Call for papers: The University of Edinburgh’s LEL Postgraduate Conference, 28th – 30th May 2014

Every year postgraduate linguists at the University of Edinburgh get together and run a conference. The deadline for submissions is fast approaching (15th April, 2014), but it’s only 500 words, so I’m sure you’ll be able to cobble something together. For more information, visit the website: .

Here’s the call for papers (lifted from the website):

The University of Edinburgh Linguistics and English Language Postgraduate Conference in is an annual event where postgraduates present ongoing work and discuss their research with their peers and the LEL faculty. This year’s conference will be held on 28th-30th May 2014. We will be celebrating the 20th year of the conference, and we would like to invite all students of Linguistics, English Language and related disciplines to join us for this special occasion.

The conference offers a great opportunity to refine thoughts, share concerns and receive constructive criticism in a supportive and convivial environment. Additionally, it’s a great way to gain experience in conference presentation and find out about some of the exciting things going on in LEL!

We are now accepting submissions for oral presentations and posters. The standard length of a talk will be 20 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of questions. Any papers relevant to Linguistics and English Language are welcome and submissions by both University of Edinburgh and external students are highly encouraged. Tea and coffee will be provided on all three days, and there will also be a conference dinner in the evening of the 28th May (details to follow).

To apply, please submit an abstract (maximum 500 words in .doc, .docx, .tex or .rtf format; bibliographies do not count toward the word limit) by email to, no later than 23:55 on 15th April 2014. Please indicate whether you would prefer to be considered for a talk or a poster.

New Evidence for Neanderthal Language Announced (on April 1st…)

In keeping with Sean’s previous Evolang Preview some Neanderthal&language evolution-related news:

As Andrew Lamont writes on the official LINGUIST List Blog:

The controversy over whether Neanderthals possessed a capacity for language may have been resolved. After years of speculation by evolutionary anthropologists and geneticists, a group of linguists has announced today that they have uncovered written evidence proving the Neanderthal capacity for language.


Schmaltz’ team was able to identify and translate two texts left by Neanderthals. The first, a recent discovery in Spain, is a fragment of a teenager’s diary. It reads oog.oog.oog and has been translated as ‘[Dear diary, I feel] emotionally distant. [I wish I had my own cave]’.”

Read the whole thing here.

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 19.04.19

EvoLang Preview: Detecting differences between the languages of humans and Neandertals

This year’s EvoLang is busy – around 100 talks in 4 parallel sessions and 40 posters.  Replicated Typo is hosting a series of EvoLang previews to help people decide on what to go and see.  If you’d like to post a preview of your own presentation, please get in touch with

Roberts, Dediu & Levinson.  Detecting differences between the languages of Neanderthals and modern humans.  Thursday, 17:45, session A.

Recently, Dediu & Levinson (2013) argued that, given recent genetic and archaeological evidence, the default assumption should be that Neandertals spoke modern languages (not protolanguages).  Dediu will be giving a talk on this work in the same session.  My talk will discuss whether there are methods that can test these ideas.  Is there any way to estimate what Neandertal languages were like?  It’s a  controversial topic, but could have big implications for the field.

Continue reading

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 12.37.16

Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia

It finally happened! A press release from PLOS landed in my inbox with the words “Language Evolution” in the title!

The paper’s “Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia” by Sicoli and Holton. Given that PLOS have released this as a press release, the media may well pick it up, so I’ve made a quick and easy-to-read list of details which probably won’t reach the papers:

What? Phylogenetic models applied to linguistic data to make inferences about human migration into and out of North America.
Why? Hypothesis testing/model fitting an Out-of-Beringia (to Asia) hypothesis compared to an Out-of-Central Asia (to North America) hypothesis.
Languages? North American languages and Central Siberia languages – about 40 languages (2 Yeniseian languages, 37 Na-Dene languages and Haida (isolate))
What’s the data? Binary coded 116 typological features (26 of which were excluded later for being “uninformative”). Data from Sherzer’s An areal-typological study of American Indian languages north of Mexico, the Alaska Native Language Archive and other grammars
Methods? Bayesian likelihood modelling (using Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods in MrBayes) and neighbour joining distance methods (using NeighborNet and SplitsTree4)
Results? The  Out-of-Beringia model fits better (the results section is massive, you should go and read it if you’re interested in the details). This model supports the story that there was a back-migration into Asia from Beringia, which is in contrast to recent arguments that the connections between Na-Dene languages and Yeniseian languages show that the Native Americans migrated from Central Asia.


This seems to be a reasonably solid piece of work, though I should leave it to someone else to assess the legitimacy of the statistical analysis/results. It’s nice to see also that the press release does state that: “the authors cannot conclusively determine the migration pattern just from these results, and state that this study does not necessarily contradict the popular tale of hunters entering the New World through Beringia, it at the very least indicates that migration may not have been a one-way trip.” Back-migration is rarely considered when testing hypotheses using models for serial-founder effects – and I think this must happen more than we often assume in linguistic phylogenies.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 20.26.39

The great language game: Confusing languages

This is a guest post by Hedvig Skirgård.

The Great Language Game, have you heard of it? It’s an online game where players compete in matching audio clips to the correct language. The game was created by Lars Yencken earlier this year and has become very popular. Data generated by the game can be used to map what languages the players find hardest to tell apart and support what we’ve known all along: Portuguese does sound a bit slavic!

Continue reading


Writing and speech as chicken and egg

This is a guest post by Tim Gorichanaz

Evolutionary linguistics seeks to explain the origins and evolution of spoken language, but it tends not to consider written language. Perhaps rightly so: Writing is different from speech, and trying to consider both at once might only cloud things up. Still, given that writing is a symbolic representation of human thought—just as speech is—I believe analyzing the development of written language can be helpful in fleshing out the holistic story of the evolution of language.

Continue reading


Syntax of Mind Conference

A conference on the Syntax of Mind is taking place April 17-19 in Vienna, immediately following Evolang.  Registration is free and they are accepting abstracts for talks and posters.  From the website:

This conference will provide a state-of-the-art update on this fast-moving field, and will focus on overlaps between and evolution of spoken language and music, researching employing artificial grammar learning, and comparative work in these areas with a wide range of animal species.


Happy Darwin Day!

I had hoped to celebrate Darwin day with a longer post discussing how language is often viewed as a challenging puzzle to natural selection. My main worry is that the formal design metaphor used in much of linguistics has been used, incorrectly IMHO, to divert attention away from studying language as a biological system based on organic logic. If this doesn’t make much sense, then you can do some background reading with Terrence Deacon’s paper, Language as an emergent function: Some radical neurological and evolutionary implications. Alas, that’s all I have to say on the matter for now, but if you’re looking for something related to Darwin, evolution and the origin of language, then I strongly suggest you head over to the excellent Darwin Correspondence project and read their blog post on the subject:

Darwin started thinking about the origin of language in the late 1830s. The subject formed part of his wide-ranging speculations about the transmutation of species. In his private notebooks, he reflected on the communicative powers of animals, their ability to learn new sounds and even to associate them with words. “The distinction of language in man is very great from all animals”, he wrote, “but do not overrate—animals communicate to each other” (Barrett ed. 1987, p. 542-3). Darwin observed the similarities between animal sounds and various natural cries and gestures that humans make when expressing strong emotions such as fear, surprise, or joy. He noted the physical connections between words and sounds, exhibited in words like “roar”, “crack”, and “scrape” that seemed imitative of the things signified. He drew parallels between language and music, and asked: “did our language commence with singing—is this the origin of our pleasure in music—do monkeys howl in harmony”? (Barrett ed. 1987, p. 568).


Language Games with the Museum of Parallel Art

I’ve just found a new online game called the museum of parallel art (thanks to my friend Robin). The info on the trailer reads as follows:

Visiting the virtual Museum of Parallel Art is a very special experience you’ll share with someone. You’ll express your thoughts and feelings towards art with cards, or try to view the world as your peer and guess the cards he or she has played. Comparing cards will prompt conversation and is sure to connect you two.

This game was originally made in 48 hours by Neverpants (Dom2D, technobeanie & seventysevian), featuring art both classic and new, with contributions by many amazing artists like Anthony Clark, Justin Chan, Nic ter Horst, Tom Eccles, Aliceffekt and way more! Randomly generated from a database of over 200 “paintings” and a multitude of cards, the Museum of Parallel Art is different every time you visit.

Museum of Parallel Art – Trailer from Dom2D on Vimeo.

Basically, it’s an online game where you go through a digital museum with 10 cards which you need to assign to 6 random paintings. You decide which card represents which painting the best. Then a partner does the same thing, but instead of making their own connections, they have to guess which cards the first person placed on each painting.

Why am I mentioning this on replicated typo? It seems to me that this game could potentially make a fun language game experiment  because choosing the same card to represent a painting is tantamount to deciding on a signal to represent that painting.  Researchers could potentially use this paradigm as a fun way to look at the effects of iconicity on bootstrapping communication systems, or look at how communication strategies arise over repeated instances of the game.

An article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun already hypothesised that during the second round of the game, the cards had much less transparency between the paintings they were meant to represent. Though perhaps this might just be because of the paintings being randomly generated from a set of hundreds of paintings.  It’s also interesting to think about the levels of theory of mind you need to play this game, or the effects of having a shared history with the person you are playing with.

You can download and play the museum of parallel art here:

Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween