3 February 2020

Major AHRC-funded project to explore form-function 'mismatches' in language

Professor Neil Bermel from the School of Languages and Cultures is leading a major research project with seven institutions in the UK, Czech Republic and Croatia.

How do people acquire and make sense of ‘messy’ linguistic data? An international team, led by Neil Bermel in the School of Languages and Cultures, along with Dunstan Brown of York University, will be examining this question through the languages of central and eastern Europe.

Their project, called ‘Feast and Famine: Confronting Overabundance and Defectivity in Language’, is funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and will run for three years starting this spring. It will investigate two puzzling language phenomena and how we describe them in public-facing sites like grammars and reference works.

"The project looks at two types of linguistic data, where the ‘slots’ or functions we expect do not match the number of forms available. The first type of mismatch is termed overabundance, where multiple forms compete within a slot, such as the past participle of the verb ‘prove’ (‘have proved’? ‘have proven’?), In the second type of mismatch, we lack a suitable form where one is expected: we may baulk at forming the past tense of the verb ‘troubleshoot’, where we have a ‘slot’ (past tense needed) but no form that can adequately fill it (‘troubleshot’? ‘troubleshooted’?).

An international team

The project involves a team of ten researchers at seven institutions in the UK, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Estonia; they will be looking at the issues involved through the lens of adult usage; corpus data; child language; computer modelling; and language planning.

These ‘mismatches’ between form and function are found in all languages, but the languages of central and eastern Europe, which are rich in grammatical forms, are an especially useful testing ground for learning why these similar situations result in opposite outcomes. The countries involved also have strong central language policy programmes, and part of the project work is addressed at capturing its findings for use in public-facing reference works.

Read more about the 'Feast and Famine' project here

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