Biggest linguistics experiment ever links perception with linguistic history

Back in March 2014, Hedvig Skirgård and I wrote a post about the Great Language Game.  Today we’ve published those results in PLOS ONE, together with the Game’s creator Lars Yencken.

One of the fundamental principles of linguistics is that speakers that are separated in time or space will start sound different, while speakers who interact with each other will start to sound similar.  Historical linguists have traced the diversification of languages using objective linguistic measurements, but so far there has never been a widespread test of whether languages further away on a family tree or more physically distant from each other actually sound different to human listeners.

An opportunity arose to test this in the form of The Great Language Game: a web-based game where players listen to a clip of someone talking and have to guess which language is being spoken.  It was played by nearly one million people from 80 countries, and so is, as far as we know, the biggest linguistic experiment ever.  Actually, this is probably my favourite table I’ve ever published (note the last row):

Continent of IP-address Number of guesses
Europe 7,963,630
North America 5,980,767
Asia 841,609
Oceania 364,390
South America 356,390
Africa 74,032
Antarctica 11

We calculated the probability of confusing any of the 78 languages in the Great Language Game for any of the others (excluding guesses about a language if it was an official language of the country the player was in).  Players were good at this game – on average getting 70% of guesses correct.

Using partial Mantel tests, we found that languages are more likely to be confused if they are:

  • Geographically close to each other;
  • Similar in their phoneme inventories
  • Similar in their lexicon
  • Closely related historically (but this effect disappears when controlling for geographic proximity)

We also used Random Forests analyses to show that a language is more likely to be guessed correctly if it is often mentioned in literature, is the main language of an economically powerful country, is spoken by many people or is spoken in many countries.

We visualised the perceptual similarity of languages by using the inverse probability of confusion to create a neighbour net:

This diagram shows a kind of subway map for the way languages sound. The shortest route between two languages indicates how often they are confused for one another – so Swedish and Norwegian sound similar, but Italian and Japanese sound very different. The further you have to travel, the more different two languages sound.  So French and German are far away from many languages, since these were the best-guessed in the corpus.

The labels we’ve given to some of the clusters are descriptive, rather than being official terms that linguists use.  The first striking pattern is that some languages are more closely connected than others, for example the Slavic languages are all grouped together, indicating that people have a hard time distinguishing between them. Some of the other groups are more based on geographic area, such as the ‘Dravidian’ or ‘African’ cluster. The ‘North Sea’ cluster is interesting: it includes Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic.  These diverged from each other a long time ago in the Indo-European family tree, but have had more recent contact due to trade and invasion across the North Sea.

The whole graph splits between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ languages (we refer to the political/cultural divide rather than any linguistic classification). This probably reflects the fact that most players were Western, or at least could probably read the English website.  That would certainly explain the linguistically confused “East Asian” cluster.  There are also a lot of interconnected lines, which indicates that some languages are confused for multiple groups, for example Turkish is placed halfway between “West” and “East” languages.

It was also possible to create neighbour nets for responses from specific parts of the world. While the general pattern is similar, there are also some interesting differences.  For example, respondents from North America were quite likely to confused Yiddish and Hebrew.  They come from different language families, but are spoken by a mainly Jewish population and this may form part of players’ cultural knowledge of these languages.

In contrast, players from African placed Hebrew with the other Afro-Asiatic languages.

Results like this suggest that perception may be shaped by our linguistic history and cultural knowledge.

We also did some preliminary analyses on the phoneme inventories of languages, using a binary decision tree to explore which sounds made a language distinctive.  Binary decision trees identified some rare and salient features as critical cues to distinctiveness.

The future

The analyses were complicated because we knew little about the individuals playing beyond the country of their IP address.  However, Hedvig and I, together with a team from the Language in Interaction consortium (Mark Dingemanse, Pashiera Barkhuysen and Peter Withers) create a version of the game called LingQuest that does collect people’s linguistic background.  It also asks participants to compare sound files directly, rather than use written labels.

You can download LingQuest as an apple App, or play it online here.




Conference: Triggers of change in the language sciences

The University of Lyon 2 is proud to announce ‘Triggers of Language Change in the Language Sciences’.

October 11th-14th 2017, University of Lyon, France.

See the website for our call for papers and further details.

The conference is part of the “X in the Language Sciences” (XLanS) series which aims to bring a wide range of researchers together to focus on a particular topic in language that interests them.  The goal is to identify the crucial issues and connect them with cutting-edge techniques in order to develop better explanations of linguistic phenomena (see details of the first conference “Causality in the language sciences” here).

This year’s topic is ‘triggers of change’:  What causes a sound system or lexicon or grammatical system to change?  How can we explain rapid changes followed by periods of stability?  Can we predict the direction and rate of change according to external influences?

Our keynote speakers include:
Michael C. Gavin (Colorado State University)
Monica Tamariz (Heriot Watt University)
Sarah Thomason (University of Michigan)
Brigitte Pakendorf (University of Lyon)
Alan Yu (University of Chicago)
We are pleased to be able to offer scholarships to cover travel for students from the developing world and reduced rates for lower-income attendees.  See the Registration Details page for details.

The XLanS committee,

Christophe Coupé, Damián Blasi, Dan Dediu, Hedvig Skirgård, Julia Uddén, Seán Roberts

Women in Language Evolution

It’s International Women’s day!  Language Evolution is a largely male dominated discipline: women account for only 8 out of the top 100 most cited authors, and only 14 out of 82 invited speakers at the Evolution of Language Conference (see here).  To promote the contribution of women to our field, we’ve compiled a list of 100 female researchers in language evolution.

The list is by no means exhaustive, and is largely based on attendance at the most recent EvoLang conference.  Topics cover both language origins and evolutionary approaches to linguistics more generally.  A recent paper by each author is also included, though it may not be the best representation of their work.  All mistakes with regards to links and citations are my own.


Adele E. Goldberg

Goldberg, A. E. (2015). Subtle implicit language facts emerge from the functions of constructions. Frontiers in psychology, 6.

Alexandra Carstensen

Regier, T., Carstensen, A., & Kemp, C. (2016). Languages support efficient communication about the environment: words for snow revisited. PloS one, 11(4), e0151138.

Amy Bauernfeind

Bauernfeind AL, Soderblom EJ, Turner ME, Moseley MA, Ely JJ, Hof PR, Sherwood CC, Wray GA, Babbitt CC. Evolutionary divergence of gene and protein expression in the brains of humans and chimpanzees. Genome Biology and Evolution. doi: 10.1093/gbe/evv132

Amy Perfors

A Perfors (in press). On simplicity and emergence: Commentary on Johnson (2016) Psychonomic Bulletin and Review: Special issue on language evolution

Andrea Claude

Calude, A & Verkerk, A. (2016). How to build the Number Line in Indo-European – a Phylogenetic Study. Journal of Language Evolution [link]

Andreea Geambasu

Geambașu A., Ravigniani A. & Levelt C.C. (2016), Preliminary Experiments on Human Sensitivity to Rhythmic Structure in a Grammar with Recursive Self-Similarity, Frontiers in Neuroscience 10.

Anna Jon-And

Jon-And (2016) Modeling language change triggered by language shift. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Anna Maria Di Sciullo

Sciullo (2016) Emergent syntax and syntactic variation. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Anne Kandler

Kandler, A., Wilder, B., & Fortunato, L. (2017). Inferring individual-level processes from population-level patterns in cultural evolution. bioRxiv, 111575.

Annemarie Verkerk

Calude, A & Verkerk, A. (2016). How to build the Number Line in Indo-European – a Phylogenetic Study. Journal of Language Evolution [link]

Anu Vastenius

(2016) Constituent order in pictorial representations of events is influenced by language. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Ashley Micklos

Micklos (2016) Interaction for facilitating conventionalization: negotiating the silent gesture communication of noun-verb pairs. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Asifa Majid

Majid, A., Jordan, F., & Dunn, M. (2015). Semantic systems in closely related languages.

Brenda McCowan

Beisner, B. A., Hannibal, D. L., Finn, K. R., Fushing, H., & McCowan, B. (2016). Social power, conflict policing, and the role of subordination signals in rhesus macaque society. American journal of physical anthropology.

Bridget Samuels

Samuels, B. D. (2015). Can a bird brain do phonology?. Frontiers in psychology, 6.

Brigitte Pakendorf

Pakendorf, B. (2014). Coevolution of languages and genes. Current opinion in genetics & development, 29, 39-44.

Buddhamas Kriengwatana

Kriengwatana (2016) A general auditory bias for handling speaker variability in speech? evidence in humans and songbirds. . The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Camilla Power

Power, C., Finnegan, M., & Callan, H. (2016). Human Origins: Contributions from Social Anthropology.

Carmen Saldana

(2016) The cultural evolution of complexity in linguistic structure. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Carol Padden

Padden, C., Meir, I., Aronoff, M. and Sandler, W. (in press) The grammar of space in two new sign languages. In D. Brentari (Ed.), Sign Languages: A Cambridge Survey. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Catherine Hobaiter

Hobaiter, C., Poisot, T., Zuberbühler, K., Hoppitt, W., & Gruber, T. (2014). Social network analysis shows direct evidence for social transmission of tool use in wild chimpanzees. PLoS Biol, 12(9), e1001960.

Catriona Silvey

Silvey, C., Kirby, S., & Smith, K. (2015). Word meanings evolve to selectively preserve distinctions on salient dimensions. Cognitive Science, 39(1), 212-226.

Cecilia Heyes

Heyes, C. (2016). Blackboxing: social learning strategies and cultural evolution. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 371(1693), 20150369.

Chiara Barbieri

Barbieri, C., Güldemann, T., Naumann, C., Gerlach, L., Berthold, F., Nakagawa, H., … & Pakendorf, B. (2014). Unraveling the complex maternal history of Southern African Khoisan populations. American journal of physical anthropology, 153(3), 435-448.

Christina Behme

Behme, C. (2015). Is the ontology of biolinguistics coherent?. Language Sciences, 47, 32-42.

Christine Caldwell

Caldwell CA, Atkinson M & Renner E (2016) Experimental approaches to studying cumulative cultural evolution, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25 (3), pp. 191-195.

Christine Cuskley

Cuskley, C., Simner, J. and Kirby, S. (2015). Phonological and orthographic influences in the bouba-kiki effect. Psychological Research, doi: 10.1007/s00426-015-0709-2.

Claire Bowern

Bowern, C. (2015). Linguistics: Evolution and Language Change. Current Biology, 25(1), R41-R43.

Colleen Reichmuth

Reichmuth, C., & Casey, C. (2014). Vocal learning in seals, sea lions, and walruses. Current opinion in neurobiology, 28, 66-71.

Cory Cuthbertson

(2016) Empirically assessing linguistic ability with stone tools. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Dean Falk

Falk, D. (2016). Evolution of Brain and Culture. Journal of Anthropological Sciences, 94, 1.

Deborah Kerr

(2016) The spontaneous emergence of linguistic diversity in an artificial language. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Dedre Gentner

Gentner, D. (2016). Language as cognitive tool kit: How language supports relational thought. American Psychologist, 71(8), 650.

Diane Reiss

Maust-Mohl, M., Soltis, J., & Reiss, D. (2015). Acoustic and behavioral repertoires of the hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius). The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 138(2), 545-554.

Ekaterina Abramova

(2016) Triadic ontogenetic ritualization: an overlooked possibility. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Elizabeth Irvine

Irvine (2016) Deictic tools can limit the emergence of referential symbol systems. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Emilia Garcia-Casademont

Garcia-Casademont, E. (2017). A Case Study in the Emergence of Recursive Phrase Structure. In First Complex Systems Digital Campus World E-Conference 2015 (pp. 333-336). Springer, Cham.

Emily Morgan

(2016) Frequency-dependent regularization in iterated learning. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Erica Cartmill

Cartmill, E. A., Hunsicker, D., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2014). Pointing and naming are not redundant: Children use gesture to modify nouns before they modify nouns in speech. Developmental psychology, 50(6), 1660.

Esther Clarke

Clarke, E., Reichard, U. H., & Zuberbühler, K. (2015). Context-specific close-range “hoo” calls in wild gibbons (Hylobates lar). BMC evolutionary biology, 15(1), 56.

Eva Zehentner

(2016) A game theoretic account of semantic subjectification in the cultural evolution of languages. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Evelina Fedorenko

Piantadosi, S. T., & Fedorenko, E. (2016). Infinitely productive language can arise from chance under communicative pressure.

Federica Cavicchio

Cavicchio (2016) Are emotional displays an evolutionary precursor to compositionality in language?. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Fiona Jordan

Jordan, FM & Huber, B, 2013, ‘Evolutionary approaches to cross-cultural anthropology’. Cross-Cultural Research, vol 47., pp. 91-101

Florencia Reali

Reali, F., Chater, N., & Christiansen, M. H. (2014, March). The paradox of linguistic complexity and community size. In Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on the Evolution of Language (EVOLANG X). Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd (pp. 270-279).

Francesca Tria

Tria (2016) Modeling the emergence of creole languages. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Gabriella Vigliocco

Vigliocco, G., Perniss, P., & Vinson, D. (2014). Language as a multimodal phenomenon: implications for language learning, processing and evolution.

Hannah Cornish

Cornish, H., Dale, R., Kirby, S., & Christiansen, M. H. (2017). Sequence Memory Constraints Give Rise to Language-Like Structure through Iterated Learning. PloS one, 12(1), e0168532.

Hannah Haynie

Haynie, H., Bowern, C., & LaPalombara, H. (2014). Sound symbolism in the languages of Australia. PloS one, 9(4), e92852.

Hannah Little

(2016) Emergence of signal structure: effects of duration constraints. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Heidi Lyn

Lyn, H. (2017). The question of capacity: Why enculturated and trained animals have much to tell us about the evolution of language. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24(1), 85-90.

Hope Morgan

(2016) The effect of modality on signal space in natural languages. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Irene Pepperberg

Pepperberg, I. M. (2016). Animal language studies: What happened? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review Psychon Bull Rev. doi:10.3758/s13423-016-1101-y

Irit Meir

Meir, I., Aronoff, M., Börstell, C., Hwang, S. O., Ilkbasaran, D., Kastner, I., … & Sandler, W. (2017). The effect of being human and the basis of grammatical word order: Insights from novel communication systems and young sign languages. Cognition, 158, 189-207.

Janet Mann

Mann, J., & Singh, L. (2015). Culture, Diffusion, and Networks in Social Animals. Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource.

Jasmeen Kanwal

(2016) The evolution of Zipf’s law of abbreviation. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Jennifer Culbertson

Culbertson, J., & Newport, E. L. (2015). Harmonic biases in child learners: In support of language universals. Cognition, 139, 71-82.

Jesse Snedeker

Kocab, A., Senghas, A., & Snedeker, J. (2016). The emergence of temporal language in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Cognition, 156, 147-163.

Jiani Chen

Chen, J., & ten Cate, C. (2015). Zebra finches can use positional and transitional cues to distinguish vocal element strings. Behavioural processes, 117, 29-34.

Joan Bybee

Bybee, Joan. Language change. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Joanna Bryson

Bryson, J.J. (2007). Embodiment vs. Memetics. Mind & Society, 7(1):77-94. [Link]

Kate Arnold

Arnold, K & Zuberbuehler, K 2013, ‘Female putty-nosed monkeys use experimentally altered contextual information to disambiguate the cause of male alarm calls’ PLoS One, vol 8, no. 6, e65660. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065660

Kathleen Dudzinski

Dudzinski, K., & Frohoff, T. (2014). Dolphin mysteries: Unlocking the secrets of communication. Yale University Press.

Katie Collier

(2016) Dwarf mongooses combine meaningful alarm calls. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Katie Slocombe

Fedurek, P., & Slocombe, K. E. (2011). Primate vocal communication: a useful tool for understanding human speech and language evolution?. Human Biology, 83(2), 153-173.

Kim Bard

Bard, K. A. (2016). Dyadic interactions, attachment and the presence of triadic interactions in chimpanzees and humans. Infant Behavior and Development.

Kirsty Graham

(2016) Intentional meaning of bonobo gestures. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Lilia Rissman

Rissman (2016) Strategies in gesture and sign for demoting an agent: effects of language community and input . The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Ljiljana Progovac

Progovac, L. (2016) A gradualist scenario for language evolution: Precise linguistic reconstruction of early human (and Neandertal) grammars. Frontiers in Psychology 2016

Limor Raviv

Raviv, L., & Arnon, I. (2016). Language evolution in the lab: The case of child learners. In A. Papagrafou, D. Grodner, D. Mirman, & J. Trueswell (Eds.), Proceedings of the 38th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci 2016). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1643-1648). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Lynn Perry

Perry (2016) Early learned words are more iconic. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Madza Farias-Virgens

(2016) Evolution of convergent transcriptional specializations in the brains of humans and song-learning birds. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Maggie Tallerman

Tallerman M. Can the integration hypothesis account for language evolution?. Journal of Neurolinguistics 2016, (ePub ahead of Print).

Marie Montant

Montant (2016) Make new with old: human language in phylogenetically ancient brain regions. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Marieke Schouwstra

Schouwstra, M. (2016). Temporal Structure in Emerging Language: From Natural Data to Silent Gesture. Cognitive Science.

Marieke Woensdregt

(2016) The cultural co-evolution of language and mindreading. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Marlen Fröhlich

Fröhlich, M.; Müller, G.; Zeiträg, C.; Wittig, R. M.; Pika, S.: Gestural development of chimpanzees in the wild: the impact of interactional experience. Animal Behaviour (2017)

Megan Broadway

(2016) Signature whistles in an introduction context. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Michelle Spierings

(2016) Rule learning in birds: zebra finches generalize by positional similarities, budgerigars by the structural rules.. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Molly Flaherty

Flaherty (2016) Do lab attested biases predict the structure of a new natural language? The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Molly Lewis

Lewis, M. & Frank, M. C. (2016). The length of words reflects their conceptual complexity. Cognition. 153, 182-195.

Monica Tamariz

Tamariz, M., & Kirby, S. (2016). The cultural evolution of language. Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, 37-43.

Monika Pleyer

Pleyer, M. & Pleyer, M. (2016). The Evolution of Im/politeness. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Mutsumi Imai

Imai, M., Kanero, J., & Masuda, T.(2016). The Relation between Language, Culture and Thought. Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, 70–77.

Natalie Sebanz

Milward, S. J., & Sebanz, N. (2016). Mechanisms and development of self–other distinction in dyads and groups. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 371(1686), 20150076.

Nicky Clayton

Clayton, N. S. (2015). Ways of thinking: from crows to children and back again. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68(2), 209-241.

Oksana Tkachman

(2016) Arbitrariness of iconicity: the sources (and forces) of (dis)similarities in iconic representations . The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Olga Feher

Fehér, O., Ljubicic, I., Suzuki, K., Okanoya, K. & Tchernichovski, O. (2017). Statistical learning in songbirds: from self-tutoring to song culture. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2016.0053.

Olga Vasileva

(2016) Language evolution in ontogeny and phylogeny. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Pamela Perniss

Perniss, P., & Vigliocco, G. (2014). The bridge of iconicity: from a world of experience to the experience of language. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 369(1651), 20130300.

Piera Filippi

Filippi (2016) Humans recognize vocal expressions of emotional states universally across species. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Rebecca Grollemund

Grollemund, R., Branford, B., Bostoen, K., Meade, A., Venditti, C. & Pagel, M. (2015). Bantu expansion shows habitat alters the route and pace of human dispersals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 112:43, pp. 13296-13301. [link]

Rie Asano

(2016) On a music-ready brain: neural basis, mechanisms, and their contribution to the language evolution. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Rose Stamp

Stamp (2016) The grammar of the body and the emergence of complexity in sign languages. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Ruth Sonnweber

Sonnweber, R., Ravignani, A., & Fitch, W. T. (2015). Non-adjacent visual dependency learning in chimpanzees. Animal cognition, 18(3), 733-745.

Sabine van der Ham

(2016) Catergory learning in audition, touch, and vision. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Sabrina Engesser

(2016) Meaningful call combinations and compositional processing in a social bird. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Sarah Hrdy

Hrdy, S. B. (2016). Development plus social selection in the emergence of “emotionally modern” humans. Childhood: Origins, Evolution, and Implications, 11.

Sharon Thompson-Schill

Fedorenko, E., & Thompson-Schill, S. L. (2014). Reworking the language network. Trends in cognitive sciences, 18(3), 120-126.

Shiri Lev-Ari

Lev-Ari, S., & Peperkamp, S. (2017). Language for $200: Success in the environment influences grammatical alignment. Journal of Language Evolution. Advance online publication. doi:10.1093/jole/lzw012

Simone Pika

Fröhlich, M.; Müller, G.; Zeiträg, C.; Wittig, R. M.; Pika, S.: Gestural development of chimpanzees in the wild: the impact of interactional experience. Animal Behaviour (2017)

Sonia Harmand

Lewis, Jason E., and Sonia Harmand. “An earlier origin for stone tool making: implications for cognitive evolution and the transition to Homo.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371.1698 (2016): 20150233.

Sonja Vernes

Vernes, S. C. (2016). What bats have to say about speech and language. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Advance online publication. doi:10.3758/s13423-016-1060-3

Susan Goldin-Meadow

Goldin-Meadow, S., & Yang, C. (2016). Statistical evidence that a child can create a combinatorial linguistic system without external linguistic input: Implications for language evolution. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.

Tessa Verhoef

Verhoef (2016) Iconicity, naturalness and systematicity in the emergence of sign language structure. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Vanessa Ferdinand

Ferdinand (2016) Word learners regularize synonyms and homonyms similarly. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Vera Kempe

Kempe, V., Gauvrit, N., & Forsyth, D. (2015). Structure emerges faster during cultural transmission in children than in adults. Cognition, 136, 247-254.

Wendy Sandler

Sandler, Wendy (to appear). What Comes First in Language Emergence? In N. Enfield (Ed.). Dependencies in Language: On the Casual Ontology of Linguistic Systems. Language Science Press, Studies in Diversity Linguistics Series.

Yasamin Motamedi

(2016) Linguistic structure emerges in the cultural evolution of artificial sign languages. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)

Zanna Clay

Clay (2016) Functionally flexible vocalizations in wild bonobos (pan pansicus). The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11)



10 post-docs join new language evolution group in Nijmegen

In 2016 and 2017, ten post-doc researchers will join the MPI for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen to form the Language Evolution and Interaction Scholars of Nijmegen group (LEvInSON).

The group will explore the biological and cultural origins of language, and how they are linked through social interaction. The group, led by Stephen Levinson, Seán Roberts and Mark Dingemanse, will be hosted by the Language and Cognition department.

The visitors include researchers specializing in experimental approaches (Hannah Little, Yasamin Motamedi, Alan Nielsen, Justin Sulik), computational modelling (Kevin Stadler, Bill Thompson), animal communication (Marcus Perlman, Andrea Ravignani), comparative linguistics (Piera Filipi), and conversational interaction (Ashley Micklos).


Tessa Verhoef, who was awarded a VENI grant to study the evolution of linguistic structure, will also join the group.  All together, this will be one of the largest groups studying language evolution in the world.

Several senior researchers will visit throughout the period, including Vera Kempe (Abertay University), Monica Tamariz (University of Edinburgh), Gary Lupyan (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Cedric Boeckx (ICREA/Universitat de Barcelona) and Bart de Boer (Vrije Universiteit Brussel).

Double-blind reviewing at EvoLang 11 reveals gender bias

In a new paper in the Journal of Language Evolution, Tessa Verhoef and I analyse reviewer ratings for papers submitted to the EvoLang conference between 2012 and 2016 .  In the most recent conference, we trialed double-blind review for the first time, and we wanted to see if hiding the identity of authors revealed any biases in reviewers’ ratings.

We found that:

  • Proportionately few papers are submitted from female first authors.
  • In single-blind review, there was no big difference in average ratings for papers by male or female first authors …
  • … but female first-authored papers were rated significantly higher than male first authored papers in the double-blind condition.

There are many possible explanations of these findings, but they are indicative of a bias against female authors.  This fits with a wider literature of gender biases in science.  We suggest that double-blind review is one tool that can help reduce the effects of gender biases, but does not tackle the underlying problem directly.  We were pleased to see better representation of women on the most recent EvoLang talks and plenary speaker list, and look forward to making our field more inclusive.

The paper is available, free and open-access, at the Journal of Language Evolution.  The data and statistical code is also available on github.

Language Evolution and Gaming at Nineworlds

I’ll be appearing at Nineworlds convention as part of Stephanie Rennick’s panel on “Lessons for Academia from Computer Games”.  The idea is to talk about ways in which games have informed our research, and here’s some of the things I’ll mention:

Minecraft shows us how language evolved
How were the very first languages created?  How do you agree on words for things if you don’t have a language yet?  The accepted theory is people point at stuff they need and invent a word for it at the same time.  After many rounds of negotiation, people come to a consensus about how to describe things.  We tried to simulate this in Minecraft by getting people to build a little house together, but they could only communicate by knocking on the table.  But what we found was that, if you gave people the ability to point at things, they could do the task perfectly well without inventing a communication system at all.  This was quite surprising, and suggests that language did not originate as a simple way of requesting things, but maybe as a way of referring to stuff that you can’t easily point to, like the future or emotions.  More here

A chimp playing a computer game shows us we have flexible brains


Ayumu is a chimpanzee who plays computer games, and they’re REALLY GOOD.  In a game where you have to memorise the location of numbers on a screen, they left human participants in the dust (there’s a fun video of this).  The original researchers concluded that there was a genetic difference between us and chimpanzees:  Chimps had evolved better visual memory for hunting, and we evolved better auditory memory for speaking.  However, we wondered if Ayumu could beat experienced gamers.  We set up a ‘Chimp Challenge’ online where people could play the game.  We found over 60 people who were as good as Ayumu.  This suggests that the difference is also due to our experience – humans have very flexible brains that can get good at a lot of different things. More here.

Computer games can help us learn about linguistic diversity
Linguists are great at spotting differences between languages, but we don’t actually know very much about what differences matter most to people.  We explored “the great language game” – an online game where you have to name the language being spoken in a recording.  Looking at 15 million results, we found that the more different languages were, the easier people could tell them apart.  But we also found that people confused some languages that linguists would consider extremely different, and also that there were differences depending on the languages you know.  We suggest that how you experience a foreign language is linked to you cultural knowledge and beliefs.  We took this one step further by creating an updated version of the game with some very rare languages, which we hope to analyse in the future.  More here.

EvoLang proceedings now in physical form

The proceedings of the 11th Evolution of Language conference are now available to buy as a physical book.EvoLang11

The book is available through print-on-demand publisher Lulu for £23.72.  This is the lowest price allowed by the site, and will provide EvoLang with £2.81 for each sale.  The book now also has an ISBN: 978-1-326-61450-8.

This book is being made available due to popular demand, but all the papers and abstracts are freely available from the proceedings website, which is the canonical source.  Unfortunately, the costs were too great to publish in colour, so the inside of the book is black and white.

Buy the book now!

EvoLang: Post-conference awards

So EvoLang is over.  But if you missed any of it, the papers are still available online.  In celebration of the new digital format, I’ve chosen a number of papers for some post-conference awards (nothing official, just for fun!).

Most viewed papers

The proceedings website received 6,000 page hits, most of them during the conference itself.  Here are the top 3 most viewed pages:

The Low-complexity-belt: Evidence For Large-scale Language Contact In Human Prehistory?
Christian Bentz

Semantic Approximation And Its Effect On The Development Of Lexical Conventions
Bill Noble and Raquel Fernández

Evolution Of What?
Christina Behme

Most news coverage

Two papers were covered by Science magazine:

Dendrophobia In Bonobo Comprehension Of Spoken English
Robert Truswell (read the article here)

The Fidelity Of Iterated Vocal Imitation
Pierce Edmiston , Marcus Perlman and Gary Lupyan (read the article here)

Most cited paper

One of the advantages of the papers being accessible online, and before the conference, is that other people may cite them.  Indeed, on the day EvoLang ended, I received a short piece to review which cited this paper, which therefore gets the prize:

Anatomical Biasing Of Click Learning And Production: An MRI And 3D Palate Imaging Study
Dan Dediu and Scott Moisik

Best paper by an academic couple

By my count, there were 4 papers submitted by academic couples.  My favorite was a great collaboration on a novel topic:  the paper by Monika Pleyer and Michael Pleyer on taking the first steps towards integrating politeness theory and evolution (it was also shortlisted for best talk).

The Evolution Of Im/politeness
Monika Pleyer and Michael Pleyer

Best supplementary materials

8 accepted papers included supplementary materials, which are available on the website.  These range from hilarious image stimuli (my favorite: a witch painting a pizza), to a 7-page model explanation, through to netlogo code and raw data and analysis scripts.  But I’m afraid I’m going to choose my own paper’s supplementary materials for including videos of people playing Minecraft.  For science.

Deictic Tools Can Limit The Emergence Of Referential Symbol Systems
Elizabeth Irvine and Sean Roberts

EvoLang Preview: Language Adapts to Interaction workshop


The first day of EvoLang includes several workshops (full list here) to which all attendees are invited.  Gregory Mills and I are running a workshop on language evolution and interaction, and the schedule and papers are now available online.

Language Adapts to Interaction, 08:30-13:30, Monday, 21st March, 2016, New Orleans

Language has been shown to be adapted to constraints from many domains such as production, transmission, memory, processing and acquisition. These adaptations and constraints have formed the basis for theories of language evolution, but arguably the primary ecology of language is interaction – face-to-face conversation. Taking turns at talk, repairing problems in communication and organising conversation into contingent sequences seem completely natural to us, but are in fact highly organised, tightly integrated systems which are not shared by any other species. Therefore, the infrastructure for interaction may provide an insight into the origins of our unique communicative abilities.  The emerging picture is that the infrastructure for interaction is an evolutionary old requirement for the emergence of a complex linguistic system, and for a cooperative, cumulative culture more generally.  That is, Language Adapts to Interaction.

The keynote talk is given by John Haviland, who covers an emerging sign language called Z, and argues that interactional tools such as gaze, pointing and attention management form the basis of both aspects of interaction such as turn taking, but also grammatical features in the language.

Continue reading “EvoLang Preview: Language Adapts to Interaction workshop”

EvoLang Preview: Morphological Redundancy and Survivability

This is a preview of the talk Redundant Features Are Less Likely To Survive: Empirical Evidence From The Slavic Languages by Aleksandrs Berdicevskis and Hanne Eckhoff.  Tuesday 22nd March, 14:30, room D.

One of the methodological trends of this year’s EvoLang seems to be intelligent exaptation. What I mean by this is that people do research on language evolution using tools that were developed for a completely different purpose. Examples include using zombies to observe the emergence of languages under severe phonological constraints, Minecraft to investigate the role of pointing in the emergence of language and EvoLang to study EvoLang. In addition to that, Hanne Eckhoff and I use syntactic parsers to quantify morphological redundancy.

The basic idea is to put to test an assumption that redundant features are more likely to disappear from languages, especially if social factors favour the loss of excessive complexity. The problem is that nobody really knows what is redundant in real languages and what is not. We can define a feature as redundant if it is not necessary for successful communication, i.e. if hearers can infer the meanings of the messages they receive without using this feature. It is, however, still a long way from this definition to a quantitative measure. In theory, one could run psycholinguistic experiments, in practice, it is a difficult and costly venture (I tried).

In this paper, we replace humans with a dependency parser. For those who are not into computational linguistics: a parser is a program which can automatically identify (well, attempt to identify) the syntactic structure of a given sentence. A typical parser is first trained on a large number of human-annotated sentences. After its learning is over, it can parse non-annotated sentences on its own, relying on the information about the form of every word, its lemma, part of speech, morphological features and the linear order of words — just like a human being. If we remove a certain feature from its input and compare performance before and after the removal, we can estimate how important (=non-redundant) the feature was.

If we remove all information about, say, dative from the parser’s input (to the left), it will have harder time to understand that the phrase two masters is an oblique object.

We test whether this measure is any good by running a pilot study with the Slavic language group. We estimate the redundancy of morphological features in Common Slavic (Common Slavic itself has left no written legacy, but we happen to have an excellent treebank of Old Church Slavonic, which is often used as a proxy) and try to predict which features are likely to die out in 13 modern Slavic languages. While redundancy is not of course a sole determiner of the survivability, it turns out be a fairly good predictor.

Come to the talk to hear about fierce morphological competitions! They are friends, dative and locative, almost brothers, but if only one can stay alive, which will sacrifice itself? The perfect participle is an underdog past tense, its frequency negligible compared to that of its rivals, the aorist and the imperfect, but does its high non-redundancy score give it some hope?


Aleksandrs Berdicevskis is a postdoc in computational historical linguistics at an edge of the world (namely The Arctic University of Norway in the city of Tromsø) with a PhD in sociolinguistics from the University of Bergen, MA in theoretical linguistics from Moscow State University, two years’ experience in science journalism, two kids and a long-standing interest in language evolution.
The first question he usually gets from new acquaintances is about the spelling of his name. The first name is a common Russian name (Aleksandr-) with the obligatory Latvian inflectional marker for nominative masculine singular (-s). The full form is used in formal communication only, otherwise he is usually called Sasha (the Russian hypocorism for Aleksandr) or, for simplicity’s sake, Alex.