Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 63

Introduction to English Linguistics

Part One

Cornelius Puschmann, M.A. cornelius.puschmann@uni-duesseldorf.de

Version 1.0 // 04 June 2008

You can read the contents of this file online at http://introling.ynada.com/topics.

of this file online at http://introling.ynada.com/topics . This work is licensed under a Creative Commons

Session 1: Thirteen questions about language

Session 1: Thirteen questions about language

Remember the questions we talked about in class last week? Here are brief answers both to the questions that we discussed and to those that we didn't get to, based on your ideas and the linguistic viewpoint. Note that you aren't expected to memorize the answers, but thinking about how the scientific approach often differs from the popular opinion will help you understand both language and linguistics a little better.

1. Q: The website languagemonitor.com claims that there are 995,112 words in the English language, but less than 100,000 in French. Do you think that this claim is realistic? A: Firstly, it is impossible to count the words in a language without first agreeing on what exactly a word is. Some languages have "words" that would equate to an entire sentence in English or German. Is something a word if we make a pause before and after it in speech? If it has an entry in the dictionary? You can easily make up new names for things (and this is done all the time in advertising), making it quite impossible to come up with a definite number of words for any language. While English has borrowed a lot of foreign terms throughout its history, speakers of French can certainly talk about the same things - they might simply use a phrase instead of a single word to describe something, or come up with other communicative strategies. While it's a fun idea, languagemonitor.com's numbers are essentially bogus.

2. Q: Would you describe the following lines from song lyrics as wrong or instances of bad English? "I dunno why / I can't function" (Blood Red Shoes, You Bring Me Down) "Am I not always be wanting this?" (Digitalism, I Want I Want) "Hey boy / Why you didn't call me?" (The Blow, Hey Boy) A: Again, it depends on how you define "wrong" and "bad". The first sentence has a contraction (don't know -> dunno) that many people would consider "non-standard", meaning that it's not how we conventionally write in English. Note the word conventional here - there's no higher power that makes dunno objectively wrong or incorrect. It is regarded as "wrong" only because people agree that one shouldn't use it - and this is only true for written language. Native speakers use contractions all the time when they talk because it saves time (always remember: people are lazy!). In music, poetry and other forms of art language often doesn't adhere to the standard, both because it may not look or sound as good and because rebelling against conventions is what art is best at. (Just in case you are unsure about exactly what's wrong in the second and third example:

"Am I not always be wanting this" makes unnecessary use of the auxiliary verb be and has an unusual occurrence of want in the progressive form. In example no. 3 the question is not inverted, i.e. it should be "why didn't you call me" instead of "why you didn't call me".)

Session 1: Thirteen questions about language

3. Q: There is a group on the social networking service StudiVZ called zank you for trevveling wiz deutsche bahn. good bye! What (if anything) is funny about the name? Do you think the correct spelling of the words is more logical? A: The spelling of the words mirrors their pronunciation by a German speaker who doesn't speak English very well (which understandably holds true for many people at Deutsche Bahn). For example, zank makes us think of someone who can't pronounce a th. It is important to notice that we recognize this purely by the spelling, especially when you contrast it with the way words are correctly written in English (which is anything but logical - see question 11). We constantly ascribe characteristics to people based on their dialect, accent and pronunciation and this is on top of things like vocabulary (think of how you perceive someone who uses a lot of Latin words in contrast to a person who ends every sentence with "Alter"). Many popular stereotypes relate to how people use language and we apply them virtually all the time, whether we are conscious of it or not.

4. Q: Linguist Ray Jackendoff makes a distinction between animal communication systems and language. Do you agree with him that only humans have language? A: Once more: it depends on your definition of language (notice a pattern?). Most linguists agree that there are certain properties of human language that set it apart from how animals communicate. For example, different human languages have different signs for the same thing (take Hund, dog and chien) whereas we can assume that cats don't meow differently in German, English and French. Furthermore, we assume that cats can't talk about future events (that party next weekend) or fictional characters (Santa Claus, Dumbledore, Jason Bourne). There also seem to be strict limits on how many signs they can combine (think about how long and complicated an English or German sentence can be) and how they learn new signs. And finally, cats don't need to learn how to meow, while an American child doesn't genetically inherit English from it's parents - it has to be exposed to the language in order to acquire it.

5. Q: Many people - in this country and elsewhere - think that importing words from other languages (especially English!) is bad and should be closely regulated by law, or even banned. Do you agree? A: Languages change all the time and have the nasty tendency not to stick to laws and regulations. Regulating what languages people are allowed to speak and how they should speak them has been a hot topic probably for as long as language itself has been around. Linguists look at language as it is, not as some people think it should be, therefore you'll have a very hard time finding a serious linguist who is upset about the decline of the genitive in German or about "Denglisch".

6. Q: I recently came across the suggestion that learning foreign languages is silly because eventually everyone will speak English anyway. Do you think that having just a single

Session 1: Thirteen questions about language

global language would be a good thing? A: Most people feel that language is an important part of a country's culture (which is precisely why people get so upset about "bad" language, importing foreign words, swearing etc). While it certainly has advantages to have a lingua franca it does not mean that people are likely to give up their native language. There is no objective answer to this question, but it is important to note that to most people the native tongue is an important part of their identity.

7. Q: A popular myth about the Inuit language family is that it has over 40 words for snow. This is not true. Most experts agree that there are really quite few words for snow in Inuit, but due to the structure of the language it is possible to form very long words (a bit like Bahntrassenhalterungsträgerschadenkontrolleursgattin in German). Where do you think does the idea come from that the Inuit have so many words for snow? A: When the idea that the Inuit have countless words for snow first arose, it was widely believe that language, perception and culture are extremely closely related, almost to the point of being identical. The line of thought was basically: "the Inuit's many words for snow demonstrate that they perceive that aspect of the world more keenly than we do". Today most linguists believe this to be false - language and thought are assumed to be separate in the sense that while there are different words for describing the world, the mental concepts which exist between the words and the physical reality they describe are universal. In other words, the sounds, grammatical structure, or number of words in a language do not tell us anything about how its speakers think. At the same time it is certainly possible to find reflections of social or cultural aspects in a language - it's quite likely that the Inuit talk more about snow than we do.

8. Q: Some people argue that a double negative (as in I can't get no satisfaction or I ain't got no money) makes a positive, following the logic that if you don't not have something, you actually have it. What do you think about this claim? A: Languages don't follow rigorous mathematical logic but have a practical use:

communication. When you want to express that something is not the case, you usually want to make sure the person you are talking to gets the difference (think about I love you

vs. I don't love you or John is alive vs. John isn't alive). Multiple negation does exactly that and is perfect standard use in many languages (take something like the French Je ne sait pas - literally I no know not). In Black Vernacular English negative concord (I don't know nothing about nobody) is normal and Geoffrey Chaucer frequently used multiple negations in The Canterbury Tales - at the time this simply wasn't considered "wrong" in English.

9. Q: A speaker of Warlpiri (spoken in northern Australia) once made the remark to a linguist

that "we don't really have grammar

A: Once more it depends of the definition of grammar. Linguists understand grammar as

we just talk". What do you make of this description?

Session 1: Thirteen questions about language

the mental set of rules that every native speaker has in his head and that allows him to form sentences that other speakers can understand. An example would be a sentence like eats popcorn Mike. In English, the order of words in that sentence is simply wrong, but in Austronesian languages such a sequence is perfectly correct (or, as a linguist would say, it is grammatical). A native speaker knows this "rule" (what is the basic word order in my language) and countless others subconsciously and applies them every single time he opens his mouth. In the linguistic sense, every language has grammar and something is only ungrammatical when it violates these rules. 10.Q: Groucho Marx famously said that "time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana". What (if anything) is funny about this sentence? A: Linguists call this structural ambiguity. In Groucho's sentence it's caused by the fact that the words flies and like both have several meanings and can take on different roles. In the first part of the sentence time flies like an arrow (meaning minutes, hours and days go by as fast as an arrow can fly) whereas in the second part fruit flies like bananas (little buzzing insects prefer to snack on a yellow, curved fruit). The fact that we are likely to misread the sentence at first and think the wrong parts belong together makes it funny, because bananas flying in the same way that fruit does is simply not plausible. We are able to identify the correct meaning because only one of the alternatives makes sense. 11.Q: Have a look at these word pairs: right - site, buy - high, cough - scoff, tired - tickled. What's odd about English spelling? A: The first three pairs all end with the same corresponding sound (say them aloud together to test it for yourself). But the spelling doesn't reflect this - it's different inside each pair. In the case of high there simply is no sound at all associated with the gh at the end of the word. The last pair has a similar discrepancy regarding the letter i. English i can sound essentially like the German ei (as in heiter) or i (as in Himmel), but this finds no reflection in English spelling. In fact ei in English (as in their) is yet again pronounced differently. The thing to keep in mind: English spelling says everything about a word's history and very little about how to pronounce it. 12.Q: Jewish linguist Max Weinreich is often cited for his observation that "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy". Can you imagine what he meant? A: What Weinreich meant was that linguistic differences are not the only factors that decide whether we consider something a language or a dialect. For example, Scots can be considered a dialect of English or an language in its own right, depending on your point of view. Often political considerations play a role and language has been (and is) used as a symbol of national identity in countries around the world. There are often bitter conflicts that revolve around language and identity, for example with languages such as Kurdish or Basque.

Session 1: Thirteen questions about language

13.Q: In his paper, Ray Jackendoff mentions the recently discovered "language gene" FOXP2. He asks: "are individuals afflicted with this mutation [a damaged FOXP2 gene] really language-impaired or do they just have trouble speaking?" What do you think is the difference between being "language-impaired" and "having trouble speaking"? A: The crucial difference is where exactly we locate the source of the problem. Only if it affects the brain itself would the result be true language impairment. By contrast, if the mutation "just" hampers speech, this would mean that an affected person has the necessary mental capacity for language, but trouble with physically producing speech sounds. People who are unable to produce or hear speech sounds are still capable of using sign language, which is structurally remarkably similar to spoken language (it also has grammar).

Session 2: What is language?

Session 2: What is language?

Try to imagine - just for one moment - a single aspect of your daily life that is not affected by how you or the people around you use language. While such areas do exist, basically any time we interact with each other it is extremely likely that language will be used to communicate, be it in spoken or written form. Language can be used to chat, complain, argue, promise, flirt and swear and from our earliest childhood onwards we use it on a daily basis for all of these activities and countless others. Not all communication is language - for example, you can communicate that you are happy by smiling or that you disagree with something by shaking your head - but whenever we want to communicate complex information we are bound to use words and sentences. Language is arguably a specialized and highly developed form of communication that is apparently unique to human beings.

The question of what exactly language is and how it works has been relevant to mankind for thousands of years, yet compared to other areas of investigation quite a few things about language are still unknown or under fierce debate. Not only that, the term language can also mean a number of things, depending on the context it is used in. The very first distinction that we need to make when we talk about it is whether we mean

one concrete human language (such as English, German or Chinese) or

the innate ability to learn and use language in general that all humans have.

Concrete languages have a history that allows us to explain the family relations between them and the origins of words - for example, we can tell that the English word father and the German Vater have a common ancestry. We can track changes over hundreds and even thousands of years and get a fairly good idea of what English may have sounded like around 1,300 years ago. You'll learn everything about that in the Introduction to Medieval English Studies.

But where does language as an ability come from and how does it work?

The origin of our ability to use language lies in the brain, especially in those sections known as Broca's and Wernicke's area.

Session 2: What is language?

Session 2: What is language? Studies have shown that when these areas of the brain are

Studies have shown that when these areas of the brain are damaged, an individual can lose her ability to form either coherent or meaningful sentences. Such a loss of language is referred to as aphasia (or, in cases of partial loss, dysphasia).

Language is a distinctly human trait. We cannot make any absolutely definite claims about the mental states of animals (whether or not they "think" in some sense of the word) but we can claim that only humans use language. That doesn't mean that animals don't communicate. When your cat meows, it can mean that it is hungry or wants to be cuddled. A bee can signal its hive about a food source and even communicate information such as distance and location (except for velocity). But as far as we know no animal can tell a joke, swear an oath or answer a question - all perfectly common human activities that most of us engage in every day. In other words, while animals are quite capable of communicating with each other and with us, they are not capable of learning or using language in the same that way we are.

Language as an ability has specific properties that set it apart from sets of signs as bees, dolphins or other animals use them. The following design features of language are considered to be integral by most linguists:

1. Displacement. The ability to refer to things far removed in time and place. You can talk about what you did last summer or where you'll live next year, but your cat can only communicate that it wants to fed right now.

2. Arbitrariness. Human language uses symbols. There is no inherent connection between the word "dog" and the animal that it stands for. "Dog", "Hund" and "chien" all sound completely different, but refer to exactly the same creature - an indicator that the symbols we use are arbitrary. Some words can be onomatopoetic like "pop" and "cuckoo", but these are rare.

Session 2: What is language?

3. Productivity (also called openness or creativity). The ability to generate new utterances. We constantly make up new words and phrases, even though people are not always in agreement if and how they should be used.

4. Cultural transmission (also called tradition). Language is passed on from one generation to another. We all learn the language of our parents and of the people around us, regardless of our genetic origin.

5. Duality (also called double-articulation). Language has two layers - a layer of sound and a layer of meaning. The sounds "d", "o" and "g" have no meaning in isolation, but become meaningful when used in sequence ("dog"). Combining the same sounds in another sequence (e.g. "g", "o", "d" = "god") would give you a different meaning, demonstrating that a limited repertoire of sounds makes a number of different meanings possible.

Reference: Yule, George. The Study of Language (2006). This list is based on a longer one originally developed by Charles Hockett.

What, then, is linguistics? While different academic schools of thought have slightly different definitions, most linguists would probably agree that linguistics can be described as the scientific inquiry into human language. This includes two aspects

how language works (structure)

what we do with language (use)

It is important that by scientific inquiry we mean that our goal is to describe these things, not to tell people how to do them in the "right" way. Because linguistics is a science, it is descriptive - it seeks to objectively describe language, not prescribe how it should be used. Telling people that slang is bad or that you shouldn't use foreign words is not what linguists do, because that would be like a physicist arguing that gravity is bad or a biologist claiming that chickens are evil.

While general linguistics (Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft) tends to put a particularly strong emphasis on the innate ability that makes learning and understanding any language possible for us, English linguistics is concerned both with the specific description of English and with these underlying mechanics. Generally, when we say that someone is a linguist we mean that they are knowledgeable about those mechanics, not necessarily that they speak a dozen languages.

Studying how languages change over time falls into the domain of diachronic linguistics. For example, if you wanted to find out why the pronoun thou has been replaced by you in today's English, that would be a diachronic study. Conversely, if you wanted to study fuzzy grammar or the language of blogs that would be a synchronic study - you would be researching language at a specific point in time (today). The first of these two research questions (fuzzy grammar) is an example for examining language structure, while the second (teenage blogging) deals with language use. Those areas of linguistics dealing with solving concrete problems, such as writing dictionaries, improving language teaching or machine translation are applied, while those that

Session 2: What is language?

are concerned purely with understanding the structure or use of language better for scientific curiosity's sake are theoretical.

Key Terms

language - communication

individual languages - language as an innate ability

language and the brain, Broca's and Wernicke's areas

design features of language: displacement, arbitrariness, productivity, cultural transmission, duality

language structure - language use


descriptive - prescriptive

synchronic - diachronic

applied - theoretical

Further Reading How did Language begin? (Ray Jackendoff)

Session 3: The Sounds of English

Session 3: The Sounds of English

The two primary fields of linguistics concerned with speech sounds - those sounds that are used by humans to communicate - are phonetics and phonology. Both areas are mutually dependent. Phonetics describes the concrete, physical dimension of sounds, such as whether they are voiced or voiceless and their place and manner of articulation. The aspect of sound production is particularly what articulatory phonetics is concerned with, while acoustic and auditory phonetics deal with the characteristics of sound waves and how they are perceived by the human ear.

While phonetics deals with the form of sounds (how they are produced, heard and how they can be described), phonology is concerned with the function of sounds, that is, with their meaning in a given language. By systematically studying phonological differences between languages, it is for example possible to predict what sounds the learner of a second language will have difficulties with or why certain languages are judged as more difficult to learn in terms of pronunciation than others.


The basic unit of phonetics is called a phone, which is basically any human speech sound. Remember, phonetics is only concerned with "sounds as such", so any sound that comes out of a person's mouth can be called a phone. In contrast to this, the basic unit in phonology is the phoneme, which is any sound in a language that differentiates meaning. In linguistic contexts, phones are often expressed by placing brackets around a transcription (e.g. [dæns] for American dance).


The relationship of sound and meaning can be explained by looking into whether a difference in sound structure causes a shift in meaning or not. Try this by saying the following words out loud:

look - book - cook - took

You will notice right away that their sound patterns are similar except for the initial sound (l, b, c, t). The fact that replacing one sound with another (for example, l with b) yields a different meaningful word in English demonstrates that the speech sounds l and b are phonemes in the English language. Linguists normally write phonemes with slashes around the transcriptions, e.g. / l/ and /b/. An case like look - book that demonstrates that /l/ and /b/ are phonemes is called a minimal pair.

Now compare this with another example:

tea - he

At first this might be confusing. While the spelling of look, book etc happens to be similar, except at the beginning of the word where the distinct phoneme occurs, the spelling of tea and he is not

Session 3: The Sounds of English

similar. But they still form a minimal pair for the phonemes /t/ and /h/, because the rest of the sound pattern is identical.

The key here is to recognize that we are dealing with sounds, not spelling. Two sounds may be distinct phonemes while being represented by the same letters, or be completely identical in terms of sound structure but look different in writing.


see - sea

Identical sound, different spelling - not a minimal pair, because we're looking at a difference that exists only in writing.

the - me

The final sound looks similar in writing, but is there is an obvious sound difference between short and long e. However, these two words are not suitable candidates for a minimal pair test, as the rest of the sound pattern is not identical.


What, then, about sounds which are different but do not differentiate meaning? Take this example:

lip - pill

While the difference is slight, you might notice that /l/ does not sound exactly the same in lip and pill (try to keep track of where you place the tip of your tongue). Such a difference depends on many factors - in this case whether the sound is at the beginning or end of the word. Other examples for such factors include dialectal differences (think about how British vs. American speakers say dance or France) and there is even a certain degree of difference among individuals. The decisive contrast between this and the examples above is that such variants don't differentiate meaning. The ls in lip and pill are both allophones of the phoneme /l/.

What is it good for?

Why is it important whether we are dealing with allophones of the same phoneme or with entirely different phonemes? Have a look at this table describing the phoneme inventory of Standard Mandarin, the official language of China. One difference that you are likely to notice is that Standard Mandarin lacks the voiced bilabial, alveolar and velar plosives /b/, /d/ and /g/. However, it has aspirated (ger. behaucht) versions of these consonants, which are distinct phonemes: pʰ, tʰ, kʰ. In other words, a difference that does not distinguish meaning in English (aspiration) is a salient difference in Mandarin Chinese, while another one (voicing of plosives) distinguishes meaning in English but not in Chinese.

Side by side

Session 3: The Sounds of English

The following table gives an summarizing overview of the differences between phonetics and phonology.



sounds as such

sounds as parts of a sound system

language use (parole)

language system (langue)







phone [ ]

phoneme / /

The human vocal tract

What is for linguistic purposes identified as the vocal tract fills several functions, among them breathing and ingesting food. The production of speech sounds is essentially realized by directing the flow of air through the articulatory system in specific ways - for example by letting air escape gradually in a sort of hiss, by letting air pressure build and then suddenly releasing it, by letting the vocal cords vibrate etc.

Session 3: The Sounds of English

Session 3: The Sounds of English Describing speech sounds Speech sounds are usually described via their

Describing speech sounds

Speech sounds are usually described via their articulatory qualities, i.e. their

place of articulation (where in the vocal tract they are generated)

manner of articulation (how they are generated)

and whether they are

voiced or voiceless (whether they make the vocal cords vibrate or not )

Vowels vs. consonants

One basic phonetic differentiation that can be made when classifying speech sounds is that they fall into two relatively distinct categories:

vowels, which are produced by letting air flow through the articulatory system without any constraints and

consonants, which feature some sort of obstruction of the air flow in the vocal tract

Vowels are generally voiced, while English consonants can be either voiced or voiceless.

Place of articulation

Session 3: The Sounds of English

The following list describes the main places of articulation for English consonants. Note that the use of certain places and manners of articulation is common in some languages but not in others. For example, Arabic has two pharyngeal consonants that English lacks (/ħ/ and /ʕ/). An example that you are familiar with are the Umlaut vowels that occur in German but not in English and the dental fricative (the "th") that is common in English but not in German.


A sound that is produced by pressing the lips together is called bilabial.

Sounds: /p/, /b/, /m/ (and, to some extent, the labial-velar approximant /w/)

A sound that involves using the lips and teeth together is described as labio-dental.

Sounds: /f/, /v/


A sound that is created by placing the tip of the tongue behind the upper teeth is dental.

Sounds: /θ/, /ð/

Alveolar ridge

A sound that is produced by tapping the tongue against the area a bit behind the teeth (called the

alveolar ridge) is referred to as alveolar. Sounds: /t/, /d/, /n/, /s/, /z/, /ɹ/, /l/

Alveolar ridge and hard palate

A sound that originates between the alveolar ridge and the hard palate is called palato-alveolar

or post-alveolar. Sounds: /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʃ/, /dʒ/

Hard palate

A sound that comes from the middle section of the roof of the mouth (the hard palate) is called


Sound: /j/

Soft palate (velum)

A sound the is produced in the upper back area of the mouth (the soft palate or velum) is

described as velar. Sounds: /k/, /g/, /ŋ/


A sound that originates in the throat (or, more specifically, the glottis) is referred to as glottal.

Sound: /h/

Manner of articulation

The term manner of articulation is generally used to explain how a sound is produced. Place, manner and voicing are usually named together, allowing us to describe /z/ as a voiced alveolar


Session 3: The Sounds of English

Plosives These sounds (also referred to as stops) occur when there is an initial blockage of both the oral and nasal cavities of the vocal tract (and therefore no air flow), which is then suddenly released. Sounds: /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/

Nasals When articulating a nasal the air flow completely bypasses the oral cavity, instead flowing through the nose. The precise position of the tongue during articulation determines the resulting sound. Sounds: /m/, /n/

Fricatives Fricatives are produced by forcing air through a narrow channel made by placing two articulatory organs closely together (for example, upper lip and lower teeth in /f/). Sounds: /f/, /v/, /θ/, /ð/, /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /h/

Africatives Africatives combine plosive with fricative qualities, first blocking the air stream and then slowly releasing it (in contrast to normal plosives, which release pressure suddenly). Sounds: /tʃ/, /dʒ/

Approximants The articulation of these speech sounds involves only very slight obstruction of the air flow, which is why some approximants are considered to be relatively close to vowels (so-called half-vowels). The exact realization of the approximant /r/ (as either /ɹ/ or /ɻ/) is one of the characteristic differences between British and American English dialects*. Sounds: /l/ (lateral-alveolar approximant), /j/ (palatal approximant), /w/ (labial-velar approximant), /ɹ/ (lateral approximant in British RP), /ɻ/ (retroflex approximant in American English)

* Note that there is really no single British or American English in the precise linguistic sense. British could theoretically include Scots (which is widely regarded as a seperate language), Received Pronunciation and Cockney, while American would geographically conflate Canadian English with Southern US-American and countless other regional and social varieties. Always keep in mind that tags like British English and American English are idealized blanket labels which are generally not specific enough for linguistic purposes.

Key Terms

phonetics - phonology

phone - phoneme - allophone

Session 3: The Sounds of English

vocal tract

vowel - consonant

voicing - place of articulation - manner of articulation

Session 4: Sound and Meaning

Session 4: Sound and Meaning

Distribution of allophones

Before looking at sequences of speech sounds and how they are arranged in words and utterances, it pays off to have another look at how the allophones of a phoneme are distributed, specifically what variants can occur in what kinds of surroundings (have a look at the previous summary if you need a refresher on those two terms).

Analyzing slightly larger units of speech allows us explain some of the variation in how an individual phoneme is realized. If one allophone of a phoneme can always be found in a certain place and never in another, this is described as complementary distribution:

Complementary distribution is the mutually exclusive relationship between two phonetically

similar segments. It exists when one segment occurs in an environment where the other

segment never occurs. (SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms)

An example to illustrate this is the phoneme /p/ with its realization as [pʰ] - the little h indicated that the sound is aspirated - and [p], which is unaspirated. Both sounds are allophones of the phoneme /p/ and they occur in complementary distribution, meaning one always occurs where the other doesn't and vice versa. The aspirated version occurs when /p/ is the syllable onset and followed by a stressed vowel (as in the word pin), while the unaspirated version occurs in all other situations (e.g. in spin or top). It is important to note that while the two sounds are actually phonetically slightly different, exchanging one for the other (e.g. aspirating the /p/ in top) would not have any effect on the meaning of the word. If that seems strange to you, consider again that other languages are different in that respect and that in them these two variants of /p/ may not be allophones but distinct phonemes. Finally, another source of phonetic difference in how a phoneme is realized is free variation. Free variants are the result of individual or dialectal differences, such as vowel quality in different varieties of British and American English.


If phones are the smallest units of measurement in speech production, syllables are what follows them. Essentially a syllable is a vowel with optional consonants clustered around it. The vowel forms the so-called nucleus of the syllable, while any consonants coming after the vowel are referred to as the coda. Depending on whether the nucleus is followed by a coda or not, we describe the syllable as either closed or open.

The example below shows how syllable structure can be accurately described:

word: map (phonetically [mæp])

Session 4: Sound and Meaning

syllable structure: CVC

The word map has one syllable. It consists of the consonant [m], followed by the vowel [æ] and ends with the consonant [p] - therefore it has the syllable structure CVC. This is an example for a closed syllable (the vowel nucleus is followed by a consonant coda).

By contrast, the following example is an open syllable and does not have a coda:

you (phonetically [yu])


Remember that the letter y may represent a consonant (as in this example) or a vowel, as in happy. Don't be fooled by the strange spelling conventions of English!

Consonant Clusters

Several consonants can stack at the beginning or end of a syllable, forming a so-called consonant cluster. The following example demonstrates this:



In English, a maximum of three consonants can stack at the beginning of a syllable, while a maximum of four consonants can succeed the nucleus, leading to this phonotactic description of syllable structure:


Here are a few more examples for better illustration:



monosyllabic (one syllable), closed



disyllabic (two syllables), open



monosyllabic (one syllable), closed



polysyllabic (four syllables), syllables are closed-open-open-closed


Session 4: Sound and Meaning

Stress is a means of emphasizing syllables (or, in some cases, words) in spoken language. In contrast to French (as one example) where words are generally stressed on the last syllable, English does not have a fixed word stress, as these examples show:




Stress also serves an important grammatical function in English, as it is capable of indicating word class. For example, the word survey can be either a verb or a noun:

(1) We want to surVEY all viewers of Channel 5 in order to learn more about their tastes.

(2) This SURvey indicates that the students are extremely bored.

In the first sentence survey is a verb and stressed on the second syllable, whereas in the second sentence it is a noun and stressed on the first syllable. Generally function words such as and, to and of (which are often monosyllabic) are unstressed in English.

Have a look at the following sentence and think about how shifting word stress affects the meaning.

(3) JOHN doesn't like pie.

= John doesn't like pie, Mary does

(4) John DOESN'T like pie.

= Someone assumed that he likes pie, but he actually doesn't

(5) John doesn't LIKE pie.

= He doesn't just like it, he loves it!

(6) John doesn't like PIE.

= He doesn't like pie, but he's crazy about donuts.

Key Terms

complementary distribution - free variation



nucleus - coda

closed- open

consonant clusters

syllable stress, word stress

Session 5: Applications of Phonetics and Phonology

Session 5: Applications of Phonetics and Phonology


Before moving on to larger units of speech, it makes sense to have a closer look at the second major building block in our phoneme inventory besides consonants: vowels.

Vowels are produced by letting air flow through the articulatory system without any significant obstruction. The vocal cords always vibrate when a vowel is produced and the continuous stream of air makes it possible to lengthen or shorten vowel sounds, a distinction that can differentiate meaning in some languages.

The central qualities that allow us to describe vowels are height, backness and roundedness. They allow us to describe where a vowel sound originates (height and backness) and the shape of the lips during articulation (roundedness).

and the shape of the lips during articulation (roundedness). The above graphic should give you a

The above graphic should give you a good idea of height and backness and in what way they affect the quality of vowels.

The vowel chart (originally developed by phonetician Daniel Jones) combines all three features (height, backness, roundedness) into a single model to describe the realization of the so-called cardinal vowels in the oral cavity.

Session 5: Applications of Phonetics and Phonology

Session 5: Applications of Phonetics and Phonology Because the decisive articulator determining the quality of vowel

Because the decisive articulator determining the quality of vowel sounds is the tongue, it is possible for vowel quality to change over the duration of articulation if the position of the tongue changes. If the articulatory configuration shifts from one vowel into another the resulting composite sound is a so-called diphthong (or gliding vowel).

Examples for pure vowels:

sit /ɪ/ => high front vowel (unrounded)

foot /ʊ/ => high back vowel (rounded)

man /æ/ => middle central vowel

Examples for diphthongs:

time /aɪ/

face /eɪ/

choice /ɔɪ/

Differences between dialects and sociolects of English are often marked by contrasts in vowel quality.

Suprasegmental phonology / prosodics

Suprasegmental phonology studies intonation and other aspects of speech that extend over more than one segment:

stress is associated with syllables

rhythm, tempo and intonation are associated with phrases and sentences

Suprasegmental features like stress, rhythm, tempo, and intonation are sometimes referred to collectively as prosody.

Session 5: Applications of Phonetics and Phonology


Intonation refers to the contrastive use of pitch or melody in speech (ger. Tonhöhenverlauf, Sprechmelodie). Different levels of pitch (tones) are used in particular sequences (contours) to express a wide range of meanings. For example, we often make use of the difference between a falling and a rising pitch pattern in statements and questions.

- They’re waiting. (information)

- They’re waiting? (question)

- They’re waiting??! (surprise)

The part of a sentence over which a particular intonation pattern extends is called an intonation phrase. The intonation phrase is a unit of information rather than a syntactically defined unit, but it often overlaps with syntactic units like phrases, clauses, or sentences.

Most languages exhibit a general downward trend of pitch (declination) over the course of an intonation phrase. The completion of a full grammatical unit such as a declarative sentence is often signaled by a distinctive fall in pitch. Incomplete utterances, such as mid-sentence clause breaks where the speaker intends to show there is more coming, often exhibit a slight rise in pitch.

Connected Speech

Speech is a continuous stream of sounds without a definite borderline between each word. When we communicate with each others, we adapt our pronunciation to our audience and tend to speak at a pace which is convenient for us, rather than speaking clearly. This causes changes to the ‘shape’ of words. As a result, certain words are lost, and some phonemes are linked together while speaking. These changes are described as features of connected speech.

Among the phonological processes that affect connected speech are:

assimilation (changing sounds)

elision (losing sounds)

intrusion and linking (adding or joining sounds between words)

These features preserve rhythm and make the language sound natural.

Features of Connected Speech

Weak Forms: Some English words can occur in a full and a weak form, because English exhibits qualities of a stress-timed language. That means that, while we try to keep an equal interval between stressed syllables and give the phrase rhythm, we tend to leave out non-essential words. Consequently, conjunctions, pronouns and articles (i.e. function words) are often reduced or even lost.

Examples of words which have weak forms are:

Session 5: Applications of Phonetics and Phonology

- and: fish and chips. (fish´n chips)

- can: She can dance better than I can. (1st “can”= weak, 2nd “can” = full)

- of: A cup of tea.

- have: Have you eaten? (weak)/ Yes, I have. (full)

- should: Well, you should have told me. ("should" and "have" are weak)

Assimilation: This process alters sounds so that they becomes similar (partial assimilation) or identical (total assimilation) to a neighboring or nearby sound. There are different types of assimilation: regressive/ anticipatory, progressive and reciprocal.

regressive/ anticipatory: articulation of the following sound will be anticipated. In most cases assimilation is regressive

progressive: articulation of a sound continues in the next sound, which means it will be maintained. Progressive assimilation is rare.

reciprocal: two sounds that produces a third one. (Example: don’t you)

Elision: Sounds disappear completely in this process. Usually the vowels from unstressed syllables are elided first.


Common sound deletions

- int(e)rest, sim(i)lar, lib(a)ry, diff(e)rent, t(o)night.

/ t / and / d / = consonants often elided

- chris(t)mas, san(d)wich

/ h /= this sound is often left out

- you shouldn´t (h)ave

Phrasal verbs can show how we link closing consonants and beginning vowels across word boundaries, e.g. Get out ( getout ), Come out ( cumout )

Intrusion and Linking: We often put an extra sound (/j/, /w/, /r/) between two vowel sounds, because it marks the transition sound between the two vowels. This is regarded as intrusion.


/ j /

- I / j / agree, They / j /are here!

/ w /

- I want to/ w/eat, Do/ w/it!

/ r /

- The media / r /are to blame, Law(r)and order.

A lot of times we drag final consonants to initial vowels or vice versa, therefore consonants and vowels can be linked also.

Session 5: Applications of Phonetics and Phonology


- Get on. (geton ), Not at all. (notatall ), Come on. (comon)

How does connected speech affect our communication?

Native speakers normally do not have a problem with unclear utterances caused by connected speech, as they can assume what the missing part could be within that context. Non-native speakers, on the other hand, sometimes have difficulty predicting which lexical item may or may not appear in a particular context. This already is a significant problem for learners. However, the non-native speaker not only has to recognise the use of reduced forms but also use them himself, unless he wants to risk sounding fairly unnatural. Furthermore, the listener will have trouble to identify the points of focus if the speaker uses too many stressed forms. In conclusion, aspects of connected speech are of significant importance for people who learn a new language.

Key Terms





monothongs, diphthongs

suprasegmental phonology /prosodics



connected speech

weak forms



intrusion / linking

Session 6: Types of Morphemes

Session 6: Types of Morphemes

Words are the nuts and bolts of language. All of us rely on a huge repertoire of words each time we communicate. We assemble long lists of words (dictionaries) and have frequent debates about what exactly a word means (or doesn't mean) and who has the authority to decide about such issues.

Morphology is interested in the internal structure of words, much in the same way that phonology is interested in meaning-distinguishing speech sounds (phonemes). We can break down words into smaller units by analyzing their structure and identify systematic processes that allow speakers to add new words to the lexicon and indicate grammatical information such as tense and number.

An example illustrates the point. Think about what information is contained in the word girls. Is it possible to break this word down into smaller structural units?

girls = girl + -s

It seems that girls can be broken down into two parts, the first of which refers to something in the world (a young female human being) and the second indicating a grammatical category - in this case number - and specifying plural.

The same approach can easily be applied to other kinds of words.

kicked = kick + -ed

While girls is a noun kicked is a verb, yet the same rules apply. Kicked can be segmented into the first part that describes a kind of action (kick) and the second part that adds the information past tense (-ed). Tense is another grammatical category that can be encoded morphologically in English.

Think about what kinds of words take which endings for a moment. Only verbs (talked, laughed, pushed, loved) allow us to add information about tense, whereas only nouns (girls, boys, zebras, chairs) permit marking number.

Let's compare this with the another kind of example. The word coolness consists of two parts, giving us the same kind of formula as in the previous two examples.

coolness = cool + ness

However, things look different when we analyze the segments. Cool can have a whole range of meanings, but most commonly it is an adjective that describes a person or thing. But what about - ness? It does not indicate number or tense - in fact it contains no information about any grammatical category whatsoever. -Ness also does not indicate a specific thing, action or state. So what is it good for? Look at these example sentences:

Mike is a cool guy

Session 6: Types of Morphemes

Coolness is a good trait to have

The -ness in words such as coolness, hipness, sadness or vagueness seems to mean "having the attribute X" and adding it to an adjective apparently changes that adjective into a noun. There are many more endings of this type that affect word class (for example, by transforming an adjective into a noun) and that may change a word's meaning to different degrees.

teach - teacher

insane - insanity

happy - happily

A teacher (noun) is someone who teaches (verb), insanity (noun) is the state of being insane (adjective) and happily (adverb) is the way in which you do something you are happy (adjective) with or about. We can also extend or even reverse the meaning of a word by appending something like re- or un-.

fill - refill

introduce - reintroduce

happy - unhappy

fair - unfair


In linguistic terminology the minimal parts of words that we have analyzed above are called morphemes. Morphemes come in different varieties, depending on whether they are

free or bound and

inflectional or derivational

Free morphemes

Free morphemes can stand by themselves (i.e. they are what what we conventionally call words) and either tell us something about the world (free lexical morphemes) or play a role in grammar (free grammatical morphemes). Man, pizza, run and happy are instances of free lexical morphemes, while and, but, the and to are examples for free grammatical morphemes. It is important to note the difference between morphemes and phonemes: morphemes are the minimal meaning-bearing elements that a word consists of and are principally independent from sound. For example, the word zebra (ˈziːbrə) consists of six phones and two syllables, but it contains only a single morpheme. Ze- and -bra are not independent meaning-bearing components of the word zebra, making it monomorphemic. (Bra as a free morpheme does in fact mean something in English, but this meaning is entirely unrelated to the -bra in zebra.)

Bound morphemes

Not all morphemes can be used independently, however. Some need to be bound to a free

Session 6: Types of Morphemes

morpheme. In English the information "plural number" is attached to a word that refers to some person, creature, concept or other nameable entity (in other words, to a noun) when encoded in a morpheme and cannot stand alone. Similarly the morpheme -er, used to describe "someone who performs a certain activity" (e.g. a dancer, a teacher or a baker) cannot stand on its own, but needs to be attached to a free morpheme (a verb in this case). Bound morphemes come in two varieties, derivational and inflectional, the core difference between the two being that the addition of derivational morphemes creates new words while the addition of inflectional words merely changes word form.

Derivational morphemes

The signature quality of derivational morphemes is that they derive new words. In the following examples, derivational morphemes are added to produce new words which are derived from the parent word.

happy - happiness - unhappiness

frost - defrost - defroster

examine - examination - reexamination

In all cases the derived word means something different than the parent and the word class may change with each derivation. As demonstrated in the examples above, sometimes derivation will not cause the world class to change, but in such a case the meaning will usually be significantly different from that of the parent word, often expressing opposition or reversal.

probable - improbable

visible - invisible

tie - untie

create - recreate

Independently of whether or not word class changes and how significantly meaning is affected, derivation always creates (derives) new words from existing ones, while inflection is limited to changing word form.

Inflectional morphemes

Inflection (the process by which inflectional morphemes are attached to words) allows speakers to morphologically encode grammatical information. That may sound much more complicated than it really is - recall the example we started out with.

The word girls consists of two morphemes

the free lexical morpheme girl that describes a young female human being and

the bound inflectional morpheme -s that denotes plural number

Examples for the morphological encoding of other grammatical categories are tense (past tense

Session 6: Types of Morphemes

-ed as in walked), aspect (progressive aspect as in walking), case (genitive case as in Mike's car) and person (third person -s as in Mike drives a Toyota).

You are likely to notice that

overall, English grammar has fairly few inflections and

some inflectional endings can signify different things and more than one piece of grammatical information at once

The first point can easily be demonstrated by comparing English with German, which makes more use of inflection. Compare the following two pairs of sentences.

Der Mann sah den Hund

Den Hund sah der Mann


The man saw the dog

The dog saw the man

If you focus on the meaning of the two German sentences you'll see that it does not change, even though we've changed the word order. The man is still the one who sees the dog, not the other way around. By contrast, the English expression changes its meaning from the first to the second sentence.

Why is this the case? In the German example the definite article is inflected for accusative case (den Hund), telling us who exactly did what to whom. This allows us to play around with the word order without changing the meaning of the sentence. English gives us no way of doing the same. We are forced to stick to a fixed word order due to a lack of case inflection (except for personal pronouns). Languages such as Latin that indicate a high degree of grammatical information via inflection (so-called synthetic languages) generally have a freer word order than analytic languages like English which have only reasonably very few inflections and rely on word order to signal syntactic relations (another popular example for a strongly analytic language is Chinese).


Linguists use the term affix to describe where exactly a bound morpheme is attached to a word. Prefixes are attached at the onset of a free morpheme, while suffixes are attached to the end. Infixes - affixes that occur in the middle of a word - are very rare in English, a well-known exception being expletive infixation. While in English suffixes can be either derivational or inflectional (teacher, slowly vs. apples, kicked), prefixes are always derivational (untie, recover, defrost).

Morphs, morphemes, allomorphs

When you look at certain inflectional endings that occur in English, you'll notice that they are

Session 6: Types of Morphemes

often but not always predictable. Here are a few examples for the plural morpheme.

one car - two cars; one rose - two roses


one mouse - two mice

one man - two men

one ox - two oxen

one sheep - two sheep

A vowel change (also called an umlaut plural) instead of a suffix marks the plural in mice and men,

in oxen the suffix we encounter is rather exotic (meaning this word is virtually the only one that takes the -en ending) and in the last example there is no visible plural marking at all.

The fact that plural number in English can be marked with several different inflectional suffixes (- s, -en), by vowel change or by no (visible) change at all points to a distinction you already know from phonology:


a concrete part of a word that cannot be divided into smaller parts

morphemes the meaning-distinguishing, abstract dimension of morphs, e.g. something like the plural morpheme allomorphs different realizations of the the same morpheme, e.g. -s, -en and nothing for the plural morpheme in dogs, oxen and fish_

When linguists talk about the allomorphs of the plural morpheme they are referring to variants of the same functional element which do not impact meaning in any way. A plural is still a plural, whether encoded by -s or something else.

Base, stem and root

Finally, in order to make the segmentation of words into smaller parts a little clearer, we differentiate between the base, the stem and the root of a word in morphological terms. base: reactions stem: reaction (s) root: (re) act (ion) (s) The stem is the base with all inflectional suffixes removed, whereas the root is what remains after all affixes have been taken off. When doing computational text analysis stemming (i.e. removing all inflectional endings) is frequently undertaken in order to avoid counting different word forms (e.g. house and houses) as separate words.

Key Terms


free morphemes



bound morphemes







morph - morpheme - allomorph

base - stem - root

synthetic language - analytic language

Session 6: Types of Morphemes

Session 7: Word Formation

Session 7: Word Formation

The previous summary presented derivation as one process that allows us to introduce new words into a language. While derivation is generally assumed to be the most productive word formation process, there are several others.


Compounds are possibly those multimorphemic words that we most readily identify as consisting of several parts. In a compound several free morphemes are combined, resulting in a word that often derives its meaning from the combination of its components.

classroom = class + room

skyscraper = sky + scraper

wallpaper = wall + paper

In English, compounds are often not written as single words but separated or combined by a

hyphen (e.g. dry cleaner, on-line). In contrast to this, German compounds are usually spelled as a single word and compounding is an extremely productive word formation process in German (e.g.

Hochschulrektorenkonferenz, Karnevalswochenende,

Note that while noun + noun compounds are frequent, other combinations also abound and the result must not be a noun.

talkshow verb + noun = noun tightrope adjective + noun = noun overshadow preposition + noun = verb

Many compounds exhibit a so-called modifier-head structure, with one part specifying the other in terms of meaning. Thus a blackboard is a kind of board and a talkshow is a kind of show (not a kind of black or a kind of talk). The modifier may function in different ways, e.g. a raincoat is not a coat for but against rain.

While the abovementioned examples are endocentric (i.e. the meaning of the compound is derived from the meaning of the parts) there are some compounds where this is not the case. A redhead is not a type of head but a person with red hair. Such compounds are called exocentric, because their meaning is not strictly contained in the components.


Another highly productive word formation process is conversion, which is the term used to describe a word class change without any morphological marking.


party (noun) -> party (verb) We will be at the party They like to party

Session 7: Word Formation

must (verb) -> must (noun) You must eat your soup It is a must that you call him

Note that we only speak of conversion when it is clear that a word has been "copied" from one word class to another. Frequently words appear similar without having been converted (at least not recently) - for example, English like exists as a verb, a noun, an adjective or a filler/discourse marker.


When a word is imported from another language we describe this process as borrowing. While German also has a large and increasing number of borrowings, especially from English, English itself is well-known for its mixed vocabulary and overall affinity for foreign words. Some words from Latin and Greek (e.g. strata - street, episkopos - bishop) were imported into a large number Indo-European languages before English even existed, emphasizing that borrowing is in no way a novel process. A few examples that illustrate the mixed vocabulary of English:

avalanche - from Romansch via French

bizarre - from Basque via French

candy - from Arabic and possibly Sanskrit via French

coffee - from Arabic via Turkish and Italian

ketchup - from Malay via Amoy Chinese

schadenfreude - from German

French has contributed a very large portion of English loan words and often borrowed words take on different meanings due to competition with indigenous terms (cf. Old English great with Norse big and French large).


Shortening longer words is a popular strategy for conserving breath when speaking and space when writing or typing. Clipping or trimming words in the front or back (and sometimes both) is thus another word formation process in English. air plane -> plane front clipping advertisement -> ad back clipping

Session 7: Word Formation

influenza -> flu front and back clipping


Blends are combinations of two or more words in which the sound patterns overlap. Often parts of either or both words are reduced or lost in the blend, though usually the initial components are still recognizable. brunch = breakfast + lunch motel = motor + hotel smog = smoke + fog

Initialisms and Acronyms

Other forms of shortenings are initialisms (also called alphabetisms) and acronyms, which reduce each component word to its initial letter. The difference between to two types lies in how the resulting word is pronounced in spoken language, namely letter by letter or without intermission.



Sometimes speakers of a language will analyze a word as containing affixes where none are present. By removing these assumed affixes a lexeme can be back-formed. editor to edit babysitter to babysit

"Morphological oddities"

When critically looking at what you've learned about morphology and word formation to this point, you are bound to notice that the harmonious abstractions of the terminology aren't entirely perfect. Some phenomena such as cranberry morphemes (see below) demonstrate that morphemes are idealized and do not always correspond neatly with atomic units of information. The following "oddities" stand out in English:

Zero morphs


zero morph is a morph that should analytically be there, but that is not represented. A zero (Ø)


often used to indicate the "invisible" morph.

two cats = (ROOT) + -s (PLURAL) two sheep = (ROOT) + Ø (PLURAL)

I like = (ROOT) + Ø (Non-3. Pers. sing.)

Session 7: Word Formation

She likes = (ROOT) + -s (3. Pers. sing.)

Note that regarding noun plurals, one should not confuse zero morphs with mass nouns. Mass nouns such as water or metal simply do not have a plural, whereas sheep merely has no visible marking of the plural.

Portmanteau morphs

Some inflectional morphemes encode more than just a single grammatical property. These are called portmanteau morphs, because they contain several items inside a single shell (a portmanteau is a large suitcase).

he sleeps

+ 3. person

+ singular

+ present tense

my cat

+ 1. person

+ singular

Note that this is not to be confused with distinct morphemes which are realized with similar- looking morphs, such as -s as the realization of the plural morpheme vs. -s indicating third person singular.

Cranberry morphemes

Sometimes we encounter morphemes which are neither affixes nor genuine free morphemes. Such unique morphemes (which are occasionally also called cranberry morphemes) pose problems for analysis.






Black, straw and blue are lexical morphemes - but what's a cran or a mul? Cranberry morphemes are most often introduced into a language via borrowing or dialectal variation and therefore only occur in a fixed morphological constellation. They are sometimes described as fossilized terms due to the fact that they can no longer be separately analyzed or used productively to form new words.

Key Terms

word formation processes



endocentric - exocentric





initialisms and acronyms


morphological oddities

zero morphs

portmanteau morphs

cranberry morphemes

Session 7: Word Formation


Read this New York Times column and find out what word formation processes William Safire unknowingly mentions.

Session 8: Grammatical Categories and Relations

Session 8: Grammatical Categories and Relations

People have many associations with the term grammar and not all of them are necessarily positive. Grammar is often understood as something that one has to painfully acquire in school, while carefully avoiding all sorts of 'mistakes'. A piece of conventional wisdom states that 'language exists without the permission of grammarians' and many people believe that certain uses of language are instances of 'bad grammar', that everyday spoken language and youth slang 'lack grammar' and that the grammar of their native language is deteriorating.

From a strictly linguistic perspective, all of this is rubbish.

Languages change over time, as do the needs of their speakers, and while a conversation with your friends may be linguistically different from a political speech, a piece of poetry or a newspaper article, it is neither 'less grammatical' nor 'less meaningful' in the linguistic sense of these terms.

Just like any other aspect of language, linguists approach grammar descriptively - in other word, in the same way that a biologist approaches an organism or a physicist looks at molecules. Grammar is not a checklist of arbitrary dos and don'ts that educators, writers or the editors of the Duden have agreed on, but a set of mental rules that every unimpaired native speaker of a language has perfect command of. Whenever you open your mouth, you combine morphemes and words into highly systematic sequences, and this is what makes what you say comprehensible to others. To the linguist, 'grammar' is the invisible system that is at work every time a speaker formulates an utterance - a system without which communication would be impossible.

Word classes

One of the oldest fundamentals of grammatical description (well over 2,000 years old, in fact) is the division of words into groups according to their meaning and function. These groups are called word classes, lexical categories, lexical classes, or, in traditional grammar, parts of speech. The traditional repertoire used to describe Indoeuropean languages like German an English includes eight, sometimes nine word classes:










Session 8: Grammatical Categories and Relations

A basic division frequently made when looking at these categories is between content words and function words (also sometimes described as lexical vs. grammatical word classes). The distinction can be explained by examining the meaning of words such as girl (a noun), run (a verb) and happy (an adjective) vs. but (a conjunction) and the (an article). While girl, run and happy point to something in the world (a kind of person, a kind of activity, a state) but and the do not point to anything - their meaning is purely language-internal (= grammatical). This difference is also noticeable when looking at what new words enter a language. Speakers come up with new nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs quite frequently, but when was the last time you heard that a new article or conjunction had been coined? Although new function words are also introduced into languages, this does not happen as often and usually takes much more time than the introduction of new content words. For this reason, linguists sometimes call content words an open set, whereas function words are considered a closed set.


Verbs, along with nouns, form the most basic building blocks of the world's languages and are generally considered to exist universally, though their form varies from one language to another. Verbs come in two basic varieties, transitive and intransitive, depending on the arguments they require (for more on verb arguments, see the summary for Session 9).

John saw Mary (see needs an object - transitive)

John slept (sleep does not accept an object - intransitive)

Depending on the kind of semantic information they convey, verbs can be classified as stative (which describe states, perceptions or cognitions) or dynamic (which describe processes, actions or activities).

Sue plays tennis (dynamic)

The wildfires destroyed the forest (dynamic)

Mike likes apple pie (stative)

It seems like yesterday that I took this class (stative)

Stative verbs can generally not be marked for progressive aspect (*Mike is liking apple pie, *It is seeming like yesterday).

In English, the main verb is inflected for past tense (typically via the -ed suffix), progressive aspect (via the present participle, formed with the -ing suffix) and perfect aspect (via the past participle). On the third person, verb inflection also marks the combination of singular number and present tense (John likes Mary).

Auxiliary verbs play an important role in English grammar. Be + full verb is used to indicate passive voice (The authorities were notified by Sue) and progressive aspect (Sue is notifying the authorities), while have + full verb is used to indicate perfect aspect (We have lived in this house for

Session 8: Grammatical Categories and Relations

over ten years). Another type of auxiliary are the modal verbs can, could, may, might, shall, should, will, would and must which express the speaker's intent and different degrees of certainty about the future. They are classified as auxiliaries because they can never act as the main verb of a sentence.


Often defined as a word that describes 'a person, place or thing', nouns are the quintessential content word class. English nouns as a lexical category can be subdivided into proper nouns and common nouns, the former pointing to specific and distinct people, places or institutions (George W. Bush, Copenhagen, Greenpeace, The Queen of England) while the latter describes generic entities (car, boy, word, boredom). Those common nouns that can be grammatically marked for plural via an allomorph of the plural morpheme (such as -s, -en, -Ø) are called count nouns, whereas nouns which cannot be marked in this fashion are known as mass nouns. Mass nouns lack the ability to take a numeral article (compare five cars with *five informations) and are usually quantified with much and less instead of many and fewer. They should not be confused with count nouns that are plural-marked with a zero (Ø) such as five sheep, where sheep is clearly a countable entity.


The name 'pronoun' suggests any word that can take the place of noun in a sentence, but the differences between pronoun subtypes are so pronounced that they are sometimes classified as separate word classes. Types of pronouns include:

personal pronouns

demonstrative pronouns

interrogative pronouns

relative pronouns

indefinite pronouns

Personal pronouns such as I, you, he, she, it and they are marked for the grammatical category of person (see below), in other words they identify who is speaking (first person), who is being addressed (second person) and who is being spoken about (third person). They are also marked for gender (he - she, him - her), number (I - we, he/she - they) and case (I - me, he/she - him/her, John's).

Demonstrative pronouns refer to things which are close by (this, these) or far away (that, those), in relative proximal distance to the speaker. This distance must not necessarily be literal, but can also mark the speaker's perception or attitude.

Interrogative pronouns are used to ask questions such as who, what, why, when and where (and how, which is also considered a 'wh-word' in this context).

Relative pronouns such as who, that and which signal relative clauses (see summary for Session 9). Who and which lead dual existences as both interrogative pronouns and relative pronouns:

Session 8: Grammatical Categories and Relations

Who saw him? (interrogative pronoun)

Those who saw him waved (relative pronoun)

Indefinite pronouns stand for unclear or semantically 'empty' referents. Examples for indefinite pronouns are anyone, everyone, no one, anybody, nobody, somebody, something and nothing.

Note that pronouns stand by themselves and do not modify nouns. In the utterance Whose is this? whose and this are both pronouns, but in Whose t-shirt is this black one? they are determiners.


Adjectives describe nouns and can occur either attributively or predicatively, depending on whether they come before or after the noun they modify (the tall girl vs. the girl was tall). They may

be gradable (big - bigger - biggest) or non-gradable (beautiful - *beautifuller - *beautifullest) and can usually themselves be modified with very or too. Finally, only adjectives can be used in

constructions such as It seems


Adverbs are a very heterogeneous word class and while many of its members can be identified via the suffix -ly (as is loudly, quickly etc) this isn't always a reliable indicator of adverb-hood. Adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs and frequently indicate when, where, or to what degree something happens.

He quickly opened the door (adverb modifying verb)

John read the unbelievably exciting novel (adverb modifying adjective)

or He/she seems

Very soon, we will be out of marshmallows (adverb modifying adverb)


Prepositions typically provide semantic information about the spatial or temporal relation of something to something else. In English, they normally precede the noun they modify, while in other words they follow it (postpositions), which is why the more general name for this word class is adposition. Prepositions are invariant in form (compare with adjectives) and constitute a relatively small category.


Conjunctions are used to tie together clauses, either by coordination (John went to the movies and Mary came along) or subordination (Mary came along because she wanted to see the movie). Coordinating conjunctions tie together elements that are categorically similar (bread and butter, left or right, tired but happy) while subordinating conjunctions express conditions (If you do well on the test, let me know how you prepared for it), cause and effect (We didn't see the show since we didn't go to Boston) or temporal contrast (He took off his shoes before he entered the apartment).


Session 8: Grammatical Categories and Relations

Determiners precede nouns and in English they provide restrictive information about possession and definiteness. Like pronouns, they can be divided into subclasses:

definite and indefinite articles (the, a, an)

demonstratives (this, that, these, those)

possessives (my, our, your, her, his, its their)

interrogatives (which, what, whose)


Interjections are expressions such as hey, wow, ouch, umm, yeah and hmm which are a vital part of every-day spoken language, but have no strictly semantic content. They are often excluded from grammatical classification because they primarily serve an emotive function and are in no immediate relation to the surrounding elements. One reason why they are often overlooked is their fairly low frequency in traditional written language, though they are popular in instant messaging and SMS.

Grammatical categories

The term grammatical category broadly refers to a set of syntactic features that is conceptually similar and applies systematically to a linguistic expression. More concretely, grammatical categories that are salient in English are










Tense allows speakers to express information about temporal relations, typically by marking the verb. In strictly morphosyntactic terms, English has only two tenses: present and past tense. Futurity is expressed in English analytically via will or going to auxiliaries. Note that what is generally considered the English tense system in school books is more precisely the combination of present, past and future tense with simple, progressive, perfect and perfect-progressive aspect.

Simple Tense Aspect Present take/s Past took



am/is/are taking

was/were taking

Perfect Aspect have/has taken had taken
have/has taken
had taken

Perfect Progressive Aspect

have/has been taking

had been taking

Session 8: Grammatical Categories and Relations

will be taking

will have taken

will have been taking

Future will/shall take Aspect
will/shall take

In English, the category of aspect allows speakers to mark actions expressed by verbs as completed, ongoing, recurrent or habitual. Note that aspect concerns the action expressed by the verb as a process and not its temporal location in the past, present or future. While many school grammars treat the present perfect as a sort of past tense, an utterance such as I have eaten strictly only implies that this action has occurred and that it was completed, not when it took place. Temporal relations are expressed by tense, leaving aspect to add information about the status of something as ongoing or completed.


The participant role of an individual in discourse is signaled via grammatical person, in English specifically via the personal pronouns of the first, second and third person (see also pronouns - personal pronouns). English lacks certain marked distinctions in the pronominal system made by many other languages, for example the distinction between a formal and a more familiar second person (vous - tu, Sie - Du) and between singular and plural on the second person.

Singular Plural Subjective Objective Possessive Reflexive Subjective Objective Possessive First I me mine





Note that the paradigm reproduced above represents standard Modern English - the pronominal system shows considerable dialectal variation.


The grammatical category of number describes count information (one, more than one, in some languages additional cases) that is encoded via inflection. In English, nouns, pronouns and verbs can indicate number. Due to its mixed vocabulary, English nouns of Latin and Greek origin form irregular plurals (alumnus - alumni), while some nouns are marked with a zero (deer - deer, sheep - sheep) or via umlaut (foot - feet, woman - women).


Grammatical gender is a form of noun classification that is common in many Indoeuropean languages. Some languages encode two genders (French), others three (German, Latin), but in other language families even wider systems of classification exist (for example, see the four-way distinction made in Dyirbal, spoken in Australia). Gender marking, which was relatively similar to

42 / 63

Session 8: Grammatical Categories and Relations

German during the Old English period, has been lost to a large extent in Modern English. Exceptions are: personal pronouns (he - she - it), possessive determiners (her car, his shirt), relative pronouns (who/whom - which) and gendered nouns (prince - princess, heir - heiress, actor - actress). In those relatively few cases where English retains gender marking, grammatical and biological gender coincide relatively closely, whereas in languages with full grammatical gender the choice is often more idiosyncratic (e.g. German: der Junge - das Mädchen).


Voice is a category that describes the relationship of verb arguments to one another. English distinguishes between active and passive voice and uses a periphrastic construction (be + past participle) to realize the passive. In a passive construction, the direct object becomes the subject of the verb while the former subject is either omitted or moved into an adverbial:

John likes pie (active voice)

Pie is liked by John (passive voice)


Grammatical mood describes certainty, world-knowledge and the intent of speakers regarding what they express. In English, mood and modality, which is the expression of inference (epistemic modality) or conviction that something should be done (deontic modality), are largely identical, but other languages encode other semantic information through this category.

Sally is a teacher (indicative)

Sally must be a teacher (potential)

Semantically, the example illustrates the inference encoded in the second sentence: the speaker is assuming that Sally is a teacher. As with other categories, the stricter definition of mood assumes morphosyntactic encoding, as it exists in the German subjunctive:

Er ist müde (indicative)

Es sagt, dass er müde sei (subjunctive)

However, there is a strong tendency in German to avoid this kind of usage and it is rare in spoken language:

Er sagt, dass er müde ist ('implied' subjunctive)

Key terms

descriptive vs. prescriptive grammar

content words - function words, open set - closed set

word classes verbs

transitive - intrasitive

dynamic - stative

full - auxiliary


proper - common

count - mass








attributive - predicative

gradable - non-gradable




coordinating - subordinating


definite and indefinite articles





grammatical categories









Session 8: Grammatical Categories and Relations

Session 9: Phrases, clauses, sentences

Session 9: Phrases, clauses, sentences

In previous summaries we have slowly worked our way upwards from smaller to ever larger

building blocks of human language. Initially, we discovered that there are meaning-distinguishing units of sound (phonemes), followed by meaning-bearing parts of words (morphemes). What, then, is the next larger unit of measurement in linguistic analysis? The following list gives an


1. sentences contain one or several

2. clauses contain one or several

3. phrases contain one or several

4. words contain one or several

5. morphemes

While some languages blur the boundaries between words and longer expressions to some extent due to their morphology, English allows a fairly clear segmentation into phrases, clauses and sentences. The structural relations of these units with one another fall into the domain of syntax. Just like morphology, syntax is not concerned with what a sentence means, in the sense of what it

tells us about the world, but with the internal structure of units and their relations to one another. In other words, syntax asks which sentences are in accord with the grammatical rules imposed by

a particular language and which aren’t.

When talking about sentences as units in grammar, it is important to recognize that we idealize their status to some extent. Spoken language often consists of incomplete utterances and seemingly disjointed pieces, but this does not make it 'less grammatical'.

Two simple sentences demonstrate aptly what sort of relations are covered by syntax:

John likes pie

*John pie likes

The words used in both sentences are identical and common expressions in English. But clearly there is a problem with John pie likes. While in Persian such a sentence structure would be acceptable, it cannot be considered grammatically well-formed in English, because it does not conform with the canonical word order of English (Subject - Verb - Object, or SVO). Clearly the words themselves would also be different in Persian, but what counts in the context of syntax is that what is grammatical in one language may well be ungrammatical in another and that this dimension is detached from meaning as we frequently understand it.

A famous example sentence helps to exemplify this last aspect of language:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

The sentence may not 'make sense' in that ideas cannot be colorless, do not have the ability to

Session 9: Phrases, clauses, sentences

sleep and are not able to do so furiously. But grammatically the sentence is perfectly acceptable, because every word is in a place where it can potentially be, something that is not the case with *John pie likes or *Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

Two central questions from the vantage point of syntax are therefore ‘What are the building blocks of a sentence?’ and ‘How do they interact with one another in a particular language?’


Those elements in a sentence that form structural units are called constituents. From a functional perspective (in other words, when asking what the constituents in a sentence do), it is possible to distinguish between two basic building blocks that exist in any complete sentence: a referring expression and a predication.

referring expression



ate an apple


don’t like Mondays

The car

crashed into the wall with a bang


rained steadily all day long

The referring expression is essentially something (a person, thing, emotion, state or abstract concept) that we make a statement about (for example, that it went somewhere, did something, has a certain quality and so forth).


If we turn from function to grammar we can make another observation: the referring expression is always a noun phrase (NP), while the predication is a verb phrase (VP). A complete English sentence will always contain these components.




likes pizza

Many people

decided not to vote

These two examples demonstrate why we use the terms noun phrase and verb phrase, instead of just speaking of nouns and verbs: Mike and Many people fill the same syntactic slot, while likes pizza and decided not to vote fill another (they are constituents). Phrases can vary a great deal in terms of length and complexity and they can themselves contain other phrases. For example, the verb phrase likes pizza contains the noun phrase pizza.

Constituency tests

It is possible to test whether part of a sentence is a constituent via several relatively simple tests. Three of the most common tests are substitution, movement and question-forming.

When the fire broke out, the girl on the roof cried for help

In the example above, replacing the noun phrase the girl on the roof with the pronoun she yields a

grammatical sentence.

When the fire broke out, she cried for help

Session 9: Phrases, clauses, sentences

If we replaced only the girl with she, the result would not be a grammatical sentence: *When the fire broke out, she on the roof cried for help. The fact that we can substitute a pronoun for the girl on the roof proves its status as a constituent of the sentence.

Another possibility is to move the assumed constituent to the front of the sentence:

When the fire broke out, the girl on the roof cried for help

The girl on the roof cried for help when the fire broke out

Moving only parts of the noun phrase would not result in a well-formed sentence because it would destroy its structural integrity (*The girl when the fire broke out on the roof cried for help).

Forming questions that ask specifically for the constituent is another approach:

Q: Who cried for help when the fire broke out?

A: The girl on the roof


The element that gives a phrase its name (a noun phrase, verb phrase, prepositional phrase) is commonly called the head. To give an example, in a noun phrase the head noun may be preceded by a determiner, adjective or another noun (e.g. the crowded football field) and followed by a prepositional phrase or relative clause (the book on the table; the girl who called the police). If we replace a noun phrase with with something else, it must be another noun or a pronoun - all other words in the noun phrase are optional.

All sorts of people love pizza

Sue loves pizza

I love pizza

*The loves pizza

*Green loves pizza

*But loves pizza

While this kind of endocentric headedness generally applies to noun phrases and verb phrases, prepositional phrases frequently behave in a different way. For example, the prepositional phrase in The keys are on the table cannot be replaced with only on or the table - *The keys are on and *The keys are the table are both ungrammatical.

If we examine the constituency of sentences (in other words, their phrase structure) we find that frequently units are grammatically ‘packaged’ inside other units, producing a hierarchical structure. One way of expressing said structure is by using brackets (note that in the example S

Session 9: Phrases, clauses, sentences

stands for sentence, not subject):

The old man’s cat slept = (S (NP (NP The old man ’s) cat) (VP slept) )

Another, very popular method of expressing a phrase structure is the use of tree diagrams, as in the example below

is the use of tree diagrams, as in the example below One good approach when looking

One good approach when looking at the phrase structure of a sentence is to identify the main clause's noun phrase and verb phrase and then break down the sentence into smaller units, one constituent at a time.

Verb arguments

Two terms related to grammar that you have probably already encountered in school are subject and object. While the constituents of a sentence are its components, subject and object are specific syntactic roles that define the relationship of constituents to the verb (in other words, they are the verb’s arguments). In the example above, John lost his pants, John is a noun phrase that fills the role of subject in relation to lost which is the main verb of the sentence, while his pants is the direct object. We use the term transitivity to describe what arguments a particular verb assigns.


Verbs assign specific argument slots to constituents according to the predication they express.














a beer





Session 9: Phrases, clauses, sentences

In the first example, the verb yawn is intransitive - it does not permit an object (*Sue yawned John is not grammatical). By contrast, a direct object is required in the second sentence (*Sue likes does not work), making the verb like monotransitive. Finally, the third sentence has a so-called double object construction. The subject is followed by two objects, the indirect one inserted before the direct one. Because of this, we refer to give as a ditransitive verb. Note that many verbs permit multiple argument configurations: John bought a beer (montransitive) and John bought Sue a beer (ditransitive) both work.

Two additional syntactic roles, which are in turn associated with subjects and objects, are those of complement and adverbial.


Complements are associated with either subjects (subject complements) or objects (object complements). They provide more information about the thing they are associated with (they predicate the subject or object) and are often required in order for the clause they appear in to be grammatically well-formed. Several examples help to illustrate this behavior:

Subject complements:

The cookies








a teacher










The role of complement is closely tied to specific verbs, sometimes called copula or linking verbs, because they link the subject or object and its complement. The notable difference between a subject-complement construction and a subject-object construction is that the complement ‘completes’ the subject. A teacher specifies something about John, just as delicious is how the cookies taste and tired is the state that Ruth is in. By contrast, in Jane pushed her sister, her sister does not complement Jane but is the direct object of pushed.

Object complements function very much like subject complements:



the movie









a genius





The party



prime minister





Session 9: Phrases, clauses, sentences

Just as subject complements predicate subjects, object complements predicate objects. Complements are generally not optional but required - *They found the movie, *I consider Susie and *The party made him are each incomplete without the object complement (the same thing holds true for the subject examples above). Typically complements are noun phrases, predicative adjectives, or participles that behave similar to predicative adjectives (They found the movie disappointing).


In contrast to complements, adverbials can generally be described as predicating either the verb or the entire clause. They are usually adverb phrases, temporal noun phrases or prepositional phrases.



the cake








the eggs

every time





The keys


on the table




While in the first two examples the adverbial is optional (He ate the cake and She dropped the eggs are grammatical), the last example looks a little like a subject complement at first sight. However, looking more closely reveals that on the table answers the question of where the keys are. It modifies the entire clause and not just the keys.

It is important to point out is this context that terms in syntax in general and the terms complement and adverbial in particular are used with a variety of meanings by different linguists with different theoretical backgrounds. The relatively traditional terminology (which we use) poses certain problems, especially in cases that are fuzzy.


Looking beyond phrases, the next larger structural unit we encounter are clauses. A clause is generally defined as consisting of a referring expression and a predicate (or NP + VP), which makes it possible to use the terms clause and sentence synonymously when dealing with simple sentences.

Session 9: Phrases, clauses, sentences

John likes pizza

John likes pizza and Mary likes pasta

John likes pizza because it tastes awesome

The first is an example for a simple sentence, the second for a compound sentence and the third for a complex sentence.

A simple sentence contains a single independent clause. Note that the clause may be quite long and contain a number of phrases, i.e. The old miner's fantastically rich cousin frequently traveled to South Africa many years ago is still a simple sentence.

Compound sentences contain multiple clauses that are strung together via coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or) or parataxis (connection without a conjunction).


John likes pizza and Mary likes pasta


John likes pizza, Mary likes pasta

Finally, complex sentences combine an independent clause with one or more dependent (or subordinate) clauses. Dependent clauses are generally signaled by subordinating conjunctions such as because, since, after, while, although or when, or by relative pronouns such as who, which or that. While they always contain a referring expression and a predication, they often don't make much sense on their own. Many textbook definitions therefore state that independent clauses represent 'complete thoughts', while dependent clauses do not.

After he had called Mary, John picked up the pizza that he had ordered earlier

The example sentence begins with the dependent clause After he had called Mary, followed by the independent clause John picked up the pizza which is in turn followed by the relative clause that he had ordered earlier. Only the independent clause sounds right on its own, while the dependent clauses seem incomplete by themselves.

Relative clauses may be either restrictive or non-restrictive and provide more information about the subject or object of the main clause.

Restrictive relative clause:

The man who had lost his wallet decided to call the police

Non-restrictive relative clause:

The man, who had lost his wallet, decided to call the police

The difference between the two examples in one of meaning. The first sentence implies that a specific man (the one who lost his wallet) decided to call the police. By contrast, the second sentence is about a man who called the police - the information that he has also lost his wallet is

Session 9: Phrases, clauses, sentences

given on the side.

Clauses may be part of phrases. For example, restrictive relative clauses like the one above (who had lost hist wallet) are always part of a noun phrase. This embedding of clauses is also the reason why we can always assume the basic structure NP -> VP: the verb phrase will often contain other phrases and clauses.

Finite vs. non-finite clauses

Dependent clauses exist in two basic varieties: finite and non-finite. In a non-finite clause the verb shows no inflectional agreement with the subject, while in the finite variant it does.

When he saw the mess in the kitchen, John took a deep breath (finite dependent clause)

When seeing the mess in the kitchen, John took a deep breath (non-finite dependent clause)

Verb inflection

English has three basic varieties of non-inflected verbals: participles, gerunds and infinitives. While participles act similar to adjectives, gerunds behave like nouns:

Staring at the empty box, John took a deep breath (participle)

Arguing will not help (gerund)

To-infinitives can fill subject and object roles (i.e. behave like nouns), or modify existing subjects or objects:

To study is the smart thing to do before an exam (to-infinitive as subject)

John was asked to leave (to-infinitive as object)

He started to talk (to-infinitive as adverb)

Key terms

grammatical - ungrammatical

referring expression - predication


constituency tests





noun phrase

verb phrase

prepositional phrase


phrase structure


dependent - independent

finite - non-finite

relative clause

restrictive - non-restrictive

coordination - subordination


simple - compound - complex


verb arguments

syntactic roles


direct object

indirect object



Session 9: Phrases, clauses, sentences

Session 10: Essentials of Semantics

Session 10: Essentials of Semantics

One reoccurring theme in virtually all of the units that we have covered so far has been the focus on internal structure (for example of words and sentences) in contrast to meaning (i.e. what a piece of language tells us about the world). You may be relieved to learn that with semantics, we are finally venturing into the domain of meaning.

What's the meaning of to mean?

Meaning as a concept is initially more difficult to define than you might think. The verb mean itself serves as an example for the different meanings a single word can take on:

Sorry, I didn't mean to offend you

Great -- this means we'll have to spend another hour in the car

Dog means 'chien' in French

In the first example, the meaning of mean is roughly equivalent to 'intend', in the second it means 'it is the consequence of something' and in the third it is equivalent of 'dog translates into chien'. The examples show that an extremely common word like mean can easily be used to describe very different things.

Conventional meaning vs. social and affective meaning

Not only can words be used with different meanings in different contexts, but the entire description of what something means depends greatly on the type of expression we are talking about. Compare the following examples:

Beagles are a breed of dogs

Hey Stan, how are you?

Linguistics is really cool!

The first sentence differs from the second and third in that it makes a statement about the world that can be verified or falsified. By contrast, if someone states that he/she likes or dislikes something (the third example) this is a subjective and unverifiable statement. Such an expression still contains important information, but it has what we call affective meaning. Similarly, a question such as the one provided in the second example has social meaning, as do words we use to address people (Mister, Misses, Sir, Your Honor, Dude - also think about Sie vs. Du in German), ways of greeting and saying goodbye (Hi, Cheers, Regards, Wassup) and many other parts of language which are essential in our everyday interactions with others. Note that what could be called a third type - grammatical meaning - has already been discussed.

Semantics, however, is concerned purely with the conventional meaning of words and sentences. Conventional (or sometimes conceptual) meaning can be described in almost mathematical terms and it can be applied to sentences that we can often evaluate in terms of their

Session 10: Essentials of Semantics

truth value. Beagles are a breed of dogs