is for the International Linguistics
• One of 12 ‘academic’ Olympiads (in order of age: Mathematical, Physics, Chemistry,
Informatics, Biology, Philosophy, Astronomy, Geography, Junior Science, Astronomy and Astrophysics, Earth
designed to stretch competitors’ subject knowledge
5 ‘problems’ – non “language-specific,” i.e. usually in unfamiliar
or imaginary languages [2-6 hours allowed!]
Tests ‘structural linguistic’ skills – the ability to recognize and
put into practice the deep ‘rules’ of language[s]
The UKLO runs in the spring – Round One in college, round
Two in Edinburgh - with the aim of ‘selecting’ competitors for
the ILO in Sweden next summer
SO, we’ll be looking at ‘structural linguistics’ – what languages
are & how they work – to improve your understanding of
languages in general, to improve your facility in the languages
you study in particular, and, possibly, to enter the UKLO….
A is for Apple, Arbitrariness & Ox
• Why is ‘A’ for ‘Apple’?
• What is ‘apple’ in other languages?
• So, what is the relationship between ‘A’ and
• For linguists, a word is a signifier
• What does ‘apple’ signify? That is, what do you
think when you think ‘apple’?
A is for Apple, Arbitrariness & Ox
• For linguists, what you think of when you think of
a word is its signified [not a thing, but an idea of
a thing…]
• The first principle of linguistics is [according to
Saussure, who started it!] ‘the arbitrariness of
the sign’ - that is, the ‘arbitrariness of the
relationship between the signifier and the
• Meaning? Well, meaning that we could choose
ANY word to refer to ANY thing…
(As long as we all agreed)
A is for Apple, Arbitrariness & Ox
• WHAT we all need to agree on are the
‘rules’ – HOW we are going to organise
our language…
• So a language is a rule-governed system
of relationships between signifiers
• ‘A green apple’ – what is the rule for
adjectival modification in English?
• …and in other languages?
A is for Apple, Arbitrariness & Ox
• What is ‘A’ ‘for’ in other languages?
• In the Phoenician alphabet, from which ours
ultimately derives, the ‘A’ was ‘for’ the head of an ox …
• The ‘alphabet’ thus begins as a pictographic system,
before becoming a symbolic system…
• Cattle were common in Egypt, where Phoenician
originated, just as apples were common in medieval
• Agreed signifieds for agreed signifiers…
A is for Apple, Arbitrariness & Ox
• If a word [or a letter, or a sound…] is a signifier
• What the word refers to is its signified
• Then, using a word to refer to something is a
• For Saussurian or ‘structural’ linguists, the only
useful definition of a language is ‘a system of
shared significations’
• When you work out the system, you work out the
What’s the system…
• … of symbol/letter correspondence here?
Or here?
R is for Regularity, Roots & recognition
What does it mean when we say that a language, or a
linguistic form, is regular?
“I love to skink.”
When we acquire a language, what we acquire is the ability
to recognise & reproduce its regular patterns
If “skink” is a regular verb, what form does it take in the
1. “He ……….. for a living!”
2. “They’ve tried …………., and they didn’t like it.”
How many regular forms could “skink” take in the following…?
3. “John & Julie ………….. for the first time yesterday.”
4. “He has ……………, but won’t do it again!”
How would you describe the ‘rule’ in each example?
R is for Regularity, Roots & recognition
•“skink” is a morpheme - a ‘base unit’ or ‘root form’ or ‘brick’ that
cannot be meaningfully divided into smaller units [or forms or bricks]
– all languages are systems of relationships between
•Because it is free to stand alone, linguists call it a free
•Because alterations to its form would produce an
alteration to its meaning, linguists call it a semantic
•The additional ‘s,’ ‘ing,’ ‘ed’ in ‘skinks,’ ‘skinking,’
‘skinked’ need to be bound on to something to work, so
each is a bound morpheme.
•Because changing which one of these is ‘bound’ to any
free morpheme modifies the grammatical tense or
number, linguists call each a grammatical morpheme.
R is for Regularity, Roots & recognition
• Morphemically, nouns are also ‘regular’ or ‘irregular’:
Which ONE noun could be modified by having ALL of the following
morphemes bound to it? Note down your answers to EACH and why
they reduce as you go along…
• “step……..”
• “grand…….”
• “……less”
• “……ly”
• “……board”
• “……ship”
• Which of these morphemes are grammatical/bound, and which
• How does each of the grammatical morphemes modify the
semantic morpheme “mother”?
R is for Regularity, Roots & recognition
What would you know about a
noun to which the following
morphemes could be bound…?
1. “step……..,” AND “grand……..”?
2. “……free,” AND “…..rich”?
…what’s the system here?
[A Drehu/English problem from the 2008
Linguistics Olympiad!]
sanctuary [holy place]
bunch of bananas
awl [a tool for making
language with
about 12,000
speakers on
Lifou Island,
The solution
• The REGULAR PATTERN = the modifying
morpheme, follows its semantic morpheme or head.
drai-hmitrötr = Sunday (holy day)
gaa-hmitrötr = sanctuary (holy place)
uma-hmitrötr = church (holy house)
ngöne-uma = wall (house border)
ngöne-gejë = coast (water border)
nyine-thin = awl (tool to poke)
jun = bone
i-jun = skeleton (multitude of bones)
i-wahnawa = bunch of bananas (multitude of bananas)
i-drai = calendar (multitude of days)
C is for Carroll & Chomsky
• PRINCIPLE 1: arbitrariness - Saussure
points out that all linguistic units are arbitrary
(there is no necessary connection between
any signifier & any signified)
• PRINCIPLE 2: regularisation - Chomsky
points out that when we acquire a language,
what we acquire are the ‘principles’ or ‘rules’
of the language as well as the arbitrary
symbols to which they apply
• Meaning? Meaning that whenever you look at
a word or phrase, your mind instantly
searches for its ‘rules’ in order to make sense
of it
C is for Carroll & Chomsky
Before Saussure, & long before Chomsky, Lewis
Carroll wrote Jabberwocky:
"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!“
1. What do you know about ‘Jabberwock’?
How? [what rules identify it?]
1. What do you know about ‘frumious’?
How? [what rules identify it?]
1. What do you know about ‘Jubjub’?
How? [what rules identify it?]
Am I dantier than I am cloovy? (a problem
from the NALCO 07 Olympiad
Jane is molistic and slatty.
Jennifer is cluvious and brastic.
Molly and Kyle are slatty but danty.
The teacher is danty and cloovy.
Mary is blitty but cloovy.
Jeremiah is not only sloshful but also weasy.
Even though frumsy, Jim is sloshful.
Strungy and struffy, Diane was a pleasure to watch.
Even though weasy, John is strungy.
Carla is blitty but struffy.
The salespeople were cluvious and not slatty.
Which of the following are you (most) likely to hear?
Meredith is blitty and brastic.
The singer was not only molistic but also cluvious.
May found a dog that was danty but sloshful.
What quality or qualities would you be looking for in a person?