Helen Sims-Williams

Dr Helen Sims-Williams

Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Surrey Morphology Group
BA (UCL), MPhil, DPhil (Oxford)

Academic and research departments

School of Literature and Languages.


Areas of specialism

Morphology; Historical linguistics; Greek; Computational linguistics

My qualifications

DPhil in Linguistics
University of Oxford
MPhil in Linguistics
University of Oxford
BA (Hons) in Classics
University College London


Emily Lindsay-Smith, Matthew Baerman, Sacha Beniamine, Helen Sims-Williams, Erich R. Round (2024)Analogy in Inflection, In: Annual review of linguistics10(1)

Analogy has returned to prominence in the field of inflectional morphology as a basis for new explanations of inflectional productivity. Here we review the rising profile of analogy, identifying key theoretical and methodological developments, areas of success, and priorities for future work. In morphological theory, work within so-called abstractive approaches places analogy at the center of productive processes, though significant conceptual and technical details remain to be settled. The computational modeling of inflectional analogy has a rich and diverse history, and attention is now increasingly directed to understanding inflectional systems through their internal complexity and cross-linguistic diversity. A tension exists between the prima facie promise of analogy to lead to new explanations and its relative lack of theoretical articulation. We bring this to light as we examine questions regarding inflectional defectiveness and whether analogy is reducible to grammar optimization resulting from simplicity biases in learning and language use. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Linguistics, Volume 10 is January 2024. Please see http://www.annualreviews.org/page/journal/pubdates for revised estimates.

Kenny Smith, Clem Ashton, Helen Sims-Williams (2023)The Relationship Between Frequency and Irregularity in the Evolution of Linguistic Structure: An Experimental Study eScholarship, University of California

The expressive power of natural languages depends on their regular compositional structure, which allows us to express and understand an infinite set of messages. However, a complete model of language evolution should also account for irregular exceptions to regular rules, common in natural languages. Historical linguistics has established a correlation between irregularity and frequency in language use, which has been attributed to preferential irregularisation of frequent items, or preferential regularisation of infrequent items. In an iterated learning experiment where participants learn and reproduce a miniature language across multiple generations, we show that this correlation can be explained by the relationship between frequency, regularity and learnability, without needing to appeal to frequency-dependent irregularisation. We find that systems of plural marking regularise across generations of transmission, but that high-frequency items remain irregular. Our results further show that the persistence of irregularity is due to high frequency overriding pressures which normally reduce learnability, such as low generalisability of the inflectional strategy (suppletion is disfavoured except in high frequency items) and low type frequency (belonging to a small inflectional class is disfavoured except in high frequency items).

Oliver Bond, Helen Sims-Williams, Matthew Baerman (2020)Contact and Linguistic Typology, In: Raymond Hickey (eds.), The Handbook of Language Contactpp. 129-148 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd

As an enterprise, linguistic typology is perhaps best understood in terms of the shared ideology of its practitioners. In studying contact‐induced change typologists can begin to understand which features of language are readily acquired or arise through contact. This chapter focuses on recent developments in research on language contact in relation to contemporary thought in linguistic typology. While typology in general is concerned with identifying sets of variables and developing probabilistic theories explaining their distribution, morphological typology relates these goals to the shape, properties, and distribution of morphological systems. The chapter examines some of the ways in an understanding of the diversity of morphological systems can help provide support for contact‐based explanations of linguistic variables. It presents a case study to show that the typological properties of a language may also be changed through contact that leads to loss, rather than augmentation or reorganization.

Helen Sims-Williams, Helen Griselda Seton Sims-Williams (2022)Token frequency as a determinant of morphological change, In: Journal of linguistics58(3)0022226721000438pp. 571-607 Cambridge Univ Press

This paper demonstrates that morphological change tends to involve the replacement of low frequency forms in inflectional paradigms by innovative forms based on high frequency forms, using Greek data involving the diachronic reorganisation of verbal inflection classes. A computational procedure is outlined for generating a possibility space of morphological changes which can be represented as analogical proportions, on the basis of synchronic paradigms in ancient Greek. I then show how supplementing analogical proportions with token frequency information can help to predict whether a hypothetical change actually took place in the language's subsequent development. Because of the crucial role of inflected surface forms serving as analogical bases in this model, I argue that the results support theories in which inflected forms can be stored whole in the lexicon.

Additional publications