Major new languages study could shape how grammar is represented in dictionaries and guidebooks

  • University of Sheffield researchers awarded funding to lead major new international research project exploring one of the longest-standing linguistic challenges in Central and Eastern European languages
  • Project will inform how languages are represented in dictionaries and language guidebooks
  • Sheffield academics set to collaborate with researchers in the Czech Republic and Croatia
  • The funding is one of the biggest grants ever awarded to the University of Sheffield’s School of Languages and Cultures

An aerial view of buildings in the Old Town area of Prague

A major new international research project, which could improve our understanding of one of the longest-standing linguistic challenges for languages of Central and Eastern Europe, is being launched by researchers from the University of Sheffield.

The project, led by Professor Neil Bermel from the University’s School of Languages and Cultures, will inform how dictionaries and guidebooks represent Czech and other languages from the region.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in one of the biggest grants ever awarded to the University’s School of Languages and Cultures, the Sheffield academics will collaborate with researchers from seven institutions based throughout the Czech Republic, Croatia and the UK.

The international collaboration is set to investigate two unusual linguistic phenomena where there can be competing forms of a word, or alternatively no form of a word, that a native speaker finds appropriate in a particular context.

These phenomena occur in English, as in all languages, but the languages of Central and Eastern Europe have a particularly rich array of grammatical forms, meaning we encounter these situations more often as we speak and write them than we might in English. As a result, English speakers who learn these languages often remark on the difficulty of pinning down what is the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ form to use.

Professor Neil Bermel, Professor of Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Sheffield, said: “When speaking our native language, for the most part we automatically and rapidly produce word forms which feel ‘right’ in a sentence. Usually, we select the correct form – for example, to express a particular tense, or singular vs. plural – without any conscious effort.

“In the languages of Central and Eastern Europe, you’ll often find two or more forms of a word that ‘fit’ and ‘feel right’ in a particular context, or alternatively sometimes you can’t find a suitable form that fits and feels right within that context. This can make learning one of these languages much harder for people from other countries, but it can also present difficulties for native speakers in terms of formalising linguistic rules and how they explain them in an accessible way in dictionaries and guidebooks.

“This is what we’re hoping to investigate: one outcome will be ways of identifying and pinning down these forms and how they evolve, but another will be more sophisticated ways of representing variation and gaps in languages in official handbooks and publications.

“Results from the project could help speakers of these languages to have more accurate information from official sources that doesn't undermine their native intuition. We also hope to show that treating an excess or lack of possible forms as a commonplace occurrence - in other words, as something characteristic of language rather than an exception to be worked around - could be a good route to understanding how we learn language throughout our lives.”

Professor Bermel added: “ In the UK, having a strong knowledge base for languages other than English is going to be even more important now as we look to forge new relationships with countries in Europe and throughout the rest of the world. Sheffield is one of only a dozen or so universities in the UK with strong expertise in Russian studies, and one of a handful – maybe five – that specialise in languages of the region beyond Russian. Our project builds a multilateral team that will work on languages of four different European countries, and we hope those strong ties and collaborations will persist even after the project is over.”

The team at the University of Sheffield – Bermel and a postdoctoral researcher – will be focusing on adult speakers of these languages and how they react when presented with forms and contexts where no ‘right’ answer is clear.

How Croatian and Estonian children learn these difficult sorts of items will be the focus of researchers respectively in Zagreb (Gordana Hržica and Tomislava Bošnjak-Botica) and York/Tartu (Virve Vihman).

At Charles University, Prague, Dominika Kováříková will be looking at real-world data from large text databases (corpora) of Czech to see how the techniques developed at their institute can be applied to these phenomena.

A team at York (Dunstan Brown) and Brighton (Roger Evans) will develop computational models to predict the appearance of these ‘mismatches’.

Finally, teams at the Czech Language Institute (Kamila Smejkalová and Martin Beneš) and the Institute for Croatian Language and Linguistics (Tomislava Bošnjak-Botica) and the University of Zagreb (Gordana Hržica) will look at how current handbooks of those languages describe ‘messy’ phenomena like these and help translate project findings into concrete recommendations that speakers can make sense of.

For more information on the Feast and Famine research project, visit: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/slc/news/feast-and-famine-grammatical-forms

The University of Sheffield’s School of Languages and Cultures aims to inspire students to study language within the context of culture and society through dynamic and innovative research-led teaching.

The School has a thriving research community of academic staff, postdoctoral research fellows and postgraduate students. While academics in the school conduct research in a wide range of languages, disciplines and geographical regions, they are united by a commitment to accessing sources in the language, and to the study of language-based cultures.

For more information on studying languages or details of research from the University’s School of Languages and Cultures, visit: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/slc

Additional information

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