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ULAB Undergraduate Essay Competition 2021

Results for the 2021 Essay Competition have now been announced. Congratulations to Andrew (winner) and our three runners-up! The winning essay is now readable in the 8th Issue of U-Lingua, our quarterly magazine.


Thanks to all those who submitted essays... and huge congratulations to the winner and the three runners-up!


Andrew Tobin, University of Edinburgh

Title: 'Iconicity as an Explanation for Linguistic Universals' (In Issue 8 of U-Lingua, pp. 52-55. Accessible from here)


Adam Heron, University of Glasgow

Sylvia Shi, University of Cambridge

Veatriki Michailidi, Northumbria University

We are inviting undergraduate students to write us an essay in response to one of the three questions below. Essays should be 2500 words long (+/- 10%), and referenced using a referencing style of your choice. For each of the questions, we have provided a list of recommended reading to help you get started - if you are unable to find any of the sources online, please contact us (via social media or email) and we will help as best as we can. These references are, of course, just a starting point; you are welcome to bring in other sources!

Essays will be marked in accordance with criteria established internally to ULAB, but the best submissions will take a novel approach to a question, will think creatively to pose original challenges to existing literature, and, most importantly, will be exciting to read! We look forward to reading your entries - good luck!


Please send your essay in PDF format to [email protected] by 23:59 GMT on Thursday 13th January 2022. Submitted files should be fully anonymised — please ensure that neither your name nor any other personal information is visible in the document. (Edit 08/12/21: the deadline has been pushed forward a month from 13th December to 13th January)


All undergraduate students across all disciplines and countries are welcome to submit! This includes people who will be starting an undergraduate degree in September, as well as those who have graduated from an undergraduate degree in 2021. If you are a member of a ULAB Subcommittee, please contact your Subcommittee Chair to check your eligibility.


The winner of this year’s essay competition will receive £50 in prize money, a free ticket to ULAB’s 2022 conference, and the opportunity to work with the U-Lingua team to perfect their article and publish it in a future issue. There will also be monetary prizes for runners up.


Question 1: Questioning Grammaticality 

The concept of grammaticality is one that does not have a precise definition, and a sentence may be differentially grammatical across multiple dialects of the same language family. As new coinages come into the lexicon, more novel sentences get generated by speakers, and more languages come into contact, more data is available to be analysed for grammaticality.

Write an essay addressing any of the following issues:
  • What is grammaticality and is it reducible to anything else? 
  • If grammaticality can be dialect-specific, why can it not be idiolect-specific, and does this make the concept itself redundant? 
  • Will increased language use and contact trend towards all sentences being grammatical?

Recommended Reading

  • Bybee, J. (2006). From Usage to Grammar: The Mind's Response to Repetition. Language, 82(4), 711-733.
  • Bybee, J. (2010). Language, use, and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (see Chapters 1 and 7 specifically)
  • Devitt, D. (2006) Ignorance of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (see Chapters 2 and 7 specifically).
  • Featherston, S. (2007) Data in Generative Grammar: the Stick and the Carrot. Theoretical Linguistics, 33(3), 269-318.
  • Langacker, R. W. (2008). Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (see Chapter 8)
  • Newmeyer, F. J. (2003). Grammar is Grammar and Usage is Usage. Language, 79 (4), 682-707.
  • Newmeyer, F. J. (2007) Commentary on Sam Featherston, ‘Data in Generative Grammar: The Stick and the Carrot’. Theoretical Linguistics, 33(3), 395-399.
  • Schütze, C. T. (2016) The empirical base of linguistics: Grammaticality judgments and linguistic methodology. Berlin: Language Science Press. (see Chapter 2 specifically).
  • Zanuttini, R. (2007) Data and Grammar: Means and Individuals. Theoretical Linguistics, 33(3), 335-352.

Question 2: Linguistic Universals

Languages differ in many ways, including in their word order, sound inventories, lexicons and morphological processes. However, languages are similar in many ways too, and a number of linguistic universals exist. Linguistic universals can be absolute (all languages sharing a property or pattern of properties) or statistical (the vast majority of languages sharing a property or pattern of properties). 

Making sure to address both absolute and statistical universals, write an essay exploring the possible reasons that linguistic universals arise.

Recommended Reading 

Note: this list predominantly focuses on word-order universals, but you are welcome to discuss other kinds of linguistic universals in addition to or instead of these.
  • Culbertson, J., & Kirby, S. (2016). Simplicity and Specificity in Language: Domain-General Biases Have Domain-Specific Effects. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.
  • Chomsky, N. (1995). The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  • Hawkins, J. (1990). A Parsing Theory of Word Order Universals. Linguistic Inquiry, 223-261.
  • Griffiths, T. L., & Kalish, M. L. (2007). Language Evolution by Iterated Learning With Bayesian Agents. Cognitive Science, 31(3), 441–480. https://doi.org/10.1080/15326900701326576
  • Culbertson, J., Franck, J., Braquet, G., Barrera Navarro, M., & Arnon, I. (2020). A learning bias for word order harmony: Evidence from speakers of nonharmonic languages. Cognition, 104392.
  • Schouwstra, M., & de Swart, H. (2014). The semantic origins of word order. Cognition, 131(3), 431–436.
  • Culbertson, J., Schouwstra, M., & Kirby, S. (2020). From the world to word order: deriving biases in noun phrase order from statistical properties of the world. Language (Baltimore), 96(3), 696–717. 

Recommended Resource 

World Atlas of Linguistic Structures https://wals.info/ 
  • The maps, which you can see in the ‘features’ section, are good for getting a rough idea of the geographical distribution of certain features in languages of the world. 
  • For an example of a statistical word-order universal, see chapter 95 / map 95A.

Question 3: Critical Discourse Analysis in Society 

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is a multidisciplinary methodology that allows researchers to explore and uncover ideologies and examine how they affect language use. They do this by denaturalising ideologies that are often hidden and assumed to be ‘common sense’. As Gomez-Jimenez (2018, p. 101) explains, ‘CDA addresses social problems and so it can clarify our understanding of forms of social inequality’. 

Discuss the value of critical discourse analysis in the context of one of the following topics (or an intersection of multiple):
  • Environment (ecolinguistics)
  • Gender & sexuality (feminist & queer linguistics)
  • Disability
  • Race, ethnicity & nationality
  • Religion
  • Social class

Gomez-Jimenez, E. M. (2018) ‘’An insufferable burden on businesses?’ On changing attitudes to maternity leave and economic-related issues in the Times and Daily Mail’. Discourse, Context and Media, 26, 100-107.

Recommended Reading

This reading list includes a number of reference books and some open access papers about each topic, as well as some general reference sources about discourse analysis and CDA.

General (critical) discourse analysis:
  • Bloor, M. & Bloor, T. (2013) The Practice of Critical Discourse Analysis: An Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge 
  • Fairclough, N. (2001) Language and Power (2nd ed.). Harlow: Pearson Education
  • Johnstone, B. (2018) Discourse Analysis (3rd ed.). Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons
  • Jones, P. E. (2007). Why there is no such thing as “critical discourse analysis”. Language & Communication, 27(4), 337-368.
  • Mooney, A. & Evans, B. (2015) Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge
  • Strauss, S. & Feiz, P. (2014) Discourse Analysis: Putting Our Worlds into Words. Abingdon: Routledge 

  • Chen, S. (2016). Language and Ecology: A Content Analysis of Ecolinguistics as an Emerging Research Field. Ampersand, 3(1), 108-116.
  • Farsiu, S. (2021). An ecolinguistic perspective on Assyrian-Iranian migrants’ portrayal of emotions toward their linguistic resources. Language Sciences, 83, 101331.
  • Fill, A.F. and Penz, H. (Eds.). (2017). The Routledge Handbook of Ecolinguistics. Routledge.
  • Stibbe, A. (2014) An Ecolinguustic Approach to Critical Discourse Studies. Critical Discourse Studies, 11(1), 117-128

Gender & Sexuality:
  • Angouri, J. and Baxter, J. (Eds.). (2021). The Routledge Handbook of Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Baker, P. and Levon, E. (2015). Picking the right cherries? A comparison of corpus-based and qualitative analyses of news articles about masculinity. Discourse & Communication, 9(2), 221-236.
  • Carter, C., Steiner, L., & Allan, S. (Eds.). (2019). Journalism, Gender and Power (1st ed.). Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Heritage, F. & Baker, P. (2021) Crime or culture? Representations of Chemsex in the British Press and Magazines Aimed at GBTQ+ Men, Critical Discourse Studies, 1-19.
  • Jones, L. (2019). Discourses of transnormativity in vloggers’ identity construction. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2019(256), 85-101.
  • Litosseliti, L. (2006). Gender and Language: Theory and Practice. London: Hodder
  • Mills, S. & Mullany, L. (2011) Language, Gender and Feminism: Theory, methodology and practice. Abingdon: Routledge

  • Cavar, S. and Baril, A. (2021). Blogging to Counter Epistemic Injustice: Trans disabled digital micro-resistance. Disability Studies Quarterly, 41(2).
  • Grue, J. (2011). Discourse analysis and disability: Some topics and issues. Discourse & Society, 22(5), 532-546.
  • Shuttleworth, R., & Mona, L.R. (2020). The Routledge Handbook of Disability and Sexuality (1st ed.). Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Sudajit-apa, M. (2017). A critical metaphor analysis of disability identity and ideology in the Thai undergraduates’ home for children with disabilities website project. Advances in Language and Literary Studies, 8(5), 79-88.

Race, ethnicity & nationality:
  • Briscoe, F. M. & Khalifa, M. A. (2015) ‘That racism thing’: a critical race discourse analysis of a conflict over the proposed closure of a black high school, Race Ethnicity and Education, 18(6), 739-763,
  • Khan, M. H., Qazalbash, F., Adnan, H. M., Yaqin, L. N. and Khuhro, R. A. (2021). Trump and Muslims: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Islamophobic Rhetoric in Donald Trump’s Selected Tweets. SAGE Open, 11(1).
  • Williams, A. (2020). Black Memes Matter: #LivingWhileBlack With Becky and Karen. Social Media + Society, 6(4), 2056305120981047.

  • Degani, P. & Ghanem, C. (2019). How Does the European Union Talk about Migrant Women and Religion? A Critical Discourse Analysis of the Agenda on Migration of the European Union and the Case Study of Nigerian Women. Religions, 10(1), 27.
  • Khan, M. H., Qazalbash, F., Adnan, H. M., Yaqin, L.N. and Khuhro, R.A. (2021). Trump and Muslims: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Islamophobic Rhetoric in Donald Trump’s Selected Tweets. SAGE Open, 11(1).
  • Pihlaja, S. (2018). Religious talk online: The evangelical discourse of Muslims, Christians, and Atheists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Social class: 
  • Abalo, E. & Jacobsson, D. (2021). Class struggle in the era of post-politics: Representing the Swedish port conflict in the news media. Nordicom Review, 42.
  • Block, D. (2013) Social Class in Applied Linguistics. Abingdon: Routledge
  • Paterson, L. L., Coffey-Glover, L. & Peplow, D. (2016). Negotiating stance within discourses of class: Reactions to Benefits Street. Discourse & Society, 27(2), 195-214.