Protolang 5 in Barcelona!

Plenary speakers:

Sonja Vernes
Olga Feher
Martin Kuhlwilm
João Zilhão

Animal cognition
Animal communication
Cognitive science
Cognitive semiotics
Computational modelling
General evolutionary theory
Genetics of language
Gesture studies
Neuroscience of language
Philosophy of biology
Philosophy of language
Pleistocene archaeology
Psychology (evolutionary, comparative, developmental)
Speech physiology

Talks and posters
Please submit an anonymous abstract of 400 words to the Easychair website, .
You will have the option of submitting an abstract to be considered for a presentation, poster or either. The file must be in .PDF format.

Talks should be suitable for 30 minutes (20 minutes for presentation/10 minutes for discussion).
Posters should be no larger than A0 size, vertical (841 x 1189 mm / 33.1 x 46.8 in).

Please submit a proposal to including: (a) Title of the mini-symposium, (b) name and affiliation of the organizers, (c) a general description (400 words), and (d) abstract of each contributed talk (100-150 words).

Submissions should be suitable for a two-hour session and include 3 to 5 presentations.
The organizers of accepted mini-symposia will also act as chairs of their session.

Extra Event – Workshop on Lenneberg
On September 29, there will be a workshop on the 50 years of Eric Lenneberg’s Biological Foundations of Language, including also a talk by Tecumseh Fitch (University of Vienna). If you are already in town for Protolang 5, stick around one extra day and join us. There is no registration fee for this event.
Submissions of abstracts are welcome. Please submit the abstract of your talk (400 words) Talks should be suitable for 30 minutes (20 minutes presentation/10 minutes for discussion). Make sure to send both an identified and an anonymous version.

Important dates
Submission deadline: April 20, 2017
Notifications of acceptance: June 15, 2017
Early registration deadline: July 15, 2017
Late registration deadline: September 25, 2017
Conference: September 26—28, 2017
Extra event (Workshop on Lenneberg): September 29, 2017

More info here:

Monkey vocal tracts are speech-ready

A new paper in Science Advances (Fitch, de Boer, Mathur & Ghazanfar, 2016) uses models informed by x-rays of macaque vocal tracts to claim that monkeys have the tools neccessary to make enough speech sounds to create a productive spoken language. This means that the evolution of speech is likely to be primarily dependent on cognitive adaptation, rather than adaptation of the vocal tract.

Abstract here:

For four decades, the inability of nonhuman primates to produce human speech sounds has been claimed to stem from limitations in their vocal tract anatomy, a conclusion based on plaster casts made from the vocal tract of a monkey cadaver. We used x-ray videos to quantify vocal tract dynamics in living macaques during vocalization, facial displays, and feeding. We demonstrate that the macaque vocal tract could easily produce an adequate range of speech sounds to support spoken language, showing that previous techniques based on postmortem samples drastically underestimated primate vocal capabilities. Our findings imply that the evolution of human speech capabilities required neural changes rather than modifications of vocal anatomy. Macaques have a speech-ready vocal tract but lack a speech-ready brain to control it.

ABACUS symposium: speech from an evolutionary perspective

Advancing Behavioral And Cognitive Understanding of Speech (ABACUS) Symposium 
Jan 14, 2017
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen
Attendance is free, but registration is required. You can register here: 
Registration deadline: December 15th 2016
The ABACUS symposium presents a series of lectures by invited speakers from a wide range of disciplines, and aims to discuss how we can further advance the study of speech from an evolutionary perspective. The evolutionary perspective entails trying to understand how linguistic signals, as well as the cognitive and anatomical machinery to use them, came to be the way they are. The symposium is held in the context of the end of the ERC project ABACUS led by Prof. Bart de Boer.
Dan Dediu – Language & Genetics (MPI Nijmegen, The Netherlands)
Tecumseh Fitch – Cognitive Biology (University of Vienna, Austria)
Marco Gamba – Primatology & Bioacoustics (University of Turin, Italy)
Odette Scharenborg -Human and automatic speech processing (Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands)
Marieke Schouwstra – Simulating conventionalization in the lab (University of Edinburgh, UK)
Tessa Verhoef – Evolution of linguistic structure (UC San Diego, USA)
Anne Warlaumont – Emergence of communication (UC Merced, USA)
Andy Wedel – Language change (University of Arizona, USA)
Sabine van der Ham,

Special session on language evolution at CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing

The 30th CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing will take place March 30 – April 1, 2017 at MIT, Cambridge MA. The theme of the Special Session is Language processing and language evolution.

Abstracts for papers and posters are due December 12, 2016.

Invited Speakers

Michael Dunn, Uppsala University, Sweden
Maryia Fedzechkina, University of Arizona
Susan Goldin-Meadow, University of Chicago
Adele Goldberg, Princeton University
Simon Kirby, University of Edinburgh
Stephen Levinson, Max Planck Institute, Holland
Emily Morgan, Tufts University
Kaius Sinnemäki, University of Helsinki

Organizing Committee

Edward Gibson
Evelina Fedorenko
Richard Futrell
Melissa Kline

Contact e-mail:

Culture shapes the evolution of cognition

A new paper, by Bill Thompson, Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith, has just appeared which contributes to everyone’s favourite debate. The paper uses agent-based Bayesian models that incorporate learning, culture and evolution to make the claim that weak cognitive biases are enough to create population-wide effects, making a strong nativist position untenable.



A central debate in cognitive science concerns the nativist hypothesis, the proposal that universal features of behavior reflect a biologically determined cognitive substrate: For example, linguistic nativism proposes a domain-specific faculty of language that strongly constrains which languages can be learned. An evolutionary stance appears to provide support for linguistic nativism, because coordinated constraints on variation may facilitate communication and therefore be adaptive. However, language, like many other human behaviors, is underpinned by social learning and cultural transmission alongside biological evolution. We set out two models of these interactions, which show how culture can facilitate rapid biological adaptation yet rule out strong nativization. The amplifying effects of culture can allow weak cognitive biases to have significant population-level consequences, radically increasing the evolvability of weak, defeasible inductive biases; however, the emergence of a strong cultural universal does not imply, nor lead to, nor require, strong innate constraints. From this we must conclude, on evolutionary grounds, that the strong nativist hypothesis for language is false. More generally, because such reciprocal interactions between cultural and biological evolution are not limited to language, nativist explanations for many behaviors should be reconsidered: Evolutionary reasoning shows how we can have cognitively driven behavioral universals and yet extreme plasticity at the level of the individual—if, and only if, we account for the human capacity to transmit knowledge culturally. Wherever culture is involved, weak cognitive biases rather than strong innate constraints should be the default assumption.


JoLE special issue on Phonetics and Phonology: Deadline Extension

As has been advertised on the blog previously, The Journal of Language Evolution is hosting a special issue on the emergence of phonetics and phonology. The call for papers can be found here:
The deadline for papers was 17th April 2016, and is now being extended to 31st July 2016.
However, if you plan to submit to the special issue, or have any questions about it, please email Hannah Little (, if possible by the original deadline (17th April 2016).

EvoLang Preview: Zombies, MMORPGs and Language Evolution

As readers of this blog will know, in evolutionary linguistics we use artificial languages in communication games all the time to investigate language evolution. However, these games, for the most part, remain very simple and confined to the lab. Massive multiplayer online role play games (MMORPGs)  may provide a new avenue for hypothesis testing in language evolution.

Below is just a case study of an MMORPG, so people can get an idea of what  we might be able to explore with a MMORPG set up. Though, this game was launched back in 2005, and was not designed as an experiment, so while there’s obviously experimental design issues, there’s still some pretty interesting things that have come out of it.


Urban Dead is a zombie apocalypse MMORPG by Kevan Davis. You can either be a “survivor”, with your main aim being to kill zombies and to stay alive, or a “zombie”, who try to kill survivors and eat their brains. When a survivor is killed, they become a zombie. Zombies can also come back to life. So nearly everyone ends up being a zombie and a survivor at some point.  When alive, players can interact as normal with other players in the same location, using a text field. However, when a player becomes a zombie their ability to use language is restricted. The game manipulates the input text for zombies using a set of rules which include, but are not limited to:

  • all occurrences of e, i, o, u replaced with “r”
  • all characters other than “zhrgbmna .!?-” are deleted
  • lower-case “r” at the end of words replaced with “rh”
  • an “a” by itself will be replaced with “hra”

This constrained speech is called “death rattle”. As a result of these restrictions, several coded languages have emerged (e.g. Zombish and Zomese), which simply replace banned characters with combinations of allowed characters.


However, another language (Zamgrh) has also emerged, which uses a phonemic orthography. Zamgrh was originally bootstrapped by knowledge of English, but has since developed its own syntax, simple morphology and phonological rules. Some of these are similar to patterns found in pidgin languages, for example the use of “nah” before a verb as negation (1), and pronouns show no case, e.g. “ma zambah” can be used for “I” or “me” (1).

(1) Mah zambah nah     harm brazzarz.
    I          do  not hurt friends.

The lexicon of Zamgrh remains limited because of the constrained phonemic/orthographic limitations. Players are much more likely to use an existing word and allow context to dictate its meaning, e.g. using “babah” (baby) to mean “little”, “son”, “prince”, etc., which of course is facilitated by the context of the game being so small. Previously, small language populations have been hypothesised to use more context dependent language, because in tightly knit communities people have a lot of shared knowledge (see Wray & Grace, 2007). Zamgrh may help us shed light on whether context dependence is not only the result of shared knowledge, but also the result of smaller phoneme inventories allowing for less productivity in the language (interesting to think about in light of the correlations found by Hay & Bauer (2007) that small language populations have smaller phonemic inventories). There are many incidences in Zamgrh of established lexical items being adopted over new lexical inventions, even with knowledge of English facilitating new items being bootstrapped, almost certainly because of the constrained phonemic inventory. For example “barn” is used for any building, e.g. “Baghzbarn”, which refers to a warehouse, literally, “box barn” and “Agzbarn”, which refers to a fire station, literally, “axe barn”.

Death rattle may also have implications relevant to the size of inventories possible in different linguistic modalities, and how this might effect language evolution.

There currently exists a Zamgrh dictionary, as well as corpora containing some naturalistic zombie discourse and a small number of translated texts, including the poetry of Robert Burns (Rabar Barnz), Beowulf and some more contemporary texts, such as Rick Astley’s “Never gonna give you up” (Nabar Ganna Brang Gaa H!gh) and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Bahaman Rhabzag).

I have emailed the creator of the game, Kevan Davis, to see about the potential existence of a corpus of interactions as the language was developing, but this data is not available. Though, the data would be problematic anyway, as the the language seems to have developed quite a lot off-game by linguistics nerds, which is obviously not analogous to pidginisation at all. Also, the coded languages emerged much more quickly and more often than more pidgin-like languages, so any studies looking at using a similar paradigm would need to find ways to avoid this happening.

However, I think the game shows that with a bit more consideration for data collection and methodological problems, simple online games may become a useful tool for investigating mechanisms of pidginisation, linguistic bootstrapping, and conventionalisation.

I’ll be presenting some more thoughts on Zamgrh andMMORPGs at the Createvolang worksop at this year’s EvoLang.


Data and examples from the Urban Dead Wiki,  a list of contributors to the Zamgrh Project can be found here:

Hay, J., & Bauer, L. (2007). Phoneme inventory size and population size. Language, 83(2), 388-400.

Wray, A. & Grace, G. (2007). The consequences of talking to strangers: Evolutionary corollaries of socio-cultural influences on linguistic form. Lingua 117 (3): 543-578.

Special Issue on the Emergence of Phonetics and Phonology Call For Papers

Special Issue on the Emergence of Phonetics and Phonology Call For Papers: Special issue of the Journal of Language Evolution

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in research in the evolution of language and speech. This special issue will focus on recent work addressing the evolution of speech apparatus, and the emergence of phonetic and phonological structure. The focus will be on the interaction between biological and cultural evolution, and the interaction between the cognitive evolution of language, and the biological evolution of speech. We are interested in submissions that consider how the physical aspects of a linguistic modality might shape our language, and how our phonetic capabilities at the speech level may influence our phonology at the language level.

The primary goal of the special issue is to exchange the latest advances in the study of the evolution of speech. We are interested in computational and mathematical modeling, experimental studies, brain and vocal tract imaging, corpus analysis and comparative data from animal studies, especially nonhuman primates. These techniques have allowed us to address questions relevant to the evolution of our phonetic capabilities, and the special issue will aim to open an interdisciplinary discourse.

Submissions must provide relevant empirical insight within the remit of this special issue.

Authors should prepare their manuscript according to the Instructions for Authors available from the online submission page of the Journal of Language Evolution at All the papers will be peer-reviewed.

Submission deadline: 17th April 2016

Guest Editor: Hannah Little (

International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS 2016)

Call for papers for the Second Conference of the
International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS 2016)
June 20-22, 2016
Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland

Plenary speakers confirmed up to now:

Cognitive Semiotics as a field of study deals with questions concerning the nature of meaning as well as the role of consciousness, the unique cognitive features of human beings, the interaction of nature and nurture in development, and the interplay of biological and cultural evolution in phylogeny. To answer these questions CS integrates methods and theories developed in the human and social sciences as well as cognitive sciences. TheInternational Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS, founded 2013) aims at the establishment of Cognitive Semiotics as the trans-disciplinary study of meaning. More information on the International Association for Cognitive Semiotics can be found at:

One of the goals of the IACS conference series is to gather together scholars and scientists in semiotics, linguistics, philosophy, cognitive science, psychology and related fields, who wish to share their research on meaning and contribute the interdisciplinary dialogue

Topics of the conference include (but are not limited to):

  • Biological and cultural evolution of human cognitive specificity
  • Cognitive linguistics and phenomenology
  • Communication across cultural barriers
  • Cross-species comparative semiotics
  • Evolutionary perspectives on altruism
  • Experimental semiotics
  • Iconicity in language and other semiotic resources
  • Intersubjectivity and mimesis in evolution and development
  • Multimodality
  • Narrativity across different media
  • Semantic typology and linguistic relativity
  • Semiosis (sense-making) in social interaction
  • Semiotic and cognitive development in children
  • Sign use and cognition
  • Signs, affordances, and other meanings
  • Speech and gesture
  • The comparative semiotics of iconicity and indexicality
  • The evolution of language

We invite abstract submissions for theme sessions, oral presentations and posters (please clearly indicate your chosen format with your submission)

Submission guidelines and formats:

1. Theme sessions (deadline: 30 Nov 2015)
– submission should include: session title, name and affiliation of symposium convener, an introduction of up to 400 words explaining the theme, all symposium abstracts, in suitable order
– sessions may consist of of 3-5 papers (90-150 min.), allowing time for general discussion. Papers in each theme session should be thematically linked
*)Theme session proposers should indicate whether, if a session is not accepted as a whole, they wish the individual abstracts to be considered as individual presentations (oral or poster)

2. Oral presentations (deadline: 10 Jan 2016)
submission should include: title, name, affiliation, 400 word abstract
20 min presentation followed by 7 min. discussion

3. Posters (deadline: 10 Jan 2016)
submission should include: title, name, affiliation, 100 word abstract
1 minute oral presentation in the main lecture hall, preceding the poster session

Abstracts should be submitted as .odt, .doc or .docx attachments using EasyChair: In order to submit an abstract you have to use your existing EasyChair account or register using the link above. Detailed instructions can be found on the IACS 2016 conference website:

In the case of questions or doubts do not hesitate to contact the Organizers: iacs2016[at]

Important dates:

  • Deadline for submission of theme sessions: 30 Nov 2015
  • Deadline for abstract submission (oral presentations, posters): 10 Jan 2016
  • Notification of acceptance (oral presentations, posters): 29 Feb 2016
  • Last date for early registration: 15 Apr 2016


Videos from the The Evolution of Phonetic Capabilities Satellite Event

This year, as part of the International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, I hosted a satellite event about the evolution of speech.

Here’s the preamble:

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in research in the evolution of language and speech. New techniques in computational and mathematical modelling, experimental paradigms, brain and vocal tract imaging, corpus analysis and animal studies, as well as new archeological evidence, have allowed us to address questions relevant to the evolution of our phonetic capabilities. The workshop will focus on recent work addressing the emergence of our phonetic capabilities, with a special focus on the interaction between biological and cultural evolution.

And here’s the meeting, in video form, should anyone have regretted missing it, or wanted to watch the talks again!

Here’s the play order:

  1. John H. Esling, Allison Benner & Scott R. Moisik – Laryngeal Articulatory Function and Speech Origins

2.  Scott R. Moisik & Dan Dediu – Anatomical biasing and clicks: Preliminary biomechanical modeling

3. Seán G. Roberts, Caleb Everett & Damián Blasi  – Exploring potential climate effects on the evolution of human sound systems

4. Padraic Monaghan & Willem H. Zuidema – General purpose cognitive processing constraints and phonotactic properties of the vocabulary

5. Bodo Winter & Andy Wedel – Simulating the interaction of functional pressure, redundancy and category variation in phonetic systems

6. Bill Thompson – Universality in Cultural Transmission