Journey of words: Manuscript to Mind

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Linguistics Philology and Phonetics


The vocabulary of any language comes from different sources as words are frequently borrowed, especially in situations of language contact. English, for example, shares many words with French as a large number of Romance borrowings entered the English language after the Norman Conquest in 1066. However, other languages, such as Dutch and German, have also borrowed substantial numbers of Romance words. When a word is borrowed, its pronunciation is adapted to fit the phonological system of the new language (e.g. 'beef' from Old French 'boef'). This results in instances where the same word is borrowed into different languages but is pronounced differently. In this project, we are investigating the stress patterns of Romance loans in Dutch, English, and German. Some of these loans are pronounced in the same way in all three languages (e.g. 'vendétta') while others show certain differences particularly in vowel quality and stress (e.g. 'crócodile' (E), 'krokod'il' (D), 'Krokod'il' (G)).

The project consists of two distinct strands:

(i) a historical theoretical study in order to create both a diachronic timeline of borrowings and a synchronic description of patterns of phonological adaptation into the three host languages
(ii) a psycholinguistic investigation concerned with the processing of items which differ in their stress patterns across the languages in Dutch and German second-language (L2) learners of English.

The historical investigation is concerned with charting the borrowing of Romance loans into Dutch, English, and German and investigating the resulting stress patterns as well as the changes borrowed items may have introduced in the pronunciation systems of the individual languages. While studies on loanwords exist, there is no comprehensive study which provides an overview of borrowings across languages. We will be working with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on this part of the project and our findings will be used to add to the information currently available in the OED. The OED does have information on cross-linguistic correspondences but it is not consistent and focuses mostly on inherited words. There are many instances where the information we are planning to gather can only be obtained by consulting several different sources.

In the psycholinguistic part of the project, which is, at least in part, based on the historical findings, we are concerned with investigating the effects of divergent pronunciation patterns (e.g. stress and vowel changes) on the language processing of learners of English who have Dutch or German as a native language. Our aim is to ascertain whether words which are pronounced differently in English compared to a learner's native language require greater effort in processing than those where the pronunciation patterns are largely similar. If this is the case, particular focus on these forms in teaching and providing systematic rules (where they exist) to explain the differences may facilitate learning and processing.

The overall results obtained from this project will be used to create a digital resource (website/app) which explains the correspondences and differences in pronunciation (going beyond stress patterns of Romance loans) between Dutch, English and German to assist English language learners. When this information is available, it is often presented in highly specialist terms and thus is not intelligible to teachers and learners without historical linguistic knowledge. As all three languages are West Germanic and show a large degree of overlap, there are a number of rule-based historical changes which explain variation that may, at first glance, seem idiosyncratic. If these rules can be simplified and explained in such a way that they can be used in language learning and teaching, this may facilitate a more rapid progression and allow students to apply these rules not just to words they have already learned but also to new material they encounter.

Planned Impact

The lexicon of any language is usually a mixture of words which have developed within the language and others which have been borrowed from other languages, particularly in language contact situations. The West Germanic languages Dutch, English and German have borrowed extensively from Latin and French (Romance) particularly from the 14th century onwards. For English, the largest number of words was borrowed after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Some of these loans are pronounced in the same way in all three languages (e.g. vend'etta) while others show certain differences particularly in vowel quality and stress (e.g. 'crocodile (E), kroko'dil (D), Kroko'dil (G)). We first analyse how and why identical Romance words were integrated differently in the three languages. Next, we experimentally investigate the consequences of these differences for Dutch and German second language learners of English.
Our theoretical and experimental findings will be relevant for Dutch and German learners of English and English language teachers, as well as members of the public with an interest in language. Specifically, the research is beneficial to:

A. Users of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as well as the learner dictionaries (e.g. Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary)

As language is a core part of everyday life, the data we obtain through the historical investigation will be used to enhance the information on pronunciation changes and differences in pronunciation across related languages in the Oxford English Dictionary. Currently, the OED only provides information about pronunciation in other language for inherited words such as 'weather' but not for loans such as 'crocodile'.

B. Language teachers and students

1. Secondary school teachers in the UK teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL)
2. Secondary school teachers in the UK teaching German
3. German students learning in English in Germany
4. Dutch students learning English in the Netherlands
5. Higher Education lecturers in Germany and the Netherlands teaching English

Although trained English language teachers are aware of stress differences between English and the language of their students, they do not necessarily have systematic knowledge which would allow them to generate rules and guidelines for their students, e.g. in English words with the suffix -ity the vowel directly preceding the suffix is stressed. This is certainly not knowledge which is extensively discussed either in their training nor in the commonly-used textbooks. Our research enables us to provide a systematic set of principles which will indicate structural differences and similarities between the languages. This not only applies to loans but to inherited words where differences are often caused by systematic sound change (e.g. apple (E), appel (D), Apfel (G) or mother (E), moeder (D) and Mutter (G) or egg (E), ei (D) and Ei (G)).

Knowledge of these structured principles facilitates language learning and benefits teachers and students alike. However, this information is generally presented in a specialist manner (i.e. for experienced linguists) and therefore not easily accessible to learners. Our aim is to produce a digital resource which will enhance the teaching and learning process both in the classroom and remotely, so that learners are supported by our research findings presented in a non-specialist manner.


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Description For the theoretical part, we continue to Middle Dutch (MNL), Middle High German (MHG) and Middle English (ME) 14C verses to assess the types and numbers of loans in order to examine the way in which metrical stress has changed. Even as early as the 14C, the words that are common across the three languages or in a pair of languages show that in three syllable words with two metrical feet, there is a strong tendency for the MHG and MNL words to have final syllable stress. However, given that most of the poems are iambic, we are now carefully teasing apart these occurrences in medial position rather than in final position. Thanks to Covid and family concerns relating to the pandemic, the work has been extremely slow.
For the neurolinguistics part of the project, we have made some progress. Due to pandemic restrictions, we were unable to run any particpants for psycholinguistic experiments until November 2021. We have run online experiments, but the noise in the data is considerable and we cannot address all the research questions mentioned in the grant. As for EEG experiments, we have only begun to run participants since January 2022. We are approximately one year behind. The recent EEG results show that native Germans, fluent in English, are nevertheless constrained by their own phonology.
Exploitation Route As the project states, we will be able to add the list of Romance words which have been loaned into all three languages, into the OED. Towards the end of the project, our research findings will be made available to the teaching community to assist in second language learning.
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

Description Conference presentation (short talk) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation at the AMLaP Conference 2021 (Architectures and Mechanisms for Language Processing) held online.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Online Talk for teachers of English as a Foreign Language 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This talk presented the results of our psycholinguistic experiments which were designed to determine whether differences in stress patterns of words which exist in both the first and second language cause processing difficulties for L2 learners of English. We discussed the data and assessed the contribution of these results to classroom practice and material design.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description electronic edition Marshall 29 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Dr Geert Warnar (Senior Lecturer Dutch Language and Literature, Leiden University) has read and discussed the Jan van Boendale texts in Marshall 29 with a goup of master students. Some of these students were historians, some were Dutch linguists. He also recommended the site to colleagues in Flanders. One of his students contacted us in April 2014 about the date of publication of *Van den coninc Saladijn ende van Hughen van Tabaryen* by Hein van Aken, in book IV of our manuscript. The students and lecturer were kept informed of final publication.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015,2016,2020,2021