Topics in Linguistics

Topics in Linguistics

The aim of this course is to introduce students to basic concepts and methodologies in linguistics. We will consider four main areas of the subject: namely phonology (the sound systems of languages), syntax (sentence structure), sociolinguistics (variation in language and its relationship to social structure), and psycholinguistics (first language development and its philosophical implications).



We will begin by considering the structure of spoken English, based on the view that language is essentially a spoken rather than a written phenomenon. The grammar of spoken English is different in many respects from the grammar of the written form and the “rules” that speakers use when they speak are in many cases very different from those that apply in writing. One of the most interesting features of the grammar of speech is that most of it operates below the level of conscious awareness in the sense that it is based on concepts and processes of which speakers are unaware, yet which they apply regularly and consistently. This poses some interesting philosophical questions about how speakers acquire this unconscious knowledge. For example, how much of it is in a sense “innate”?



Many traditional approaches to grammar tend to be mainly oriented to the written language, so a focus on speech requires a new kind of grammatical description. One important difference between the two is that traditional grammar is often “prescriptive” in nature in the sense that it prescribes how users of a language ought to behave. For example, we all know there’s a “rule” about not ending a sentence with a preposition. But such a rule has no place in the modern approach. Rather, the latter is “descriptive” in that it sets out to describe (and explain) how speakers actually behave, not how they ought to behave. This means that the concept “rule” acquires a different meaning in the modern approach in that the search for “rules” is a search for “regularities” – i.e. the principles that speakers unconsciously use in speaking.



A corollary of the focus on speech is that variation becomes a major of interest – given that every language exhibits variation across the geographical and social space in which it is spoken. This will lead us to explore some of the methodologies linguists have used to study variation and to explore its implications. We will look at some of the work on Australian English in this context.


The study of linguistic variation leads into a number of general issues. For example, just as variation plays a crucial role in biological evolution, as Charles Darwin discovered in the mid nineteenth century, so linguists have come to realise that variation plays a similar role in language change. Why do languages change through time and what role do linguistic and social factors play in that process?


Variation also raises questions about the relationship between the so-called “standard language” (where such an entity exists) and local regional or social varieties. Why do such varieties continue to exist and develop when so many factors seem to favour the survival of the standard over the local non-standard varieties?



In modern linguistics, the concept of “grammar” has acquired a quite different meaning from the one it had in the traditional approach. If we were to ask the question “Where can we find a grammar?”, the traditional answer to that question might have been: “In a library or bookshop”. But for a linguist, the answer would be: “In the brain of a native speaker”. In this sense, a grammar is a psychological entity that enables its owner to convert the sounds of speech into meaning (as a listener) and to convert meanings into sounds (as a speaker).  It is an entity the main properties of which are formed in most cases in the first five years or so of a child’s life. This makes first language development a phenomenon of considerable interest to linguists. We will consider the major characteristics of both phonological and grammatical development in this process and discuss some of the philosophical questions arising.

About the Tutor:

1951 – 1958 Manchester Grammar School, progressively specialized in French, German, English.

1958 – 1961 Christ’s College, Cambridge (Scholar) reading Modern and Mediaeval languages (French, German).

1961 – 1963 Assistant Principal, Administrative Civil Service (War Office).

1963 – 1965 French Teacher, King’s School, Macclesfield, Cheshire.

1965 – 1974 Lecturer in French, Language Centre, University of Kent at Canterbury.

1970 – 1971 Leave of absence from UKC to take a Coursework Masters in Linguistics, University of Essex.

1972 Completed PhD in Linguistics, University of Kent.

1974 – 1976 Lecturer in Linguistics, University College of North Wales, Bangor.

1976 – 2005 Lecturer/ Senior Lecturer/ Associate Professor in Linguistics, University of Queensland (Department of English).



M.A. Modern Languages (Cantab),

M.A. Theoretical Linguistics (Essex)

PhD. Theoretical LIngusitics (Kent)


Have given courses in linguistics at the University of Bern (Switzerland), Seikei University (Tokyo), James Cook University (2005-6).

Visiting Fellow UCSD (San Diego), 1996.

Author of three books: Language,  Children and Society (Harvester, 1986), Competing Discourses (Longman, 1992), Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction (Oxford Univ Press, 2001) plus forty-odd research papers