Happy Birthday Bertrand Russell!

Happy Birthday Bertrand Russell!

18 May is the birthday of philosophical legend Bertrand Russell. Bryan Pickel, lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, explains what any budding philosopher needs to know about Russell’s work.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a 20th-century philosopher, whose work covered virtually all areas of philosophy. He wrote prolifically on topics including the foundations of mathematics, the structure of language, the nature of thought, the status of science in society, and sexual ethics. His work is a starting point in many areas both within philosophy and in other disciplines such as linguistics. Russell was known for regularly changing his mind, often starting on one side of a debate but winding up on the other just a few years later. One of Russell’s most important contributions was his discovery of the paradox of classes, aka Russell’s paradox. Continue reading

World English and globalization

Dr Claire Cowie

Many of us will have read recent reports about the decline in diversity of UK dialects [1]. But did you know that research into the homogenization of English language varieties goes much broader than the UK? On World English Language Day, PPLS lecturer Claire Cowie tells us about the phenomenon of changing World Englishes.


For the past 40 years or so, scholars of language contact have been studying the emergence of these “World Englishes”, both in terms of their linguistic make-up and their gradual acceptance by authorities. For example, in India, few English-medium educated speakers distinguish between ‘w’ and ‘v’ sounds; and the definite article is regularly deleted in English newspapers. These variants have become part of the accepted standard of English in that region.

Yet now it seems that younger generations may be shifting in the opposite direction and their use of English becoming less local, in response to intensified globalization and access to English media. This is illustrated in a number of recent research papers, which claim that youth in Singapore [2], India [3] and Hong Kong [4] can be heard producing American English features such as ‘r’ after a vowel (in words like car), a vowel like that of hat in half, and a ‘d’ in the middle of butter. These features are never heard in older generations of English speakers from those regions.

Increases in these sorts of American variants have already been observed in in other well-established international varieties such as New Zealand English, where the words trunk and pants are being adopted alongside their British counterparts boot and trousers [5]. But it is clear that New Zealand speakers do not treat the American variants as external “targets”, and do not desire to sound American. Rather, the set of forms that they can choose from has increased in number. Similarly, the most recent research on the use of ‘r’ after a vowel in Singapore has found that this pronunciation does not correlate with the consumption of US media [6]. R-users are not expressing American affiliation. They view themselves as cosmopolitans who adopt the feature as part of a careful, serious style.

My current project uses an experimental task to investigate the vowels of new students arriving at the University of Edinburgh from Singapore, Hong Kong, India and Pakistan. The aim is not only to detect changes in pronunciation associated with globalization, but to study the manner in which these changes occur. For example, if it is the case that changes creep in from the margins, our American hat vowel would appear first in low frequency words such as gasp. On the other hand, the vowel may change first in the most common words such as last. Collecting data in this way will also provide opportunities for our linguistics students from these countries to study new developments in their own English varieties.

Claire Cowie is a lecturer in Linguistics and English Language in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

References & More Information:

[1] https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/cambridge-app-maps-decline-in-regional-diversity-of-english-dialects

[2] Tan, Y. Y. (2016). The Americanization of the phonology of Asian Englishes: Evidence from Singapore. Communicating with Asia: The future of English as a global language, 120-134.

[3] 10.1075/eww.31.1.01cha

[4] http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13488678.2015.1049840

[5] doi:10.1111/j.1467-9841.2003.00241.x

[6] http://linguistics.arts.sfu.ca/nwav45/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/77-Starr-Wang-Jiang.pdf

The importance of communicating research: a student’s-eye view

The world of academia can feel like a somewhat inaccessible one. When you enter as an undergraduate student it can take a while to wrap your head around it all. The world of research is undoubtedly important. Knowledge is fascinating, and changes how we think and act in our world. It’s important to make this knowledge interesting and accessible to all if it’s ever going to make a difference.

We’re all aware of clickbait titles and wild articles that perhaps don’t give us the best information about what’s actually going on in the academic world. Most of us who have the opportunity to experience higher education quickly become aware of how much more complex research can be. This is why it’s so important for us to share our research so it can be known and understood better.

One of the skills you have to learn quickly in academia is how to communicate potentially complicated research to those who aren’t experts in the field. From your first undergraduate year, you’ll be tasked with reading journal articles and rewriting that information as 200-word pieces that explain them to those who don’t spend hours dedicated to understanding your topic. In your honours years, you’ll start to spend more and more time rolling your eyes at articles on the internet. I can only imagine this gets even worse as you begin to do more of your own research.

While you might not dwell on it on those few seconds spent clicking through news articles online, it really shows us how important it is that we as a university, and as researchers, take initiative to share our research.

Our blogs, twitter, and little news pieces on our site are coming from people who directly know and understand the research. Those writing up fun pieces about our research centres achievements have done this kind of work themselves, and know the people doing it. We want to grab your attention and share the amazing work our university is doing, but we also want you to understand it. The research we do here is amazing and fascinating, and there’s no need to exaggerate it or mislead people to show that!

Beyond just taking the lead in publicising and sharing our own work, news about research is important in a more general sense. Researchers don’t dedicate years of their lives to projects that they don’t think will be important. Without research, we would know so little. Proving or disproving ideas about ourselves and our world has such exciting implications. Knowing and understanding what research discovers can change the way we do things for the better at individual, community, and institutional levels.

If we don’t write news, write blogs, or even write tweets about what we’re discovering, how can we expect it to change the minds or lives of those who haven’t studied what we’ve studied?

Finally, there are those who actually really are interested in what you’ve studied, what you’ve found, and HOW you’ve found it. But because they’re not part of an institution like yours, they don’t have automatic access to it. Knowledge should be accessible and shared widely. For many people, the best way to learn is to see what’s been shared online. Social media is where to find the most easily accessible information. Why wouldn’t you want thousands of people to access and learn about amazing work that’s being done?

Research is essential. Research is fascinating. It is so important that we can communicate all our research well, and reach out to wider communities. These studies can change the world, but if we don’t learn to communicate and engage with it, we’re missing out on incredible opportunities.

Allie McGregor is a third-year student in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. Read more student blogs from Allie and her peers on our PPLS student blogs site.

Josef Fruehwald: We are linguists. We come in peace.


Linguistics has had a long history in sci-fi and fantasy, ever since J.R.R. Tolkien’s constructed languages and spelling systems of Middle Earth. Most recently, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the Dothraki language, created by David J. Peterson for Game of Thrones. Personally, I’ve been taken with the realistic features and sociolinguistic patterns of the Belter Creole by Nick Farmer in The Expanse.

These constructed languages are our artifacts, but where have the linguists been? On the ill-fated Star Trek: Enterprise series, set before the magical “Universal Translator” had been perfected, Ensign Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) was the linguist on the bridge, tasked with translating the languages of newly encountered civilizations. Unfortunately, as the seasons wore on, the writers decided that the Universal Translator would start working again, and basically forgot about Hoshi except for occasional cryptography and signal processing tasks. The work she did was never that realistic anyway. It usually involved listening closely to recordings of screaming aliens for “phrases” and “the basic grammar.”

But now, linguists have Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) in Arrival! As Dr Banks runs from her office to lecture theatre, she misses the breaking news that alien vessels have arrived on Earth with an unclear purpose, and no translators. She must save the day, and Earth, with her linguistics skills. For weeks, linguistics Twitter has been hyped about the movie’s release. Seriously hyped. There was a forensic analysis of screenshots from the trailer of Banks’ office over on Language Log. A lot of our excitement was not just because a linguist was going to save the world in a movie, but because we know that real life linguists were consulted on the production: McGill’s Jessica Coon, Morgan Sonderegger and Lisa Travis. It seems that Dr. Coon had the greatest effect on the production, as she has done linguistic fieldwork herself, but with humans speaking Ch’ol.

So on the release weekend, I organised a Linguistics and English Language movie night! Can I say that the linguistics in it was totally accurate? No. But neither was the physics I’ll wager. However, the work of doing linguistics came across crystal clear. The military commander in charge of America’s response to the aliens (played by Forest Whitaker) must’ve been a big Star Trek fan. He plonked down a recording of screaming aliens (ok, more like whale song than screaming) and asks Louise if she can hear “any phrases”. Louise, being a linguist, counters with the more basic question “did they have mouths?”

Louise spends her time actually trying to crack two communication codes. One is a writing system of an alien species from millions of lightyears away, and the other is the demands of the US Military. With the aliens, she needs to figure out how they refer to entities and events, and make requests for information. With the military, she needs to communicate that linguistics is difficult, rigorous, and in this case, necessary. “You think about language like math” says Ian, the theoretical physicist on the team (Jeremy Renner), a high compliment for a linguist.

We only catch glimpses of Louise’ methodology, but it looks a lot like the monolingual fieldwork demonstration in this video.  If you watch that video, you’ll learn a few things. First, you have to start simple. What’s the word for “stick”? How do you count to 10? Second, it’s a joint activity. The teacher is doing just about as much work as the linguist is. In this way, every field linguist is starting off on much surer footing than Louise. Humans are basically humans everywhere, and we can recognize when someone is attempting to communicate with us. With squid aliens from distant planets, nothing can be taken for granted. As Louise points out to the colonel, we can’t even be sure that question asking is a component of their cognition, much less how they construct them in their language.

It wasn’t all roses, though. The plot seems clearly to be built to provide an opposition between Ian, the physicist, as the scientist, and Louise, the linguist, as… something else. And the fact that Ian is man and Louise is a woman only plays into gendered biases about science. There’s also too great an emphasis on the function of linguistics being translation. We’re working very hard to understand the nature of human cognition here. A real linguist would be eager to do a contrastive analysis between the aliens’ language and human language. Can these differences be attributed to general differences in our cognitive function? To differences in our social structures? Or is there a fundamentally different computational system running in our heads/tentacles? If questions like those aren’t scientific, I don’t know what is.

Josef Fruehwald is a lecturer in Linguistics and English Language in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

Mark Sprevak: Thinking with Things

Mark Sprevak

It is common nowadays to say one’s memory is ‘on’ one’s smartphone. ‘Distributed cognition’ is an umbrella term for the idea that external objects, like smartphones, are more than mere inputs to our minds. They are, in some sense, part of our minds. It is hard to make this idea more precise. But the good news is that excellent work in philosophy has been done on this. Today, we are in a pretty good position. As one might expect, that position is complex: there are many – sometimes clashing – ways fleshing out the basic idea of distributed cognition.
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Antonella Sorace: Why language learning matters (now more than ever)

Antonella Sorace: Why language learning matters (now more than ever)

There is no better way to celebrate the European Day of Languages than reminding people how good it is to have more than one language in the brain. Multilingualism is a very good investment both for individuals and for societies, but this is not obvious in Scotland and the UK more generally, because of the ‘privileged monolingualism’ of English native speakers. The common perception that “everyone speaks English” makes foreign languages seem irrelevant and leads to lack of incentives to learn languages. Language skills in the UK are falling just as the need for them is growing. According to one estimate,[1] lack of language skills costs the UK economy £48 billion a year. Continue reading

Thomas Bak: Language Lessons to Help Protect Against Dementia

Thomas Bak: Language Lessons to Help Protect Against Dementia

Want to know how best to protect yourself against dementia symptoms? Dr Thomas Bak’s new blog post for the British Medical Journal explains why language lessons might bring unexpected benefits.

In his blog, Dr Bak outlines recent evidence suggesting that regularly using more than one language can have health benefits across the lifetime, from doubling the chances of cognitive recovery from stroke, to delaying the onset of dementia symptoms by 4 – 5 years – more than any available drug.

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Maddie Long: Tales from the 3 Minute Thesis

Maddie Long

PPLS PhD student Maddie Long has just been awarded the People’s Choice Award in the National 3 Minute Thesis Competition, beating 1000s of students from all around the UK with her presentation: ‘Language and the Brain: The Skye’s the Limit.’ We caught up with her to chat about her research and her experiences of the 3 Minute Thesis competition.

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Dr Guy Fletcher: Well-being and other topics

Dr Guy Fletcher: Well-being and other topics

This month we talk to Dr Guy Fletcher, a lecturer in philosophy here at Edinburgh. In April Guy published a book on what is becoming an increasing hot topic: The philosophy of well-being. The concept of well-being and happiness has fascinated philosophers of ethics and politics since ancient Greek times and beyond, but recently it has become an increasingly central theme in popular psychology, self-help and even government, with the latter spending increasing amounts of money and resource to promote it.

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