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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 June 2022

Dan McIntyre
University of Huddersfield
Lesley Jeffries
University of Huddersfield
Matt Evans
University of Huddersfield
Hazel Price
University of Huddersfield
Erica Gold
University of Huddersfield


Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022


This is a process whereby the base form of a word undergoes an internal vowel change, resulting in a change to function or meaning. It also refers to the outcome of that process. Ablaut originated as a process in Proto-Indo-European. As a result, modern Indo-European languages have inherited ablauts. If you have ever learned a modern Indo-European language as a second language, you may have had a teacher carefully point out irregular verbs. These irregular verbs are often ones that contain ablauts in certain forms. Take the Spanish word poder (to be able to). In the first person present form, poder becomes puedo, where the internal vowel <o> becomes <ue>. An English example is the verb drink, whose past tense and past participle forms (drank and drunk) are generated via ablaut, rather than by the addition of an -ed inflection, which is what happens with regular verbs (e.g. ‘She jumped the furthest’ and ‘She has jumped the furthest’).


Your accent is the way that you pronounce your particular dialect. In British English, for instance, the Yorkshire accent differs from the Birmingham accent. Your accent can indicate where you are from, what social class you belong to, how formally educated you might be, what community you wish to identify with, and so on. As a result of this connection to identity, people make value judgements about accents. It used to be the case that newsreaders on the BBC all spoke Received Pronunciation (RP), the so-called ‘Queen’s English’. Nowadays, it’s common to hear the news being read in a wide range of accents, from Yorkshire to Geordie to Scouse. But, although it’s no longer strange to hear people on TV speaking Standard English (dialect) with a regional accent, it would be unusual to hear someone speaking a regional dialect using RP. And, while it is still unfortunately true that people can be judged on the accent they speak, in communicative terms, no accent is any better or worse than any other.


This is a term from sociolinguistics and refers to the practice of unconsciously (or, on occasion, consciously) adjusting the way we speak in relation to someone else’s language variety as a result of spending time with them. Elements of language that may be affected include, for example, lexis, pronunciation and stress patterns. Reasons why a person’s linguistic behaviour may converge with the people they are talking to include a desire for approval, recognition of a person’s status, and (romantic) attraction. Conversely, a speaker may consciously or unconsciously diverge from the linguistic behaviour of people around them, as a means of signalling social distance from them, or to emphasise or reinforce their membership of a different speech community. See also upward convergence and downward convergence.

acoustic phonetics

This is a subfield within phonetics that is specifically concerned with the physical properties of sounds. Acoustic phoneticians consider both the waveform and the spectrogram in their analyses of speech, in order to measure aspects of frequency, intensity and/or temporal domains. Acoustic phonetics has grown tremendously over recent years, largely thanks to the open-access software Praat, which allows everyone from the beginner to the seasoned acoustic phonetician the opportunity to explore the physical manifestations of sound.


This refers to a version of a language that is seen as the standard variety, or the one that is viewed as the most prestigious. Acrolects are based on socially constructed beliefs that one form of language is preferred over others. In Hawaii, Standard American English is seen as the acrolect and superior to Hawaiian Creole. See also basilect, creole and mesolect.


This is the term for a label that is formed from the initial letters of a phrase. This is usually to simplify a complex or long description for ease of communication, though acronyms can also have the effect of excluding or confusing people who don’t know their origin. Acronyms are all around us. Many have become so common that people often don’t realise they are acronyms at all. Words such as scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), radar (radio detection and ranging) and laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) are all examples of acronyms that have become commonly used words. One indication of this is the fact that they are now conventionally written in lower-case letters. Acronyms are also commonly used in linguistics. KWIC, pronounced /kwɪk/, stands for ‘key word in context’ and is found in corpus linguistics (see also concordance). Databases and software are also often referred to by acronyms – for example, WYRED (West Yorkshire Regional English Database) or CLiC (Corpus Linguistics in Context). The difference between acronyms and initialisms is that acronyms are pronounced as complete words (e.g. radar is /reɪda:/) while initialisms are pronounced by articulating each constituent letter (e.g. /ɛs eɪ ɛs/ for SAS).


Active structures place the Actor in a process at the start of the sentence in subject position, and the Goal in object position after the verb, e.g. ‘The builders mended the roof.’ This term is usually applied to transitive structures (where the verb requires an object), which are implicitly paired with passive structures.


This refers to the participant responsible for the process in a clause. Often functioning as the grammatical subject, this is a label associated with Systemic Functional Linguistics, which emphasises semantic over syntactic functions. In the sentence ‘Matt ran a marathon’, Matt is the Actor. But he is also the Actor in ‘The department was kept afloat by Matt’, a passive structure with Goal as subject.


This refers to the initiation of a linguistic change. There are numerous explanations for why linguistic changes are initiated. These include preserving uniformity, hole-filling, reanalysis, misperception and expressiveness. Preserving uniformity often involves a move towards regularity; for example, the formation of the plural in English is now largely achieved by adding an s-inflection (or related form such as -ies). This differs from how plurals were formed in Old English, where there was a much wider range of plural inflections available (some have survived in words like oxen and children). Hole-filling is the process of filling a gap in the linguistic system, suchDICEm-bp-9.14 as when the pronunciation of a vowel changes, leaving a gap in the vowel space that then needs to be filled by a different vowel (see the Great Vowel Shift for more details of this kind of change). Reanalysis involves reinterpreting the structure of a particular linguistic form. For example, the constituent morphemes of the word helicopter are derived from the Greek words helix (spiral) and pteron (wing). Reanalysis, however, has led to an understanding of the constituent morphemes as being heli and copter. As a result of this reanalysis, lexical innovation was made possible, resulting in such terms as helipad, heliport and gyrocopter. Misperception, as you might expect, is the process of linguistic change being initiated by a misunderstanding. It is possible, for instance, that one of the causes of the decline of the Old English inflectional system was the fact that inflections were unstressed and therefore less likely to be heard in conversation than stressed syllables. Non-native speakers of Old English (Scandinavian invaders, perhaps) who were attempting to communicate with Anglo-Saxon people may consequently not have produced inflections simply as a result of not having heard them in speech. Finally, expressiveness explains the deliberate initiation of a linguistic change. Lexical developments are often the result of expressiveness; consider, for instance, the extension of the word racist to function as a censure for any assertion that the hearer doesn’t agree with (e.g. Speaker 1: ‘Sheffield United are crap.’ / Speaker 2: ‘That is so racist’). See also propagation.

adjacency pair

In Conversation Analysis, an adjacency pair is a set of speaker turns (see turn) that fit together functionally; i.e. the first turn usually invites a particular second turn. Adjacency pairs were first discussed by the conversation analysts Emmanuel Schegloff and Harvey Sacks, who found that conversation appeared to be organised in two-turn sequences, in which one person speaks and then another person responds. Some canonical examples of adjacency pairs include questions and answers, greeting pairs, and request / acceptance or rejection pairs. The first turn in an adjacency pair is referred to as the first-pair part and the second is the second-pair part. For example:
  • First-pair part (question): Will you go out with me?

  • Second-pair part (answer): No, sorry. I don’t fancy you.

Adjacency pairs sometimes occur over several turns, as in cases where clarification is needed before the adjacency pair can be completed. The turns that come between an adjacency pair are called insertion sequences and may take the form of, for example, clarificatory questions within a question–answer pair. For instance:

Adjacency pairs are a fundamental unit of organisation in conversation and the study of patterns in adjacency pairs allows linguists to get a better understanding of how conversations are organised by speakers engaged in interactions.


Adjectives function either as the head of an adjective phrase (e.g. hungry in ‘I am very hungry) or as modifiers in a noun phrase (e.g. large and brown in ‘The large, brown cows’). Many common adjectives are gradable and have three forms: a base form, a comparative form and a superlative form. It’s often possible to tell whether a word is an adjective by seeing whether you can make a comparative or superlative form from it.

beautifulmore beautifulmost beautiful

Usually, adjectives specify some quality or property attributed to a noun. For example, physical qualities (‘The large, brown cow’), psychological qualities (‘The fierce cow’), evaluative qualities (‘The most beautiful cow’), etc.

adjective phrase

Adjective phrases have an adjective as their head word and may include one or more modifying adverbs, which are often known as intensifiers as they specify the amount or intensity of the quality referred to by the adjective. In the following examples, the adjective phrase is underlined and its head word is italicised:
  • The car was bright green.

  • It was absolutely hideous.

  • In fact, it was far too awful.

Adjective phrases function as a complement in a sentence. See also SPOCA.


This refers to the place of articulation (in the mouth) of the sound being produced. Advanced sounds are produced further forward (i.e. nearer the lips) than their expected target (advanced can be contrasted with retracted). Both vowels and consonants can be described as advanced, but vowels are more commonly described in this way. There is a specific diacritic in the International Phonetic Alphabet assigned to the term advanced. This is a small plus sign placed under the sound being described. For example, [u̟] describes a [u] that is produced further forward in the mouth.


Adverbs function as the head of an adverb phrase. Sometimes the head is preceded by modifiers, which are often adverbs of degree. Here are some examples (the adverb phrase is underlined and the head is in italics):
  • The professor gesticulated wildly.

  • He spoke exceptionally loudly.

  • The students applauded very enthusiastically indeed.

Adverbs can also function as modifiers in adjective phrases (the adjective phrase is underlined and the modifying adverb is italicised):

  • I am extremely hungry.

  • The professor was very pleased.

  • It was too hot.

Adverbs in English often end in -ly but using this test to determine whether a word is an adverb is not a foolproof method, as you will have noticed from the examples above. It’s also the case that sometimes what looks like an adverb is actually an adjective – e.g. friendly. (For this reason, looking at the function of a word in a sentence is a better indicator of what word class it belongs to than what its form or meaning is.) Some adverbs also have comparative and superlative forms (e.g. ‘He danced well/better/best’; ‘She danced gracefully /more gracefully / most gracefully’).

When they are not modifying adjectives (e.g. really hot), adverbs modify verbs; that is, they give more information about the action, process, state, etc., described in the verb phrase. Adverbs can express manner (quickly, well), place (here, there, somewhere), time (now, then, last night, six weeks ago), duration (constantly, briefly, always), frequency (daily, weekly) and degree (hardly, rather, quite).

adverb phrase

Adverb phrases have an adverb as their head word. In the examples below, the adverb phrase is underlined and the head is in italics:
  • Erica writes very quickly.

  • Matt writes absolutely spiffingly.

  • Dan writes worse than Lesley.

An adverb phrase functions as an adverbial in a clause or sentence. It can also modify an adjective in an adjective phrase. See also SPOCA.


An adverbial is a clause element in some theories of grammar that modifies the predicator by providing information about the manner, time or place of the event being described in the sentence. In some frameworks, they may be called adjuncts. Here are some examples (underlined):
  1. 1. Hazel baked a cake yesterday.

  2. 2. She ate it in the evening.

  3. 3. That night she felt sick.

  4. 4. After taking an indigestion tablet, she felt fine.

Adverbials can be formed from adverbs or adverb phrases (as in example (1), above), prepositional phrases (2), noun phrases (3) and adverb clauses (4). In contrast to other clause elements, such as the subject, object or predicator, adverbials in English are relatively flexible in terms of where they can appear in the clause. For example:

  • The cat walked to his bowl lazily.

  • Lazily, the cat walked to his bowl.

  • The cat lazily walked to his bowl.

In principle, a sentence can contain an infinite number of adverbials. A good example of how adverbials can be piled up can be seen in the introductory narration to a classic children’s TV programme, Noggin the Nog, which was popular in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s (the adverbials are underlined):

In the lands of the North, where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the Men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale.

The number of adverbials in this particular sentence also creates a foregrounding effect, focusing attention on the final unmodified clause ‘they tell a tale’. See also SPOCA and complement.


An affix is a morpheme that is added to the base form / stem / root of a word in order to create a new word or modify the existing base form. An affix placed before the base form is a prefix, while one that occurs after it is a suffix. For example, we can create the semantic opposite of the word happy by adding a prefix: unhappy. We can change the word class (also known as part of speech) of happy from adjective to noun by adding a suffix: happiness. The question of how the base form changes (if at all) in order to accommodate the affix is something that can be studied in morphology. See also infix.


This refers to a set of sounds that are classified according to their manner of articulation. Affricates begin with a stop and are immediately followed by a fricative, e.g. /tʃ/ (the pronunciation of <ch> in English). The air in an affricate is first obstructed like a stop, and then released through a constricted channel that causes turbulent airflow.


This is a process in morphology whereby a string of morphemes is put together to create a more complex word. Turkish and Swahili are two languages that use agglutination. An example of agglutination in Turkish is ev-ler-den, meaning ‘from [the] houses’. Languages that feature high levels of agglutination are known as agglutinative languages.


This refers to the flow of air through the vocal tract. In speech, sounds are produced with one of two types of airflow: egressive or ingressive. Egressive sounds have an airflow that moves out of the vocal tract (through the mouth and/or nose), while an ingressive airflow involves air flowing into the vocal tract. The majority of speech sounds have egressive airflow because it is easier to speak for longer whilst breathing out. Try reciting a rhyme on an egressive and then an ingressive airflow and you will see why. However, it isn’t difficult to produce an ingressive sound (think about the ingressive gasp you might make if you are shocked). Ingressive airflow is also used paralinguistically by speakers of Scandinavian languages to signal agreement.

airstream mechanism

This is one of three components (along with phonation and articulation) that are vital in the production of speech. Airflow is needed in order to produce speech, and we rely on three different types of airstream mechanisms to initiate this airflow. The three types of airstream mechanisms used in producing speech are pulmonic, glottalic and velaric. Pulmonic sounds require airflow to be initiated from the lungs, and the majority of the world’s sounds are produced pulmonically. The rarer airstream of glottalic sounds is initiated by the glottis, while velaric airstreams are initiated with the tongue.


This is a term given to the repetition of the same consonant sound at the start of a series of words. Alliteration is a feature of many famous literary works, including this line from Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ which repeats the word-initial /d/ sound:

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.

In addition to the high literature of Poe, alliteration can also be found in many other text-types, from adverts to comedy sketches. Here’s a nice example from a Monty Python comedy sketch (‘Bells’), in which a man is complaining to his wife about the ‘religious racket’ of the church bells:

Husband: We don’t get Buddhists playing bagpipes in our bathroom, or Hindus harmonizing in the hall. The Shintoists don’t come ’ere shattering sheet glass in the shithouse and shouting slogans.

Wife: All right, don’t practise your alliteration on me.


This is a term in morphology that refers to the different ways in which a single morpheme can be produced. Allomorphs are the morphological equivalent of allophones which are variants of one phoneme. Which allomorph is used depends on either the phonological or morphological properties of the word it is a part of. An example of allomorphic variation based on morphological conditions can be seen in the words vain and vanity, in which adding the –ity bound morpheme results in a change in the morpheme that precedes it.
  • vain without affixation → /veɪn/

  • vain plus affixation (-ity) → /væn/

Other base forms that precede the -ity suffix also follow this rule, e.g. sanesanity, humanehumanity. Phonological conditioning can be seen in the regular past tense in English. There, the last consonant of the preceding morpheme determines the allomorph that follows it. For example, while the written version of the words laughed, lived and started all end with the past tense <ed> morpheme, the endings are all pronounced differently due to the phoneme immediately before the morpheme:

  • laughed [lɑːft]

    • <ed> is pronounced as [t] because the final consonant in the root is voiceless.

  • lived [lɪvd]

    • <ed> is pronounced as [d] because the final consonant in the root is voiced.

  • started [stɑ:tɪd]

    • <ed> is pronounced as [ɪd] because the final consonant in the root is an alveolar plosive and is therefore too similar to the /d/ in the suffix for both to be clearly pronounced. Having a vowel in between the /t/ and the /d/ facilitates the pronunciation.


This refers to a set of different realisations of a phoneme in a language. Allophones do not change the meaning of a word, and often the allophone selected is influenced by the phonetic environment in which it occurs. Allophones are also interesting in that you can sometimes identify someone’s accent based on their preference for using specific allophones. Take the American English use of /ɾ/ (i.e. a consonant somewhere between a /t/ and a /d/) instead of /t/ in words like butter or flatter. A Standard British English speaker would use /t/ for these words.


Put your tongue behind your front teeth. Now move it back slightly. The flattish platform that your tongue is touching is your alveolar ridge. If you run your tongue from your front teeth backwards, you should be able to feel the alveolar ridge and the slope that takes your tongue further up into your hard palate (roof of the mouth). The alveolar ridge is the most common place for articulating consonants in English (/t/, /d/, /s/, /z/, /n/, /l/, /r/) and many other languages too. You make use of your alveolar ridge when you produce alveolar sounds like /d/ (as in dog) and /t/ (as in ten). Try it. You should feel that your tongue is resting or even pressing against your alveolar ridge when you begin to pronounce these words. It will move away from the ridge as soon as you’ve made the /t/ or /d/ sounds. Alveolar consonants are produced using the alveolar ridge as an articulator. The difference between sounds produced at the same place of articulation is that the speaker is doing different things with the tongue and other articulators, i.e. changing the manner of articulation.


This is when a linguistic expression has more than one possible interpretation. It can occur at any level of language. At the phonological level, imagine hearing the utterance ‘The nuthatch is a neckless bird.’ It is our knowledge of the world that tells us we cannot be hearing ‘the nuthatch is a necklace bird’, because on the whole human beings do not wear birds around their necks. This phonological ambiguity arises from the similarity of sounds (not spelling) in the words neckless and necklace. Lexical ambiguity also occurs at the level of the word, with homonyms like bank and wave needing their context to make clear which meaning is intended. ‘I make my way over to the bank’ is likely to imply a river bank if the context is all about a river trip in a boat, but could imply a branch of a financial institution if the context is one of a busy city street. Some ambiguities arise from the grammar. Subordinate clauses are particularly prone to ambiguity:
  • ‘Erica told the girl that Matt was bringing … ’

Here, the ambiguous section is ‘the girl that Matt was bringing’. It could be a single element of the sentence forming the direct object of the verb told (i.e. the girl is the person that Matt was bringing to the event), in which case you could replace the whole thing with a single pronoun: her. The other possibility is that ‘the girl’ is the indirect object of told and ‘that Matt was bringing’ is the beginning of a subordinate clause forming the direct object. The remainder of the sentence is likely to make clear which of these interpretations is the right one:

  • ‘Erica told the girl that Matt was bringing to wrap up warm.’

  • ‘Erica told the girl that Matt was bringing warm clothes.’


In a linguistics context, this refers to the upgrading of the meaning of a word, so that a word with a generally negative connotation becomes more positive. In general, amelioration is a less common process than its opposite, pejoration. Historically, there have been a number of terms in English that have undergone the process of amelioration – for example, nice originally meant foolish, pretty used to mean cunning, and knight referred to a youth or male servant rather than a nobleman. More recently, we have seen words like sick, wicked, ill and dope undergo amelioration in dialects associated with youth or music cultures.


This term, typically used in acoustic phonetics, refers to the height of a sound wave in a waveform. Typically, the louder the sound, the higher the amplitude, and the softer a sound, the lower the amplitude.

analytic language

Analytic languages use word order more than inflections to convey sentence meaning. That is, instead of using a morphological case ending to mark, say, the subject in a sentence, an analytic language will indicate this by placing the subject in a particular position, typically the first clause element in a sentence in many languages. In essence, analytic languages use words (or free morphemes) to convey meanings that in synthetic languages are conveyed by inflections. For example, Present Day English uses prepositions to express locational relationships between nouns whereas Hungarian uses inflections on the nouns themselves. Compare English ‘in the church’ and Hungarian templomban (in the church). An example of a language that has even greater analytical tendencies than English is Mandarin Chinese, where past and plural are marked through free morphemes (as opposed to the inflectional morphology used in English, e.g. boys or laughed). The example below shows how Mandarin Chinese uses individual words to convey information about tense that in English would be indicated by an inflection on the verb:

1st personpluraleatdinnerpast tense
We ate dinner


This describes the practice of referring backwards in language. For example, in the following sentence, the pronouns he and his refer anaphorically to the noun phrase ‘The unhappy linguist’:
  • The unhappy linguist said that he was going to drown his sorrows.’

Anaphora is a form of grammatical cohesion and anaphoric reference is a cohesive device that allows the speaker to avoid undue repetition. Most texts will use anaphora to link the sentences together so that readers/listeners know who or what is being referred to by pronouns and other pro-forms. See also cataphora.


‘Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, or to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry grey-haired ptista in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts.’ This is Nadsat, an anti-language spoken by Alex, the teenage narrator of Anthony Burgess’s classic novel A Clockwork Orange. Anti-languages are essentially extreme social dialects and arise among subcultures as a marker of difference from mainstream society. The term was coined by the linguist M. A. K. Halliday. Anti-languages have distinct vocabularies, though are usually based on the grammar (i.e. structure) of a parent language. Nadsat is a mixture of English, Russian, some German, cockney rhyming slang and invented words, though the grammar is English.


This refers to a word that holds an oppositional sense relation with another lexical item in a language. For example, light is the antonym of dark, and soft is the antonym of hard. Antonym can be used to refer to all relations of opposition, but some linguists restrict its usage to gradable antonyms. Many words do not have lexical antonyms, so in order to convey their opposites we may use morphology to negate the word in some way, for example by adding the prefixes un- or non- (e.g. uncomfortable, non-existent). Some words with negative prefixes have no positive equivalent, and so are ‘unpaired’. These include words nonchalant, (because English does not have the word chalant) and disambiguate (because English does not have the word ambiguate). Antonymy is a relationship of similarity, where most of the meaning is shared between the pair of words, but they are contrasted on a single, important dimension. Many words do not have antonyms: most people would be unable to identify an antonym for the word squirrel for example. There are several sub-types of antonyms (although there is some logical overlap between some of these different types) including complementaries, converses, directional opposites, gradable antonyms and relational opposites.


This is a term used in acoustic phonetics to describe irregularity or a non-repeating pattern seen in a waveform. Unlike a periodic sound, an aperiodic sound will present a random or semi-random pattern in the sound wave, which does not allow for the fundamental frequency to be calculated. White noise, such as waterfalls, are aperiodic and to human ears do not have a discernible pitch as a result. In human language, voiceless sounds are aperiodic. See also voicing.


This refers to a type of acquired language impairment that can affect either language comprehension or language production, or both. Aphasia is caused by some form of brain injury and is most commonly associated with stroke patients. Non-fluent aphasia is characterised by halting speech with impaired grammar but relatively preserved lexis. People with non-fluent aphasia (e.g. Broca’s aphasia) find it inordinately difficult to produce the phonemes needed for speech and cannot form complete sentences (they tend to use only open-class words, for example). They are also aware of their impairment. People with fluent aphasia (e.g. Wernicke’s aphasia), on the other hand, have no problem producing speech sounds and syntactically complete sentences, but encounter lots of difficulties in selecting their words and organising their utterances. They consequently tend to produce speech which is fluent in the sense of free flowing, but which lacks meaning. People with fluent aphasia are unlikely to be aware of having such problems. The terms non-fluent aphasia and fluent aphasia derive from the work of the French physician

Paul Broca and the German physician Carl Wernicke, respectively. See also jargon aphasia.

applied linguistics

This is a term that is used to refer to a wide range of sub-areas of linguistics and is often defined in slightly different ways by different linguists. The term was originally developed to refer to the type of language study that fell outside the mainstream tradition in linguistics where the primary concern was with describing and exploring how the core mechanisms of language work. Some uses of the term applied linguistics suggest that it is the type of linguistics that combines methods and theories from linguistics with other disciplines, such as psychology or sociology. For many people, the dominant meaning of applied linguistics was the application of linguistic insights only to the study of language assessment and teaching, particularly in the English language classroom. Today, applied linguistics has a much broader remit and tends to be used to refer to research that applies linguistic knowledge to some real-world context, such as using methods from discourse analysis to improve communication within healthcare settings, or using grammatical analysis to unpack ideology in media texts. In this sense, then, we can think about applied linguistics not as being specific to a sub-discipline or area of linguistics, but as the use of linguistic analysis as a tool in socially motivated research. The range of work in linguistics that falls under the umbrella of applied linguistics is demonstrated by the variety of events hosted under the various associations for applied linguists worldwide, from applications of linguistics in Artificial Intelligence, or the role of language in resolving conflict, to events dedicated to exploring decolonisation in Africa.


In the UK there is a card game, Happy Families, in which the first person to collect a complete set of cards featuring members of the same family is the winner. The game defines the characters on each card by their job (or in the case of the women and children, by their relationship to the man of the family – this is a very old game …). So, you have Mr Bones the Butcher, Mrs Chip the Carpenter’s Wife, Miss Snip the Barber’s Daughter, and so on. The way that these characters are named is known as apposition. The term is used to refer to two words or phrases (usually, but not always, noun phrases) which refer to the same thing or person and have the same grammatical role. So, if a newspaper reports ‘Mrs Merton, the town’s mayor, arrived at the Town Hall for her inauguration’, then the two ways of referring to Mrs Merton / the town’s mayor are both the subject of the sentence and are therefore in apposition to each other. To form a grammatical sentence, you only need one or other of these phrases. The reason for them both being there is usually explanatory – in case readers don’t know who Mrs Merton is or who is the town’s mayor. Now that you’re an expert, spot the apposition in the first sentence of this definition …


This describes a set of consonant sounds that are classified according to their manner of articulation. Approximants are produced when one articulator (i.e. tongue or lips) comes into close contact with another articulator without making contact. In some ways, approximants are very similar to vowel sounds, because the articulators don’t touch each other. However, approximants get much closer to each other than they do in the case of vowels. This approximation (i.e. bringing together of the articulators) is almost as close as for a fricative, but not quite close enough to cause frication. Examples of approximant sounds include /l/ (life), /ɹ/ (rife) and /w/ (wife).


Your nose, lips, teeth, tongue, alveolar ridge, hard palate, soft palate (velum), uvula, glottis, pharynx and larynx – these are all articulators. Articulators are organs of speech. We use them to obstruct the flow of air through the vocal tract, thereby changing the manner of articulation of consonants and modifying vowel quality.

articulatory phonetics

This is the branch of phonetics that is related to the production of speech sounds, and is concerned with the movement and use of different anatomical structures.


This is a grammatical category and is perhaps best understood by contrasting it with tense. Tense indicates the position of an action or event in time. For example, the past tense form of the verb drink in the sentence ‘Hazel drank a cup of tea’ (the verb phrase is italicised) indicates that the action occurred at some point in the past. Now consider the sentence ‘Hazel was drinking a cup of tea when her phone rang.’ This time, the action described also occurs in the past but, importantly, was in progress when the second event (Hazel’s phone ringing) happened. Both sentences have past tense verb phrases but the first is in the simple aspect and the second is in the progressive aspect. Aspect, then, conveys how an action or event ranges over time.

In English, the participle forms of the verb, combined with auxiliary verbs, deliver aspect. For example, drinking is a progressive participle (or –ing participle), and combines with auxiliary be to produce is drinking, while drunk is a past participle and is used to form what is known as the perfect aspect, combining with auxiliary have to produce has drunk. Some past participles have a different form from the past tense verb (compare drank and drunk, for instance) while others use the same form (compare ‘I walked to work’ and ‘I have walked to work’). The table below explains some of the functions of aspect in English.

Hazel drinks tea every day.presentsimpleDescribes habitual actions. However, in some text-types (e.g. sports commentary), it can also be used to describe ongoing actions (He shoots! He scores!). In others (e.g. newspaper headlines) it can be used to describe past actions (Queen dies).
Hazel is drinking tea right now.presentprogressiveDescribes actions ongoing at the time of writing/speaking; can also be used to refer to future time (e.g. Hazel is walking to work tomorrow).
Hazel was drinking tea when her phone rang.pastprogressiveDescribes actions that were ongoing when something else happened.
Hazel has drunk seven cups of tea so probably needs the loo right now!presentperfectDescribes actions that occurred in the recent past.
Hazel had drunk seven cups of tea by the time Erica arrived.pastperfectDescribes actions that occurred in the past before a second action.
Hazel has been drinking tea for years.presentperfect progressiveDescribes an action that has been ongoing over a period of time.
Hazel had been drinking seven cups of tea a day for years before she realised it was probably bad for her.pastperfect progressiveDescribes an action that had been ongoing over a period of time before a second action occurred.

Not all languages convey aspect in the same way. Mandarin Chinese has separate aspect markers, for example, while German does not make aspectual distinctions. And aspect functions differently too. In Italian, for example, the structure that in English conveys present perfect aspect (i.e. have + past participle) is often used to convey the simple past. For example, Io ho scritto un libro (literally, ‘I have written a book’) may be translated as ‘I wrote a book.’ See also tense.


This refers to the expulsion of air from the mouth or the nose when we pronounce certain sounds. We can see this happen with plosive sounds such as /k/. If you say the word kill, you should notice a puff of air after you pronounce the /k/ sound. Try putting your hand or a strip of paper in front of your mouth as you say it. However, if you say the word skill, you should not notice a puff of air after you produce the /k/ sound. See unaspirated for more on the /k/ in skill.


This is a phonological process whereby one aspect of a segment is changed to make it more similar to another segment. Often the segment that assimilates is affected by the segment that directly precedes or follows it. A common example of assimilation is that a vowel following a nasal segment commonly becomes [+nasal], i.e. more nasal-like. Contrast the /ɛ/ in /aːmɛn/ (amen), for example, with the /ɛ/ in /ɛksɪt/ (exit). Another common assimilation is when two consonants occur in sequence and the first takes on the place of articulation of the second. Thus, the word handbag is usually pronounced as /hæmbæg/ because the /d/ disappears in such a dense consonant cluster, leaving behind /m/ + /b/ where the nasal becomes bilabial to match the /b/.

auditory phonetics

This is a branch of phonetics focused on the hearing and perception of speech sounds.

authorship attribution

This is a type of analysis carried out in forensic linguistics. It involves trying to work out the most likely author of a disputed text (that is, a text whose authorship is either unknown or contested). The disputed text is also known as the questioned document (QD). This is compared against a distractor set of texts written by authors who are suspected of possibly having written the QD. Numerous tests can be carried out in order to determine the likelihood of one of the authors in the distractor set also being the author of the questioned document. Some of these methods nay be quantitative in nature (see quantitative research). For example, the forensic linguist may investigate which author’s n-grams (sequences of words or letters) most closely match those of the QD. Average word-length is another measure that can be used, as is lexical richness. Quantitative authorship attribution is also known as stylometry or stylometrics. Other methods may be qualitative (see qualitative research), such as looking at spelling conventions or uses of abbreviations. Whatever the methods used, authorship attribution proceeds on the assumption that an author’s writing is indicative of their idiolect. Methods of authorship attribution are used in criminal cases but have also been used to answer more scholarly questions, such as whether Shakespeare really was the author of all those plays (the consensus among stylometrists is that yes, he was). More recently, authorship attribution was used to reveal that the novels of the crime writer Robert Galbraith were, in fact, written by J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series.

auxiliary verb

This refers to a special sub-type of verb which is used to add grammatical information, such as tense and aspect, to a clause. In many languages, this information would be added by inflection rather than being carried by a separate word. There are three primary auxiliary verbs in English and nine modal auxiliary verbs. The primary auxiliaries are be, have and do. The modal auxiliaries are can, could, shall, should, may, might, will, would and must. Historically, dare, need and ought (to) were also modal verbs, but they have gradually been moving towards the behaviour of full lexical verbs and are often known as semi-auxiliaries as a result.

In contrast to lexical verbs, auxiliary verbs are closed class, which means that the auxiliary verb category has a much more stable membership than open class categories such as noun or verb (though note that the semi-auxiliaries are gradually leaving the category). Closed-class words are also often known as grammatical words or function words. Lexical verbs, by contrast, are open class; consequently, new lexical verbs appear in English all the time – for example, to Google or to Whatsapp.

Note also that the primary auxiliary verbs in English share their form (but not their function or meaning) with three lexical verbs, be, have and do. Although this can seem confusing, you can tell when they are acting as lexical verbs because there is no other verb in the clause. For example, in the sentence ‘Hazel is a baker’, is functions as a lexical verb as it is the only verb present, whereas in the sentence ‘Hazel is baking’, it is an auxiliary adding tense and aspect to the main verb baking.

The verbal element in an English clause (also sometimes known as the predicator) can take up to four auxiliaries in a strict order before the main (lexical) verb. The lexical verb is always the last verb in the verbal element, if there are auxiliary verbs present. When a sentence contains a modal auxiliary verb, it comes first in the verb phrase; if the sentence also contains other auxiliary verbs then they come after the modal auxiliary in the following order:

modal auxiliaryperfective auxiliaryprogressive auxiliarypassive auxiliarymain verb
Linguists have developed tests for identifying whether a verb is functioning as an auxiliary. One test (or diagnostic) to work out whether a sentence has an auxiliary verb is the subject–auxiliary inversion test. The subject–auxiliary test is when you reorder the sentence (in the case of the example below, a declarative sentence) to make a yes/no question. If the sentence or clause is grammatical (as in example A below), then it contains an auxiliary verb. If the sentence is not grammatical, the sentence does not have an auxiliary verb (as in example B below). When a clause or sentence is deemed ungrammatical in syntax, linguists mark it with an asterisk:
  1. (A) ‘Hazel is a good baker.’ (declarative)

       Is Hazel a good baker? (yes/no question, grammatical → auxiliary verb present, functioning as a lexical verb)

  2. (B) ‘Hazel runs in the park.’ (declarative)

       *Runs Hazel in the park. (ungrammatical → auxiliary verb not present)

In addition to carrying the question function (by being fronted in this way), auxiliary verbs also carry emphasis (You SHALL go to the party!) and negation (I won’t be at the party.) Where there is no auxiliary to perform these functions, the dummy auxiliary, do, is used (I don’t care. I DON’T want any cake. Do you understand me?).

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