Roman Jakobson – Patron Saint of October, 2019

It is October! And today is Saturday the 5th of October, meaning that it is the first weekend of a new month! You know what that means!

Allow me to introduce you to Roman Osipovich Jakobson.

A Russian-American linguist and literary theorist, Professor Jakobson was born in Russia on the 11th of October, 1896. He lived there until 1920 when he moved to Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, professor Jakobson lived in turbulent times and was forced to flee Czechoslovakia in 1939.

He eventually wound up in Norway and, in 1940, he walked across the border to Sweden. Unfortunately, Sweden proved to be a poor choice and Professor Jakobson fled to the United States in 1941.

Once in New York, professor Jakobson taught at The New School. In 1949, he moved on to teach at Harvard University, where he stayed until his retirement in 1967.

Professor Jakobson was a pioneer in structural linguistics. Together with colleague Nikolai Trubetzkoy, he pretty much founded the modern discipline of phonology!

Among his substantial achievements, we find a pretty remarkable one: together with colleagues Nikolai Trubetzkoy and Si.I. Karcevskij, Professor Jakobson further developed the concept of the phoneme, by suggesting that it has binary features. What this means is that phonemes are, for example, either voiced or unvoiced, aspirated or unaspirated. Today, we know that to be true; a truly momentous discovery in the world of phonology.

However, this is actually not what Professor Jakobson is most famous for.

Instead, Professor Jakobson’s most famous work might be claimed to be on the communicative functions. That is, the elements that make up any verbal act.

Any act of verbal communication, Jakobson claimed, is dominated by one of six functions:

ContextReferential - describes a situation, object or mental state
AddresserEmotive - relates to the Addresser (the one who is talking), internal state, usually with the help of interjections, such as "Wow, what a view!"
AddresseeConative - these are forms that addresser the hearer directly, for example, by use of vocatives and imperatives
ContactPhatic - is language for the sake of interaction - like saying "Hello" to strangers
CodeMetalingual - also known as metalinguistic, this is the use of language to describe itself.
MessagePoetic - is the focus on the message more than anything else. This is common in, for example, poetry and slogans.

His work proved very influential. Influenced by the organon model, developed by Karl Bühler, Jakobson’s own model was published in 1960. It was widely adopted, but, like anything in research, it also received its share of criticism.

In the end, Professor Jakobson’s valuable contributions to the field still play a major role in linguistic typology, markedness and the study of linguistic universals. There can thus be no doubt that Professor Jakobson certainly earned his place in the linguistic Hall of Fame and his (newly) appointed title as Patron Saint of October for the HLC!



If you want to know more about Professor Jakobson’s work on the functions of language – check out this link.

For the general information found here, check out Wikipedia’s entry on Professor Jakobson (which also includes some information about his work).

For work that Professor Jakobson did on the phoneme – check out Britannica’s entry.

Peter Nielsen Ladefoged – Patron Saint of September, 2019

September is upon us, dear friends, and this being the first (full) weekend of that month, allow me to introduce you to Professor Peter Nielsen Ladefoged!

Born on the 17th of September, 1925, Professor Ladefoged was a British linguist and phonetician, whose works on phonetics is highly valued in the linguistic community. His most famous work is perhaps that which he performed at the phonetics laboratory at UCLA, which he established in 1962. His work closely revolved around the massive task of listening to, and describing, every sound used in spoken human language, which he estimated at 900 consonants and 200 vowels (!!!). This research eventually became the basis of much of the volume “The Sounds of the World’s Languages”, co-authored with Professor Ian Maddieson, and published in 1996. This book is based on data from about 400 (!) languages and describes the contrasting phonetic categories, meaning the ways in which phonemic sounds may differ in human languages.

His book “A course in phonetics” is a common introductory text to phonetics (you might even have read it – I know I’ve used it on occasion), and with his great emphasis on the importance of considering the full diversity of human speech sounds, there can be no doubt calling Professor Ladefoged “the father of the field of linguistic phonetics” is an accurate description and a well-deserved title.

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin – Patron Saint of August, 2019

It’s the first weekend of a new month! You know what that means, right?

Allow us to introduce you to Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin!

Born on the 16th of November, 1895, Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher, literary critic and semiotician, who also worked on literary theory, ethics and philosophy of language.

There can be no doubt that Bakhtin had a significant influence in a number of different fields of study: for us, though, the most important work Bakhtin did might be the work known as The Dialogic Imagination, a collection of four essays about language first published as a whole in 1975. In this work, some terms that are now in common use in linguistics (and other fields) were introduced. Among others, we find important terms such as heretoglossia, dialogism, and chronotope.

You might recognise some (or all) of these as important concepts in today’s study of language and they all originated in this one person – quite a feat, wouldn’t you say?

Bakhtin also proposed that all languages represent a distinct point of view on the world. As such, there are no “neutral” words because language is always “shot through with intentions and accents” and even the most unremarkable statement therefore possesses a taste or conveys an attitude.

So there, your topic for Monday’s coffee-break chat is there for the taking: is there something like a neutral statement?

Next month, we’ll give you some small insight into another one of those influential, and inspiring, linguists throughout time! Join us then.

Paul Grice – Patron Saint of June, 2019

It being the first weekend of a new month, time for another lovely little introduction to an influential linguist, whose work has had great impact on meaning.

Ladies and gents, let us introduce you to Paul Grice!

Professor Grice was born in Harborne, nowadays a suburb of Birmingham, in the UK. First attending school at Clifton College, he later attended Corpus Christ College, Oxford, and a bit later still, went back to Oxford, this time to St. John’s College, where he imparted his knowledge to students until 1967. After that, he moved to the States to take up a professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught until his passing in 1988.

In the field of linguistics, Grice’s work greatly impacted the field of semantics (that is, meaning). What most budding linguists may think about when they think of Grice is his famous “Maxims”. Generally known simply as “Grice’s Maxims”, these belong to a broader principle that Grice named “the Cooperative principle”, which Grice meant that all speakers in a conversation generally follow.

But what does that mean?? Let’s quote the author: “Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” (Grice 1989: 26). To this principle, Grice added his Maxims that basically say:
1. The Maxim of information – make your contribution to the conversation as informative as possible but not more than what is necessary.
2. The Maxim of Quality – Basically: don’t lie. To be more specific: don’t say things you believe to be false, or things for which you lack adequate evidence.
3. The Maxim of relation – Be relevant, won’t you?
4. Maxim of Manner – avoid being unclear, ambiguous, overly chatty (be brief) and be orderly.

Obviously, these aren’t the only Maxims used in conversations, but they are the ones traditionally recognised as Grice’s Maxims. Also, obviously, not everyone plays by these rules – people lie, they say stuff that’s completely irrelevant to the conversation, and so on. BUT, according to Grice, conversational implicatures (that is, an implicit speech act: what is meant by the speaker rather than what is explicitly said) are possible because we all assume that the person we are talking to is actually obeying these Maxims: we assume that they’re telling the truth (mostly) and that what they’re saying is informative, relevant and clear (again, mostly). And when they don’t, like when they purposely say untrue things (think “Yeah, and I’m a monkey’s uncle”)? Well, you, and they, rely on these Maxims to reach an appropriate conclusion: you’re ignoring what the speaker is actually saying and instead infer the speaker’s meaning!

Isn’t that fun? If you want to know more about Professor Grice’s amazing work (‘cause obviously, there is so much more that it’s ridiculous), check it out by following this link. In the meantime, next time you have a conversation, try to think of what Maxim you’re relying on and send a thankful thought to Professor Grice for his long hard work that helped us understand so much more about what’s going on in every single conversation.

Have fun!

Ferdinand de Saussure – Patron Saint of May, 2019

Our patron saint of linguistics for May is Ferdinand de Saussure (b. 1857, d. 1913), a Swiss linguist considered one of the fathers of modern linguistics.

As a student, Saussure studied Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and even Celtic. In 1878, at the age of 21, he published a Dissertation on the Primitive Vowel System in Indo-European Languages. In his work on Proto Indo-European, he proposed the existence of missing phonemes in PIE not accounted for by reconstructions through the comparative method. He was proven right 50 years later when Hittite was deciphered.

As impressive as his work as a student was, and as much as he himself focused on historical linguistics (which in most senses was the focus of the whole field at the time), Saussure’s legacy lies in ideas he presented through his later lectures. Throughout his career, he lectured on IE, Sanskrit, and even some of the Germanic languages. Then, in 1907, he offered his first Course of General Linguistics, a class he offered only three times between 1907 and 1911. After Saussure’s death, some of his students published a book based on notes from his lectures.

This book, entitled Course in General Linguistics, contains the theories that became the foundation for structural linguistics, wherein language is collected and its elements classified at different levels. Saussure distinguished between an abstract level of language and actual speech. He proposed that the relationship between a signifier (like a word) and what it signified was arbitrary. His ideas on the relationships between the elements of language opened up the fields of phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. He put forth theories about dialects and language change based on geography. What’s more, he said it was just as important to study language synchronically, ie as a complete system at a point in time, as it was to look at diachronic, or historic, developments. (His analogy here was that it’s one thing to look at the history of chess and another to understand the rules at a given time.)

Pardon the wall of text. In essence, Saussure revolutionarily encouraged the synchronic study of languages and paved the way for some of the most fundamental disciplines within the field—no linguist escapes undergrad without studying such basic subjects as phonology and syntax.

In the past hundred years, there have been many strides within linguistics. New theories and schools of thought have arisen, and Saussure’s status has diminished, but his influence is never gone. Just try to find an introductory text today that doesn’t mention the arbitrary relation between sign and meaning!

Adam J. Aitken – Patron Saint of April, 2019

A is for April and also for Adam J. Aitken – coincidentally, this month’s Patron Saint!
A.J. Aitken (1921-1998) is known for his scholarship on the Scots Language and his work as Editor on the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST). He is perhaps not as widely known in linguistics as the previous Patron Saints we’ve presented, but as a Scots scholar, and an alumni of the HLCs alma mater the University of Edinburgh, he is one of particular importance to us.

Aitken graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1947 with an MA in English Language, and shortly after took up work as assistant to the editor of DOST. He took over the editor position in 1956, meaning that his contribution can be noticed from the letter J (or, volume III). During his time as editor, he developed a new reading programme which diversified and nearly doubled the source material for DOST. He was also early to explore computer methods for the dictionary work, and set up the Older Scots Textual Archive (also called the DOST corpus); a digital archive of the DOST source material, which makes one of few digitised text data sources for research on Older Scots.

During his time at DOST, Aitken also worked as Lecturer and Reader for the department of English Language at the University of Edinburgh. There, he essentially created ‘Scots Language’ as a university subject – something this particular HLC writer is still reaping the harvest from, as a PhD student researching the Scots Language. Apart from producing teaching materials on Scots, which to this day constitute some of the more comprehensive descriptions of Scots grammar, vocabulary and sound system, Aitken also formulated the Scottish Vowel Length Rule (also called Aitken’s Law), which describes a pattern of meaningful vowel length alternation in Scots and Scottish English, and he created a numbering system for the Scottish Vowels so that they more easily could be described and studied.

In the spirit of the Year of Indigenous Languages, it feels especially appropriate to raise awareness of someone who has contributed so much to the recognition and awareness of Scots. Braw!

At the Dictionary of the Scots Language website,, you can find more info about DOST (and search it, of course), as well as an online text book about the origin and history of Scots which incorporates material written by Aitken – look under the “About Scots” tab.

Noam Chomsky – Patron Saint of March, 2019

Happy March dear followers!
As per tradition, it is time to present this month’s Patron Saint: Professor Noam Chomsky.
Professor Chomsky, who celebrated his 90th birthday in December, is an American linguist who has become somewhat of a legend in our field – he is often referred to as the “father of modern linguistics”. Furthermore, he is usually that one linguist that non-linguists know about (apart from possibly Tolkien, but then people don’t usually know that Tolkien was a linguist).

Chomsky’s fame outside of linguistics is usually due to his political and philosophical writings. His political views, which align with libertarian socialism and anarcho-syndicalism, have often been a subject of controversy, especially in his home country. However, today we want to tell you about what made him famous as a linguist; Chomsky developed the theories of generative grammar, Universal Grammar, and the Chomsky hierarchy. A facebook post does not hold enough space for us to tell you all about these, but the most significant part of Chomsky’s theories is this:

In the 60s, Chomsky departed from the then commonly held view that the brain was a blank slate and language was wholly learned from the surroundings, and instead suggested that we are all born with an innate knowledge of language, that this knowledge is the same for all humans, that the innate grammar holds the same rules for all, and that children only need to learn the small differences in settings of the rules which are specific to the language in the input – thus the concept of Universal Grammar was born. Since the 90s, Chomsky has been developing his ‘Minimalist Program’, which aims to formalise grammar using as few rules as possible, with a greater focus on how the brain makes decisions about the grammar it is given from the input.

Chomsky’s framework is heavily based in biology and cognitive sciences, placing the field of linguistics within these sciences for the first time, which is one reason why his work is considered to have revolutionised the way we perform linguistic research to this day. Chomsky’s theories are still praised and scrutinised, followed and discarded. His frameworks still divide linguists into two camps; are you for or against generative grammar? Regardless of sides, no one can argue the impact of Chomsky’s theories on the field of linguistics, both for the subsequent work that aimed to prove his theories, and the work that aimed to disprove them.

Otto Jespersen – Patron Saint of February, 2019

Welcome to the month of February, dear followers! This is the first weekend of a new month and you know what that means! Let us introduce you to another Patron Saint!

As you know, our Patron Saints are individuals that have contributed a lot to the field of historical linguistics and today is certainly no different! Let us introduce you to Otto Jespersen!

The famous Danish linguist is the author of the spectacular encyclopaedic work of 7 volumes called “Modern English Grammar” but that is far from everything that Jespersen accomplished during his career as a linguistic scholar.

Born in 1860, professor Jespersen was reportedly inspired by Rasmus Rask, another famous Danish linguist (we’ll get there, don’t worry!), and became a professor of English at Copenhagen in 1893 (he also had a masters in French and knew both Spanish and Icelandic).

Professor Jespersen not only focused his efforts on linguistic study, in the field of which he published extensively on language structure, linguistic evolution and phonetics, but also on how to properly teach it! During his years at Copenhagen, he led a movement for basing foreign-language teaching on the use of conversational speech rather than on textbook study of grammar and vocabulary. He published on theoretical considerations of language teaching in 1901, a little number called “How to Teach a Foreign Language” and wrote a good number of textbooks which were used both in Denmark and abroad.

On top of all this, he also devised his own language! Meant to work as an international language for speakers who did not share a native tongue, the vocabulary of the language itself, called Novial, is based on a mix of Romance and Germanic words and its grammar is influenced by English. Unfortunately, the language didn’t really catch on and in 1943, when professor Jespersen passed away, the language became dormant. Thanks to the internet though, some rediscovered it in the early 90s.

From revolutionising language teaching to devising your very own language, professor Jespersen did it all and his (still very influential) linguistic works means that we simply had to make him February’s Patron Saint!

Want to know more? Check out our source for this little piece as well as Omniglot’s post on Novial! Enjoy!

Dr. Samuel Johnson – Patron Saint of January, 2019

Followers, friends!

It’s the first weekend of a new month! You know what that means: a new Patron Saint! Let us introduce you Dr. Samuel Johnson!

You probably know him from the “what-did-I-just-read-meme”, which is actually not all that far off from Dr. Johnson’s actual profession as a (among other things) literary critic, and one of the most famous ones at that!

Dr. Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on the 18th of September 1709. He attended Pembroke College, Oxford, for about a year until he had to drop out as his family could no longer afford the fees of attending the prestigious school. Dr. Johnson worked as a teacher for a while and then moved to London (supposedly reaching London by walking, which is roughly a two-day trip). In London, Dr. Johnson supported himself by writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine and wrote a number of poems and tales that are still hailed today as innovative and moving.

Now, you might know Dr. Johnson (aside from the meme) as the author of A dictionary of the English language, a massive work that took Dr. Johnson 8 years to complete (though, in all fairness, it took 40 French scholars 40 years to finish theirs, so Dr. Johnson work was fast (!)). The work, while neither the first of its kind or unique, became hugely popular and was the most commonly used and imitated dictionary until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary was completed in 1928. Dr. Johnson’s work was, of course, extremely impressive and there is no doubt that it was made at a perfect time in history: many had expressed a dissatisfaction over the dictionaries available and that almost certainly is a part of the dictionary’s popularity.

Following the completion of his dictionary, Dr. Johnson, who was eventually given an honorary doctorate by both Trinity College and Oxford, continued to write quite a LOT, primarily articles in magazines and prefaces to other authors’ works, but also an annotated edition of William Shakespeare’s plays; an apologue about happiness called The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia; and a popular travel narrative called A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland; and a work called Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, which includes short biographies and critical appraisals of 52 poets (primarily from the 18th century).

Though the dictionary may be the crown jewel of Dr. Johnson’s long career, his marvellous contribution to the linguistic and literary fields, as well as his continued influence today, some 235 years after his passing, earns him the place as the HLC’s very first Patron Saint of 2019!

J.R.R. Tolkien – Patron Saint of September, 2018

Mae govannen, dear followers, and happy September!
Yesterday, it was exactly 45 years since JRR Tolkien passed away. Thus, we found it appropriate to make him the linguistic patron saint of September!
(Also, the 22nd of September is the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo, so even more appropriate!)

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is probably one of the most well-known authors of modern times, but did you know that he also devoted his career to linguistics and literature? He was a specialist in English philology and ancient languages and was mostly active at Oxford University during his long career in academia, although he spent some time at the University of Leeds (1920-1925). He also contributed significantly to the Oxford English Dictionary, mainly on words beginning with ‘w’. In Leeds, he produced a vocabulary of Middle English, as well as an edition of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, which served as standard texts for decades.
After returning to Oxford in 1925, Tolkien held a lecture on the old Germanic poetic saga Beowulf, ‘Beowulf: The monsters and the critics’ (1936), which he had spent years translating. (He also adapted many of the themes and stories from Beowulf into his Middle-Earth books.) This lecture revolutionised the way this poem was interpreted for good, and remains influential for the field of Old English literature criticism even today. A favourite Tolkien-trivia fact of the HLC: when he gave series of lectures on Beowulf, he would begin the first one by entering the lecture hall loudly reciting Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon!
Tolkien was an expert on many other languages than English, in particular classic ones such as Latin, Old Norse and Icelandic, Gothic, Welsh, and some Finnish (particularly as read in the mythical work ‘Kalevala’). These influences are noticeable in his extensive conlanging (language construction). The Elvish languages in the Middle Earth stories, for example, are largely based on Finnic and Welsh language elements (the ‘well met’ phrase used in the beginning of this post is from one of Tolkien’s Elvish languages, Sindarin). Although he could read and write many modern languages fluently, such as Spanish and French, it always frustrated him that, when he was travelling the countries where these languages are spoken, he was not able to speak them.

We could write about Tolkien forever; the impact of his Middle-Earth series is undeniable and we’ve only scratched the very surface of his conlanging (which I know we could go into in great depth). It is said, however, that Tolkien never appreciated the fame he received from his non-academic work, but wished people would be more familiar with his role in academia.
So, today we thank JRR Tolkien for his great contributions to the field of historical linguistics, philology and literature criticism!
Hantanyel, namárië!