Research Forum, May 2016

The 2016 research forum returned to Kyushu University’s somewhat remote Ito Campus.

The first session was all about sociolinguistics. Carey Benom presented corpus research on the increased use of taboo terms in printed and other media from the 1960s onwards, which he convincingly connected with other changing social attitudes and norms of the time. Next, Keiko Hirano, in a paper co-authored with David Britain, showed how younger English-speaking residents on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme altered their use of English over time. This was demonstrated by their changing use of possessive verbs over time (havegothave got). The speakers’ social contacts and networks seem to have contributed to the change, not least because British, North American and Australasian speakers all have different usage tendencies.

The next session on methods started with a paper by Rinus Verdonschot which looked at how the brain is window to understanding how we process language. This viewpoint was demonstrated through the results of various experiments that employed, among other techniques, brain electroencephalography (EGG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Next John Philipps introduced his research on developing a new corpus of Welsh, and he explained how he wrote a programme to allow automatic grammatical and phonological comparison of ancient and modern texts.

The section on early changes included papers on early Germanic and Japanese. Toshiya Tanaka talked about the consonantal change known as Verner’s Law. His primary interest was on unexpected forms of consonants in preterite-present verbs. Next Ruben Pauwels discussed possible Tungusic morphology in Old Japanese in relation to recent research on language contact theory. In particular, Pauwels considered how Yaron Matras’s hierarchy of borrowing applied to his data on possible morphological loans in Old Japanonic.

The final session began with a paper by Michinori Shimoji on Yonaguni Ryukyuan. Through a detailed analysis of a range of different verbs and their use, he convincingly argued that Yonaguni has split transitivity and that this is more likely an archaic than an innovative feature. Finally, Stephen Laker presented on the use of 3sg. pronouns in dialects of southwestern England, especially on the origins of en ‘him’ and the emergence of a new gender system for inanimate objects (masculine = countable nouns vs. neuter = mass noun).

After the event, most speakers and attendees went on to wine and dine at Agora Hotel beergarden in central Fukuoka.

Research Forum, May 2015

The 2nd LVC Research Forum brought speakers and delegates to the 15th floor of Fukuoka University’s Bunkei Building. Presentations this year covered a wide range of topics and focused on the languages of Europe, East Asia and the Americas.

The first session dealt with aspects of language change in contemporary and ancient European languages. John Phillips (Yamaguchi University) explained how and why Welsh is becoming a less interesting language because of the steady attrition of a host of typologically fascinating features of the language, such as consonant mutations, the equative category in adjectives, vigisimal counting, and conjugated prepositions. Some characteristic features of Welsh are tenacious (e.g. voiceless lateral /ɬ/ and the tu–vous, i.e. ti–chi, distinction in pronouns), but not many. Two influential factors are inward and outward migration and an increase English–Welsh bilingualism. While some observers might like to claim that Welsh is being “enriched” by English vocabulary, grammatical calques, and even phonemes, by the end Phillips’ talk it was clear that these English additions are somewhat mundane compared to the Welsh losses.

The next talk, by Toshiya Tanaka (Kyushu University), began with an outline of some sticking points in the interpretation of Germanic strong verbs. Simplifying somewhat, the Germanic strong verbs, which typically show vowel alternation in the root syllable (e.g. sing-sang-sung) also bore the brunt of Verner’s Law, which created an alternation in consonants too (e.g. English was-were). However, the historical residue appears to suggest that some verbs show Verner alternations while others (e.g. preterite-present verbs and most strong verbs in Gothic) do not. According to Tanaka, a solution to this problem can be found by assuming the earlier existence of two separate present tense stem formations that were ultimately confounded in later attested languages, with only a small number of relic forms bearing witness to the earlier state of affairs. Indeed, most Indo-Europeanists posit a separate Narten present tense stem formation, which through its invariable accentuation pattern would be expected to yield forms that do not give rise to Verner’s Law consonant alternations.

To close the first session, Keiko Hirano (University of Kitakyushu) presented ongoing collaborative research with David Britain (University of Bern, Switzerland). The research concerns the influence of social networks on grammatical variation, and in this lecture it involved the changing use of verbs of obligation (e.g. must, have got to, have to and got to) as produced by native speakers of English residing in Japan. Hirano presented data and statistics to show that the speakers’ use of these verbs had changed over time. Basically, this change could be explained by the fact that speakers from one part of the English-speaking world came to spend time with speakers from other parts of it, and this contact of varieties had knock-on effects.

The second section contained papers on language contact, etymology, and aspects of translation. Stephen Laker (Kyushu University) spoke on the topic of phonology and language contact. He showed how insights from applied linguistic research (e.g. the critical period and how complexity and differing degrees of phonetic variation between L1 and L2 sounds affect the rate of acquisition) can and must be applied in historical situations of language contact. Various contact-induced phonological and phonetic changes in several World Englishes were introduced from this perspective, followed by examples in older and modern regional dialects of British English that have been in contact with British or Irish Celtic varieties.

The next talk by Ruben Pauwels (now Kyushu University) presented ongoing research into the early contact between Tungusic and Japanese, which resulted in loanwords from Tungusic. The focus was on the reflexes of Tungusic medial clusters consisting of two consonants in Old Japanese in those loanwords based principally on an ongoing analysis of entries in Vera Ivanovna Cincius’s Sravnitel’nyj slovar’ tunguso-man’čžurskix jazykov: Materialy k ėtimologičeskomu slovarju [Comparative Dictionary of the Manchu-Tungusic languages: Materials for an Etymological Dictionary]. Pauwels attempted to formulate rules which explain and predict how original proto-Tungusic medial consonant clusters evolved in proto-Japanese. These rules make it possible to answer two questions: (1) which one of the two consonants in the cluster was preserved in Japanese, and (2) whether the preserved consonant underwent prenasalization or not.

Carey Benom’s (Kyushu University) chosen theme was crosslinguistic variation and the translatability of humour. Carey gave an enlightening presentation on whether or not humour is lost in translation. It would appear that it depends largely on the type of joke. Most problematic are jokes that are based on phonology and syntax, while jokes based on semantics and pragmatics are somewhat easier to translate.  His attempt to translate a single joke from English to Japanese failed for three reasons: (1) lack of matching meaning extension in language-specific word structure, (2) differing patterns of participation in metaphor, and (3) the lack of a syntactic “bridge context”.

The final section the day considered more general or universal aspects of language. Stephen Howe (Fukuoka University) asked whether “yes” and “no” are universal. In other words, are the ways in which humans answer questions in verbal communication in some way universal? Following an outline of the various possible answering systems across languages, Howe estimated that the most basic and underlying answering type found in some way or another across almost all human verbal languages is the short answer type. Building on from this came the conjecture that that most (or perhaps all) answering type systems ultimately develop from this type.

Last but certainly not least, Rinus Verdonschot (Waseda University) was given the final slot to talk about his own special brand of experimental psycholinguistic research. Listeners were offered a view into the underlying processes of cognition and phonology, based on the insights contained in the model developed by Levelt, Roelofs & Meyer (1999), as well as results of fieldwork carried out on the Kaqchikel (Mayan) language by members of the group of Katsuo Tamaoka. Using experimental data (see Tamaoka et al. 2015), they investigated how Kaqchikel speakers make speech sounds, how the fact that dependency structure and stress assignment patterns in Kaqchikel are possibly the reverse of those in Indo-European languages, and to what extent existing Spanish bilingualism must also be factored into the analysis.

The conference finished a little later than expected, with attendees gravitating towards Tenjin for typical Fukuoka fare and beer at an izakaya. Thanks to all participants for making this informal and engaging afternoon of linguistics a success.

Workshop and Invited Talk, Oct 2014

On 11 October 2014, linguists descended on Kyushu University’s Hakozaki Campus for an afternoon of linguistic sustenance and animated discussions. By dint of ingenious planning by Michinori Shimoji, two events were rolled into one: a workshop of the intransivitizing morphology in Japanonic and an invited talk by Toshihide Nakayama (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies) on the notion of “units” in linguistic description and theory.

The first paper of the workshop was by Fumikazu Niimura (Morioka University) and looked at Kesen, a variety (or in Niimura’s view a language) spoken by around 80,000 people in coastal towns in the southeast of Iwate Prefecture, such as Ofunato and Rikuzentakata. Niimura argued that Kesen ar-intransitives can express three functions: 1) resultant state, 2) ability, 3) spontaneous action (see examples 1–3):

kuruma=sa nosaru
car=DAT ride
‘I took the car’

I sinkansen=sa girgiri nosatta
I Shinkansen=DAT just in time ride-PAST
‘I could just get the Shinkansen in time’

arugu-tumori-datta-noni tui-kuruma=sa nosatta
walk-intention-had-but ultimately car=DAT rode
‘I was planning to walk, but in the end I went by car’

The talk built on earlier research by the same author which investigated two verbs – agaru ‘to open’ and nosaru ‘ride’. The dataset was extended to include about a dozen verbs.

The second paper was by Yusuke Hiratsuka (Seinan Gakuin University, now Shigakukan University), who is investigating the traditional dialect of the Koshiki Islands, just off the west coast of Kagoshima Prefecture in southern Kyushu. Following an introduction to the dialect, Hiratsuka analysed systematically: 1) verbs that can be intransivitized and which permit the addition of the intransitivizer –ar; 2) verbs that can be intransivitized which have a consonant stem in which –ar can be attached; 3) verbs that can be intransivitized that have a vowel stem in which –ar cannot easily be analysed (see examples 4–6 respectively; English translations can not always capture Japanese shades of meaning):

himo=ba musuuda
string=ACC tie-PAST
‘(He) tied the string’ (transitive)

himo=n musub-ar-ta
string=SBJ tie-INTR-PAST
‘The string was tied in a knot’ (intransitive)

ame=n jandoi
rain=SBJ stop-PAST
‘The rain stopped’ (transitive)

ame=n jam-ar-toi
‘The rain stopped’ (intransitive)

koori=n toke-ta
ice=SBJ melt-PAST
‘The ice melted’ (transitive)

koori=n tokar-ta
ice=SBJ melt-INTR-PAST
‘The ice melted’ (intransitive)

In addition, Hiratsuka made some comparisons with the Fukuoka dialect and concluded that both show the existence of a unproductive –ar suffix, and that this can have both an intransitivizing and non-intransivitizing function.

The third paper in the session, by Mika Sakai (then Kyushu University, now NINJAL), switched to the Kumamoto dialect, which is spoken by about two million or so residents in Kumamoto Prefecture. The talk started with a detailed sketch of the phonology and morphological categories in the dialect before moving on to the bedevilling –ar construction, which Sakai dissected with admirable clarity. At issue then were constructions of the now familiar type, as below in (7–8):

oji=no wak-ar-ta
hot water=SBJ boil-ar-PST
‘The water was boiled’

huton=no hos-ar-tor
futon=SBJ hang out-ar-RSL
‘The quilt is hung out to dry’

As pointed out in the presentation, the two examples must be translated as passive sentences in English, but the usage differs from a typical passive or normal intransitive sentence and is not found in standard Japanese. Through a detailed analysis of the 13 verbal roots in Kumamoto dialect that can employ the –ar form, Sakai argued that the –ar construction expresses a spontaneous action and that essentially its function is anti-causative.


Following a short break for refreshments, the assembled cohort of linguists sat down for an engaging talk by Toshihide Nakayama. At issue was the notion of “units” in linguistic description and theory, a topic that Nakayama has mulled over for many years, not least through his documentation and analysis of Nuuchahnulth, an endangered Wakashan language spoken off the coast of Vancouver Island in Canada. In particular, the polysynthetic nature of this language calls forth numerous theoretical questions of analysis.

To question the various units, such as “the word” or “the clause”, is to shovel down to the very foundations – the fundamental axioms – of linguistic description. However, before we get the spade out, it is worth recalling how, at the beginning of the last century, mathematicians and philosophers struggled to provide descriptions of the most basic and fundamental axioms of mathematics in purely logical terms. And if it was an enormous challenge for scholars such as Bertrand Russell to define 1 + 1 = 2 in purely logical terms, then linguists will inevitably struggle to define “word”, “clause”, “morpheme” and such like. Although these are bound to remain slippery concepts, they are useful and necessary for an efficient and systematic description of language even though they seem to defy precise logical description.

At any rate, while the overall the structure and set up of grammars must rely on various concepts of units, Nakayama argued that this basic building-blocks approach can be combined with a longer term goal for language description that focuses on usage. Further, he noted that a usage-based grammar would be more in line with Bybee’s (2006) view that grammar is “the cognitive organization of one’s experience with language”, which considers functions of use and frequency of use, the patterns of language, integrating the Firthian observation that words (indeed units) are known by the company they keep.

However, as Nakayama made clear, such a detailed description of grammar cannot be managed in even the most detailed of our current descriptive grammars, be they 500, 1000 or 5000 page tomes. The only way this can be adequately achieved is through the use of technology, the compilation of corpora and databases that are sufficiently large enough to enable computers to statistically evaluate a language’s grammatical computation. In other words, computers would be able to recognize such things as productive patterns and formulaic expressions as well as ongoing change among speakers in, for instance, different age groups or of different genders, and even prosodic aspects could be integrated too (though tagging would presumably be needed and this too would have to be done at some interpretive level and involve units – unless this can be achieved otherwise with Artificial Intelligence). All this still seems a long way off, especially for the minority languages that we wish to document now, but Takayama provided a clear and utterly compelling vision of what grammars must strive towards.

After a busy afternoon, a bowl of chankonabe washed down with beer was very much in order and brought an interesting afternoon of linguistics to a close.

Research Forum, May 2014

The first event of the Language Variation and Change Network was whisked into life at Kyushu University’s Ito Campus on Saturday the 24th of May. Following a perfunctory introduction by the organizers, the afternoon kicked off with the first of three sessions: English and the Languages of Europe. Tetsuya Koshiishi, who made an impressive pilgrimage from Tokyo’s Hosei University, got the ball rolling with his paper adjective formation in English. He took the opportunity to reassess parts of his 2009 Edinburgh University dissertation – subsequently published as Collateral Adjectives and Related Issues (Oxford, 2011). Central to his exploration was how adjectival word formation links in with native and Latinate word formation types. Next, Stephen Laker (Kyushu University) presented his recent research on the abandonment of dental fricatives /θ, ð/ in languages such as German, Dutch and Frisian, in contrast to English. Using medieval spellings, modern dialects and sociolinguistic insights, he traced the course of change of these troublesome consonants and explained why, when and how it happened. Last in this session, Toshiya Tanaka (Kyushu University) gave a presentation on the development of both strong and preterite-present verbs into the attested Germanic languages. Tanaka, who is currently working on a substantial article on the same topic, has uncovered a number of different archaic morphological formations in the strong verbs, as can be seen from a careful evaluation of several unique characteristics of the attested preterite-present verbs.

The second session showcased three papers on the languages of Japan. Carey Benom (Kyushu University) presented the results of his investigative and experimental work designed to uncover the sematic differences of three similar yet different Japanese verbs of separation: nukeru, toreru and hazureru ‘come out/off’. Benom marshalled together and interpreted a wide array of data deriving from his original empirical research in his own distinctive and engaging style. Next, Sukenari Hino (Fukuoka Jogakuin University) walked us through his ongoing research into Eastern Old Japanese phonology, showing how this can be used to illuminate the reconstruction of the Proto-Japanese vowel system – one of the most controversial realms of Japanese historical linguistics. Concluding this session, Michinori Shimoji, principal researcher of Ryukyuan languages at Kyushu University and by all accounts a popular teacher in the Linguistics Department (some students, we are pleased to say, came to the event), gave the audience an insight into the use of the dual in Ryukyuan languages. Based on an extensive survey of 15 languages, Shimoji explained how widespread the dual is in Ryukyuan and what wider or universalistic typological generalizations can be made about its use.

The third session (which through lively discussions in previous sessions started a lot later than expected) aimed to look at more general aspects of language change. Stephen Howe (Fukuoka University) examined what varies and what never changes in human language. He looked at how and why language varies, and basic universals that never change, arguing that rather than universals being ‘few and unprofound’, basic universals explain the superficial variety of human language. Finally, Rinus Verdonschot, a post-doc JSPS researcher in psycho- and neurolinguistics at Nagoya University, offered an engaging talk on current understandings of how language, especially phonology, is processed in the brain, based on the most recent research from the fields of psychology, medicine and linguistics.

The forum wrapped up with drinks and great food at Toc Toc fish restaurant at the Fukuoka bayside and a few late revellers imbibed further in Tenjin. According to feedback from the event, it went really well. The central focus was simply on linguistics: the free exchange of ideas about language variation and change, in a convivial setting.