Linguistics and English Language

English language research group meetings

Research presentations and discussion on English language and linguistics

The meetings of the English Language Research Group feature activities on a wide range of aspects of the synchronic and diachronic linguistics of English.

We have talks by members of the department and by invited speakers from elsewhere, discussions of recent articles, and informal discussion of work in progress. All welcome!

Time and location

Seminars are normally held on Wednesday afternoons at 2.10pm, approximately on a monthly basis. 


The seminars are organised by Benjamin Molineaux , Warren Maguire and Patrick Honeybone. Please get in touch if you would like to contribute to or know more about to the ELRG.

Current and recent events

  • 29th November 2021, 2.10 start: ELRG CHRISTMAS SPEAKER Jacob Thaisen (University of Oslo) 'Scribal fingerprints in texts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tal' (followed on 3rd December at 6pm by the ELRG Christmas Meal - details will be sent to the ELRG mailing list.) The talk will be a hybrid event, taking place both in-person (in room LG.11 in 40 George Square) and online – we will send information to the ELRG mailing list on how to take part. Abstract: This paper addresses every extant fifteenth-century witness to Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem 'The Canterbury Tales'. It does so by means of n-gram modelling of their orthography and also brings insights from psycholinguistics to bear on the interpretation of the results. The paper separately models each of 58 texts of the Miller’s Tale and separately tests every model on each of these texts as well as on each of 58 texts of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Every test leads to a quantification of their level of similarity, expressed in terms of probability. The resulting probability distribution shows that the two respective texts taken from a single witness are more similar to each other than to any other text in this corpus. There are a handful of exceptions, all of which can be explained. Every one of these texts is a scribal copy. It is impossible for a scribe to have avoided introducing orthographic forms from their immediate exemplars into a copy they were producing because the immediate exemplars will have primed them. The two texts taken from a single witness will, for this reason, show a high level of similarity only if the respective immediate exemplars from which they were copied too showed an equally high level of similarity to each other. This finding suggests a straightforward textual tradition for the Canterbury Tales, with it being the norm for a witness to have been copied from a unified set of exemplars.
  • 22nd November 2021, 2.10-3pm (note the unusual day: this is a Monday): Bettelou Los and Thijs Lubbers: 'A data-driven exploration of stylistic variation in historical English'. Abstract: I will be presenting some joint work I did with Thijs Lubbers. In his dissertation, Thijs investigateds stylistic developments in English historical texts using POS-tagged texts from which the lexical material has been stripped, leaving only the tags. These sequences of tags can then be input to various statistical analyses that single out the sequences that are most significant markers of the variation between the individual texts. This talk reports on two case-studies: (i) Old English texts; (ii) Horse manuals from Early Modern English to the present day. In (i), the clustering of the texts was clearly driven by text type – mostly narrative versus other types; in (ii), the clustering conformed to the actual chronology of the texts (i.e. a chronological progression bubbled up naturally even though the dates of the text were not part of the data fed into the various procedures). In this talk, I will look in more detail at what caused this chronological progression by going back to the actual texts. Horse manuals contain at least two text types, to varying degrees: instructional/procedural “cookery book” writing and the logical-argumentative text type of scientific writing. The latter has been known to exhibit higher frequencies of nominalization and passivization (e.g. Halliday 2004), and this is also evident in these texts. I will discuss the nominalizations in the context of the function of restriction, which can be expressed as premodification (adjectives) and postmodification (relative clauses and prepositional phrases) but also by conditional clauses. Passives are part of the same package, as they are used with inanimate subjects containing nominalizations, and represent a change in the type of referents that need to be tracked in the discourse: from protagonists like horses and their human carers, to scientific processes describing horse digestion and crop production. The data further suggest that the flow of given to new information is not adhered to as strictly in the earlier texts as in the later; in the earlier texts, pronouns are found more frequently in end-focus position, and the strategy of using the by-phrase of the “long passive” to manoeuvre a new agent into end-focus position is only found in the later texts. 
  • 13th October 2021, 2.10-3pm: Nadine Dietrich: 'Making the case for seamless grammaticalisation'. Abstract: In this talk, I will propose hypotheses concerning more specific features and dynamics of grammaticalization looking at the development of English future time expressions. Grammaticalization will be approached from a usage-based and constructivist perspective. More specifically I will closely examine and further develop the often-made hypothesis that grammaticalization (and possibly other types of language change) progresses by inferring grammatical meanings in otherwise lexical usage-events (actual utterances or tokens) (e.g. Bybee 2010, Traugott & Trousdale 2013). The usage-events with their inferred grammatical meanings are stored and become more frequent and subsequently lead to formation and storage of a new construction. The talk will highlight aspects that are often backgrounded in other approaches: that the grammatical inferences that arise in usage-events do not compete with existing lexical meanings but are in fact enabled by the lexical meanings and complement them rather than eliminate them. It also highlights that subsequently the inference of grammatical meaning gets stronger and stronger which might enable further grammatical inferences. It will also argue that this view of grammaticalization comes with certain implications (a) that grammaticalization progresses seamlessly rather than abruptly, (b) that grammaticalization on the level of the individual can occur, and (c) that grammaticalization is not fuelled by extravagance.  I will give tentative evidence where possible drawing on general findings in grammaticalization studies, logical arguments and insights gathered in a pilot study I carried out.

Previous events

  • 16th December 2020, 2.10 start: ELRG CHRISTMAS SPEAKER Arjen Versloot (University of Amsterdam) 'Old English fromFrisian perspectivenew facts to discover?' (Followed by the ELRG Christmas Quiz - bring your own drink and mince pies.) This will be an online event – we will send information to the ELRG mailing list on how to take part.
  • 11th November 2020, 2.10-3pm: Nik Gisborne 'Light verbs and degrees of idiomaticity'. This will be an online event – we will send information to the ELRG mailing list on how to take part.
  • 7th October 2020, 2.10-3pm: Alpo Honkapohja 'From "þat venimous matter" to "this contagion": lexical change and manuscript context in Medieval and Early Modern copies of John of Burgundy’s plague treatise.' This will be an online event – we will send information to the ELRG mailing list on how to take part.
  • 30th September 2020, 2.10-3pm: ELRG kick-off. This will be an online event – we will send information to the ELRG mailing list on how to take part.
  • 19th February 2020, 1.10-2pm (note the unusual time), room 1.01, DSB: ELRG-relevant LVC seminar: Itamar Kastner '"Everywhere" on the Solent develops impersonal subjects.'
  • 22nd January 2020, 2.10-3pm, room 1.17, DSB: Sarah van Eyndhoven 'Some methodological questions concerning the study of eighteenth century written Scots.' Abstract: Both Older and Middle Scots have been explored through the lens of historical linguistics by various scholars (McArthur, 1979; Aitken, 1978, 1979, 1984; Kniezsa, 1997; Gӧrlach, 1996; Kopaczyk, 2012, Meurman-Solin, 1993a; Bugaj, 2004a; Devitt, 1989a), whilst contemporary spoken and written Scots is an expanding area of interest that has seen research into its rural and urban varieties (McClure, 1980; McCarthy & Stuart-Smith, 2013; Stuart-Smith, 2019; Millar, 2007; Millar et al., 2014). But what does early Modern Scots look like in written form? The period immediately prior to and following the Union of the Parliaments (1707) saw both convergence and divergence towards written Scots, and antipodal pressures stemming from movements that pushed for its eradication and those that championed the vernacular and its historic integrity. Yet the effect of these movements on written Scots and people’s awareness towards the variety as something unique, local and perhaps valuable, is not fully understood. Comparatively less work has been done on 18th century written Scots and it is still unclear as to what constitutes ‘Scots’ during this time period. Considering the rise of Standard English was well underway at this time, can any non-standard word count? What about words that are shared across the border with Northern England, or those that have simply died out of English sooner than in Scotland? And if we do identify something as ‘Scots’, how do we distinguish whether this indexes Scottishness, rather than grammatical error or lack of familiarity with Standard English? These are some of the methodological concerns I am facing in my PhD research, and which I yet have no answer to. This talk seeks to explore these issues in a little more detail, demonstrating some examples from the manuscripts and throwing the question out to all: what counts as Scots in the eighteenth century?
  • 6th December 2019, 4.10pm (note unusual time), room 1.17, DSB: ELRG CHRISTMAS SPEAKER Ann Taylor (University of York) 'Translation effects in Old English: A problem for models of syntactic change?'
  • 27th November 2019, 2.10-3pm: cancelled due to UCU strike
  • 6th November 2019, 3.10-4pm (note unusual time), room 1.20, DSB: Lisa Gotthard 'Variation in subject-verb agreement in the history of Scots: A first exploration of the part-of-speech-tagged Corpus of Scottish Correspondence'
  • 9th October 2019, 2.10-3pm, room 3.10, DSB: Tsung-Lun Alan Wan 'Conflicts between World Englishes: Metalinguistic discourse about Singaporean Colloquial English in an online group of Taiwanese migrants'
  • 25th September 2019, 2.10-3pm, room 1.17, DSB: ELRG kick-off
  • 13th March 2019, 2.10-3pm, room 1.20, DSB: Benjamin Molineaux 'Phonotactics, graphotactics, and contrast: The history of Scots dental fricative spellings'.
  • 30th January 2019, 2.10-3pm, Room G.05 in 50 George Square: Xin Sennrich 'Participles are adjectives.' Abstract: There are adjectives that are identical in form to participles, e.g. _boring, interesting, exhausted, tired_, etc. In this talk, I will discuss what distinguishes a participle (e.g. _The boy is charming the audience_, _The chicken was cooked by Tom_) from the identical adjective (e.g. _The boy is very charming_, _The chicken was barely cooked_), and investigate the relationship between participles and adjectives. I will show that there is no categorial distinction between participles and adjectives, and therefore propose that participles belong to the category of adjectives. Whether a V-ing or a passive is a participle or a prototypical adjective depends purely on how it is interpreted. Participles are event-denoting, whereas prototypical adjectives are property-denoting. Participles and prototypical adjectives have different semantics, but this does not entail a difference in categorial status. The differences between participles and prototypical adjectives closely mirror the differences between associative adjectives, which have entity-denoting semantics, and prototypical adjectives. This supports my argument that the differences are of a purely semantic nature and are not in conflict with the analysis of participles as belonging to the category of adjectives. If participles and adjectives were separate categories, participles being inflected verb forms, none of the possible analysis could explain the morphology of adjectives that are identical in form to participles in a satisfactory manner, including the derivational process, the conversion from participles, and the individual diachronic lexicalisation. However, analysing participles as adjectives that are derived from verbs provides a consistent explanation. Under this analysis, the difference between participles and the corresponding prototypical adjectives is simply the difference between event-denotation and property-denotation of adjectives, and a matter of a semantic shift towards prototypicality.
  • 17th December 2018, 3.30-4.30pm [note the unusual time], room 1.20, DSB: ELRG CHRISTMAS SPEAKER Kevin Watson (University of Canterbury, New Zealand) 'What is OLIVE and what can it do (now)?' Abstract: OLIVE - the Origins of Liverpool English corpus - is a time-aligned corpus containing recordings from more than a hundred speakers spanning over a hundred years in apparent time. At first, wider use of OLIVE in its entirety (beyond projects associated with me) was prohibited by ethical restrictions, but we are now working on OLIVE 2.0, a development which will see OLIVE become more widely available for other projects. In this talk, I'll introduce OLIVE (which runs on the LaBB-CAT client, see Fromont & Hay 2012), and I'll demonstrate its main features. To do this I'll briefly talk about some nascent results of a study of vowels, which has used OLIVE to examine variation and change in a dataset of over 211k vowel tokens from Liverpool, St Helens and Skelmersdale.
  • 14th November 2018, 2.10-3pm, Room G.8 Gaddum LT, 1 George Square (Neuroscience): Warren Maguire 'LAS3 Revisited.' Abstract: In this talk I revisit the data contained in the third volume of the mid-20th century Linguistic Atlas of Scotland (LAS3; Mathers & Speitel 1986), which constitutes our most comprehensive source of information on the phonology of Scots dialects, explaining the nature of the data and the editors' systematisation of them. Although the phonemic and polyphonemic analyses of the data in LAS3 seek to address important questions about Scots phonology, they also obscure much that we would like to know about the phonetics and phonology of these dialects. As a result, it is desirable to have access to the original field recordings for the survey, in the form of phonetic transcriptions and sample audio recordings. This presentation discusses the original data gathered for LAS3, and illustrates how much more we can learn when the systematisation in LAS3 is stripped back and the original phonetic data are examined. It also outlines plans for a new presentation and analysis of the data that underlie the published atlas
  • 17th October 2018, 2.10-3pm, room S37 in 7 George Square: Bettelou Los 'How is "given information" expressed in the history of English?' Abstract: Investigation into word order change in the history of English has over the years uncovered a number of broad patterns, but there remains a sizeable area of unexplained syntactic variation. Much of the syntactic variation recorded is possibly not, or not only, a matter of competing grammars, but might be motivated by information-structure considerations. Few people would deny that syntax and information interact, but even synchronic investigations run into difficulties not only because of the proliferation of information-structure terms and definitions (“Given” and “New,” topic and comment, topic and focus, background and focus, theme and rheme, Common Ground, presupposed information and pragmatically unrecoverable information) but also because getting reasonable interpreter agreement rates when annotating a corpus of natural texts has proved problematic. For a diachronic investigation, these problems are multiplied because we cannot rely on form (demonstratives in Old English fulfill functions that are later divided up between demonstratives and definite articles) or on word order (English lost OV orders and a V2-like fronting of the finite verb). For a NWO-project about the consequences of the Ioss of V2 in English, we decided to bypass topic and focus labels by annotating referential information only, using a version of the taxonomy of “given” information from Prince (1981). One of the hypotheses of the project was that information-structural statutes increasingly map onto specific functions after the loss of V2, with subjects by default encoding given information, and objects and complements new information (with special word orders and constructions providing escape hatches for subjects that are new, and objects that are given). My talk will discuss an investigation into subjects and a second investigation into clause-initial adjuncts in the history of English, on the basis of the Parsed Penn Helsinki Corpora enriched with referential information.
  • 3rd October 2018, 2.10-3pm, room S37 in 7 George Square: Graeme Trousdale 'David Cameron's "bunch of migrants"'
  • 16th May 2018, 12.10-1pm [note the ususual time] room S37, 7 George Square: John Rice-Whetton (University of Melbourne) 'How the get-passive gets used, and how it got that way
  • 18th April 2018, 2.10-3pm, room 1.17, Dugald Stewart Building: Alpo Honkapohja (University of Edinburgh) 'Abbreviations and standardisation: Latin to English, and Manuscript to Print'
  • 21st March 2018, 2.10-3pm [postponed due to UCU strike]
  • 21st February 2018, 2.10-3pm, room 1.17, Dugald Stewart Building: Patrick Honeybone (University of Edinburgh) 'English r-sandhi for the 50 millionth time (but this time taking variation seriously)'
  • 24th January 2018, 2.10-3pm, room G.15, 7 Bristo Square: Raffaela Baechler (University of Edinburgh) 'Nominal inflection in early Middle English: A first glimpse'
  • 11 December 2017 [NB: this is a Monday], 12.10-1pm , room 3.11, DSB: ELRG CHRISTMAS SPEAKER Lynn Clark (University of Canterbury) 'Medial /t/s in Middle Earth' [Joint meeting with the  Language Variation and Change Research Group and the P-Workshop.] Abstract: Compared with some other varieties of English around the world, New Zealand English (NZE) has a very small number of speakers. Despite this, work on NZE has had a disproportionately large impact on the field of Linguistics, not only in the description of this new variety but, crucially, in the development of models of phonological variation and change and new dialect formation. This has been made possible because of the availability of a number of different spoken corpora in New Zealand which span different time points in the development of this new variety, from its inception to the present day. Today, I will show how I have been using three different spoken corpora of NZE to investigate novel areas of linguistic research. First, using a corpus of spoken monologues, I will discuss patterns of within-speaker phonetic variation (in word medial, intervocalic  /t/) that are similar to the types of priming effects we see in experimental psycholinguistic work. Next, using a corpus of contemporary conversation, I explore the extent to which these priming effects (again in medial /t/) are apparent in dyadic conversation. Finally, using a spoken corpus with a sizeable time depth, I investigate some aspects of long-term cross-speaker variability which could have taken place in early NZ English – in this part of the paper I consider the impact of the Scottish Vowel Length Rule on early NZ English.  
  • 13 Apr 2016Daisy Smith (University of Edinburgh) '‑is or ‑es (or not?): scribal abbreviation of the plural morpheme {‑S} in Older Scots legal charters 1380-1500'
  • 16 Mar 2016Rebecca Colleran (University of Edinburgh) 'Keeping it in the family: Disentangling contact and inheritance in closely related languages'
  • 29 Feb 2016Bill Kretzschmar (University of Georgia) 'Emergence of English: Addressing 'Emergence' in a HEL Classroom'
  • 20 Jan 2016Susan Rennie (University of Glasgow) 'Creating a Historical Thesaurus of Scots'
  • 16 Dec 2015: ELRG CHRISTMAS SPEAKER Marc Alexander (University of Glasgow) 'Patchworks, privatisation, and games: Lexical semantics and the Historical Thesaurus of English'
  • 9 Dec 2015Rhona Alcorn & Rob Truswell (University of Edinburgh) 'A Parsed Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English'

For older seminars, see our English language seminars archive:

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