School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics

Staff Profile

Professor Maggie Tallerman

Professor of Linguistics



  • 1987 Ph.D., University of Hull, "Mutation and the syntactic structure of Modern Colloquial Welsh". Supervisor: Nigel B. Vincent (Professor, University of Manchester). External examiner: Professor R.D. Borsley, University of Essex.
  • 1979 B.A. (Hons.) Linguistics, University of Hull.

Previous Positions

  • Department of Linguistics, University of Durham, 1983-2004 (as Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Reader)


  • EVOLANG - The International Conferences on the Evolution of Language:

  • Linguistics Association of Great Britain
  • Linguistic Society of America
  • Philological Society

Google scholar: Click here.


Research Interests

Celtic linguistics, language origins and evolution -- aka evolutionary linguistics, language typology, morphology, morphosyntax.

Particular Interests include:

  • Brythonic Celtic: The syntax, morphosyntax and morphology of Welsh (Modern and Middle Welsh) and Breton. Morphosyntax of functional elements, syntax of Soft Mutation, and syntax of infinitival clauses.
  • Language Evolution: The origins, evolution and development of syntax and morphology. The evolution of Language from protolanguage. The evolution of the mental lexicon.

Current Work

Together with Kathleen Gibson, I am editor of The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution, published by Oxford University Press in 2012. Here, sixty leading scholars present critical accounts of every aspect of the field. The volume's five parts are devoted to insights from comparative animal behaviour; the biology of language evolution (anatomy, genetics, and neurology); the prehistory of language (when and why did language evolve?); the development of a linguistic species; and language creation, transmission, and change. More details:

My most recent paper in evolutionary linguistics is published in Journal of Neurolinguistics (SI on Language Evolution: On the origin of lexical and syntactic structure) and is titled "Can the integration hypothesis account for language evolution?". Here I argue against the idea that two primitive systems, both occurring in animal communication, were integrated abruptly in our recent ancestors to form language as we know it. I defend a gradualist account of language evolution.  DOI: 10.1016/j.jneuroling.2016.06.006

I have also argued against the idea that narrow syntax arose recently and suddenly ("No syntax saltation in language evolution" Language Sciences vol. 46). This paper also critiques the idea that externalization - using language for communication - was secondary to the use of language purely for internal thought. The arguments draw on evidence from the lexicon and from syntactic displacement.

Other recent work in evolutionary linguistics includes papers on the origins of the lexicon and various critiques of the idea of holistic and musical protolanguage. I have argued in a series of papers in favour of a lexical protolanguage, a pre-language system putatively used by our ancestors over half a million years ago. Another recent paper ("Kin selection, pedagogy and linguistic complexity: whence protolanguage?" 2013) considers proposals that kin selection is an important driving force behind the evolution of language, and argues that in fact, this cannot be a major selection pressure.

On the Celtic side of my work, along with Bob Borsley (Essex) and David Willis (Cambridge), I published The Syntax of Welsh (Cambridge University Press) in 2007. I have published over many years accounts of Welsh syntactic soft mutation, arguing in favour of the XP Trigger Hypothesis. The most recent account is a paper in Journal of Linguistics, which compares a phrase-based account of syntactic soft mutation with a dependency account.

I am involved in The Syntactic Atlas of Welsh Dialects. This project is run by David Willis (Cambridge), with myself and Bob Borsley (Essex), and aims to establish the extent of variation in the syntax of present-day Welsh, including age-related variation and variation due to linguistic background, as well as geogrpahical variation. Specifically, its aims are:

  • to establish the distribution of major syntactic variants in Welsh using a systematic methodology
  • to establish patterns of change via age-related variation
  • to examine the effects of language revitalisation on the syntax of Welsh
  • to provide material for further analysis of Welsh syntax in any framework
  • to provide a repository of material available for researchers and the general public interested in any kind of variation within the Welsh language as spoken today

The 4th edition of my textbook with Routledge, Understanding Syntax, was published in 2015.

Postgraduate Supervision

I welcome applications from suitably qualified students who are interested in postgraduate work in the following fields:

  • Evolutionary linguistics: the origins and evolution of syntax and morphology; the evolution of the mental lexicon; selection pressures in language evolution.
  • the syntax and morphosyntax of Brythonic Celtic (Welsh in particular)

I would also be interested in supervising dissertations on any aspect of cross-linguistic syntax or morphosyntax, particularly within a typological or Principles-and-Parameters framework, and any other aspects of language evolution.



I teach the following modules:

SEL3005     Language origins and evolution

SEL8003     Evolutionary Linguistics

SEL1028     Building Blocks of Language: Morphology strand

SEL2084     The Syntax of the World’s Languages

SEL8029     Introduction to Cross-linguistic Syntax