Sunday, January 31, 2010

Marsden research to investigate English language

When do fish become fishes and mice become mouses? The answers are not as apparent as you think, according to Victoria University of Wellington Professor of Linguistics Laurie Bauer.

The highly regarded linguist says research he is conducting with two other world-leading linguists will fill a much needed gap in our understanding of the complexities of modern English.

Professor Bauer, who has been awarded a $619,000 Marsden research grant for the project, is working on the most comprehensive book ever on the morphology of English.

Morphology is the branch of linguistics that studies patterns of word formation in languages, and attempts to formulate rules that model the knowledge of the speakers of those languages.

“This particular project is setting out what the rules are of English. We are looking at how words are made up of smaller bits, and how those words are then interpreted. For example, ‘unfriendliness’ is made up from un, friend, ly, and ness,” says Professor Bauer.

“There are a lot of ‘rules’ in English we assume everyone knows, because the language has been around for so long, and we’ve been teaching it to foreigners for so long. But the fact is we don’t. An example is the plural of fish—when do you say two fish, and when do you say two fishes? There are various suggestions, but there is not one simple answer.”

Professor Bauer has been studying morphology for over 30 years.

“I was very aware that there’s a huge gap in the literature—we do not have a specialist book on the morphology of English, whereas we do have those books for many other languages. Given that there are so many people who are trying to learn English as a foreign language, we really need this.”

He is working on the project with two other experts in the area, Rochelle Lieber from the University of New Hampshire, the United States, and Ingo Plag from the University of Siegen, Germany.

The research will present a mammoth task, requiring the analysis of a massive body of text stored in a database.

“We have access to the British and American national corpuses which both have something like 100 million words of text entered into them. You can search for words that have similar patterns—for example all the words that end in ‘ist’. That way we can see what kind of things people are doing with the English language.”

He says there are hundreds of thousands of examples in the English language of areas that still trip us up, even ones where we think we might have the answer.

“Imagine you are at Disneyland looking at stuffed toys—Donald Ducks and Mickey… Mouses, right? Yet a foreign learner would have learned that the plural of mouse is mice in all circumstances. There are so many complications in the English language that have never really been explored before. That’s what this book will attempt to do.”

For more information, please contact Professor Laurie Bauer on (04) 463 5619 or at

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