The Role of Foreigner-Directed Speech in Language Evolution

After all of this talk of spurious cross-cultural correlations it might be time to direct the discussion back to ways to resolve an over-reliance on statistical tendencies. Sean and James did a workshop on this at this year’s EvoLang about how constructive, idiographic and experimental approaches also need to be considered when investigating how linguistic and social structure are linked.

With this in mind, I present my poster from EHBEA earlier this year, which explains some experiments I did for my MSc thesis. I was trying to test the hypothesis that more second language speakers in a linguistic population might effect the cultural transmission of that language. This hypothesis is an attempt to explain the large-scale correlations found by Lupyan & Dale (2010) that showed that the the larger a language population the less morphologically complex that language will be. The idea being that larger language populations will have more second language speakers, and will therefore be more susceptible to the learning biases of adult learners.

There is some experimental evidence about the differences between adult and child learners, some of which I look at here, but in this study I looked at the role foreigner directed speech might have on the use of language in a community with a lot of second language speakers.

Lupyan, G., & Dale, R. (2010). Language structure is partly determined by social structure. PloS one5(1), e8559.

Arguments against a “prometheus” scenario

The Biological Origin of Linguistic Diversity:

From some of the minds that brought you  Chater et al. (2009) comes a new and exciting paper in PlosONE.

Chater et al. (2009) used a computational model to show that biological adaptations for language are impossible because language changes too rapidly through cultural evolution for natural selection to be able to act.

This new paper, Baronchelli et al. (2012), uses similar models to first argue that if language changes quickly then “neutral genes” are selected for because biological evolution cannot act upon linguistic features when they are too much of a “moving target”. Secondly they show that if language changes slowly in order to facilitate coding of linguistic features in the genome, then two isolated subpopulations who originally spoke the same language will diverge biologically through genetic assimilation after they linguistically diverge, which they inevitably will.

The paper argues that because we can observe so much diversity in the world’s languages, but yet children can acquire any language they are immersed in, only the model which supports the selection of “neutral genes” is plausible. Because of this, a hypothesis in which domain general cognitive abilities facilitate language rather than a hypothesis for a biologically specified, special-purpose language system is much more plausible.

A Prometheus scenario:

Baronchelli et al. (2012) use the results of their models to argue against what they call a “Prometheus” scenario. This is a scenario in which “a single mutation (or very few) gave rise to the language faculty in an early human ancestor, whose descendants then dispersed across the globe.”

I wonder if “prometheus” scenario an established term in this context because I can’t find much by googling it. It seems an odd term to use given that Prometheus was the titan who “stole” fire and other cultural tools from the Gods to be used by humans. Since Prometheus was a Titan, he couldn’t pass his genes on to humans, and rather the beginning and proliferation of fire and civilization happened through a process of learning and cultural transmission. I know this is just meant to be an analogy and presumably the promethian aspect of it is alluding to it suddenly happening, but I can’t help but feel that the term “Prometheus scenario” should be given to the hypothesis that language is the result of cultual evolution acting upon domain general processes, rather than one which supports a genetically-defined language faculty in early humans.


Baronchelli A, Chater N, Pastor-Satorras R, & Christiansen MH (2012). The biological origin of linguistic diversity. PloS one, 7 (10) PMID: 23118922

Chater, N., Reali, F., & Christiansen, M. H. (2009). Restrictions on biological adaptation in language evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(4), 1015- 1020.

International Conference on Evolutionary Patterns

I’ve reposted this from as I thought it would be of interest to readers:

Call deadline: 1 February 2013
Event Dates: 17-19 May 2013
Event Location: Lisbon, Portugal
Event URL:

Call for bioinformaticians, evolutionary biologists, microbiologists, paleontologists, geologists, physicists, mathematicians, anthropologists, archeologists, linguists, sociologists, economists, and philosophers and historians of science to provide talks on the following topics:

  1. Conceptualization, quantification and modeling of horizontal and vertical transmission in biological and sociocultural sciences
    • Bioinformatic approaches in biology, paleontology, anthropology, archeology, linguistics, sociology, and economics. These approaches can include: phylogenetics, phylogenomics, complex network based models, mathematical and statistical (computer) simulations, imaging techniques, (multi-)agent models, Complex Adaptive Systems approaches, …
    • Tree versus network diagrams
    • Mechanisms of horizontal and/or vertical transmission
    • Parallels and differences between biological and sociocultural trait transmission and inter-individual interactions
  2. Conceptualization, quantification and modeling of micro- and macroevolution in biological and sociocultural sciences
    • Mechanisms of biological and/or sociocultural micro- and macroevolution
    •  Modes of biological and/or sociocultural micro- and macroevolution
    • Tempos of biological and/or sociocultural micro- and macroevolution
    •  (Meta-)Patterns of evolution
    • Parallels and differences between biological and sociocultural micro- and macroevolution
  3. Hierarchy theory and the units, levels and mechanisms of evolution
    • Units of biological and/or sociocultural evolution
    • Levels of biological and/or sociocultural evolution, multilevel selection theories
    • Mechanisms of biological and sociocultural evolution
    • (Nested) Hierarchy theory
    • Emergence
    • Upward and downward causation
  4. How the universal application of evolutionary theories enables new possibilities for inter- and transdisciplinary research and the unification of the sciences
    • The need for an Extended Synthesis
    • Universal Darwinism, Universal Selectionism
    • The universality of symbiogenesis, reticulate evolution, hybridization, drift, patterns of punctuated equilibria, the ratchet effect, the Baldwin effect, …
    • (Applied) Evolutionary Epistemology
    • Unification of the sciences through shared research frameworks, methodologies, modeling techniques
    • Philosophical analyses and historical accounts on attempts to unify the biological and the sociocultural sciences based upon evolutionary theory

We encourage submissions of (1) concrete models and simulations, (2) theoretical, reflexive talks, and (3) historical accounts on any of the above mentioned topics.

Please see the conference website for submission details.

Limiting female participation: will it increase female participation?

Following some great work over at FeministPhilosophers to raise awareness of the prevalence of all-male conference events in Philosophy, an interdisciplinary action for gender equity at scholarly conferences has been doing the rounds over the last four days. It was proposed by Dan Sperber and Virginia Valian, who have also compiled an accompanying Q & A that is very informative indeed, especially for those who may not have thought about such issues before. The sentiment of this action is certainly commendable and it’s heartening to see this conversation being opened in the research community. In the spirit of continuing this conversation, I have made critical comments elsewhere that I’m more or less cross-posting here.

The commitment is summarised thus:

Commitment to gender equity at scholarly conferences
Across the disciplines, disproportionately more men than women participate in scholarly conferences – as keynote or plenary speakers, as symposiasts, or as panelists. This, we believe, is the outcome of widespread and generally unintended bias. It is unfair, it hinders advancement in scholarship, and it is especially discouraging to junior scholars. Overcoming such bias involves not just awareness but positive action.

We therefore undertake to make our participation in conferences – whether as an organizer, sponsor, or invited speaker – conditional on the invitation of women and men speakers in a fair and balanced manner.

So, we can understand this action as a distributed boycott of conferences that individuals believe have been unfair in their approach to inviting female speakers. There is a guideline in the accompanying Q & A on how signees can establish whether a conference has been organised fairly, which outlines various considerations you can make as an attendee and also as an organiser. The problem is that there is little to compel anyone signing this to actually make good on conditional conference participation, particularly since the bias is (as noted in the Q & A) unintended and unconscious even among those who personally endeavour to act against it. The consequences of public accountability are at best unclear, unless those signing up are also committing themselves to monitor the conduct of their fellow signatories. The fact that people generally have these sentiments before they’ve signed the commitment, and that simply holding this sentiment doesn’t seem to have made any difference to how conferences are organised, ought to make us pause.

This may seem a little unfair of me, but at least part of my cynicism is based on the fact that female representation in political parties and government positions is notoriously difficult to improve with non-binding good intentions alone. At Edinburgh University’s inaugural Chrystal Macmillan lecture last year Prof Pippa Norris showed that even voluntarily enacting quotas for a minimum number of female representatives was not enough to improve equity in political parties and make sure that they actually do anything. The only measure that proves effective is an additional penalty of non-registration for those parties that do not meet requirements. This is the case worldwide.

Proportions of m/f signatories as of 17:00 on 04/10/12
χ² = 28.071, d.f. = 1, p = < 0.0001

Related to the problems inherent in grassroots strategies of action, I also find myself wondering how it could benefit female scholars (individually but also at large), to make such a commitment. Surely the point here is that their representation is already under par. This is an especially important concern when we ask ourselves who is more likely to actually participate in such an action; despite the fact that this commitment is intended for everyone, I suspected that the one area where women might be overrepresented is on the signature list. As of today, this is certainly true (see pie chart, right; updated chart here).

It is worth pausing to consider exactly why this is problematic. It is not only that there exist fewer opportunities for high-profile female academics to speak than there should be – though that is an important issue. A more pervasive reason why fewer female speakers is a problem is that the resultant academic environment is hostile to other female academics – particularly junior attendees who, realistically, do not have as much luxury in limiting their participation. For female academics to consign themselves to only “fair” conferences seems to then work somewhat against the intended positive action, since even fewer women end up being represented than there currently are. Female junior attendance, I would bet, will largely remain the same since they cannot professionally afford to restrict themselves. The result is that they are attending conferences with even less female representation than there would have otherwise been, and encountering a more hostile and male-dominated environment.

Quick-and-dirty work on a teensy dataset to point out decline in the proportion of male signatures

A further point of concern is that, as is fairly typical of feminist campaigns, there seems to be bit of a trend for the loss of interest from male academics over a relatively short space of time (see table, left). Is it reasonable, then, to expect that a majority-female abstention will ignite structural change to remedy this situation? I am inclined to believe that it isn’t. The idea that women should opt out of speaking at conferences in order to pressure them into organisational change is questionable precisely because their contribution is already valued less than that of their male counterparts. Given this bias, withheld participation by women may have much less impact on conferences than desired, particularly at those events which are often currently all-male anyway. If we still want to claim that a boycott is a desirable means of effecting change in this instance (and I’m not entirely convinced that it is), I’d venture that it would be significantly more effective if it comprised a male majority. An additional improvement would be to compile a list of conferences with a poor track record for a focused boycott that people could commit to, rather than relying on their subjective assessment. This would be an improvement not least because leaving the onus on the individual to decide how to behave under the obligation of this commitment (combined with the lack of a concrete goal/measure of success) makes the chances of material change rather slim indeed.

Given what we already know about women’s political representation, I believe a more effective goal is to implement change at an explicitly organisational level. As an example off the top of my head, petitioning for a requirement that established conferences declare their level of complicity with a set of fairness provisions might be more promising. This allows others to judge fairness more transparently (and less subjectively) while simultaneously giving high visibility to this issue as a matter of course. This kind of approach strikes me as somewhat more hopeful in making fair representation a standard consideration of conference organisers, both now and in the future. One barrier to this is that there isn’t, to my knowledge, a central body for the registration of academic conferences or an ombudsman-type overseer that could enforce such a requirement. Given that the academy has proven itself unable to make equity provisions, perhaps one should be instated. At any rate, this is still by no means enough; if we can learn anything from the political sphere it’s that there has to be a material downside to non-compliance beyond disapproval (or lack of votes) from the constituency.

That this conversation has been opened and circulated around the interdisciplinary research community is a very positive step in the right direction. Further thinking on how we can make material changes to structural inequity is both crucial and timely; any and all discussion on this is a Good Thing. I know I’m not alone in hoping that signing this commitment is not the beginning and end of the research community’s action toward gender equity.


From Grooming to Speaking: Recent trends in social primatology and human ethology (Conference Announcement)

Should be of interest to some readers:

The Centre for Philosophy of Science of the Faculty of Science of the Portuguese University of Lisbon is organizing a 3-day international colloquium entitled “From Grooming to Speaking: recent trends in social primatology and human ethology”, on September 10-12th, 2012.

Conference website

Continue reading “From Grooming to Speaking: Recent trends in social primatology and human ethology (Conference Announcement)”

What Does It Mean To Mean?

I’ve been agonizing somewhat over what to write as my first post. I am currently delving into the wonderful word of pragmatics via a graduate seminar at the University of Virginia, but I do not yet feel proficient enough to comment on the complex philosophical theories that I am reading. So, I am going to briefly present an overview of what I will be attempting to accomplish in my year-and-a-half long thesis project. Upcoming entries will most likely be related to this topic, similar topics, and research done that bears on the outcome of my investigation.

I recently was watching a debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the nature of the human species and its origin. To no one’s surprise, language was brought up when discussing human origins.  Specifically, recursive, productive language as a distinguishing marker of the human species. What may seem obvious to the evolutionary linguists here actually came with some interesting problems, from a biological perspective. As Dawkins discusses in the debate, evolution is rather difficult for the animal kingdom. Whereas for plants, there may be distinct moments at which one can point and say “Here is when a new species emerged!”, this identifiable moment is less overt for animals.  One key problem with determining the exact moment of a new species’ emergence is the question of interbreeding.

If we consider the development of a language (a system of communication with the aforementioned characteristics) to be a marker of the human species, then do we suppose at one point we have a child emerging with the ability to form a language with mute or animalistic parents? To whom would the child speak? If Dawkins is correct and language is partially rooted in a specific gene, we could theorize that the “first” human with the gene would thereby mate with proto-humans lacking the gene. All of this is, of course, very sketchy and difficult to elucidate, as even the theory that language is rooted in a gene can be disputed. The problem remains an integral one, not only for understanding the evolutionary origins, but as the philosophers in my pragmatics class would point out, it would also have significant bearing on ontological and ethical questions regarding human origins.

I do not hope to solve this entire issue in my senior thesis; however, I do hope to show the development of language less as a suddenly produced trait and more as a gradual process from a less developed system of communication to a more developed one. From a pragmatics point of view, the question might be, how do we jump the gap, so to speak, between the lesser developed systems of communication (conventionally, these include animal communication, natural meaning, etc.) and the fully fledged unique system of human language? Paul Grice, as one might discover in my handy dandy Wikipedia link above, proposed a distinction between natural meaning, which he defined as being a cause/effect indication and considered in terms of its factivity, and non-natural meaning, as a communicative action that must be considered in terms of the speaker’s intentions. Yet, as stated above, the question remains: how do we (evolutionarily) progress from natural meaning to non-natural meaning?

Not to overly simplify, but my answer rests in the question of what it means to mean something. I hope to show, in my subsequent posts, that an investigation into semantics, and, more specifically, a natural progression through a hierarchy of types of meaning, might shed light on this problem. In short, taking a look at the development of meaning, intent, and the qualifications for a language proper can shed light on how language developed into the complex, unique phenomenon we study today.  (Oh, and to satisfy the philosophers in my class, I may ramble occasionally about the implications for a philosophical conception of our species!)


3 PhD positions on the Evolution of Combinatorial Speech

Just a quick announcement that might very well be of interest to some readers of this blog: Bart de Boer (of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Brussels, Belgium) is looking for 3 PhD students for his ERC project ABACUS (Advancing Behavioral and Cognitive Understanding of Speech). The project is about investigating (the evolution of) cognitive adaptations for dealing with combinatorial speech. It uses a combination of iterated learning experiments, individual learning experiments and computational modeling.

Each PhD project focuses on one of the approaches:

  • iterated learning
  • individual learning
  • computational modeling

But it is envisaged that the PhD students interact in their research. The PhDs are paid a stipend of around 36.000 euros (before taxes) per year, and there is additional money for travel and research assistants.

More information, and instructions on how to apply can be found at under “vacancies”.

Language Evolution and The Impact Agenda

Let’s talk about funding.

Let’s talk about funding.

I’m writing this post to generate some discussion about this subject, because when I’m not banging on about Language Evolution, my day job is to help people achieve research impact via the channels of community outreach/engagement and so it’s something I think about a lot.  It’s probably worth noting here that “Language Evolution” throughout this post can be replaced by any blue-sky area of research.

Disclaimer: I know this blog has a global readership, but I’m sat in Britain and my whole experience of research funding has been in Britain, so sorry if the issues raised here aren’t relevant to you, I’d be interested to hear how some of these issues are tackled in different countries.

Firstly, I should probably outline what the impact agenda actually is because it currently seems to be one of those vague government-constructed concepts like the “Big Society” or “Broken Britain”. “Impact” is the economic and social benefits of research outside of academia and the “Impact Agenda” is the assessment of research with regards to its “Impact”. That’s the end of the use of quotation marks for this post. I promise.

The impact agenda is largely born out of the current financial climate and funding cuts which have seen universities struggle to sustain their revenue streams. This has meant a rise in the assessment of research by universities in terms of profit, as well as through funding bodies, via the Research Excellence Framework (REF), in terms of its impact outside of academia for having demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society. Assessing the amount of funding a university department gets depending on impact is a highly controversial issue, with some claiming that it is undermining academic freedom and others arguing that it is an excellent way to ensure that academia is not an exclusive enterprise whose output only benefits those within the academic community.

Why is the impact agenda a good idea?
Having research which benefits the community is obviously a good thing – especially when that research is being funded by tax payers money. An excellent way to achieve impact in the community is to run bottom-up think-tanks where the priorities of the public become the priorities of the academic community. The outcomes of this research can then be fed back to the public who then feed further priorities into the research. This is a great model for much of the research done where immediate real-world applications exist, however there is much controversy surrounding the application of this model to the detriment of more blue sky research.

Why is the impact agenda a bad idea?
Many argue that the impact agenda undermines academic freedom as academics are being told what to research, rather than researching what they think it is best. Whilst it may be true that in some instances what the public consider to be a worthwhile avenue to explore may match up with what the academic community believe is worthwhile research, there will still be many other instances where academics wish to pursue hypotheses which the public will not see the value in – either because of a difference in values, or because of a gap in knowledge. The former is obviously a problem as the academics of this world are not a reasonable socio-economic sample of the population at large. The latter however, is probably a pretty watertight reason why academics get the last say in what it is they research. They are, after all, the intellectual cream of our society.

Why is all of this such a problem for the study of language evolution?
Research into the evolution of language is mostly within the realms of blue sky research – that is research having no immediately apparent real-world applications, but does this mean it’s not worthwhile and not worth funding in the current economic climate?

Topics for discussion:

  • Have you seen a noticeable decrease in funding in blue-sky areas?
  • What are the real-world applications of the study of language evolution?
  • Do you have any case studies where language evolution research has resulted in applications in the real world?
  • What might help increase the impact of research into language evolution?
  • Is this whole debate a false dichotomy?

How to Cite Blogs

I was perusing the backlogs of the ecology blog Oikos, when I ran into this post on how to cite blogs. As we pride ourselves here at Replicated Typo on bring changers-of-the-field, movers of literary mountains, sifters through the dregs of boring research, and general key-holders and gatekeepers to evolutionary linguistics and cultural science (arguably justifiable or not) – I figured I should probably put links as to how to cite us here, too.

So, here’s a good link at PLoS about how to cite blogs. – in BibTeX, MLA, Chicago, and APA styles. That’s most of what you’ll probably need.

So, go ahead and get citing.

Full disclosure: I am a struggling academic, and would like more citations. That may or may not have influenced the writing of this post.

The Forgotten Linguist: Mikołaj Kruszewski

In the process of writing the first in a series of posts on the theoretical plausibility of the vanishing phonemes debate, I’ve found myself drawn into reading Daniel Silverman‘s excellent two-part article (part one and part two) on Mikołaj Kruszewski (1851-1887). You might call him one of the many forgotten linguists who, along with other notable absentees in the linguistic hall of fame, such as Erwin Esper, could have been highly influential had their ideas reached a wider audience. Although it is difficult to assess his impact on the historical development of linguistics, Kruszewksi theoretical insights certainly prefigured a lot of later work, especially regarding listener-based exemplar modelling and probability matching, as evident in this quote:

In the course of time, the sounds of a language depend on the gradual change of its articulation. We can pronounce a sound only when our memory retains an imprint of its articulation for us. If all our articulations of a given sound were reflected in this imprint in equal measure, and if the imprint represented an average of all these articulations, we, with this guidance, would always perform the articulation in question approximately the same way. But the most recent (in time) articulations, together with their fortuitous deviations, are retained by the memory far more forcefully than the earlier ones. Thus, neglibible deviations acquire the capacity to grow progressively greater…

Silverman goes on to mention some of Kruszewski’s other major insights, such as: (1) the arbitrary relationship between sound and meaning, (2) the non-teleological nature of the linguistic system, (3) the generative or creative character of language, (4) the connectionist organisation of the lexicon, and (5) the optimality-theoretic-esque proposal that linguistic systems may be analysed as the product of pressures and constraints in inherent conflict with one another. There is also a brief mention of Darwin’s influence on Kruszewski’s work (as we can see in his non-teleological stance).

The story ends on somewhat of a sad note, with Kruszweski suffering from a debilitating neurological and mental illness that cut short his promising career at the age of 36 — making his depth of scholarship and theoretical insight all the more impressive given it was produced in just eight years.

Anyway, you should take a look at the two articles, if only for an historical perspective on linguistics, but I would also suggest having a gander at some of Silverman’s other papers. He’s got his own ideas and insights that are worth considering (if you can wait, I’ll be discussing some of these in one of my next posts).