Monday, 25 March 2013

UKIP have made me break a resolution

Up to now I have done relatively well with my New Year resolutions.  I have been swearing less (although must still admit to resorting to to occasional 'damn', albeit mainly because it is 'jollyphonic', or 'fun to say').  My feelings towards Mr. Gove (notice that? I called him 'Mr.') have been reigned in to be manifested only in the occasional classroom analogy and occasionally re-tweeting the ever-increasing evidence of his narcissistic and unilaterally retrograde approach to educational policy.

And as for getting angry about politics?

Well, UKIP have just won some local elections in my area.  By a considerable margin.  In one sense this is no real surprise, given that the area I live in dances predominantly on the right wing of most elections - but it is a blow nonetheless.  What makes me particularly irate about this is that the UKIP campaign did not even try to work strategically on tapping into the sentiments of disaffected Conservative or Liberal voters.  Nope - they went straight for the jugular of tapping into people's instincts to simply blame all their woes on foreigners (i.e., 'people who talk funny').

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Using image maps to create attractive course menus in Moodle

Since I had a very good response to my previous post about creating dynamic reading lists in a VLE course page, I thought it might be worth following up with another little thing which I have just been working on: Image-mapped menus.  An image map, in case you don't know, is a picture in which there are certain areas which act as 'hotspots', and can take you to different links.  It can be a rather neat way of just making your own course stand out a little, and of making it perhaps even a little more fun to use for students who may well be getting bored of standardised and often rather dull templates.

There are some specialist tools, which do this job very well - but they are not always the easiest to work out.  More recently, I have starting using a free online resource called - which frankly makes the whole thing as simple as it can get.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Creating dynamic reading lists in your VLE using Zotero

This, then is my experiment with reading lists this semester.  It has been driven in part by the extent to which referencing management tool Zotero has become so deeply embedded in my own way of working, and in part by the tentative initial evidence which suggests that the quality of referencing and consistency of criticality in students work can tangibly benefit by using it.

To begin with, I have created a group in Zotero called Newham University Centre.  I could, of course, create a separate group for each module I am teaching, but since this is a first-time experiment it seemed simpler to try a generic approach to begin with:

This group will now appear in my folder structure online, in my standalone version, or in my browser extension.  From here, I can now drag accross my folders with reading lists - or create my reading lists directly into the group library folders:

To manage the group members, I need to go to the Zotero website.  Clicking on the 'Groups' tab, there is an option under the header for 'manage members'.  At the bottom of this page is a link to 'Send More Invitations'.

Clicking on this will take me to a page where I can type in or paste the email addresses of the students I  want to invite to join.  There is an option for sending a personal message as well, which may be a good idea for those who might otherwise be baffled by the whole business:

Clicking 'Invite Members' will send an email inviting the recipients to join the group (if they are already a member) or to register (if they are not).  Once they have accepted the invitation then the group libraries will appear at the bottom of their own folder structures in Zotero.  From here they can create bibliographies and access any notes, attached files or tags which you have added.  Even better, I can now continually update my reading lists as I find new resources.

Creating a dynamic reading list in a VLE

Of course, not all students will want to use Zotero.  Some of the wee buggers will always want to be awkward and use somthing else - like paper.  So a neat way around this is to use the Zotero RSS option to create dynamic lists in your VLE.

Let me explain:

If I go to Zotero online again, and to my 'Groups' tab, there is an option to access the 'Group Library':

Clicking on this will take me to an online version of my Zotero group folder structure.  The key bit on this page is the link at the bottom which has the orange RSS logo, and the option 'Subscribe to this feed':

I need to make sure I have the particular folder I want highlighted, and then I click on the RSS feed button.  This takes me to a page which is like a text list of my Zotero entries, and looks like this:

What I really want from this page is the url address (in the address bar).  Once I have copied this, I can create my dynamic VLE page.  What I want to create now is an RSS widget.  There are lots of websites which do this - some of which charge, and others which let you use them for 30 days or so before blocking them and then making you pay.  Others though, are gloriously free.  I have been using FeedWind, although doubtless there are many others out there:

At this website, I can see a form to start customising my feed.  To begin with, I need to paste the url web address from the RSS page above into the 'Feed URL' box at the top of the form.  There is a preview of the widget on the right.  In the 'General' options, I can click on 'Advanced Options' to adjust the height and style of the widget.  A large number for the height - anything from 2000 to 4000 - suits my purposes:

In 'Entry Title' I can expand the number of words the title will display.  I tend to set this to around 400 - as some journal titles can be interminably long.  In the 'Entry Contents' the key option is for 'html tag'.  Selecting 'On' means that my book entries will include all the information about the sources.  Without this option, the number of words describing the source will be limited - which might be useful for creating a shorter page, but here I am throwing in the lot:

At the bottom of the page is the code which has been generated by the website.  When I have finished customising the widget, I simply select this code and copy it:

Now, its onwards to the VLE.  We use Moodle, but I would imagine most work in a similar way as far as this is concerned.  I am creating a 'page', in which I can add any content I want.  More importantly though, once I have the editing window for the page open I am clicking on the 'html' button, in order to switch into a coding form of entry for the page.  This sometimes shows as '< >' rather than 'html':

In the box that comes up, I simply paste the code I have copied from FeedWind:

 Click 'Update', then 'save'.  The page itself now looks like this:

 Handily now, every time I edit, add or delete an entry to my reading lists through Zotero, this page will automatically adjust to include those changes.  A dynamic reading list that means I can organise my reading lists through Zotero and have them sync with my students course pages on the VLE.

Plato's cave, reality, and stuff

Today was my first day back in the classroom (hooray!), and despite feeling about as unprepared and disorganised as I ever have on a first week, it is certainly good to be doing 'real work' again.  Today, I was introducing a module on the philosphy of language.  This tends to be rather a fun module, because it focuses more on the ideas of a few key philosophers (Socrates, Locke, Humboldt, Russell, Davidson, Austin), and the classroom experience of thrashing ideas about is much more at the heart of both the learning and assessment process.

The assessment itself for this module takes the form of a learning journal, in which students are required to effectively 'blog' each week about what they have learned.  This will hopefully mean that their work will demonstrate on-going reading, thinking and (perhaps more importantly than all) observing language at work.

Since I am demanding that my students write each week about the experience, I would feel a little guilty if I did not do the same myself - so here goes...

Actually today we did not talk too much about language at all.  We spent the beginning of the class discussing the module itself and the assessment - about which the group asked some excellent questions which really suggests to me that they understand how to go about establishing a clear focus for their assessment from the beginning.

The rest of the class was essentially establishing the contexts for next weeks discussion of Plato's Cratylus Disalogues.  These dialogues are really the central classical text for the discussion of language philosophy, but today I wanted to talk more generally about classical philosophy in the hope that it would help students get the 'feel' for debating philosophical questions.

After a little bit of history, we started to discuss the ways in which philosophical discussion can be seen to relate to a desire for 'effective' and pragmatic governance.  Using the word 'reputation' we explored the disparity of value placed on abstract concepts as opposed to concrete, and how we might begin to defne those abstract concepts more securely.  'Reputation', we concluded, was indeed more valuable than something more tangible such as food, because the effect of reputation can have a more extensive impact over the long terms on food and a number of other concrete material necessities.

How do we know 'reputation' is real then?  Because we can see its effects.

This idea led neatly into a consideration of Plato's cave analogy.  The flickering shadow on the cave wall is like the effects of something real which we cannot know directly and concretely.  More than that though, those flickering shadows not only represent things which are generally accepted to be abstract anyway ('love', 'reputation', 'justice', etc.), they represent other things which we might believe are more concrete in themselves.

The illustration used for this was the word 'chair'.  Fortuately the classroom had some good props to illustrate this point: if we try to define something as seemingly simple as a 'chair', we start to encounter some discomforting problems. 

We could, for example, say that a chair is something that you sit on.  However, we can sit on all sorts of things that are not a chair - a table, a beanbag, a sofa, or the floor.  We might define a chair then, as something we sit on that has four legs - but then a table has four legs, and curiously none of the chairs in the classroom had four legs.  Something with a back then?  But a sofa has a back.

The point is, we all know what a chair is.  However, ask somebody to identify the universal characteristics which connect all chairs and most of the time they will struggle to do so.  What is interesting is that we all share an understanding of the universality of 'chairness', and can identify a chair based on that shared understanding.  This shared understanding though is inevitably an abstraction.  It is not connected to just one kind of chair - it is a metaphysical construct which links chairs together and defines them.

By exploring this idea, we began to see that it is not just abstract ideas like 'reputation' that are bound to an abstract reality which we cannot see, but everything concrete is bound to an abstract universality (what Derrida referred to as the 'transcendental signified').

So it appears not only are we not in Kansas any more.  We never were.

How does this relate to language?  Well, the question we ended with was about the origins of words.  If words refer to anything, do they refer to the concrete and specific realities we see in front of us, or to the abstract 'universality' we don't?  In either case, how does the word become attached to the universal in the first place?

These are the issues which concern Socrates, Hermogenes and Cratylus in The Cratylus Dialogues, which we will be discussing next week - but overall, not a bad start to the new term.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

1) What is 'language'?

Language is frequently defined as being simply a form of communication – and this is true to an extent, because language is certainly a means of communication. But then there are many ways in which both humans and animals communicate. A Chimpanzee might wave its hand in such a way as to communicate irritation, or anger. A husband might leave a rose with his wife’s breakfast in order to communicate love. There are even forms of communication which humans and animals make without any conscious effort at all.

As two cats approach each other, they pick up from scents, sounds and body posture whether the other cat is friendly or unfriendly. A women meeting a man for the first time might unconsciously flutter their eyelids, part her lips and fidget with her hair in a way which indicates attraction. Or a man being questioned by the police might blink rapidly and look up towards the right in a way which might suggest they are lying.

In both these examples, we can see a means of communication. Experts refer to them as examples of ‘leakage’, since communication is leeking out through body language. There are other forms of communication of course. Bees for example, communicate the location of the best nectar by performing a dance. Birds sing songs. But none of these examples are means of communication which demonstrate anything like the scale of complexity that human verbal language can. As Geoffrey Finch writes: “Verbal language is the most complex and sophisticated form of communication to have evolved on this planet” (Finch, Allan, Bradshaw, Heyden and Burridge, 2009).

Indeed as Finch notes in another book, language itself is such a powerful and mysterious thing that it is often attributed with magical powers (Finch, 2003. p. 1). Spells and curses use language to perform magic, while in many religions and philosophies the word is explicitly associated with the divine. The gospel of John in the Bible states that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In Greek philosophy, the Word was the Divine Logos – the Reason which underpins all reality (see the works of Epictetus). Marcel Griaule, in his study of the African Dogon peoples, discovered that according to their beliefs, every object is made of words. Words are spirits that inhabit peoples bodies. According to Dogon beliefs, speaking to a woman means that the spirit of words fertilizes her, enabling her to give birth (Griaule and Dieterlen, 1954).

The Dogon people of Mali

The truth is though, that language is a system. It is a machine – and a machine which easily eclipses any other man-made invention for the enormity of its significance:

“We take our ability to speak entirely for granted, which is as it should be of course. Like walking, or breathing, it seems an entirely natural function. But all languages are inventions. The words we speak or write, and the system which underlies their use, have all been made up.” (Finch, 2003. p. 1).

Well, there are a range of things many of which would give us all a headache if we attempted to address them all now. However, there are certain characteristics that we can identify more simply. Here, I am going to concentrate on just 5.

  • Displacement: We have already encountered this in the Module Guide. Human language can “range over time and space” (Finch, 2009). When we meet each other we might ask how we have been. ‘How was Christmas?’ Even when returning from lunch break, we might ask each other ‘was it nice? Is it better than the food in Café Mondo?’. By referring to the past we are communicating in a way which displaces us in time – it takes us back in time. By referring to the Café Mondo, we are displacing ourselves in space – taking us to a different place. Animal communication simply does not replicate this capacity for displacement. A dog might come up to you with a lead in its mouth, wagging its take in a way which communicates it wants to go for a walk – but the next day it is unlikely to suddenly roll over and yawn in a way which suggests ‘you know, I enjoyed that walk yesterday – but I preferred it last week when we went by the park’.
    • Ideational Function: A rather highbrow linguistic term this, and the meaning is a little bit complicated too – so hold on to your hats. We use language when we think. Let us use for a moment the word ‘rights’. The word ‘rights’ contains within it an ideal which is entirely abstract. A notion about certain standards of respect or of remuneration which we are all entitled to on account of being something or other – our rights as human beings, our rights as students, or as employees, etc..
      Here is the question though. Was there such a thing as human rights before the words existed with which to express the idea? We live in a world now where there are lawyers by the zillion all expressly intent on asserting all our rights. Are we more conscious of the idea now than we were twenty years ago? 
      Again, Finch provides a neat summary: 
      “But there is a certain type of thought which is dependent on language. Language enables us to reason about the world … We need language in order to conceptualise experience. Concepts such as ‘time’, ‘love’, ‘honesty’, are abstract. Language brings them into being as ideas which we can manipulate and use to construct our lives. Once we have the concepts of ‘fidelity’ and ‘punctuality’, we can actively try to be faithful or punctual. In such ways our lives depart from those of other animals” (Finch, 2009).
    • Grammar: It is tempting to think that animals use a human-like language. For example, when a meerkat standing on guard sees a predator approaching, it will let out a series of high-pitched cries which all the other meerkats recognise as a signal of danger. It is feasible to think that an animal might have a different cry depending on whether the danger is in the sky or on the ground – but that is probably about as sophisticated as it gets.

      Despite all the attempts of programmes like Meerkat Manor to convince us otherwise, there is certainly not a cry which would translate as ‘look out folks! There is an African sea-eagle heading this way from the direction of that bilbao tree Henry fell off last month!’. 
      Human beings have given language a naming function, which linguists refer to as the process of nominalisation. Human language is not content with ‘danger’ standing as an entire construct of meaning all by itself. Certainly, children might point at something and exclaim ‘ball’ as a means of saying ‘I would like the ball now please, if you would be so kind’ (this is known as a holophrastic utterance – one in which the meaning of a whole phrase is compacted into a single utterance). 
       But even after about 18 months, children are already progressing beyond holophrastic language use. They are starting to recognise that there is a difference between what is meant by ‘ball’, and what is meant by ‘can I have the ball’. ‘Ball’ simply identifies the object itself. The phrase ‘can I have the ball’ is necessary if you want to get across the message of some action taking place in relation to the ball. To put it another way, a system of words – grammar – is required for the communication to function on more than one level. The object itself becomes turned into an abstract word which grammar can play with – it is grammar in language which means that we can say more than ‘ball’ to indicate an object in front of us. We can create images of ‘throwing the ball up in the air’, or of ‘kicking it from 30 yards out and watching it soar into to the top corner of the goal’. 
      Linguist Michael Halliday describes the difference between animal and human communication in terms of tiers (Halliday, 1985). There are 2 tiers to animal communication, and 3 in human communication. 
      Animal and early child communication has only two teirs: From meaning, to sound. This Halliday refers to as 'proto-language'. There is a simple meaning – i.e., ‘danger!’. This meaning is vocalised by a sound corresponds with that meaning. 
      Human post-18-month communication, in contrast, has three tiers: From meaning, through a structure of words, transcribed into sound. In other words, there is a simple meaning, which is passed through a structure of words in order to expand the possible meanings. This more complex meaning is vocalised using the words comprising that structure. 
      This diagram, I hope, makes this distinction sufficiently opaque: 
      The function of grammar is to enable the possibility of taking any finite number of sounds, and to fashion from them an almost infinite number of meanings. The short, monosyllabic proto-language sounds that a 6th month child might utter (‘dah’, ‘buh’, ‘mom’) quickly become assimilated into words (‘daddy’, ‘bottle’, ‘mummy’) and then advanced even further into a system from which precise meanings can be drawn (‘I want my daddy’, ‘can I have my bottle’, ‘I know her, she’s my mummy’).

    • Double Articulation: This process of taking sounds and adding them together to form words in a variety of different orders is known as double articulation.

      The only animals which have demonstrated anything like double articulation are birds – which take the various sounds they can produce and strong them together into a song which can have specific meaning. Even birds, though, only demonstrate double articulation in a very limited way. Their songs generally boil down to one of two meanings: Either ‘I’m here and I’m cross, so you’d better bugger off’, or ‘I’m here and I’m randy, so come and get it’!

    • Creativity: And this is anther aspect in which human language differs from the means by which animals communicate. Have you ever heard anybody say that they were ‘not creative’? Hopefully not – because no human being using language could ever be accused of lacking creativity. The creativity which is required to take the 40 or so sounds they are capable of, and to string them into consistently meaningful sentences, is extraordinary. Many of the sentences which we might say in the course of an ordinary day may well be unique – strings of words never before put together in the order in which we have done it.
      We can even construct sounds and words in orders which are totally unique in themselves, but which can still communicate complex meanings. Just think about the creativity with which the poet e.e.cummings has used words and sounds in the following: 
      anyone lived in a pretty how town 
      (with up so floating many bells down) 
      spring summer autumn winter 
      he sang his didn't he danced his did 
      The words are all familiar.  Even the grammatical contructs are standard.  However, cummings has used them here in a way which makes them sound unique and original.  Again, as Finch writes: 
       “Creativity and double articulation enable a system to take off from contextually bound fixed meanings to those which are constrained only by the conventions of particular languages. There is nothing to stop us inventing a new word or sequence of words and creating a genuine innovation … language is an open system as opposed to the closed ones of animals” (Finch, 2009)

    In Summary:

    So, we have explored several areas here – but there are six terms which I want you in particular to have grasped:

    1. Displacement: the ability to refer to things, events and processes removed in time and place from the present, e.g. Caesar, tomorrow, global-warming
    2. Ideational Function: the ability to conceptualise the world as an instrument of thought, i.e. to bring the world into being linguistically
    3. Grammar: the ability to generate and use a set of rules, or a system of words with which possible meanings can be expanded
    4. Double articulation: the ability to combine essentially meaningless sounds into units of meaning at a higher level, e.g. /h/+/a/+/t/ = hat
    5. Nominalisation: the ability to use sound sequences to represent things, events and processes, e.g. water, global-warming, driving
    6. Creativity: the ability, from a finite set of rules, to generate an infinite number of sequences, e.g. the rules for constructing sentences allow any speaker to utter entirely novel examples.

    There are some excellent resources available for getting a broad sense of what language and language study is all about.  Here are a couple:

    This video is a lecture by Prof. John McWhorter, which talks about the distinctiveness of human language:

    This video is a Horizon documentary which again explores some of the foundations issues of language, how it works, and what makes it unique:


    Finch, G. (2003). Word of Mouth: A New Introduction to Language and Communication. Basingstoke, Palgrave

    Finch, G., Allan, K., Bradshaw, J., Heyden, G. and Burridge, K. (2009). The English Language and Linguistics Companion. Basingstoke, Palgrave

    Griaule, M. and Dieterlen, G. (1954). The Dogon, in African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples, edited by Daryll Forde. Available at: (Accessed 22/01/2010)

    Halliday, M. (1985). Spoken and Written Language. Victoria, Deakin University Press

    Tuesday, 5 March 2013

    2) Introduction to morphemes

    So does language begin with words?

    No. Language begins with sounds. It is important to understand this first and foremost. We have already raised this point, but it is worth raising again – language begins with sounds!

    If I appear to be emphasizing this with a rather bizarre desperation, it is because it would be easy to think that since we are beginning our exploration of language and linguistics with words that this is where language begins. When you think about it logically though, all words are composed of various sounds grouped together. The word ‘cat’ is composed of three distinct sounds - /c/, /a/ and /t/.

    So why aren’t we starting with looking at how sounds create language?

    Well, in the not-too-distant past, when European football used to be free on the telly, Manchester United or Arsenal would jet off to Spain for a titanic contest with Barcelona. When the commentators referred to Barcelona, they would pronounce it ‘Bar-se-low-nah’ (bɑ:sɜ:ləʊnæ). After a few years though, commentators took to attempting to pronounce the names of teams as people in their native country might pronounce them. Thus, Barcelona, because the Spanish tended to soften the /s/ sound, began to be pronounced as ‘Bar-th-low-nah’ (bɑ:θɜ:ləʊnæ) instead.

    It's uncanny. They could almost be Spanish.

    Of course, the habit died away quickly and we were mercifully spared any further stumbling attempts by John Motson and Mark Lawrenson to imitate an authentic Spanish accent.

    There is a serious point here. Different people, with different first languages and cultural backgrounds, tend to pronounce English words differently. If you see the word ‘celtic’, you might pronounce the ‘c’ as either /k/ or as /si:/ (‘see’), depending on whether you are talking about celtic tribes, or Glasgow Celtic football club.

    So understanding the sounds of language brings with it certain complications not directly related to the simple learning of a phonetic alphabet.

    It is for this reason, that we are beginning not with sounds, but with words. By exploring how words work first, we will hopefully be better placed to understand the ways in which language sounds later.


    Morphology is the study of how words work – their shape and structure, their components and parts. Last week, we explored some of the ways in which human language differs from the ways in which animals communicate. A key difference was that human beings tend to overlay a system or structure upon words in order to gain from them a greater variety of meaning.

    So, for example, a small child might bellow out an utterance like ‘DOG!' This could mean any one of a number of things. I could mean ‘I want a dog’, or ‘there is a dog’, or ‘there are hundreds of dogs coming, get out of the way!’. In order to be more specific, a system of words (or grammar) is used, which can adding verbs and adverbs.

    One of those ‘systems’ is one which enables us to differentiate between the singular (just one of something) and the plural (many of something). The word ‘dog’ is a word complete on its own, and it possesses a distinct meaning: dog.

    Of course, if you add an ‘s’ onto the end of the word ‘dog’, you change the meaning. ‘Dogs’ becomes plural:

    In effect then, the word ‘dogs’ is made up of two distinct units of meaning. ‘Dog’ and ‘s’. The word ‘singing’, similarly, is composed of two distinct units of meaning – the verb ‘sing’, and the suffix ‘ing’.

    These small units of meaning are known as morphemes, and they are the smallest units of meaning in language, and already you are hopefully noticing that some morphemes differ from others.

    Prefixes, Roots and Suffixes

    This is probably old hat to most of you - but it certainly wasn't taught to me before I came to study language so for the sake of clarity...

    If we consider the word 'singing' again, we can note that there are two distinct units of meaning. 'Sing' is the more important of the two. 'Sing' is the verb, and without it the word itself is meaningless. Therefore, this morpheme forms the root of the word.

    The 'ing' which appears at the end of the word serves to add a little more information to the verb. 'Sing', is actually ongoing – it is 'sing-ing'. Because the 'ing' has been added to the end of the verb, it is known as a suffix. There are other suffixes which can be attached to the word 'sing':

    • Sing – ing
    • Sing – er
    • Sing – s

    And many words, not just verbs, can have a suffix attached to it:

    • Do – ing (verb 'do' is the root)
    • Grass – y (noun 'grass' is the root)
    • Invite – ed
    • Motiva – tion

    In each of these examples, the verb is the root and the grammatical morpheme attached to it is the suffix.

    However, words cannot just have morphemes attached to the end of them. They can have morphemes attached to the beginning of the word as well. The word 'attend' has a root verb 'tend'. The morpheme 'at' as been attached to the beginning of the morpheme in order to make it active. An 'anticlimax' is a root noun of 'climax' with the morpheme 'anti' attached to in, in order to indicate a reversal of that root.

    These morphemes attached to the beginning of words are known as prefixes.

    Suffixes, roots and prefixes are all morphemes which have a distinct significance, the combination of which generates the sense of the word itself. The following examples have broken down words into the prefix, root and suffix, and provided an explanation of the meaning for each:

    Here is a nice wee video demonstration which illustrates these points:

    Free and Bound Morphemes

    There are other categorisations of morphemes though, which help us to understand more the ways in which words function.

    The morphemes ‘ball’ and ‘sing’, for example, are described as free morphemes because they actually stand on their own and require no additions to them. Their meaning, if you like, is independent of any grammatical changes which might be made. Consider the words 'and', or 'boy'. Each of these words constitutes a single unit of significance, and that significance is not dependent on another morpheme being added to it. Some morphemes, for example, actually are whole words – ‘sing’, ‘run’, ‘carry’, ‘ice’ – they carry a meaning all on their own.

    In contrast, morphemes like ‘s’ and ‘ing’ only have meaning when they are attached to another morpheme. These are known as bound morphemes, because they only make sense when they are bound to another morpheme. If you consider 'ing', for example – it only makes sense when it is used as a suffix (i.e., when it is attached to the end of another morpheme). If we take the free morpheme 'sing', and add the bound morpheme 'ing' to it, then we have the word 'singing' – a word composed of more than one morpheme (a complex word).

    The morpheme ‘ing’ does have a kind of significance, but it is more implied than direct. So, if you think about words that have ‘ing’ added onto the end of them, they usually have something to do with duration. ‘Singing’ is ‘sing’, carrying on for some time. ‘Running’ is a ‘run’ which is ongoing. ‘Carrying’ is a ‘carry’ which is ongoing (as is ‘ongoing’!). The morpheme 'ed' usually indicates past tense.

    Lexical and Grammatical Morphemes

    Free morphemes can be further subdivided into content words and function words. Content words, as their name suggests, carry most of the content of a sentence. Function words generally perform some kind of grammatical role, carrying little meaning of their own. One circumstance in which the distinction between function words and content words is useful is when one is inclined to keep wordiness to a minimum; for example, when drafting a telegram, where every word costs money. In such a circumstance, one tends to leave out most of the function words (like ‘to’, ‘that’, ‘and’, ‘there’, ‘some’, and ‘but’), concentrating instead on content words to convey the gist of the message. (Weisler, and Milekic, 1999)

    ‘Content words’ function for whole words, but there is a similar division between morphemes which carry most of the content (or meaning) of a word, and those which perform a more grammatical function. These different morphemes are known as lexical morphemes and grammatical morphemes.

    Lexical morphemes are those that have a lexical meaning by themselves (more accurately, they have sense). Grammatical morphemes specify a relationship between other morphemes. Nouns, verbs, adjectives (‘boy’, ‘buy’, ‘big’) are typical lexical morphemes. Prepositions, articles, conjunctions (‘of’, ‘the’, ‘but’) are grammatical morphemes. But the distinction is not all that well defined – the English language is notorious for its tendency to ignore any set rules. It is for this reason that the rudiments of language is often easier to learn through the prism of a more systematic language (such as Latin, or Swahili).

    Lexical morphemes and grammatical morphemes can be either free or bound, as you can see from the following diagram and table:

    The bound lexical morphemes are perhaps the most difficult to understand in this respect, largely because they form the root of words and carry a meaning which is not necessarily in current usage. For example, the word ‘feline’ means ‘cat-like’. There is a suffix of ‘ine’ in this word (meaning ‘like’) – although this does not carry any meaning relating to cats. This means that ‘fel’ must be the morpheme which carries the meaning of the word.

    ‘Fel’ actually originates from the Latin word ‘felinus’, or from ‘feles’, which literally means ‘cat’. So the morpheme ‘fel’ carries the lexical meaning of the word. But ‘fel’ on its own does not make any sense! It is only when ‘fel’ is combined with the grammatical morpheme ‘ine’ that a proper word is formed. ‘Fel’, therefore, is not only lexical (because it carries the lexical meaning of the word), it is bound (because it makes no sense unless combined with another morpheme).


    Morpheme Type
    Complex word
    A word composed of more than one morpheme
    ‘singing’, ‘tickled’, ‘unprepossessing’
    A bound morpheme which appears at the beginning of another morpheme
    un – prepared’, ‘de – stabilise’
    A bound morpheme attached to the end of another morpheme
    ‘Faint – ing’, ‘occasion – ally
    A free morpheme which forms the root meaning of complex words
    bio – graphy’, ‘anni – versary’, ‘un – bear – able’
    Free morpheme
    A morpheme which is not dependent on another morpheme in order to have meaning
    ‘Boy’, ‘amaze’, ‘ball’, ‘sing’
    Bound morpheme
    A morpheme which is dependent on another morpheme, and does not make sense on its own
    ‘ing’, ‘ed’, ‘ly’, ‘s’, ‘cran’
    Lexical morpheme
    A morpheme which has a complete lexical meaning all on its own (lexicon means a list of words)
    fel – ine’, ‘boy – ish’, ‘tumbl – ing’
    Grammatical morpheme
    A morpheme whose purpose is to alter the grammar or sense of another morpheme (grammar means a system of words)
    ‘and’, ‘-ation’, ‘-ed’, ‘the’


    Finch, G. (2003). Word of Mouth: A New Introduction to Language and Communication. Basingstoke, Palgrave

    Finch, G., Allan, K., Bradshaw, J., Heyden, G. and Burridge, K. (2009). The English Language and Linguistics Companion. Basingstoke, Palgrave

    Fromkin, V. A. (2000). Linguistics: An Introduction to Linguistic Theory. Oxford, Blackwell

    Weisler, S. and Milekic, S. P. (1999), Theory of Language. Michigan, MIT Press

    Monday, 4 March 2013

    3) Lexical and Grammatical Word Classes

    Compound Words

    We know, that lexical morphemes carry the main meaning (or significance) of the word it belongs to. The morpheme ‘ready’ in ‘readiness’ carries the meaning of the word, as does ‘bound’ in ‘unbound’, or ‘cran’ in ‘cranberry’. These morphemes, because they carry the lexical meaning, are lexical morphemes.

    Grammatical morphemes can become attached to lexical morphemes. The ‘ing’ in ‘singing’ carries no lexical meaning, but it does provide a grammatical context for the lexical morpheme. It tells us that the ‘sing’ is ‘ing’ (as in ‘on-going’). In the same way, the morpheme ‘ely’ in ‘timely’ carries no meaning, but it does turn the noun ‘time’ into a word more frequently used as an adverb. Time the thing becomes the description of an action – as in ‘his intervention was timely’.

    Sunday, 3 March 2013

    4) Phrases in Sentences

    The Story so far...

    In the beginning there was the Word…

    Actually, as we have already seen in previous articles, in terms of written language it would be more appropriate to say ‘in the beginning there was the morpheme’, because words are composed of different morphemes joined together in a variety of ways in order to generate the complexities of written language.

    Morphemes fit into distinct classes: whether they are bound or unbound, lexical or grammatical.

    The words created by these morphemes themselves fit into distinct classes – whether they be nouns, verbs, adverbs, pronouns, adjectives etc.. Again, words can have a grammatical or lexical function.

    In this final look at the structures of written language, we will be considering how the words themselves follows a series of rules and patterns when they are combined to form phrases, which themselves are combined to form clauses, which themselves are combined to form sentences.

    This is a lot to cover, and as a consequence we will only really be touching the surface of each of them. For more information on any of these aspects of written language, please see the bibliography at the end of this entry.

    Saturday, 2 March 2013

    5) Introduction to Phonology: Making Words out of Sounds

    Language which is spoken is, to some extent, both free and bound. It is free because it is not tied to a page. A word which is spoken has vanished into mere memory the moment it has been said. In contrast, a word which is written has an air of permanence.

    Friday, 1 March 2013

    6) Places and Manners of Articulation

     Place of Articulation

    The place of articulation refers to “the point in the vocal tract where the speech organs restrict the passage of air in some way so pro¬ducing distinctive speech sounds” (Finch, 1999). As with manner of articulation, places of articulation are more frequently used to describe consonants than vowels. The following are the principal terms used in linguistics to describe these:

    Bilabial.Sounds formed by both lips coming together” (Finch, 1999).  Examples include /b/, /p/ and /m/.

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