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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Latest News

Honours students scintillate at seminar

Date Released: Fri, 30 September 2011 00:00 +0200

Four Rhodes Linguistics students dazzled the department with their research at the first of two Honours research seminars, held on Tuesday 27 October.  The presentations centred on two topics, the language of evaluation and agreement in syntax, and gave students a chance to get feedback on their work before they hand in their year-long research reports in a few weeks’ time.  Each presentation was given with great vigour and spiced with a good dose of humour, making the two-hour seminar a delight to attend.

Babongile Zulu presented her research on agony aunt and uncle columns in two magazines.  Men’s Health has a columnist dubbed “The Girl Next Door” who gives readers advice on their romantic problems, and Women’s Health has “The Guy Next Door” as her male counterpart.  Babongile compared the interpersonal language in these two columns, and found that the agony aunt gave set solutions to her male readers’ problems and was quite firm in her decisions.  Meanwhile the agony uncle preferred to give two or three solutions to a client’s problem, leaving it up to the enquirer to make her final decision.  This reflects gender stereotypes that men need straightforward, strong advice while women need a softer, less directive approach.

Tracy Royal’s presentation, entitled “The plural of ‘fish’ is… er… ‘fishes’: agreement patterning exhibited by invariable plural nouns”, examined nouns which have the same singular and plural form (like sheep and fish).  These are called invariable plural nouns.  She wanted to see what happened when these nouns were used in a sentence with a verb: would the verb take a singular form (as in The sheep walks) or a plural form (as in The sheep walk)?  She found that certain words, like aircraft, tend to take verbs in the singular form more easily, while others like sheep, antelope, deer and fish do not show a preference for either singular or plural verbs.

Jade Smith analysed letters to the editor in South Africa’s biggest-selling newspaper, the Daily Sun.  This tabloid newspaper targeted at working-class first-time newspaper readers is often ridiculed or its sensationalism and outlandish cover stories.  However, Jade’s analysis of evaluative language in the letters show that the newspaper serves the serious function of creating an ‘imagined community’ which binds together its readers in relationships of neighbourliness.  These readers and the newspaper’s editor advise each other, encouraging them to pursue shared values such as the importance of education and hard work in achieving success.

Hazel Mitchley’s research delved into the grammar of IsiXhosa and Sesotho.  Both of these languages have elaborate systems of noun classes, with each noun carrying a prefix to identify which class it belongs to.  When these nouns are used as the subject of a sentence, the verb in that sentence is also given a prefix that corresponds with the class of the noun.  Hazel wanted to find out what happened when nouns from two different classes, joined together by “and”, were used as the subject of a sentence: which noun class’s prefix would appear on the verb?  She discovered that there is a whole set of “filters” which eliminate possible noun class prefixes as options to be used on the verb.  However, the languages differ in the order in which these different “filters” are used, pointing to a difference between the grammatical rules of the two languages.

Photo: Tracy Royal, Hazel Mitchley, Jade Smith and Babongile Zulu (from left to right)

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