Language Evolution at the UK Cognitive Linguistics Conference

The UK Cognitive Linguistics Conference will be hosted at the University of Birmingham next year, July 27 to 30. This interdisciplinary conference is focused on the intersection between language and cognition, and it accepts submissions from all areas of linguistics, including experimental and computational research on language evolution, language origins, iconicity, and cognitive and functional approaches to historical linguistics.
The plenary speakers for this conference include Adele Goldberg (Princeton University), Caroline Rowland (MPI Nijmegen), Mark Dingemanse (Radboud University) and Gabriella Vigliocco (University College London).

The call for papers is online, with a December 30 deadline for 500 word abstracts.

Besides submitting to the main session, the conference organizers welcome proposals for pre-conference workshops, which can be skills-based workshops lead by single researchers or teams of researchers, as well as series of talks by different researchers on specific topics.

Call for Contributions: Public Engagement in Language Evolution session

Next year at EvoLang, I’m doing a short session on public engagement in Language Evolution. As part of this, I have been given a small part of the poster session to have a little exhibition/discussion corner about public engagement initiatives. As such, I am now recruiting contributions that outline existing initiatives. Contributions will use the 2-page EvoLang template (available here: https://www.evolang.org/submissions). Contributions should outline the initiative and make clear:

  • The objective(s) for the public engagement initiative
  • Reflections on success and areas for improvement
  • Good practice to be learnt from these reflections

Contributions will be reviewed in relation to space constraints, but I hope to have a good diversity of examples. Please email contributions to hannah.little@uwe.ac.uk before January 3rd 2020. Questions to the same address.

More context of the session is below:

Public engagement has always been an important aspect of academia. Breaking the barrier between research and the public can foster knowledge, equality, trust and accountability. On a more pragmatic level, funders increasingly require impact statements and plans for public dissemination. However, language evolution as a field has unique difficulties meeting these demands.

Evolutionary linguistics is difficult to explain to those outside the field. Much research presented at EvoLang has implications for our knowledge of human origins, but the implications for current and future humans often remain unclear, creating a “relevance gap”. Further, the abstractness of research based on models (computational or experimental) and not referring to concrete artefacts, fossils or living examples, creates another barrier for explanation. Since EvoLang started, many researchers have undertaken public engagement initiatives that address this relevance gap in different ways. 

In this session, we will explore existing and future objectives for public engagement with language evolution research. We will discuss ways to frame language evolution to make it accessible to the public, and present examples of good practice, as well as lessons to be learnt, from previous and ongoing public engagement initiatives.

Initiatives will be split into 2 sections, mirroring two (non comprehensive) models for public engagement: deficit and participation (Trench, 2008).

The deficit model sees the public as having a knowledge deficit and seeks to fix that through one-way communication. Typical examples are documentaries (e.g. Through the Wormhole episode “How do Aliens Think”, Sayenga, 2013) and science journalism (e.g. Babel Magazine, Little, 2018). Discussion within the session will focus on good practice around creating relevant and intuitive explanations for concepts within language evolution.

The participation model works on the principle that all participants in a public engagement initiative can contribute, and that all have a stake in the outcome. Many public engagement initiatives in language evolution have recruited members of the public as participants in data-collection exercises at public events including festivals (e.g. Verhoef et al., 2015), science centres and museums (e.g. Cluskley, 2018; Raviv & Arnon, 2018), or as games (e.g. The Color Game, Morin et al., 2018). While involvement as an experimental participant is a contribution, it does not necessarily create a sense of having a stake in the outcome, or even understanding the outcome. Therefore one of the key aspects of the session will be discussing good practice for increasing public understanding around these initiatives.

As a result of the submissions, a collaborative review paper of initiatives and best practice for public engagement in language evolution may be produced for submission to the Journal of Language Evolution. If you’d like to contribute to this, but cannot contribute to the session, please email me on hannah.little@uwe.ac.uk

References

Cuskley, C. (2018). Alien symbols for alien language: iterated learning in a unique, novel signal space. In The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 12th International Conference (EVOLANGXII). Ed. by C. Cuskley et al. NCU Press. doi (Vol. 10, No. 12775, pp. 3991-1).

Kirby, S., Perman, T. & St John, R. (2017) Sing the Gloaming. Galloway Dark Sky Park, Scotland.

Little, H. (2018) “Babel on 5”. Babel: The Language Magazine, Issue 23. Page 42-44.

Morin, O., Winters, J., Müller, T. F., Morisseau, T., Etter, C., & Greenhill, S. J. (2018). What smartphone apps may contribute to language evolution research. Journal of Language Evolution, 3(2), 91-93.

Raviv, L., & Arnon, I. (2018). Systematicity, but not compositionality: Examining the emergence of linguistic structure in children and adults using iterated learning. Cognition, 181, 160-173.

Sayenga, K. (Producer). (2013). Through the Wormhole [Television series]. Revelations Entertainment.

Trench, B. (2008). Towards an analytical framework of science communication models. In Communicating science in social contexts (pp. 119-135). Springer, Dordrecht.

Verhoef, T., Roberts, S. G., & Dingemanse, M. (2015). Emergence of systematic iconicity: transmission, interaction and analogy.


Four positions at the School of Collective Intelligence

Recently I was fortunate enough to go out to Morocco for the launch of a brand new school of Collective Intelligence:

If the launch was anything to go by, it’s going to be a pretty awesome to place to live and work, which brings me to four exciting opportunities for potential professors in data science, social computing, developmental psychology, and cognitive science:

The University Mohammed VI Polytechnic (Ben Guerir, Morocco) is recruiting one to three professors of cognitive sciences for October 2019 (at the earliest) […]

The recruited professors will divide their time between teaching (max. 3 courses per year), basic research, and applied research, in varying proportions depending on the position. Teaching will be in English or French.

Below are links to each of the positions (.docx) with more information.

Call for Papers 7th UK Cognitive Linguistics Association Conference

The University of Birmingham and the Department of English Language and Linguisticsare proud to host the 7th UK Cognitive Linguistics Association Conference from 28 – 30 July 2020 at the University of Birmingham.

The conference welcomes contributions from all fields of cognitive linguistics, as well as from related fields more broadly concerned with language and cognition. We aim to cover a wide range of research including, but not limited to, the following topics:

  • Functional and usage-based approaches to language
  • Cognitive grammar and construction grammar
  • Cognitive/constructionist approaches to linguistic diversity and typology
  • Metaphor, metonymy, blends and other forms of figurative language
  • Cognitive semantics and frame semantics
  • Prototypes and categorization
  • Cognitive discourse analysis
  • Cognitive pragmatics
  • Cognitive semiotics
  • Cognitive approaches to historical linguistics
  • Language evolution
  • Language acquisition
  • Experimental semantics and pragmatics
  • Sign language research
  • Linguistic relativity
  • Language and space
  • Language and perception
  • Gesture and multimodality
  • Iconicity
  • Embodied cognition and situated cognition

Cognitive linguistics is by definition highly interdisciplinary, and so in addition to primarily linguistic research, we also invite language related submissions that are based on disciplines such as (cognitive and social) psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, anthropology, biology, artificial intelligence, and discourse and communication studies.

Talks will be 20 minutes plus 10 minutes for questions and discussion. There will also be a poster session.

The language of the conference is English.

Participants will be allowed to present at most one talk (as a single or first author) and one poster. However, there is no restriction on the number of co-authored papers. Upon submission, you will be asked to indicate if you intend the submission for a talk or a poster

Abstracts of no more than 500 words (excluding references) should be submitted using EasyChair. The link will be communicated in due course. 

The Call for Papers will be open from September 2019 until December 30, 2019

If you require a BSL interpreter, please get in contact with the organisers

All abstracts will be subject to double-blind peer review by an international scientific committee (and should therefore not contain author names).

More info on the website here: https://www.ukclc2020.com/

Post-doc position at the Mint lab (Max Planck for the Science of Human History)

A new post-doc position has opened up at the Minds and Traditions research group in Jena, Germany (deadline: September 10th 2019). There are two possible projects (see links for more detailed descriptions):

  • How to value cultural diversity cultural diversity (link: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/eqfd9hmekoq0nav/AABWk1LCd_xkUh4mSE-8BTKqa?dl=0&preview=MintCultDivPostodc.pdf)
  • Measuring the distinctiveness of graphic symbols (link: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/eqfd9hmekoq0nav/AABWk1LCd_xkUh4mSE-8BTKqa?dl=0&preview=MintSymbolsPostDoc.pdf)

Having been here for the past four years I can vouch that the Mint is a pretty awesome place to work at.

New positions (PhD and Postdoc) at VUB AI Lab

Bart de Boer at the VUB A.I. Lab is looking for a new PhD student to work on agent based models:

The PhD work will consist of building an agent-based simulation in which we can investigate emergence of behavior in a cognitively realistic setting. This means that the agents are not fully rational and that they show behavior similar to that of humans, and that interests of agents are not necessarily always aligned. The modeling will primarily focus on emergence of speech, but the simulation should be general enough that it can be easily adapted to other areas, such as traffic or economic interactions.

More details and how to apply here: https://ai.vub.ac.be/node/1688

He’s also recruiting a visiting post-doc:

The work should consist of agent-based simulation, or of experiments to investigate emergence of behavior in a cognitively realistic setting. This means that in a computer simulation, the agents are not fully rational and that they show behavior similar to that of humans, and that interests of agents are not necessarily always aligned. Experiments should focus on factors that are typical for human settings, but that are generally idealized away, such as altruism, conflicts of interests and other “non-rational” behaviors. We are most interested in modeling emergence of speech, but we welcome applications proposing other areas, such as traffic or economic interactions.

More details here: https://ai.vub.ac.be/node/1689

Evolution: Is sex really even sexual?

This is a guest post by Angarika Deb.

Sexual Selection theory, though much celebrated, has faced criticism since its inception. A new model now proposes sexual reproduction and reproductive social behaviour to be cooperative instead of competitive, as was initially advocated earlier by Darwin.

After the sensational theory of natural selection, Darwin outlined the theory of sexual selection in his book, The Origin of Species (Darwin, 1869) and developed it in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (Darwin, 1871). This was in an effort to explain the structural and behavioural peculiarities in animals that did not make complete sense under the light of natural selection, for example ornamented plumage, mate signalling under predation risk etc. Natural selection is dependent on a struggle for enhancing individual survival; whereas sexual selection advocates a struggle between the sexes (intersexual competition) and amongst them (intrasexual competition) for rearing maximum progeny. ‘The result is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring’, as explained by Darwin (1871). Heritable traits that are deemed detrimental to survival, were explained by sexual selection as conferring an advantage in intrasexual competition for finding mates and intersexual competition between mates to increase their own future reproductive fitness.

Continue reading “Evolution: Is sex really even sexual?”

CfP: New directions in language evolution research (Special Issue of “Language Dynamics and Change”)

A couple of months ago, Peeter Tinits, Jonas Nölle and I organized a theme session with the fairly generic title “New directions in language evolution research” at the SLE conference in Tartu. Now we are planning a Special Issue of the journal “Language Dynamics and Change” (LDC) that covers the topics addressed at the workshop (and perhaps a few more). Our goal is to emphasize the “New Directions” aspect, i.e. to gather really innovative approaches to the evolution of language. We would like to open up the CfP beyond the circle of workshop participants – so everybody interested is invited to submit an abstract, on the basis of which we will make a first selection and invite full papers. Note that if we can’t include your paper in the Special Issue, you can of course still submit it as a regular paper to LDC. If you are interested in contributing, please send an abstract to newdir.langev@gmail.com until December 15th.

Here’s the description of our theme session again:

Research on language evolution is undoubtedly among the fastest-growing topics in linguistics. This is not a coincidence: While scholars have always been interested in the origin and evolution of language, it is only now that many questions can be addressed empirically drawing on a wealth of data and a multitude of methodological approaches developed in the different disciplines that try to find answers to what has been called “the hardest problem in science” (Christiansen & Kirby 2003). Importantly, any theory of how language may have emerged requires a solid understanding of how language and other communication systems work. As such, the questions in language evolution research are manifold and interface in multiple ways with key open questions in historical and theoretical linguistics: What exactly makes human language unique compared to animal communication systems? How do cognition, communication and transmission shape grammar? Which factors can explain linguistic diversity? How and why do languages change? To what extent is thestructure of language(s) shaped by extra-linguistic, environmental factors?

Over the last 20 years or so, evolutionary linguistics has set out to find answers to these and many more questions. As, e.g., Dediu & De Boer (2016) have noted, the field of language evolution research is currently coming of age, and it has developed a rich toolkit of widely-adopted methods both for comparative research, which investigates the commonalities and differences between human language and animal communication systems, and for studying the cumulative cultural evolution of sign systems in experimental settings, including both computational and behavioral approaches (see e.g. Tallerman & Gibson 2012; Fitch 2017). In addition, large-scale typological studies have gained importance in recent research on language evolution (e.g. Evans 2010).

The goal of this workshop is to discuss innovative theoretical and methodological approaches that go beyond the current state of the art by proposing and empirically testing new hypotheses, by developing new or refining existing methods for thestudy of language evolution, and/or by reinterpreting the available evidence inthe light of innovative theoretical frameworks. In this vein, our workshop aims at bringing together researchers from multiple disciplines and theoretical backgrounds to discuss the latest developments in language evolution research. Topics include

– experimental approaches investigating the emergence and/or development of sign systems in frameworks such as experimental semiotics (e.g. Galantucci & Garrod 2010) or artificial language learning (e.g. Kirby et al. 2014);

– empirical research on non-human communication systems as well as comparative research on animal cognition with respect to its relevance for the evolution of cognitive prerequisites for fully-fledged human language (Kirby 2017);

– approaches using computational modelling and robotics (Steels 2011) in order to investigate problems like the grounding of symbol systems in non-symbolic representations (Harnad 1990), the emergence of the particular features that make human language unique (Kirby2017, Smith 2014), or the question to what extent these features are domain-specific, i.e. evolved by natural selection for a specifically linguistic function (Culbertson & Kirby 2016);

– research that explicitly combines expertise from multiple different disciplines, e.g. typology and neurolinguistics (Bickel et al. 2015); genomics, archaeology, and linguistics (Pakendorf 2014, Theofanopoulou et al. 2017); comparative biology and philosophy of language (Moore 2016); and many more.

This latter trend to cross disciplinary boundaries is also evident in the proposed workshop contributions listed below. For instance, many of them approach long-standing questions from historical-typological linguistics from an evolutionary point of view by combining analyses of large typological databases with computational modelling, focusing on the emergence of (near-)universal patterns or the much-discussed topic of a potential connection between group size andlinguistic complexity. Others draw on insights from biology to discuss how thehuman capacity for language came about. What all have in common, however, is that they combine multiple perspectives to shed new light on the question of how language evolved and continues to evolve.

References

Bickel, Balthasar, Alena Witzlack-Makarevich, Kamal K. Choudhary,Matthias Schlesewsky & Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky. 2015. TheNeurophysiology of Language Processing Shapes the Evolution of Grammar:Evidence from Case Marking. PLOS ONE 10(8). e0132819.

Christiansen, Morten H. & Simon Kirby. 2003. Language Evolution:The Hardest Problem in Science. In Morten H. Christiansen & Simon Kirby(eds.), Language Evolution, 1–15.(Oxford Studies in the Evolution of Language 3). Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress.

Culbertson, Jennifer & Simon Kirby. 2016. Simplicity andSpecificity in Language: Domain-General Biases Have Domain-Specific Effects. Frontiers in Psychology 6.doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01964.

Dediu, Dan & Bart de Boer. 2016. Language evolution needs its ownjournal. Journal of Language Evolution1(1). 1–6.

Evans, Nicholas. 2010. Language diversity as a tool for understandingcultural evolution. In Peter J. Richerson & Morten H. Christiansen (eds.),Cultural Evolution : Society, Technology, Language, and Religion, 233–268.Cambridge: MIT Press.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh. 2017. Empirical approaches to the study of languageevolution. Psychonomic Bulletin &Review 24(1). 3–33.

Galantucci, Bruno & Simon Garrod. 2010. Experimental Semiotics: Anew approach for studying the emergence and the evolution of humancommunication. Interaction Studies11(1). 1–13.

Harnad, Stevan. 1990. The symbol grounding problem. Physica D 42. 335–346.

Kirby, Simon, Tom Griffiths & Kenny Smith. 2014. Iterated Learningand the Evolution of Language. CurrentOpinion in Neurobiology 28. 108–114.

Kirby, Simon. 2017. Culture and biology in the origins of linguisticstructure. Psychonomic Bulletin &Review 24(1). 118–137.

Moore, Richard. 2016. Meaning and ostension in great ape gesturalcommunication. Animal Cognition19(1). 223–231.

Pakendorf, Brigitte. 2014. Coevolution of languages and genes. Current Opinion in Genetics &Development 29. 39–44.

Smith, Andrew D.M. 2014. Models of language evolution and change:Language evolution and change. WileyInterdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 5(3). 281–293.

Steels, Luc. 2011. Modeling the Cultural Evolution of Language. Physics of Life Reviews 8. 339–356.

Tallerman, Maggie & Kathleen R. Gibson (eds.). 2012. The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Theofanopoulou, Constantina, Simone Gastaldon, Thomas O’Rourke, Bridget D. Samuels, Angela Messner, Pedro Tiago Martins, Francesco Delogu, Saleh Alamri& Cedric Boeckx. 2017. Self-domestication in Homo sapiens: Insights fromcomparative genomics. PLOS ONE12(10). e0185306.

Why are we standing naked?

This is a guest post by Angarika Deb.

In a lineage of ancestors, humans are the only species left without a coat of body hair. Keeping in mind thermoregulation of bare skin, we speculate conditions for evolution of nakedness. Can it be coupled with bipedality?

The modifiers of evolution itself, are we Homo sapiens any closer to understanding our own emergence yet?

One of the salient features of the Mammals group is possession of body hair. Well, most of them at least. But we stand living proof against that. How, where and why did our body hair disappear and nakedness evolve? While Darwin argued that nakedness evolved for sexual ornamental purposes, Andersson[3] disagrees on the premise that, if sexual traits like a shiny plumage are indicative of good health, skin devoid of hair would convey poor health and won’t attract mates. It is important to determine the initial step of this denudation. A coat of body hair prevents too much heat reaching the body in daytime as well as shielding from cold at night. Protection from wind, wounds, bites, and UV radiation also feature in the advantages. Why then, did Homo sapiens end up losing one great layer of protection? If one believes in ‘Survival of the Fittest’, the benefits stemming from near disappearance of human body hair must surely be great enough to outweigh the costs of these protective functions. The repository of hypotheses trying to explain this step of evolution is still growing.

Continue reading “Why are we standing naked?”

Notes toward a theory of the corpus, Part 1: History

By corpus I mean a collection of texts. The texts can be of any kind, but I am interested in literature, so I’m interested in literary texts. What can we infer from a corpus of literary texts? In particular, what can we infer about history?

Well, to some extent, it depends on the corpus, no? I’m interested in an answer which is fairly general in some ways, in other ways not. The best thing to do is to pick an example and go from there.

The example I have in mind is the 3300 or so 19th century Anglophone novels that Matthew Jockers examined in Macroanalysis(2013 – so long ago, but it almost seems like yesterday). Of course, Jockers has already made plenty of inferences from that corpus. Let’s just accept them all more or less at face value. I’m after something different.

I’m thinking about the nature of historical process. Jockers’ final study, the one about influence, tells us something about that process, more than Jockers seems to realize. I think it tells us that cultural evolution is a force in human history, but I don’t intend to make that argument here. Rather, my purpose is to argue that Jockers has created evidence that can be brought to bear on that kind of assertion. The purpose of this post is to indicate why I believe that.

A direction in a 600 dimension space

In his final study Jockers produced the following figure (I’ve superimposed the arrow):

Each node in that graph represents a single novel. The image is a 2D projection of a roughly 600 dimensional space, one dimension for each of the 600 features Jockers has identified for each novel. The length of each edge is proportional to the distance between the two nodes. Jockers has eliminated all edges above a certain relatively small value (as I recall he doesn’t tell us the cut off point). Thus two nodes are connected only if they are relatively close to one another, where Jockers takes closeness to indicate that the author of the more recent novel was influenced by the author of more distant one.

Each node in that graph represents a single novel. The image is a 2D projection of a roughly 600 dimensional space, one dimension for each of the 600 features Jockers has identified for each novel. The length of each edge is proportional to the distance between the two nodes. Jockers has eliminated all edges above a certain relatively small value (as I recall he doesn’t tell us the cut off point). Thus two nodes are connected only if they are relatively close to one another, where Jockers takes closeness to indicate that the author of the more recent novel was influenced by the author of more distant one.

You may or may not find that to be a reasonable assumption, but let’s set it aside. What interests me is the fact that the novels in this are in rough temporal order, from 1800 at the left (gray) to 1900 at the right (purple). Where did that order come from? There were no dates in 600D description of each novel. As far as I can tell, that must be a product of the historical process that produced those texts. That process must therefore have a temporal direction.

I’ve spent a fair amount of effort explicitly arguing that point [1], but don’t want to reprise that argument here. For the purposes of this piece, assume that that argument is at least a reasonable one to make.

What is that direction? I don’t have a name for it, but that’s what the arrow in the image indicates. One might call it Progress, especially with Hegel looking over your shoulder. And I admit to a bias in favor of progress, though I have no use for the notion of some ultimate telostoward which history tends. But saying that direction is progress is a gesture without substantial intellectual content because it doesn’t engage with the terms in which that 600D space is constructed. What are those terms? Some of them are topics of the sort identified in topic analysis, e.g. American slavery, beauty and affection, dreams and thoughts, Greek and Egyptian gods, knaves rogues and asses, life history, machines and industry, misery and despair, scenes of natural beauty, and so on [3]. Others are stylistic features, such as the frequency of specific words, e.g. the, heart, would, me, lady, which are the first five words in a list Jockers has in the “Style” chapter of Macroanalysis(p. 94).

In a post back in 2014 I suggested that Jockers’ image depicts the Geistof 19th century Anglo-American literary culture [2]. That’s what interests me, the possibility that we’re looking at a 21st century operationalization of an idea from 19th century German idealism. Here’s what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about Hegel’s conception of history [4]:

In a sense Hegel’s phenomenology is a study of phenomena (although this is not a realm he would contrast with that of noumena) and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is likewise to be regarded as a type of propaedeutic to philosophy rather than an exercise in or work of philosophy. It is meant to function as an induction or education of the reader to the standpoint of purely conceptual thought from which philosophy can be done. As such, its structure has been compared to that of a Bildungsroman (educational novel), having an abstractly conceived protagonist—the bearer of an evolving series of so-called shapes of consciousness or the inhabitant of a series of successive phenomenal worlds—whose progress and set-backs the reader follows and learns from. Or at least this is how the work sets out: in the later sections the earlier series of shapes of consciousness becomes replaced with what seem more like configurations of human social life, and the work comes to look more like an account of interlinked forms of social existence and thought within which participants in such forms of social life conceive of themselves and the world. Hegel constructs a series of such shapes that maps onto the history of western European civilization from the Greeks to his own time.

Now, I am not proposing that Jockers’ has operationalized that conception, those “so-called shapes of consciousness”, in any way that could be used to buttress or refute Hegel’s philosophy of history – which, after all, posited a final end to history. But I am suggesting that can we reasonably interpret that image as depicting a (single) historical phenomenon, perhaps even something like an animating ‘force’, albeit one requiring a thoroughly material account. Whatever it is, it is as abstract as the Hegelian Geist.

How could that be? Continue reading “Notes toward a theory of the corpus, Part 1: History”