Suggested Topics For Research Papers In Linguistics

Applicants are encouraged to develop their own ideas for Honours topics. But below we also list some topic areas and suggestions by each staff member which they would be interested to supervise. If you are interested in any of the topic areas listed here please contact the potential supervisor for a chat about how to develop a specific topic.

Julie Bradshaw

Topics in sociolinguistics, bilingualism, second language acquisition and community language maintenance. This might include topics such as:

  1. Linguistic diversity in a small country town.
  2. Issues around education and community relations in immigrant community with diglossia, or a range of different dialects.
  3. The language needs of refugees.
  4. Adolescents and language change, the influence of American dialects, music etc.
  5. Narrative style in friendship groups (esp. reported speech), possibly related to gender.
  6. Gender and identity issues in second language acquisition.
  7. Identity and the naming of the “other” (i.e. not people like us)
  8. Ethnic speech style, ingroup language, among 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants.

Kate Burridge

Topics in grammatical change in Germanic languages; sociolinguistic and linguistic aspects of Pennsylvania German; the notion of linguistic taboo (euphemism, dysphemism or “bad” language); slang and jargon; the structure and history of English; popular views on language and linguistic purism. Below are some suggestions to give you an idea of the many sorts of areas that would make for a viable honours thesis; some have already been done, but there remain plenty of variations on these topics:

Changes in Australian English

  1. Sound changeEnglish is currently losing the unstressed vowel (or schwa) [?] when it occurs in the middle of words. For example, most speakers would pronounce every as [?vri] not [?v?ri]. But sound change is gradual and [?] doesn’t disappear across the board. For example, some people might pronounce delivery as [d?livri]; others as [d?liv?ri]. The progress of this change through the lexicon and through the speech community would make an interesting topic for investigation.
  2. Sound changeAnother fine example of sneaky diffusion is “yod-dropping”. English speakers have been losing [j] (in words such as blue, lewd, rule) since the 17th century, but the change is gradual and also different in the different dialects. Where most variation occurs currently is in words like dew, new, tune, suit, enthusiasm. This would be interesting to investigate — also the fact that yod-dropping is competing with palatalization’ e.g. [tjun] versus [t?un]; [?sjum] versus [??um]. (Interesting here are current spelling pronunciations that are seeing the return of pronunciations such as issue [?sju]
  3. Sound changeThere are a number of other sound changes currently happening that would also make nice studies; e.g. (1) The vocalization of /l/ (e.g. milk [m?uk], pickle [p?ku], pill [p?u]); (2) the widespread weakening of stops (e.g. flapped, glottalized, fricated [ts]); (3) merging of the [?] and [æ] vowels before laterals; (4) palatalization of [Cr] clusters as in tree and street.
  4. Change in stress patternsAlso changing stress patterns would be a fascinating little study. Linguists like Laurie Bauer have observed that stress seems to be moving in the direction of the anti-penultimate syllable. But it’s a very complex change and would warrant some investigation.
  5. Lexical changeFor people interested in lexical change — a doable study would be to look at recent lexical additions and see what are the most usual word formation processes used. Past studies have always identified affixation as way out front, but new words that have been flooding into the language recently suggest this may be no longer the case. There has for example been a marked rise in blends — how do these differ from earlier blended forms such as motel and brunch?
  6. Spelling reformI think questions to do with spelling reform would make for some fascinating topics — What should we reform? How? Recent reforms that have taken place elsewhere? Attitudes towards reforms?
  7. Grammatical changeOne of the many puzzling aspects of English grammar is the business of collective nouns and what to do with agreement — the government are in a tricky position or the public are united on this versus the government is in a tricky position and the public is united on this? American and British usage is divided here. British speakers are much more likely to go for the plural option. Americans go more for the singular option. What do Australian speakers do? Where is the language heading or is the variation semantically determined?
  8. Grammatical changeABC listener, Arthur of Evatt, posed an interesting question of current English usage that concerns sentences such as There is still grave fears. Certainly traditional grammar would argue that the phrase grave fears is the subject. It’s plural and therefore the verb should also be plural; in other words, there are grave fears is the correct version. So why do speakers appear to be violating a fundamental rule of English grammar? Why are they saying, and indeed also writing, things like there is still grave fears? “Language will change, and has to change. […]”, Arthur of Evatt writes, “It’s not the change but the “Why” of the change that I cannot always fathom”. This is a change underway that could be investigated, especially with respect to how it fits in with changes that have already taken place to word order patterns in English.
  9. Grammatical changeTypical adjectives are gradable and take part in a three-term system — something is tasty, tastier or tastiest. Not all adjectives take these endings and the group is becoming smaller. More sneaky diffusion — a change that could be investigated easily by examining written material and devising a questionnaire. Also it should be looked at within the wider picture of changes that have been taking place in English over the past thousand years — the unrelenting erosion of inflections and their replacement with free-standing forms.The matter of possessive marking could also be investigated in the same way — ‘the cover of the book’ versus ‘the book’s cover’.
  10. 10. Using a corpus to track changing lexical/grammatical features of Australian EnglishThere are corpora available now that offer all sorts of new possibilities for the exploration of forms and structures of Australian English; e.g. the Monash Corpus of Melbourne English and COOEE (Clemens Fritz’ COrpus of Oz Early English), both sub-corpora of the National Australian Corpus.
  11. Euphemism and language changeThe contribution of euphemism and taboo to language change — not just in English, but across languages.Topics that are subject to linguistic taboos and how these have changed over time.
  12. Popular perceptions of language / linguistic prescriptionThere are many interesting areas that could be explored here; e.g. is David Crystal correct — (1) as institutionalized prescriptivism comes to an end, are speakers becoming more tolerant of the language of others; (2) how do we explain the runaway success of the number one British Bestseller’, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

Alice Gaby

Topics concerning Australian Aboriginal languages, linguistic typology and the relationship between language, culture and cognition. These may include:

  1. Time and spaceHow do people around the world talk about time? What kinds of metaphors do they invoke? Speakers of English and other well-described languages primarily draw on spatial metaphors (saying that the past is behind us, or looking forward to the weeks ahead), but there is evidence that this is not universal. Honours projects relating to this topic might focus on:
    1. the description of time in existing corpora for endangered languages;
    2. the description of time in existing Kriol or Aboriginal English corpora;
    3. the description of spatial relationships in Kriol and/or Aboriginal English;
    4. designing and conducting experimental tasks that explore how people (probably English-speakers) conceptualize time and whether or not this is influenced by their physical environment.
  2. Morphological typologyMany languages use verbal affixes to add or subtract an argument (e.g. adding a causative suffix to the verb eat to create feed, or a passive suffix to eat to create be.eaten). Some languages, however, appear to have affixes that fix verbal valence to a particular number of arguments.
  3. Perfect particles in Kuuk Thaayorre, Kugu Nganhcara and Wik MungkanThe above Australian languages possess a number of cognate particles and verbal inflections which encode aspectual categories. The puzzle is to work out exactly what these particles and verb suffixes mean individually, how they may be combined, as well as their etymology. Honours projects could concentrate on the semantics of polysemy, the grammar of how aspect is encoded constructionally (across both verb and particles), or the diachronic picture of how these forms diverged and grammaticalized.
  4. Emotion and the bodyHow do various speech communities describe emotions? Do metaphors of emotion (in particular, where they are manifested in the body) correlate with beliefs about physical and mental illness?

Howie Manns

Topics in sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, languages and cultures in contact, language and identity, interactional sociolinguistics, second language acquisition, language in the mass media, youth language and Indonesian languages and cultures.

  • You could examine the influence of globalisation on the linguistic practices of communities like young people, religious groups, mass media personalities, migrants or those engaged with the tourist trade. For example, you might explore language use by these groups in computer-mediated communication.
  • The use of language as a style in conjunction with other styles (e.g. clothing) to construct identity(-ies).
  • The ways in which individual speakers vary their language from context-to-context to accomplish goals. For instance, you might compare the language use of public figures (e.g. politicians, celebrities) in formal press conferences to their language use in more casual, less scripted interactions.
  • The use of specific language styles (e.g. discourse markers, lexical items) to accomplish varied goals. For instance, ‘look’ is often used as a discourse marker in Australia. You might examine when and why speakers use this discourse marker.
  • The sociolinguistic situation in Indonesia is in flux. You might focus on a particular social group and explore how this group uses language in light of this flux.
  • You could examine how mass media outlets ‘design’ language for their audiences.
  • Different cultures accomplish the same speech act (e.g. requesting permission, expressing gratitude) in different ways. You could select a speech act and examine this act with regard to cross-cultural or intercultural communication.

Anna Margetts

1.   Topics in Austronesian linguistics. For example:

  • Issues in morpho-syntax
  • Issues in discourse structure
  • Deixis and demonstratives, & speech accompanying gestures (see e.g. Cleary-Kemp 2006, Dawuda 2009)
  • Expression of events with three-participants (Margetts & Austin 2007)

Analysing aspects of Lau, an Oceanic language of the Solomon Islands, on the basis of an existing small database of transcribed spoken language. E.g.:

  • Deixis and demonstratives and/or specificity and definiteness in Lau (see e.g. Cleary-Kemp 2006)
  • Adjectives  in Lau (see e.g. Dixon 1982, Lichtenberk 2005)
  • Writing a sketch grammar of the language based on the text data
  • A topic of your choice to be investigated on the Lau database

2.  The structure of discourse. E.g.

  • The marking of narrative peaks (Longacre 1980:25) in a language of your choice
  • Narrative peaks in children’s narratives
  • The notion of ‘narrative’ in structural linguistics vs. socio-linguistics
  • Structural differences across different text types

3.   Topics based on your own experimental data collected with visual stimuli (pictures or video) e.g. from the MPI for Psycholinguistics (, see e.g. the 2001 manual)

Topics in this domain could be to look at different groups of speakers and compare their responses to the stimuli and/or compare them to the findings discussed in the literature. E.g.

  • Speakers of different languages
  • Native speakers vs. second language learners
  • Bilinguals vs. monolinguals

4.   Topics in child language acquisition, working with the CHILDES database. (, see e.g. Berman & Slobin 1994). E.g.

  • Narrative peaks (Longacre 1980:25) in children’s narratives

Berman, R. A. and D. I. Slobin (1994). Relating events in narrative: A crosslinguistic de­velopmental study. Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Cleary-Kemp, J. (2006). Givenness, definiteness, and specificity in a language without articles: The use of NP markers in Saliba, an Oceanic language of Papua New Guinea. Linguistics Program, School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics. Melbourne, Monash University167.
Dawuda, Carmen, (2009), Discourse functions of demonstratives and place adverbs with exophoric reference in Logea, an Oceanic language of Papua New Guinea. PhD Thesis, Monash University.
Dixon, R. M. W. (1982). Where have all the adjectives gone? and other essays in semantics and syntax. Berlin, New York, Amsterdam, Mouton Publishers.
Lichtenberk, F. (2005). “On the notion of “adjective” in Toqabaqita.” Oceanic Linguistics44(1): 113-144.
Longacre, Robert (1980) The grammar of discourse. New York and London: Plenum Press.
Margetts, A. and P. K. Austin (2007). “Three-participant events in the languages of the world: towards a cross-linguistic typology.” Linguistics 45(3): 393-452.

Simon Musgrave

  1. Non-Oceanic Austronesian languages – topics on Austronesian languages of Indonesia (especially Maluku), particularly syntactic topics but also including morphology, historical linguistics and language contact.
  2. Using computers in historical linguistics – topics in comparative linguistics using computational techniques such as tree-drawing algorithms and probabilistic models (possible co-supervision with Assoc Prof David Dowe, Computer Science).
  3. Communication in medical settings – topics in applying discourse analysis to communication between doctors and patients, especially issues of intercultural communication. Note that any topic of this nature would depend on using existing data due to the difficulty of obtaining ethics clearance in this area. (possible co-supervision with Dr Marisa Cordella, Spanish and Latin American Studies)
  4. Technology and language data – topics on the application of digital technology to the collection, processing, storage and presentation of language data.

Louisa Willoughby

Topics in sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, language policy, language maintenance and shift, language and identity and deaf studies. I am also a Germanist and happy to supervise topics in Germanic Linguistics. Possible thesis topics include:

  1. Linguistic practices in specific communities (e.g. a friendship group, an online gaming community, the gay/lesbian community, a religious congregation)
  2. The development and implementation of language policy within an organisation
  3. Discourse analysis of media texts (e.g. how language is used to label an portray a specific group in society, such as refugees or young people)
  4. Second language learning/ use outside the language classroom (e.g. study abroad, heritage language maintenance, online)
  5. Description of features of tactile Auslan (sign language used by Deafblind people)

ENG367Y: Some starting points for research papers.


Your first research paper is due on January 15th (note extension of deadline by a week) (in class or by 6 p.m. at the Wetmore Hall porter, New College). Your paper should be about 3,000 words in length (12 250-word pages). Please identify yourself only by your student number and by an appropriate and appealing title.

Here are some suggestions for subjects: you’ll need to focus them into topics and to find sources, and I’ll be happy to help you do this (though not at the last minute). You must choose a subject from this list, or submit a 500-word proposal and bibliography (not by email) to me by Tuesday, December 11th for my written approval.

I am looking for

(1)     resourceful collection and selection of appropriate primary source material (historical texts (newspaper extracts, grammar book prefaces, code-switching poetry, dictionary data, etc.),

(2)     your synthesis of patterns in your data,

(3)     your ability to interpret/draw conclusions from these patterns your data,

(4)     if relevant to the topic, your ability to contextualize your findings in a critical consideration of appropriate secondary sources (books and articles).

Finding articles: choose Linguistics & Language Behavior at


PLAGIARISM. It is an academic offence "to represent as one's own and idea or expression of an idea or work of another in any academic ... work" (Faculty of Arts and Science Calendar). If I encounter plagiarism I must report it to my department chair, who must report it to the Dean. The U of T Writing Home Page has invaluable advice on “How Not To Plagiarize”. Please consult me at any time if you remain in any doubt about if and/or how to acknowledge the assistance of others.


1.       Describe and interpret evidence for the competition between English and at least one other language (French, Latin) as international languages in and after the seventeenth century. Focus on particular contexts – education, diplomacy, science papers, natural history terminology (focus: botany?), etc.

2.       Is English really a “neutral” language in multilingual countries? Do a comparative and historical study of the functions of English in 2 or 3 countries (e.g. India, Malaysia).

3.       Do a broad comparative study of the relationship between standard and regional/non-standard varieties of English in two different countries (e.g. India, Jamaica, Scotland). Pay attention to specific registers: education, newspapers, etc.

4.       Do a comparative study of the literary use of two different non-standard varieties of English (e.g. one or two English creoles, Indian English, Scots English). You may wish to focus on two comparable poets.

5.       Write a history of the poetic use of one non-standard variety of English (e.g., Jamaican Creole; Scots; Indian English).

6.       Do a close analysis of the functions of different varieties of English in the poetic corpus of one author. You might consider Kamau Brathwaite, Robert Burns; Robert Fergusson; Louise Bernice Halfe; Langston Hughes.

7.       Explore how and why one literary author before 1900 reflects and/or rejects and/or exploits the linguistic resources available to her/him. You might consider Shakespeare, Milton, Fergusson, Wordsworth, Dickens, (Edward) Lear, Hopkins, Hardy, Tennyson …

8.       “African American Vernacular”, “Ebonics”, “Black English” are some of many different terms that have been used to denote the same variety. Write a history of this semantic field, interpreting the implications and motivations for the use of each term.

9.       Write an essay on the transmission of poetry in the early modern period in manuscript rather than in print. What are the differences between “manuscript” and “print” and what literary and cultural issues are raised by these differences? Focus on a particular poet (i.e. John Donne, Anne Finch) or coterie.

10.   Write an essay on the functions of typeface/font since 1500. You’ll have to use facsimiles or real rare books for this one! You may focus on (e.g.) italic font.

11.   Write an essay that describes and analyzes changes in biblical translation from 1611 until the present day. Pick a passage and compare and contrast at least 5 different translations of it. You can get your data from literature online (

12.   British and American Anglicans have updated the Book of Common Prayer. Comparing one of the modern versions with the original (or the 1662, if it’s easier to find), describe and interpret some of the changes.

13.   Write an essay that describes and interprets the use of the second-person singular pronoun (thou, thee) in eighteenth-century literature. (You’ll need to focus this further!) You can get your data from literature online (

14.   Write an essay that describes and interprets the historical and regional distribution of postvocalic /r/ since 1700. You might relate this history to a consideration of variation within a specific geographic region (i.e. the east coast of the US).

15.   Can I go to the bathroom?” “Yes, you may.” “It may rain.” “Yes, it might.” Write an essay that accounts for and interprets such variation in the use of modal verbs.

16.   Is there any connection between the loss of the subjunctive mood in the history of English, and the change modals underwent from real verbs to uninflected auxiliaries?

17.   Write a history of the suffix –ess or the suffix –ist in English.

18.   Identify, interrelate, and interpret denotations, connotations, collocations and associations of a word (and related words) of social/cultural interest in the early modern period. How does your “word study” illuminate scholarly debates about the concepts denoted by your word? E.g. for the C18th: fiction and/or novel, public, polit*, gent*, class, liberal, honour, manly, imitation, coffee & tea, barbaric. You can get data from the OED, literature online

19.   For what it’s worth, you can get the online OED2 to spit out a list of (for instance) all the words “first attested” in a particular year. Pick a decade that you’re interested in, and interpret the data. (How) do these words reflect `reality’?! You might synthesize and interpret a lexical “snapshot” of it, or focus on and interpret a specific phenomenon (e.g., for the 1770s: the extent to which loanwords reflect cultural contact with France; botanical terminology, Linnaean classification, English vs. Latin; the relationship between imperialism and natural history terminology; Josiah Wedgwood and the marketing of china).

20.   Use the OED2’s “quotation searches” mode to generate a list of quotations from the 1770s and 1780s and 1790s containing the string slav. Describe and interpret the language used in the (anti-) slavery debates of the period.

21.   Describe and interpret patterns of lexical expansion and semantic change in an area where there has been significant change in recent centuries: household technology, social or racial attitudes, clothing fashion …

22.   Describe and analyze changes since the nineteenth or early twentieth century in the language of sports news (focus on a sport!) or of women’s magazines (zero in on descriptions of fashion?) or of advertisements in newspapers/magazines (focus further: kinds of ads). Collect 4 or 5 samples of the same topics through time from Robarts’ newspapers on microfilm.

23.   Pick a very specific register of English with which you are somewhat familiar and which has terminology particular to it. If this field has a magazine or journal devoted to it, draw your data from one issue of that journal and summarize that register’s primary strategies for augmenting its vocabulary (past and present). You might consider: sociolinguistics, computing, waste business, the stock market, military terminology, advertising, chemistry, medicine. Narrow down? sexually transmitted diseases, useful plants, military euphemisms.

24.   Compare and contrast the motives, means, and ends of two “Plain English” movements or two attempts at spelling reform. Pick comparable topics!

25.   Write a history of the marking of the possessive case (singular and plural, nouns and pronouns) since 1600, paying particular attention to the use and misuse of the apostrophe. You might want to focus on and to account for patterns in usage at particular periods in time, culminating in an explanation of methodically-collected PDE data.

26.   Describe and interpret variations in the spelling of words like hono(u)r since 1600 in British and American and Canadian English.

27.   What assumptions about language and lexicography conditioned the compilation of dictionaries at any one period (Renaissance, C18th, C19th, C20th)? [If you focus on the Renaissance, use Professor Ian Lancashire’s Early Modern English Dictionary Database!] You might compare the entries for words beginning with (for instance) ec-, or focus on dictionaries’ treatment of a particular subject (words denoting language, women, etc.).

28.   Compare and contrast the title pages and prefaces of at least four eighteenth-century grammar books: Lowth, Buchanan, Priestl(e)y, Fisher, Devis (some of these are on microfilm). Do the authors agree about why and how should English grammar be studied? How do they “market” their grammar? To what extent do the contents of the grammars reflect the emphasis in their prefaces? You may further focus the paper by considering one of these authors in more detail.

29.   Write a history of the codification of Canadian English: compare and contrast some well-selected entries from past and present dictionaries of Canadian English.

30.   A topic of your own choice. You must submit a 500-word proposal and bibliography in person (not by email) to me by Tuesday, December 11th for my written approval. I will not accept papers on topics that have not been approved.

31.   New! Identify and interpret conventions in the spelling of foreign proper names since 1600. You should focus your topic – on one non-Indo-European language, perhaps (e.g. Chinese).

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