Never knowingly upstaged: Leofranc Holford-Strevens takes on James Hurford and the Origins of Grammar.




When it comes to a work of non-fiction, we reasonably expect a review to deliver at least three things: a concise summary of content, an informed assessment of the main arguments, and some steer on whether the book is worth the purchase price.

In the London Review of Books there is a review of Professor James Hurford’s Origins of Grammar which fails on all three counts.  The summary of the book’s main sections is very far from concise. The assessment of the arguments is uninformed and isn’t fair. There is no recommendation to add or not to add the book to your shelves. By the end of this rambling piece it is clear that the reviewer, Leofranc Holford-Strevens, has lost track of the purpose of a book review and has instead used the space to parade his own knowledge-nuggets and the bees in his bonnet. You can read the full 3,000 words here:

If a linguist is simply someone who knows a lot of languages, then Leofranc Holford-Strevens (henceforth LH-S) is pre-eminent, claiming to ‘handle about 40’:

But this won’t do. It’s like saying that someone with a very large butterfly collection is pre-eminent among lepidopterists.  Within the modern discipline of linguistics, knowledge of individual languages is far less important than knowledge of language itself. On the basis of this review, LH-S may be a polyglot, but his acquaintance with linguistics appears to be limited to the things that interest or annoy him. And he so much wants to share them all with us.

In summarising Hurford’s book, LH-S simply cannot refrain from repeated and gleeful interjections where he spies what he thinks is a weak spot. For example, where Hurford observes, uncontroversially,  that there is:

a  tendency for words meaning ‘mother’ to begin with m or n, and those meaning ‘father’ to begin with p or t.

LH-S complains that Hurford ‘unfortunately’ does not go on to add that:

in Georgian ‘father’ is mama and ‘mother’ deda, or that these associations do not protect a consonant against phonetic change: to Latin pater correspond English father, Armenian hayr, and Irish athair, all in accordance with the transformation of Indo-European p.

What would that add to Hurford’s point? He has just said there is a tendency in this sound-symbol mapping, not an unbreakable bond. Why demand he go off on a tangent to explain to the reader that Georgian is different, and in some Indo-European languages p has shifted to f  then to h and then disappeared entirely?  The only answer I can offer is that LH-S is very keen that you the reader should know that he the reviewer knows these things.

There are many such places in the review where LH-S feels compelled to intrude. Here’s another. Hurford uses Culicover and Jackendorf’s  2005 example of a so-called gapping construction to show that Katie the Kazoo, and Robin the Rebec, is a grammatical answer to the question Who plays what instrument? whereas *Katie the Kazoo is not. Hurford remarks upon the obviously contrived nature of this example (Whoever has heard of a rebec? –not me) and uses something more commonplace to demonstrate the same point. The question posed in a restaurant Who wants what? will give rise to a response like Dave tacos and Anna enchiladas, and not just Dave tacos. Job done.  But LH-S, eager for us to know that he has heard of a rebec and moreover is familiar with its irregular development from Arabic rabãb, chastises the Professor for these omissions. The illocutionary force of Hurford’s Whoever has heard of a rebec? has passed him by completely.

LH-S revisits Arabic in pursuing a disagreement with Hurford on grammaticality. Hurford is in the midst of showing, quite properly, that the line between what is and is not grammatical can sometimes be unclear. For LH-S such indecisiveness is a dereliction of duty. Linguists, he complains, are subject to failure of the grammatical instinct, the intuitive perception of a sentence as grammatical or ungrammatical. He gives us a lengthy and tedious demonstration that there is no such failure of intuition in him. Here is a taste:

On the next page, apropos of sentences with referential-indefinite noun subjects, Hurford writes that whereas in the colloquial Arabic of Egypt raagil figgineena is ungrammatical, its English equivalent A man is in the garden ‘is not felt to be strictly ungrammatical, although we may feel somewhat uneasy about it, and prefer There’s a man in the garden.’ Agreed, but the subject is still a man, just as in the Egyptian Arabic example raagil is still the subject in the grammatical sentence fiih raagil figgineena (where fiih, literally ‘in it’, corresponds neatly to our ‘there’). Rather there is a prohibition in Egyptian Arabic on placing an indefinite noun in the initial position that has become normal for the subject.

The root of the problem LH-S has with this book is, I suspect, that Hurford is a Professor of Linguistics who has managed to write engagingly—and not simplistically– about a complex subject for an audience of non-specialists. He does not act the part of a lofty and omniscient academic emphatically laying down the law, something LH-S seems to want him to be because that’s how authority imparts knowledge to those who lack it.  When Hurford tells his readers that there is no agreement among linguists about the Australian language Warlpiri, and concedes that frankly he needs help figuring out the arguments, LH-S is quick to sneer, Are we meant to pack our bags and find out for ourselves? When Hurford says that there is some dispute about the test results that compared the understanding of language by a two-year-old child with that of a language-trained ape, the sneering becomes childish:  few readers can be expected to procure an ape (and at the right point in its training engender a child) in order to replicate the experiment.

The last 700 words of this 3,000 word review are devoted to an introductory-level lecture by LH-S on pidgins and creoles (including the odd tip to pronounce the Pisin part of Tok Pisin as the French piscine) in which he severely criticises linguists for not defining these terms consistently. As Hurford himself concedes that the definition of a creole needs better agreement, LH-S need not have laboured the point so much.  But the longer he goes on, the more impatient he seems to be to grab the book away from Hurford and write it himself. Indeed with his fund of knowledge of 40 languages, his lifetime experience of editing books, and his ability to craft elaborate hypotactic sentences in the formal English of a bygone era, perhaps LH-S felt he could have a written a better book on the origins of grammar, something magisterial in tone  in which there was no room for any doubt. But the evolution of grammar is a topic with plenty of room for doubt, no matter how much a tidy mind might want it otherwise. What grammar is and how it might have developed are questions that require the mustering of a very large body of research, some of it contradictory and some of it unclear, much of it specialised and all of it complex. Hurford presents it in a style that LH-S complains is too colloquial for his taste, but which is better described as approachably scholarly. That’s quite an achievement.

Are semi-colons a sign of madness?


Alas, for it seems he was a nice chap with his heart mostly in the right place, the best known fact about George III is that he went mad, and the best known fact about his madness is that its cause was porphyria. But it seems we have been wrong about that. Last week, on Lucy Worsley’s  BBC documentary series “Fit to Rule”, we learned that the classic symptom of porphyria, blue urine, can also be caused by a tincture of gentian, which the Royal physicians had been prescribing to the King.

It is axiomatic that documentaries abhor a vacuum, so as soon as the porphyria hypothesis was out of the way, a clinical neurologist called Dr Peter Garrard came forth with a new one. Using the diagnostic tools he employs on his patients today, Dr Garrard has concluded that George III suffered from mania. The tool, I was interested to see, was an examination of the complexity of the King’s written sentence structure.

Dr Garrard showed us two letters written by George, one when he was descending into madness, and the other when he was emerging from it. (Or rather, we were shown brief glimpses of a text which you could only read if you paused the screen and squinted hard.) The page written when George was recovering had, we were told, about 400 words, punctuated as 5 or 6 sentences. These figures are strangely vague, considering they form part of a formal analysis, but we can conclude that each sentence has between 67 and 80 words. Dr Garrard told us this is normal. The other letter, written when George was displaying signs of madness, is 500-600 words long (again, why so vague?) and it is divided into only two sentences that are hundreds of words long.

Massive verbosity, said Dr Garrard, is associated with the manic phases of bipolar disorder. And Dr Worsley chimed in to report that there are contemporary descriptions of the poor mad king that described him as talking and talking till the foam ran out of his mouth.

But these two behaviours, writing very long sentences and talking incessantly, are not two sides of the same coin. While the latter certainly conveys signs that all is not well in the mind of the speaker, the former could just as well be a sign that the writer has a fondness for complex punctuation. Indeed, it was possible, by pausing the TV screen, to discern serial semi-colons in George’s first ‘mad’ sentence.

When I noticed that Dr. Garrard had written the term ‘T-unit’ on the top of the page, I felt right at home as I have worked with T-unit analyses for many years. They are defined as the shortest syntactic chunks into which writing can be sliced up, and they give you some idea of writing sophistication, especially in children developing their literacy skills. So, the cat caught a mouse is one T-unit.  The cat caught another mouse; I hate it when she does that is two T-units even though it is punctuated as one sentence.

It is possible that Dr Garrard imagines, wrongly, T-unit boundaries to be defined by full stops. This could be the explanation for how his analysis of George’s mad letter produced the total of only two very complex sentences comprised of hundreds of words each. But if you took George III’s ‘mad’ letter and replaced the semi-colons with full stops, the number of ‘sentences’ would increase from two to many more, and the intrinsic complexity, and accuracy, of the grammar would not be altered in any way. This  would undermine the mania diagnosis by writing, however.

Dr Garrard also claimed that there was a lexical dimension to his diagnosis which he called ‘word sophistication’. He showed two words from George’s ‘mad’ letter, unattentive and utmost, declaring them to be ‘sophisticated’ — on what evidence I do not know—and therefore signs of the ‘creativity’ that is associated with mood disorders. To me, however, utmost is a  rather ordinary word that would not raise an eyebrow anywhere, and while unattentive is not common now, it may well have been in the late 18th century. This is flimsy, and very subjective, evidence for madness where a proper diachronic analysis of George III’s writing would be much stronger. Did he use utmost and other so-called ‘sophisticated’ words when not displaying signs of madness? What is his mean length of T-unit before, during and after his mental incapacity? What is the mean number of semi-colons per sentence before, during and after his mental incapacity? (There is a PhD thesis in there somewhere, perhaps.)

There is another strange dimension to Dr Gerrard’s methodology of looking for correlations of madness with punctuation. He counts verbs in sentences/T-units (he is not clear about which) to ascertain their level of complexity, and reports that George used as many as eight. Taking the view that there is an inverse relation between number of verbs in sentences and the writer’s level of mental health,  he goes on to claim:

“Sentences that you or I use typically contain one, or at the most, two verbs.”

This is so astonishingly wide of the mark, that I struggle to understand where he could have come up with this idea, especially as he had claimed a few minutes earlier that sentences of 67-80 words were the norm, thereby suggesting that we routinely string together dozens of words around a single verb. The real ‘norm’ can be ascertained simply by looking at a large enough sample of everyday speech or writing and then calculating the ratio of verbs to words in sentences. (Or rather, we should use T-units for writing and AS-units for speech, as these have greater psycholinguistic validity than the things we call sentences.)

To get us started, here is a sample of Dr Gerrard’s own speech, transcribed from the ‘Fit to Rule’ programme:

“I don’t think there can be any doubt anymore that the porphyria hypothesis is dead in the water, and that this was a psychotic illness, and that these periods that his doctors described are reflections, classic reflections almost, of manic behaviour.”

One AS-unit, forty-two words, one main, two auxiliary and five dependent verbs.  Eight verbs in all.  Mad or what?

To conclude, I leave you with a passage written in 1755 by a contemporary of George III, Samuel Johnson. It is from his Preface to the Dictionary in which he writes of his hopes that this great achievement, though imperfect, will be well received.  It’s one of the most eloquently crafted prose works in English, and its punctuation reflects what was much admired at the time: sentences made by the copious joining of clauses through colons and semi-colons.  The passage below has 231 words and is punctuated as one sentence. If George III was mad in adopting this style, then so was just about everyone alive and writing in the 18th century.

That (the Dictionary) will immediately become popular I have not promised to myself: a few wild blunders, and risible absurdities, from which no work of such multiplicity was ever free, may for a time furnish folly with laughter, and harden ignorance in contempt; but useful diligence will at last prevail, and there never can be wanting some who distinguish desert; who will consider that no dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away; that a whole life cannot be spent upon syntax and etymology, and that even a whole life would not be sufficient; that he, whose design includes whatever language can express, must often speak of what he does not understand; that a writer will sometimes be hurried by eagerness to the end, and sometimes faint with weariness under a task, which Scaliger compares to the labours of the anvil and the mine; that what is obvious is not always known, and what is known is not always present; that sudden fits of inadvertency will surprize vigilance, slight avocations will seduce attention, and casual eclipses of the mind will darken learning; and that the writer shall often in vain trace his memory at the moment of need, for that which yesterday he knew with intuitive readiness, and which will come uncalled into his thoughts to-morrow.”




Right brain, left brain, hare-brain. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tries and fails to unite language, thought and religion.


I have found it difficult to know where to begin with Jonathan Sack’s extraordinary mangling of linguistics on Start the Week (BBC Radio Four, October 17th 2011) available here –  –at least for a while, then maybe you will need to search the BBC archives. The Rabbi has written a book, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, and was on the national airwaves to promote it. He began with what inspired him to take on this subject. His ‘moment of discovery’ came, he says, when he realised that all languages that do not include symbols for vowels in their alphabets, (such as Hebrew) take a right to left path across the page. Languages written in an alphabet that does include symbols for vowels (such as Greek) go from left to right.

This, he says, is evidence of a fundamental difference: there are right-brained languages (Hebrew) and left-brained ones (Greek and all other European languages). Sacks claims that the Chinese, who write from top to bottom have ‘triangulated this difference’, ignoring thereby the rather obvious fact that Chinese script is not alphabetic, so has symbols for neither vowels nor consonants. Continue reading

Planet Word, part two: Fry still struggling.


I don’t know who coined the term linguicide, but it does not seem apt to me, any more than the death of George VI could be called regicide. His Majesty passed away after a long illness, rather than got his head chopped off, and this is surely a better analogy for what is happening to the vast majority of the world’s languages. Some are being actively —even violently—persecuted, but most are ill and slipping away with their elderly speakers. A very moving book on this subject is Nicholas Evans’ Dying Words. This could have guided Stephen Fry to any number of languages that are down to their very last few speakers, but the tone of this would not lend itself much to humour, and humour is again central to Fry’s topic in week two of Planet Word: the relationship of a person’s language to a person’s identity. Continue reading

Fry’s Planet Word: Too much Fry, not enough Word, Planet not necessary.


It is a truth universally acknowledged by documentary makers that you must talk to camera a lot, especially while walking towards it or driving with it along a highway somewhere. It is essential to visit many parts of the globe to find answers to questions, while staring dreamily over a beach or cityscape. If you think the subject matter might be getting complex for your audience, try making it into a comedy.  It’s entertaining also to have a few actors dress up to enact an historical scene, and it’s always good to pose unchallenging questions to a few real experts on the topic, safe in the knowledge that you need not follow through with anything but a fascinated nod. 

In episode one of his documentary series, Stephen Fry does not take the cameraman for a ride in his car, but he employs all the other conventions. He does the talking to camera as he walks through forest, along beach and down street. He stares into space. He shows us TV clips from long ago of his face doing wordy comedy sketches. He has actors in eighteenth century costumes with candles. He flies himself and crew to East Africa, to Germany, to the United States in order to give us bits of linguists Jean Berko, Steven Pinker, Michael Tomasello…..  All the basic documentary items are here, but Fry does not succeed in putting them into a coherent whole. If there was a thread of an argument running through this show, I was not able to pick it up. Continue reading

Stephen Fry: tried hard but could have done better


On Radio Four at 8.30 a.m. on September 26th, Stephen Fry stepped up to plug his new BBC TV series and book, entitled Fry’s Planet Word.

Already I’m disposed to dislike it, even before he has spoken one syllable. It’s the title. Why is his name in it? Why did he call his radio show Fry’s English Delight? How come physics gets TV documentaries presented by physicists (Brian Cox), history gets historians (Lucy Worsley), medicine gets doctors (Michael Mosley),  and music gets people who are musically trained to some degree (Simon Russell Beal, Gareth Malone), while anything to do with language tends to get presenters who are famous for other stuff? *

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Been there, done that. Why there is no need to listen to Melvyn Bragg’s radio programme on Saturday


How does this man sell his ideas to the BBC? He has managed to persuade them to give him a hour on their ‘Archive on  Four’ radio series to expatiate upon Received Pronunciation  (RP RIP, August 6th  8.00 pm) when all the while they have a  brilliant archive of their very own on this subject, compiled by the face of British linguistics himself, Professor David Crystal. It’s here, if you would like to have a read:

It’s a part of the BBC project called Voices which covers the history of English in five neat pages with links to audio/video clips. This particular page is all about Received Pronunciation, and includes a link to a short audio piece entitled ………. RP RIP.

So it looks like Bragg has lifted this nifty title in order to re-hash something that is scarcely new. The pre-broadcast press release

tells us that ‘changes are afoot’ in British society which are threatening the dominance of RP with people like Cheryl Cole leading the way for the emancipation of regional accents. But it is ridiculous to present this change as if it’s just started. To quote Crystal, ”  from the 1960s (RP) slowly came to be affected by the growth of regional identities, resulting in the re-emergence of regional colouring – a phenomenon now described as ‘modified RP’. ”  So that’s over fifty years ago, when Bragg was still in short trousers.

Given Bragg’s form on matters linguistic, I suspect his programme will be much like his book on the history of English; a bit of scholarship when it suits him, a lot of personal anecdote when it does not. I predict references to the Cumbrian accent will get a lot of air-time, but I am not sure I can bear to listen to see if I am right.

One last thing.  I most definitely do not like the way the Lynne Trusses of this world wag their prissy fingers at apostrophe crimes, but in the BBC press release referenced above, I find this The popular music scene developed an accent of it’s own–to be irritating.  I’d much rather apostrophes be left out than crop up where there is no need for one, and I have the (entirely unscientific) feeling that they are cropping up in unnecessary places more than ever due to fear of being excoriated by an owner of Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

Top language, top Bible, top people: Melvyn Bragg meets the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis


To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible in English, Melvyn Bragg (a man not noted for his reliability on such matters—see my post for March 30th last year) managed to get himself a BBC documentary on the subject. (King James’ Bible: The Book that Changed the World) The credits say that he wrote it as well as narrated it, so all errors are his own, with the possible exception of the director’s decision to devote so much of the hour to close shots of Bragg’s face as he muses on his subject. This is always an error, even when the narrator is photogenic. Bragg, reading from his autocue, is an old man with distractingly young hair and a gaze point somewhere just above the viewer’s right eyebrow.


But I digress. The real point of this post is to unpick the bizarre thesis of the programme, namely that the true power of the Bible lay dormant for centuries until it was translated into English in 1611 by a committee of scholars working for King James. Yes, I am simplifying here somewhat, but that is because the lines of argument taken by Bragg are meandering and self-contradictory. Nevertheless¸ the main idea is that God’s word was inevitably muffled until it was made available to humanity through the sparkling medium of early Modern English, whereupon its effect was electric and immediate, inspiring  democratic revolutions, civil rights and all of modern science. 

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Hold the front page: prairie dogs still don’t have language


Back in February 2010 I posted a piece about Dr. Con Slobodchikoff’s research into prairie dogs and their language, expressing my deep scepticism. This eventually came to Dr Slobodchikoff’s notice and he posted a comment inviting me to check out his webpage, ‘freely available on Google’ he said, where I would find details of the many peer-reviewed research papers he has published on the subject. Well, I did check out his list of publications, and there are lots of them, but none at all in linguistics. Journals like Behavioural Ecology, Mammology  and Intelligent Automation and Soft Computing, are not in any Learning Resources Centre near me, nor are they freely available to people who might want to get hold of them. So I picked a not-too-expensive book, ‘Kinship with Animals’ edited by Solisti and Tobias, in which Dr S. has a chapter about his prairie dog research. Having now read this, I can confidently reaffirm my initial scepticism about them having language. They don’t. Continue reading

Subjunctives and fuzzy logic: the Queen’s English Society revisited


Dear Nick

Thank you for your long comments on my piece of June 15th this year, If I were running the Queen’s English Society, I would shut it down, in which you repeatedly laugh out loud at all the subjunctives you are slipping in which show me how wrong I am to have claimed they are dead in modern English.

 I am puzzled, though. If you read my post more carefully, you will see that nowhere do I say that English subjunctives have disappeared. That would be a daft thing to claim because of course they exist. I even used one in my title.  (Not all your examples are actually subjunctives, however. The ‘throw’ in “It is believed that he once had his guards “throw” random citizens to the lions ” is an infinitive.)

This is not your only confusion, and as you are most eager for me to respond to you, I’ll reply blow by blow: Continue reading