Thor's Technical Linguistics

All ideas expressed in Thor's Articles and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.


Note : papers directly relating to language teaching can be found in Thor's Teaching Critique & Methodology section.



16. Language Reform in Revolutionary China

Language reform movements in China over the last hundred years have found both their motivations and limitations in divergent socio-political objectives. Language has been seen as a vehicle of social change, actual or potential, by reformers  and conservatives alike. The apparent success of language reform programs has been closely tied to the fluctuating political fortunes of their protagonists. Pragmatic outcomes however have also been constrained by the fragmented nature of Chinese languages (plural) and dialects. To this day, an inconvenient reality is that a significant proportion of Chinese citizens cannot use standard Chinese (普通話), especially as spoken, while many others struggle with the standard form as a second language.


15. Aspects of Repetition in Discourse

It is often claimed that  language is a system for communicating information. In fact, language has a multiplicity of functions, but when it comes to information, that which is to be given significance is always framed by the known, hence repeated, elements. The organization of language is largely a matter of what is repeated, when, where, why, by whom, how and how often. For the purposes of this analysis, I will take a much broader view of repetition than is normally found in linguistics, considering a cline from local (often idiosyncratic) repeating clauses or phrases to stable units such as lexical items which have become formal, generalized tokens in the language. This is not a paper which proposes a neat solution to some small puzzle in a linguistic model. Rather, it outlines for further study some properties of a very general phenomenon.  


14. The Meaning of State in Grammar

“State” has rather philosophical implications. The ideas in this paper won’t solve too many puzzles about the nature of grammatical state, but it will raise a number of interesting questions, at least as the concept applies to English. This material is extracted from a larger document on Grammatical Agency, already put in the public domain (PDFs at and also ). It is offered purely on an as-is basis for those who are delving into the idea of State. The analysis constitutes part of PhD research which was discontinued in the early 1980s. The reason for extracting a study of State from the larger Grammatical Agency document is that other researchers may be approaching Grammatical State independently.


13.  When is a Presupposition not a Presupposition?

Abstract: This very short paper, in spite of its vintage (1979), may still be of interest to anyone delving into the murky relationship between language and intention. What is presupposed by a speaker about the understanding of a listener goes to the very heart of how natural languages work, since when we get it wrong communication simply fails. For this reason the failure of presupposition is also the common bane of those working across languages, or even moving into another community where the same language seems to be spoken. When I began to look at linguistics seriously, a little before this paper was written, I was intrigued and dismayed to discover that the study of presupposition had apparently been hijacked by formalists who only seemed to find linguistic significance in symbolic regularities. There are indeed whole classes of expressions in English, related to certain verbs like “realize”, which are a delight to symbolic formalists who have written volumes on their tidy logic. Even at that early stage of research, I had dark suspicions that the ways in which real human beings used real language was nowhere near as tidy, and all the more interesting for that. The paper below was a first attempt to probe the fortress of symbolic formalism.


12. Grammatical Agency

Abstract: This document on grammatical agency is the incomplete draft of a doctoral dissertation in formal linguistics which was discontinued in the early 1980s. The reason for finally publishing it in 2015 is that even though unfinished it contains a significant amount of discussion in a specialist area which might (or might not) be of interest to researchers who have some involvement with grammatical agency, a topic with a very long history. [note that this is a PDF file constructed from almost 100 old photocopied pages, and is therefore quite a large download].

11. The Probable Language Brain

Abstract: Let us suppose that you are a research linguist, tormented by some doubts and questions about the state of your profession, and not constrained by having to repeat a catechism of "known truths" to Linguistics 101 students, and not worried about employment tenure. How would you actually go about tackling "the central problem of linguistics", namely how we acquire and maintain knowledge of the probabili ty of systemic relationships in a language?

10. Language Tangle - Predicting and facilitating outcomes in language education - PhD dissertation

Doctoral dissertation in knowledge worker productivity (specifically, language teacher productivity), from the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia, 2010. The abstract of the thesis, Language Tangle, may be viewed here. The thesis itself (pdf) may be viewed here. The letter of completion (pdf file) from the University of Newcastle, formally announcing the award may be viewed here. Note: Language Tangle has now also been published in an identical commercial version, re-titled Teaching Productivity & Its Enemies.

9. Generative Oscillation Model

Abstract: The GO model proposes a co-generative view of the emergence of language. Most conventional linguistics models conceive of language as a representational system of symbols which refer to events, either mental or external to the organism. This representational function is said to motivate the linguistic system and (depending upon the linguistic model) largely control its form. The GO (Generative Oscillation) model proposed here recognizes the representational role of lan guage. However it notes that as the mental linguistic system itself becomes efficiently organized, it creates an internal logic and drive of its own. To some extent this internally motivated linguistic system is conceived to override the external motivation to represent another reality. Since the internal linguistic system is dynamic and generative, it may give rise to linguistic output which seems strange in an inter-human communicative context (or even within the reflective mind of the creator). Thus whi le the external communicative context can become a constraint on unmotivated non-representational "internal language", it might not eliminate it. The Generative Oscillation model proposes that actual language production is an oscillating compromise between the representational function of language and the mental "language bot" itself (i.e. an internal self-organizing system) which is generating language strings just because that is what language language bots do. As far as I know, the G enerative Oscillation Model, or anything like it, had not been suggested before in linguistics at the time of writing. Some conventional linguists may find it a bit "off the wall"

8. Postsupposition & Pastiche Talk 

Abstract : Natural languages are examined as members of the class of complex dynamic systems in nature. The mathematical models of Complexity Theory have shown that complex dynamic systems as diverse as cyclones, the stock market and the human genome have the properties of a) being self-organising, b) existing in a precarious state of cyclical activity which alters slightly on each cycle, and c) containing an inher ent indeterminacy. This last property, indeterminacy, is taken as a cue to develop an argument that language cannot be entirely representational, or altogether functional. It is proposed that in the generation of language there is a constant oscillation where thought sometimes gives rise to language, and alternatively, where unmotivated fragments of language force the development of post-rationalised ideas. Evidence is sought from the behaviour of formulaic phrases and apparent presuppositions  

7. Unclever Talk: Mnemonic Resonance and God Knows What

Abstract: This paper questions the sources of linguistic creativity by considering the corpus of an idiolect (that is, one individual's grammar). The objective analysis of this corpus led the researcher to speculate that the use of mental constructs, specifically language, in real time had a kind of immediate "resonance" in the brain which increased the likelihood of their repetition, either exactly or with simple grammatical modifications. The phenomenon is defined in this paper as "mnemo nic resonance". If this resonance patterning were general then it would have profound consequences for listener decoding strategies which depend heavily upon collocational predictability. At a theoretical level, mnemonic resonance would also have consequences for many existing linguistic models. 

6. Purposive Constructions in English 

Abstract : This thesis explores some of the syntactic & semantic properties of Purposive Constructions in English. The term "purposive" is recognized as a semantic concept which finds regular expression in a small range of syntactic configurations. Purpose Clauses (PCs) and Rationale Clauses (Rat.Cs) are examined in some detail. Briefer reference is made to several other configurations, notably Because Clauses, So-That Clauses and Infinitival Relatives. In general Purposive Constructions comprise rather fuzzy semantic categories. Nevertheless, the main syntactic features are fairly clear. Interpretation of the constructions requires a systematic account of the control of empty slots (ellipted NPs) by thematic elements in the matrix clause. General conditions of Government and Binding appear adequate to predict the distribution of gaps in most Purposive Clauses. However, the relationship between propositions predi cated of a common argument in these constructions is found to sometimes require matching conditions too subtle for syntax alone to predict. A concept of Thematic Coextensiveness is introduced to account for such matching.

5. Verbs of Result in the Complements of Raising Constructions 

Abstract : The analysis considers the manner in which a class of matrix verbs, the so-called raising verbs, have been fitted into some generative linguistic models. Taking as a cue the difficulty posed for these models by sentences of the kind, *Linda believes Gary to murder David, the analysis proceeds beyond existing criteria for "raising" to the notion of Relative Tense.

It is found that Relative Tense has a direct bearing on the infinitival complements permitted by raising-to-object verbs and some raising-to-subject verbs. The relevant constraints are formulated for incorporation into Bresnan's Lexical Functional Grammar as the Independent XCOMP Singularity Condition. The IXCSC may be recorded for convenience in the functional structure of LFG as a complex feature. When IXCSC carri es a positive marking the functional structure of a sentence, that sentence may only be interpreted if ASPECT (AUX) is also marked as positive.

4. Language in Suva: language use and literacy in an urban Pacific community 

Abstract : This paper is a preliminary report on a sociolinguistic field survey. It records the beliefs which 834 permanent residents of Suva, Fiji had about their own language and literacy skills in 1988-89. The interview subjects were selected from five census enumeration districts with populations ranging from 430 to 1200, and chosen for having a roughly equal ethnic composition of Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Bilingual interviewers (linguistics students) invited and assisted subjects to complete an extensive questionnaire, and offer unstructured comments. The collated and analysed outcome gives a complex and sometimes surprising picture of urban language change.

3. Language Shift and Language Maintenance - A Contrarian Viewpoint from Thor May

Abstract: This short informal paper stems from reflection on an address by Ken Hale, doyen of minority languages (and now sadly deceased). It looks at the role of linguists themselves in the dynamic of language maintenance and the twin phenomena of language loss and language birth. The uniqueness of each language is weighed against the costs and be nefits of language homogenization. It is recognized that the majority of speakers are ultimately pragmatists about language choice, yet an argument remains for offering some minority language support to groups struggling with their ethnic identity. Finally, it is asked whether language maintenance or revival can actually pose other risks under certain conditions.

2. Human Language and Machine Intelligence - a linguist's reply to Dr Koji Kobayashi

[ article in Electronics Today International, 1984] - Dr Kobayashi on behalf of a Japanese conglomerate had declared that thinking, talking machines capable of interacting in a human-like ways with people would shortly be on the market. This article examines why the claims were not credible from a linguistic and cognitive viewpoint ...

1. Banjalang* Transcript for a Language Course 1983

Middle Clarence dialect, NSW;[4Mb pdf file]. This is a rudimentary phrase book for the Australian Aboriginal language, Banjalung (*aka Bundjalung, Bunjalung, Badjalang, Banjalung & Bandjalang), constructed in co-operation with a surviving speaker and designed to encourage Banjalung language revival. It was untertaken at the request of Southern Cross University (then Northern Rivers CAE) and local community memb ers.

Other Materials

When Is It Rude To Be Rude? [also Korean language version ]
   [politeness across cultures]

Teaching Methodology & Critique 
   [a selection of papers] 

Technical English Consultancy Report
   [at Koba Tin, Indonesia, 1996]

Samples of ESL Teaching Materials 

writing & photography on this site is
   copyrighted © Thorold (Thor) May 2013
   all rights reserved,  



 ©Thor May 2013  All rights reserved