to it. At the same time, what about sign language and animal noises? Look at the following videos and see whether you can find out which one of these British sign language (BSL) refers to “light”.

Did you manage? In case you didn’t: don’t worry — sign languages use expressions that are arbitrary and conventionalised just like spoken languages. Like all other languages, they have some iconic expressions, but again, these have to follow certain conventions! (The first sign actually means tree in BSL, the second is sun or sunshine. The videos are all from the UCL British Sign Language SignBank.)

To sum up: all languages use signs that have a somewhat arbitrary connection between sound and meaning. But the degree to which this is the case varies, and certain parts of a language’s vocabulary are more iconic than others. Whatever the connection between sound and meaning, spoken as well as sign languages make up meaningful expressions from smaller, meaningless units, sounds and gestures, respectively.

So next time you hear a word that starts with [gl], you can think of Ferdinand de Saussure, André Martinet and this blog post and be fascinated by how we create meaning (and light) out of thin air!


A few weeks ago I think – though I can remember almost none of the details – I came across an article complaining about how emoticons (or “smileys”) were a terrible thing, symptomatic of declining standards of literacy and probably going to single-handedly bring about the end of civilisation within the next decade, or something like that. Even accounting for the slight possibility that I imagined the whole thing (possibly in a dream resulting from excessive exposure to linguistics), you don’t have to look far on the Internet to find not entirely dissimilar sentiments.

By “emoticons” I refer to those typographic representations of emotions (and occasionally other things), usually in the form of a stylised facial expression – e.g.


– but often converted into (sometimes quite badly designed) “actual” images depending on what social medium, text messaging service etc. you are using at the time.

So, are emoticons a portent of the apocalypse? I am inclined to think they are rather a fairly natural development of the way written language works. Compare ordinary punctuation: full stops and commas and things like that. When our alphabet was first being developed, people didn’t use punctuation at all, and even once they began to the details of their usage were very variable for a very long time. Something resembling our modern system of punctuation, with its complex (and disputed) rules about where or where not to put commas and its diverse range of standardised symbols including colons, semicolons, dashes, brackets, quotation marks etc. etc., only really arises around five hundred years ago. Many other writing systems continue to use little or no punctuation, and the symbols they do use are often only recently borrowed from the West.

So – in spite of contrived examples about the consumption of grandmothers or vegetation – people are demonstrably perfectly capable of getting on fine without punctuation. But nowadays nearly everybody uses punctuation unless they are simply ignorant of the rules or being deliberately avant garde. Why? Partially because punctuation, while not necessary for communicating effectively, is nevertheless useful.

What has this got to do with emoticons? Well, I think the same thing applies. We don’t absolutely need them, which is why some people say things like “I find it lazy. Are your words not enough?“. There are always going to be emoticon-free ways of communicating the same message, just as I could no doubt find a way to write this post without using any commas without hampering its intelligibility, if I so desired. But at the same time emoticons are helpful: it’s nice to be able to say “I am feeling happy/sad/confused about this” or “I am joking”, or whatever, without having to write out all those words, just as using commas gives me an advantage in communicating how a sentence should be parsed.

In our writing, the letters of the alphabet only communicate what linguists call the “segmental” aspects of our speech. Now, this is perfectly adequate to convey much meaning – indeed, many writing systems (e.g. Arabic) get away with even less, by omitting vowels and only writing consonants. But there are still other things which spoken language gets across, known as “suprasegmental” aspects. Some of these can be conveyed through punctuation: for instance full stops and commas tell us something about sentence structure, something which in speech is conveyed through pauses and intonation. Question and exclamation marks, likewise, capture something of intonation patterns which are otherwise lost in writing.

Punctuation, however, still doesn’t allow writing to easily communicate everything we regularly communicate in speech. For example, you can usually tell just from listening to someone (even on the telephone, in the absence of visual cues) how they they feel about what they’re talking about, or if they are joking or not. In writing, it can be a lot harder. Emoticons go some way towards mitigating this problem: a smiling face expresses much the same thing as a pleased-sounding tone of voice, just as a question mark corresponds to a questioning intonation. This is particularly important in the context of the new, rapid exchange type of writing (in function more closely resembling speech) that has arisen in the advent of new technologies.

So – in spite of the fact that those who get annoyed by emoticons are probably also those most likely to get annoyed by absent punctuation – emoticons and punctuation are ultimately doing basically the same thing: capturing something of spoken language which is otherwise lost in writing. They enhance our communicative abilities, rather than impairing them.

So they probably aren’t something worth getting annoyed about. :)

The that-trace effect: What is it and why is it interesting?

What is the that-trace effect?

In English, the subordinating conjunction that is often optional.

(1)        You think that John kissed Mary.

(2)        You think John kissed Mary.

(1) and (2) are both acceptable sentences in English: that is present in (1) but absent in (2).

When we ask a question about an element inside the subordinate clause, that usually remains optional, as in (3) and (4). Note how who(m) appears in sentence-initial position. However, we still intuitively feel that, in this particular example, it is the direct object of kissed. Since direct objects in English follow the relevant verb (Mary follows kissed in (1) and (2)), we can capture this intuition by putting a trace of who(m), represented as twho(m), in the position just after kissed.

(3)        Who(m) do you think that John kissed twho(m)?

(4)        Who(m) do you think John kissed twho(m)?

However, there are instances when that is not optional. When we ask a question about the subject of the subordinate clause (corresponding to John in all the examples so far), that must be absent (* means that the sentence is unacceptable).

(5)        *Who do you think that twho kissed Mary?

(6)        Who do you think twho kissed Mary?

The unacceptable configuration involves that followed immediately by a trace, hence this effect is called the that-trace effect (Perlmutter, 1968).

Why is the that-trace effect interesting?

The that-trace effect is interesting in a number of respects, but I’ll just mention two of them. The first is the question of how we, as English speakers, come to ‘know’ that there is a contrast between (5) and (6) given that that is generally optional as we saw in (1) and (2), and (3) and (4). Unless you’ve studied syntax, you’ve probably never been explicitly taught that there exists a that-trace effect in English at all. So how do we learn such an effect? Phillips (2013) looks at how frequent examples like (3-6) are in a corpus of speech directed at children. This is what he found (Phillips, 2013: 144):


a. Who do you think that John met __?               2 / 11,308

b. Who do you think John met __?                     159 / 11,308

c. *Who do you think that __ left?                        0 / 11,308

d. Who do you think __ left?                               13 / 11,308

The corpus contains 11,308 examples of wh-questions (i.e. questions involving the wh-phrases who, what, etc.). Out of the 11,308 examples, there were no examples of the form in (7c), i.e. cases where the subject of the subordinate clause is questioned. This is the configuration that English speakers judge unacceptable. What is particularly interesting is (7a). Out of the 11,308 examples, there were only two tokens where that is present and the direct object of the subordinate clause has been questioned. Yet speakers judge such sentences as acceptable. If examples like (7a) are so rare, why don’t speakers hypothesise that (7c) just happens to be very rare as well? Alternatively, given how rare it is to find that in wh-questions, why don’t speakers hypothesise that that is generally impossible in wh-questions? Either way, it is quite difficult to see how the contrast between (5) and (6) (or (7c) and (7d)) can be acquired purely from child-directed speech. We thus hypothesise that there is something about the way the syntax (of English) works that allows us to ‘know’ about the that-trace effect. This is a classic argument based on the poverty of the stimulus.

The second point of interest comes from the fact that English has a that-trace effect as well as an anti-that-trace effect. The anti-that-trace effect can be seen in relative clauses. In English, we can form relative clauses using that. In general, that is optional in relative clauses just as it is in (1-4) above (we use traces again and the relative clause is in boldface).

(8)        The woman that John kissed twoman is called Mary.

(9)        The woman John kissed twoman is called Mary.

In (8) and (9) we have relativised a direct object; woman is interpreted as the direct object of kissed inside the relative clause.

Now, if we relativise a subject, that is no longer optional. In such cases, that is obligatory.

(10)      The man that tman kissed Mary is called John.

(11)      *The man tman kissed Mary is called John.

Once again there is something special about the relationship between that and the subject of the subordinate clause. However, the effect in (10) and (11) is the exact opposite of the that-trace effect seen in (5) and (6)! As seen in (5), that immediately follow by a trace is unacceptable; that must be absent, as in (6). In (10) and (11), the situation is reversed. As seen in (10), that immediately followed by a trace is acceptable; the absence of that results in unacceptability, as in (11). We thus call the effect in (10) and (11), the anti-that-trace effect.

The problem for us, then, is that there is something about the syntax of English that allows us to ‘know’ that the that-trace effect exists, but which also allows the existence of its opposite, the anti-that-trace effect. The challenge, which I am working on at the moment, is to find out what that something is!


Perlmutter, D. M. (1968). Deep and surface structure constraints in syntax. Doctoral dissertation, MIT.

Phillips, C. (2013). On the nature of island constraints II: Language learning and innateness. In J. Sprouse & N. Hornstein (Eds.), Experimental Syntax and Island Effects (pp. 132–157). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

An ambiguous question

A couple of weeks ago my college held a graduate symposium, and it was a broad-ranging and very interesting day, with presentations from computer science, psychology, physics, classics, and even a ‘three-minute thesis’ on lucid dreaming. A colleague of mine gave a talk entitled, ‘Telling time: time in the worlds’ languages’ (the theme was time – a linguists’ bounty!), in which he gave us a whistle-stop tour of languages with grammatically encoded aspect1, languages with three tenses (like English), with just two tenses (nonpast and past, or non-future and future), and with no tenses at all. Languages like Chinese varieties don’t have any grammatical inflection to indicate tense (like we have in English, by adding -ed to regular verbs in the past tense, for example).


Sir John Tenniel’s illustration of the Caterpillar for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In the question time, various members of the audience voiced surprise at how this might be. How can speakers of languages without tenses talk about time? How on earth do they get along? The intuition here, nurtured by our own linguistic experience, is that the ambiguity of tenseless sentences would be unsurmountable. If someone hears a sentence like ‘John eat cake’, which could mean John eats cake, John will eat cake, John ate cake, John had eaten cake, and so on, how are they to know which meaning is intended?

This raises the question, just how rife is ambiguity in language? And is it all that terrible anyway? Of course, in fine rhetoric, technical writing, and especially legal language, there is good reason to avoid ambiguity. While in other corners of language, such as poetry, there is reason to embrace it:

Never seek to tell thy love
Love that never told can be
For the gentle wind does move
Silently invisibly
(William Blake, referenced by Grice, 1975)

In lexical semantics, we try to carefully distinguish ambiguity from polysemy and vagueness (although you can probably think of examples where they mesh).

  • Ambiguity occurs when a form has two (or more) meanings, e.g., He went to the bank to relax with some fishing / to sort out a mortgage. (So, strictly speaking, our Chinese example above is not a case of ambiguity in a technical sense, more underspecification.)
  • Polysemy refers to a single word with more than one sense, a cluster of related meanings. e.g., I buy the newspaper that your dad works at. (clue: product and institution)
  • Vagueness concerns borderline cases. How few hairs does a man have to have to count as bald? How tall does a ‘tall man’ have to be?

And when you start looking, ambiguity is all around you. Besides lexical ambiguity (some more examples include ‘run’, ‘port’, ‘rose’, ‘like’, ‘cleave’, ‘book’, and ‘light’), there’s syntactic ambiguity, where the structure of a sentence allows for more than one interpretation, of which some infamous examples are:

Visiting relatives can be boring.
The chicken is ready to eat.

And semantic scope ambiguity, like this:

Every Cambridge student has borrowed some books.
> every Cambridge student has borrowed some (or other) books
> there are some (particular) books that every Cambridge student has borrowed.

CC Martin

CC Martin (Flickr)

So it is beginning to look like (accidental) ambiguity may not be such a rare thing. But isn’t this a deficiency in our linguistic system? If hearers are constantly having to work out what speakers mean, isn’t that a lot of effort on their part? Well, I think that kind of worried response assumes that speakers and hearers are just like transmitters and decoders. Or, to put it another way, it follows the ‘mind as computer metaphor’  – programming languages do not contain ambiguity, after all. But that’s precisely because machines that parse code are rather different from sophisticated human minds that are able to make subtle and fast inferences about speakers’ intentions. (And, besides, this ambiguity doesn’t seem to have stopped us communicating pretty well so far).

Today I read an intriguing article by Piantadosi, Tily & Gibson which sets out two reasons why ambiguity is actually expected in a communicative system like language. Firstly, given that words and phrases occur in a context which is itself informative (the preceding discourse, the social and world context, the speaker and hearer’s background knowledge), disambiguating information encoded lexically could actually be redundant, and an efficient language will not convey redundant information. Secondly, they follow Zipfian principles that suggest that ambiguity may arise from a trade-off between ease of production (lazy speakers who want to say the minimum) and ease of comprehension (lazy hearers who want maximum clarity and minimum work of interpretation). But, importantly, the fact that it seems that production – articulation of utterances – seems to be ‘costly’ (whatever that means in terms of physical / psychological processes), while inference – interpreting potential ambiguity – seems to be relatively cheap, means that where an ‘easy’ word in terms of production has two distinct meanings that usually turn up in different contexts, this is an overall win for the linguistic system (compared to one ‘easy’ and one ‘hard’ word form for the two different meanings). Crucially, though, this relies on communicators who are adept at pragmatic inferences, as Grice and other pragmaticians have long proposed.

So coming back to our example of Chinese and other ‘poor’ languages without tense: besides other strategies they have to express temporality, like adverbs (today, yesterday, now, in the past etc), their speakers can safely assume that their hearers are able to make the necessary pragmatic inferences given the context to work out what the speakers intend to communicate, therefore avoiding ambiguity, and, perish the thought, miscommunication.

1 Aspect, roughly speaking, is how an event is viewed in relation to time. One common distinction is between perfective and imperfective, which is a bit like viewing an event from the outside as a complete whole (perfective) or zooming in on a part of it on the inside (imperfective). In English, this would be the difference between ‘John ate the cake’ and ‘John was eating the cake’.
Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In R. Stainton (Ed.), Perspectives in the Philosophy of Language (pp. 41–58). Broadview Press.
Piantadosi, S. T., Tily, H., & Gibson, E. (2012). The communicative function of ambiguity in language. Cognition, 122(3), 280–291.

What’s in a word (‘genocide’)?

Debate around the centenary of the Armenian ‘genocide’ on April 24th, 2015, has centred on the use of one specific word: ‘genocide’.
Several angles deserve consideration: history, politics / diplomacy, sociology, legal issues and indeed linguistics. Naturally, linguistic considerations are connected with others and in turn take on several facets: etymology (origin of the word), semantics (meaning), sociolinguistics (here identificational / social effects of language) and especially pragmatics (underlying implications, (intended) effects of word on the recipient). The latter, inferred / added meaning due to the context, is most relevant with the term ‘genocide’, as it extends into the political / legal (with its precise terminology).
From the origins of various “totemic” words in the semantic field (‘genocide’, ‘holocaust’ and ‘shoah’), one can identify (intended/implied) meanings and finally consider further implications.
‘Genocide’ is a hybrid formation from Greek γένος (genos, ‘race, people’), and Latin cīdere (‘kill’). It signifies the (intended) extermination of a whole people in a particular area and was coined around 1943-44 by Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin. (1) Notably, Lemkin created the term specifically with the Armenian (plus the Jewish) case in mind. Simplistically, the term ‘genocide’ thus automatically applies to the case. (2)

The Armenian Genocide memorial in Bikfaya, Lebanon. CC Serouj

The Armenian Genocide memorial in Bikfaya, Lebanon. CC Serouj

Before ‘genocide’, the term ‘holocaust’ was already used. It comes from Greek ὁλόκαυστον (holokauston, “something wholly burnt”), originally used in the Greek Bible version to signify “burnt offerings”. It underwent semantic change to mean “massacre / total destruction”. It was possibly first associated with burning people, as the use by journalist Leitch Ritchie in 1833 suggests: 1300 people were burnt in a church in Vitry-le-François in 1142. The word underwent extension of meaning to other cases / methods of killing. Contemporaries of the Ottoman atrocities, including Churchill, used it to refer to the Armenian case. In the aftermath of World War II (the killing of over 6 million Jews and others by the Nazis), the term first got applied specifically to these events, mainly from the 1950s onwards, to translate Hebrew ‘shoah’. Today, ‘the Holocaust’ is generally directly associated with that particular Jewish holocaust. The term is in the process of (semantic) restriction / specification (i.e. not as yet exclusive to that context).
In Israel, the word used is השואה ‘ha shoah’ (originally meaning ‘destruction’ and ‘calamity’ in Hebrew, it reflects the experience of the Jewish people, arguably the most traumatising and horrific experience imaginable). It is also preferred by many scholars since its usage (in Hebrew) precedes the use of ‘holocaust’ and it can be seen a sign of respect to use the term used by the victims of the crime against humanity. Additionally, however, some perceive a certain inappropriateness of the term ‘holocaust’ on a historical / theological and hence pragmatic level with the original meaning of a “burnt offering” to God. Jewish-American historian Laqueur reckons “it was not the intention of the Nazis to make a sacrifice of this kind and the position of the Jews was not that of a ritual victim”. Interestingly, the Armenians prefer a similar term (Մեծ Եղեռն – Medz Yeghern: “Great Evil-Crime”, often rendered as “Great Catastrophe”) over the loan translation of ‘genocide’ (Հայոց ցեղասպանություն – hayots tseghaspanutyun). (3) The Armenian term accuses the perpetrators even more clearly than shoah does. (The danger of either relativising the experiences by comparing them or isolating the events in a general humanity context by seeing them as unique is another issue.)
On the pragmatic level, US President Obama used the Armenian word in his commemoration speech. Reactions were mixed, some suggesting that he was diplomatically trying to avoid the term ‘genocide’ by using the native yet internationally unintelligible term. Either way, avoidance of the term ‘genocide’ was clearly an elegant way to get out of a diplomatic dilemma.
Some say denying a crime like genocide further victimises / dehumanises the victims and their descendants by not paying them the respect of acknowledging their suffering. This, the perception / effect of words, is where the use of the ‘right’ language is crucial. Legal implications are another issue: Were Turkey to use the word ‘genocide’ in official capacity, they would expose themselves to renewed reparation and land-return claims – similar to Greek Prime Minister Tsipras’s recent demands for reparations from World War II from Geman Chancellor Merkel. Freedom of speech is another sensitive topic on both sides: Orhan Pamuk (Turkish Nobel Prize laureate) was charged for insulting the state by publicly acknowledging the ‘genocide’, while conversely there is an ongoing international process between Doğu Perinçek and Switzerland for his being convicted for maintaining that the events did not constitute ‘genocide’ (in its common definition), emphasising the importance of precise language use, especially in a legal context.
Like Obama in terms of picking words carefully, German President Gauck in a remembrance speech all but labelled the events ‘genocide’, at the same time shrewdly abstracting from the individual case so as not to explicitly equate it with the term ‘genocide’. (4) Pragmatically (and diplomatically), these solutions leave enough room for interpretation through the use of a specific word, either in a particular language or in a proposition (statement) and implicational context.
A historically noteworthy fact that refers to the relevance of language as an identificational tool is that in the same context as the 1915 massacres happened, the turkification of the ‘nation’ and the new Turkish state, Atatürk, the Father of the Turks, also turkified the language soon after, which in Ottoman times had used the Arabic script, but also many Persian and Arabic words (today either obsolete or optional in ‘turkified’ Modern Turkish).
That this was a conscious process (at least linguistically) to create a Turkish identity, suggests the use of the term ‘genocide’ may ultimately be appropriate, and secondly that this ideological fact (the intrinsic link between the occurrences of 1915 and the establishment of the new, consciously Turkish state, compare the ongoing conflict with the Kurds) is part of the reason (beside legal / psychological ones) why Turkey remains reluctant to use the term ‘genocide’.

Some relevant quotations:
(1) “By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, (…) does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group”.

(2) “I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”

(3) Turkish has Ermeni Soykırımı, literally ‘Armenian race-massacre’.

(4) “The fate of the Armenians is exemplary for the history of mass destruction, ethnic cleansing, expulsions and indeed genocides, which marks the 20th century in such a horrific way.”

Lost in translation: about and beyond the “literal meaning”

Before I started my PhD project, I worked as a part-time translator for a reading club, and my major task was to translate British detective fiction into Chinese which would be sent to the small-scale, in-group “publication”. When I was asked about my work, some annoying people believed that the job was rather easy; to put it in their own words, “if you give an English-Chinese dictionary a typewriter, it will do all the work for you”, which, I think, is a prejudiced and unfair comment, not only on the translator, but also on the task of translation. When the nature of translation is finally presented to us, we will find that it is not a simple “word-matching” game. Actually, translation involves a more complicated mechanism which may cause great frustration, because we will finally get lost in translation no matter how hard we struggle. Today, I would like to name a few issues that are notable if we analyse “translation” from the perspective of semantics and pragmatics, and, due to my knowledge and preference, I will focus on the translation between English and Chinese.

The basic form of translation, if we follow the common belief, is to find a group of words in the target language that correspond to the words in the source language, and then form the sentence using all these words. That is also the basic practice of students who are starting to learn how to translate. The fundamental problem, then, comes from “finding the corresponding words”: Is there any degree of correspondence? For an ideal translation, we need to find the words between the two languages whose meanings are strictly equivalent to each other: they will have the same, fixed, unambiguous meaning, or, if the words are ambiguous, they need to be ambiguous “in the same way”, and the ambiguous meanings should form a one-to-one match between each other.

At this stage, polysemy can only make matters worse, so we should better limit our discussion to the words with “fixed, unambiguous” literal meaning. Not a lot of words hold a stable and unambiguous meaning in English; definitely we could name a few, but the number is rather small compared with the vocabulary of an average native speaker. One simple idea for the selection of such type of words is to refer to David Kaplan’s (1989) concept of character and content. Briefly, the character of a word is the “meaning” of a word which is set by the linguistic conventions, while the content is the “meaning” of a word which is determined by the character in a particular context. Following that definition, words with a stable character are suitable for our requirement. In Kaplan’s categorisation, that class only includes indexical expressions (e.g. I, here, now) and proper names (e.g. Chris Xia, University of Cambridge). If we extend the definition of proper names, we can also include a number of abstract scientific concepts, for instance helium and Higgs Boson, but the limitation is clearly shown: Only a limited number of words can have a very definite literal meaning across different languages, and we can only expect that other words will only have “roughly the same” counterparts in another language.

Even if we can successfully identify a set of words that can have strictly the same literal meaning (namely the same character) between English and Chinese, the situation is still more complex than we might expect. Take the pronouns as an example – pronouns are usually the perfect illustration of indexical terms, but the conventional use of pronoun differs between languages. Standard Chinese clearly differentiates two second person singular pronouns, ni and nin. Nin is the honorific form, which is generally used to address strangers and seniors, while ni is more casual and can be used between family members and friends. When a piece of Chinese text with the different use of ni and nin is to be translated into English, the translator can only reduce the two forms to a single word “you”, if she does not want to bother her readers with the archaic form “thou”. Although both “you” and ni/nin constantly refer to the person who is targeted in the conversation, the appearance of honorific form conveys additional information that will be lost in the translation. I do not intend to complain that English finally lost the plain form of second person singular pronoun, but it does create obstacles during the process of translation. Finding the strictly corresponding words is far away from an ideal readable translation, and that is also the reason that a strict literal translation never really exists.

Let’s take one step back and select some words that are “roughly the same” among different languages; that is much easier for the translators, and is the common practice by both professional and amateur translators. The notion of “roughly the same” already implies that the definition of a particular word in two languages is different, which indicates that the actual concept represented by the selected words can be slightly different across two languages. In the usual case, such a difference will not cause any comprehension problem, but it will still lead to miscomprehension or difficulty of understanding in the translation of certain text, and such miscomprehension is clearly language-related, or even culture-related. Imagine an excerpt of conversation in a British story book for kids: A mother said to her son who is extremely picky about his food, “you should eat more vegetables and fewer potatoes – here, eat some sweetcorn.” That utterance is perfectly natural in British English, because British people categorise potatoes as starchy food rather than a kind of vegetable, while sweetcorn is classified as vegetable. If, however, a translator follows the literal correspondence and translates this piece of advice into Chinese as “you should eat more shucai, and fewer tudou – here, eat some yumi“, the Chinese readers will surely be confused. Chinese language regards tudou (potatoes), but not yumi (sweet corn), as a member of shucai (vegetable), and how can a child eat more vegetable by eating more sweetcorn rather than potatoes? That does not make any sense in Chinese. The sense of the text is distorted by the mismatch between concepts, although the translator makes a perfect and conventional literal translation. The variance of concept encoding is another problem that translation can hardly solve, and this problem is definitely beyond the simple translation of literal meanings.

Even if we manage to overcome the difficulties of word selection and concept matching, some more complicated situations still await us. To give you a taste of such a situation, I would like to present a case that has happened to me before. When we discussed the conversational maxims proposed by Grice in my masters programme, one of my classmates, who is born and raised British, told us that “I am washing my hair” is a poorly-formed excuse if you want to reject someone’s invitation on the telephone. Later I described the setting of the conversation in Chinese to my friends from mainland China, “if you phone your friend to ask her whether she would like to go shopping with you on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and her reply is ‘I am washing my hair’, what would you think about her reply?” To my surprise, 80% of them told me, “That’s fine! She is asking me to wait for her, and we will go after she finishes washing her hair.” The difference in that example comes from the derivation of implicatures in different languages, which is totally beyond the words and sentence structure, and cannot be eliminated even if we carefully control the selection of words and the formation of a single sentence in the process of translation. The difference will still exist if you change the wording, unless the translator chooses to spell out the implicature.

Following my analysis, you may feel that an ideally faithful translation is almost a mission impossible; and trust me, it is. Since the emergence of literal meanings of words as well as, potentially, implicatures of utterances is conventional within a particular language, it is difficult to balance these conventional meanings cross-linguistically. Any form of translation will lead to the loss of some information, and the only difference is the form and the amount – either explicit information or implicit information, either more or less. Not just a matter of  study for translation theories, this is also a long-term question in the field of second language comprehension and cross-linguistic pragmatics, and I believe that some relevant research may finally help to rescue this kind of loss in translation.


Kaplan, David. 1989. ‘Demonstratives’, in Joseph Almog, John Perry and Howard Wettstein (eds.), Themes from Kaplan (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 481–563

Happy birthday to… well, us

cake-71672_1280Around 15 months ago, a small group of Linguistics PhD students found themselves in that most idea-and-optimism-inducing place, the local watering hole, and hatched a plan to enter the world of web logging (or blogging, to you and me). And exactly a year ago, Cam Lang Sci was born. As well as creating more of a local linguist community feel by finding out about each others’ interests, we wanted to share with you, our dear readers, some of the many facets of Language Science that make us tick. There’s been posts on sounds – and silent sounds; on words, verbs, and relative clauses; on languages dying and languages being born; on gender and language, nations and language, and thought and language. We’ve asked: What’s in a name? Where have all the implicatures gone? And, are you a Belieber? And in doing so, we’ve dipped our toes into many of the foundational areas of Linguistics: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. And more: sociolinguistics, bilingualism, acquisition and historical linguistics. Even the practice of being a linguist itself. But there’s much more to Linguistics than all that! So we hope you’ll join us for another year of Cam Lang Sci, continue to be part of our growing readership (now almost a thousand visits a month) and in the meantime, take the chance today to sit back and catch up on some of those posts you may have missed.

Oh, and you can now follow us on facebook, too.

Are some subjects really objects?

A number of years ago it was observed that there is more than one type of intransitive verb (i.e. of verbs describing an action, state or change where only one noun is involved – of which many examples to follow). This is true of many languages, including English.

Sometimes, the subjects of intransitive verbs behave like the subjects of transitive verbs (verbs with two nouns involved, as in Lucy plays football, Harry loves Ancient Egyptian etc.). For example, a typical property of the subject of a transitive verb is that it can be described with the verb plus the suffix -er, e.g.:

  • player – “one who plays something”
  • lover – “one who loves someone”
  • writer – “one who writes something”

Some intransitive subjects can also be so described: workertalkerswimmer, runner etc. But others can’t: we don’t say arriver “one who arrives”, dier “one who dies”, beer “one who is” and so forth …

But there is evidence that the subject of many of this latter group of intransitive verbs actually functions a bit like a transitive object. The object of transitive verbs can often be described with a form of the verb called the past participle, placed before the noun, for example:

  • Hannibal destroyed the city (sentence) / the destroyed city (noun phrase describing object)
  • tourists frequently visit this attraction / the frequently visited attraction

Note that often an extra adjective or other modification is required for the sentence to make sense: the loved library is a bit of an odd thing to say but the much-loved library is fine; likewise we probably wouldn’t say the eaten hamburger but we might say the recently eaten hamburger or the half-eaten hamburger.

We can do a similar thing with some intransitive verbs:

  • the sun rose / the risen sun
  • the man fell / the fallen man
  • the recruits arrived recently / the recently arrived recruits

This suggests the subjects of these verbs actually behave like the objects of transitives, as previously discussed. Note as well that these intransitive verbs are amongst those which can’t take the -er suffix, and furthermore that verbs which can take this suffix don’t allow the pre-noun past participle construction: we can’t say the talked man “the man who talked” or the swum woman “the woman who swam”.

This idea that some intransitive verbs at one level really have objects, instead of subjects, is for various complex reasons referred to as the unaccusative hypothesis. Of course, at another level these “objects” do behave like subjects: e.g. in a sentence they usually come before the verb; if they take the form of pronouns they have the subject forms Iheshe rather than the object forms mehimher; etc. Thus we say I fell not fell me, and so on. There are also various complications (which I won’t go into here, because they are, well, complicated) which suggest the unaccusative hypothesis in its simplest form may be inadequate, and that some refinement is needed.

However, the hypothesis still usefully highlights a couple of things which seem to come up again and again in modern linguistics. Firstly, the way things appear “on the surface” may mask other properties. The noun Lucy looks like a subject in both Lucy talked and Lucy arrived, but in fact in the latter it seems also to have some “underlying” object properties which don’t show up so easily. Secondly, close inspection of the details of a language – including details which we might not think obviously relate to whatever it is we’re thinking about – can help reveal these underlying properties. It is this sort of close attention to detail that has allowed many of the advances in linguistics that have been made over the course of the last few decades. And even the complications I just alluded to may be useful here, in helping us come up with an even better theory.