Paul O'Neill


School of Languages and Cultures

Senior Lecturer
+44 114 222 4401

Full contact details

Paul O'Neill
School of Languages and Cultures
Jessop West
1 Upper Hanover Street
S3 7RA

Paul completed his undergraduate degree in Classics and Spanish at the University of Oxford (Brasenose College). He then moved to Madrid to carry out the Spanish equivalent of a MPhil in Lingüística Teórica y sus Aplicaciones at the Instituto Universitario de Investigación Ortega y Gasset affiliated to the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. He wrote his MPhil thesis on the phonetics of the Andalusian variety of Spanish.

He returned to Oxford (Linacre College) and completed a DPhil on 'The Ibero-Romance Verb: allomorphy and the notion of the morphome' in relation with a Research Project entitled "Autonomous Morphology in Diachrony: comparative evidence from Romance Languages".

Before working for the University of Sheffield, Paul was a University Teacher in Hispanic Linguistics at the University of Liverpool

Research interests

Paul's research focuses on variation and change in the Ibero-Romance Languages (Spanish, Catalan Portuguese, Galician, Austrian, Aragonese) and specifically on the varieties of Portuguese and Spanish spoken around the world. He is interested in detailing and explaining historical and current changes in these languages and using his data to address the big questions in linguistic theory – namely, how language is mentally represented and the interplay between storage and computation.

He maintains that language should not be studied as a self-contained system without reference to its usage, history and structure and studied in isolation to other human cognitive and developmental skills. He views grammar as emergent and shaped by both internal and external linguistic factors. He is particularly interested in Word-and-Pattern models of Morphology and how such models can help in explaining linguistic change.

Paul is currently writing two books which are under contract with Oxford University Press. The Oxford History of Spanish Morphology, and, The Oxford History of Portuguese and Galician Morphology.

Paul is keen to explore ways in which his research can have a tangible impact upon policies, individuals and societies. He is currently developing the following project on language, language teaching, education and linguistic prejudice. 

Read about his funded project on historical linguistics and linguistic prejudice in Brazil

He who thus considers things in their first growth and origin ... will obtain the clearest view of them.


  • explain in scientific but accessible terms, exactly why the varieties are different, and help speakers to understand that non-standard varieties are not bad or incorrect forms of communication.
  • inform research on linguistic theory
  • provide resources for language teaching.
Variation and Change in Language

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language which aims not only to unveil the complex structures which underpin language and how these are mentally represented but also to understand how language plays a role in shaping how we view others and how other people view us. Language variation and change is interesting in this context since it can provide linguists with essential information on the cognitive representation of language since changes can reveal the implicit patterns and covert principles which govern language structure and can increase our understanding of the history of the language in a particular country and the people who brought that language to the country. However, in society, deviations from the established linguistic norm are often perceived in a negative way. This is particularly the case in the countries of the former Portuguese and Spanish Empires.

Depending on the country, the form of the standard language can be radically different from that spoken by the great majority of the population, who can be considered as speaking incorrectly and, at times, in a polluted, debased and denigrated way. Such attitudes can have negative effects on well-being, self-esteem and perceptions of self-worth, not only for individual or groups but entire nations: We can’t even manage to speak Portuguese/Spanish correctly!

In some countries, there can exist a correlation between language variety, social success and wealth, and, for some, this correlation is an inherent and deterministic one: the rich are socially and economically more successful and have more opportunities due to their enhanced mental abilities and rationality. Their way of speaking reflects these aspects and is contrasted with the irrational, spontaneous, illogical, albeit creative underclass and their speech. The result is linguistic prejudice and discrimination.

It is not surprising, therefore, that some sections of the population do not fully engage with the establishment and the education system. Language can be an intrinsic and important marker of individual and group identity. Linguistic prejudice can place speakers in situations in which they feel inherently inferior and incompetent, or whereby acquiring education can imply renouncing their way of speaking and the concomitant affiliations with their social group. Contrastively not acquiring the standard can make speakers feel condemned to a life of poverty and disenfranchised from society. Knowledge to write and speak formally is vital for social and economic advancement; the education system should therefore teach this skill but at the same time not discriminate against non-standard varieties, or other native languages, and be aware of the linguistic reality of the country and its inhabitants.

The blindingly obvious solution is to make society aware that the standard is only one of many varieties of the language; it is no better, more elegant or necessarily more linguistically complex than any other variety but merely the variety which for socio-political and historical reasons is the standard. This point has been made by linguists and even by some political parties, but linguistic prejudices are so ingrained that the scientifically sound facts of linguistics are interpreted as opinions from the far-left.

One must educate through knowledge and understanding and not pure statement. The project therefore aims to carry out recordings on poorly documented varieties of Portuguese and Spanish in Europe, America and Africa and to use this knowledge bank to:

(a) explain in scientific but accessible terms, exactly why the varieties are different, and help speakers to understand that non-standard varieties are not bad or incorrect forms of communication.

(b) inform research on linguistic theory

(c) provide resources for language teaching.

In this way, linguists are provided with valuable data, students with useful resources and speakers with necessary information and explanations. It is hoped that speakers will realise that the standard is only one of many varieties and one which has changed in similar and different ways to their own variety. Furthermore, an understanding of how and why varieties are different should help to eradicate the perceived causal relationship between physical, mental and social attributes with particular varieties of language.


Journal articles


Conference proceedings papers

  • O'Neill P (2006) La resolución del elemento sibilante en el andaluz. Homenaje al Molina Redondo, Vol. 1 (pp 513-523). Granda: RIS download Bibtex download