Advances in Visual Methods for Linguistics (AVML2012)

Some peeps over the the University of York are organising a conference on the advances in visual methods for linguistics (AVML) to take place in September next year.

Some peeps over the the University of York are organising a conference on the advances in visual methods for linguistics (AVML) to take place in September next year. This might be of interest to evolutionary linguists who use things like phylogenetic trees, networks, visual simulations or other fancy dancy visual methods. The following is taken from their website:

Linguistics, like other scientific disciplines, is centrally reliant upon visual images for the elicitation, analysis and presentation of data. It is difficult to imagine how linguistics could have developed, and how it could be done today, without visual representations such as syntactic trees, psychoperceptual models, vocal tract diagrams, dialect maps, or spectrograms. Complex multidimensional data can be condensed into forms that can be easily and immediately grasped in a way that would be considerably more taxing, even impossible, through textual means. Transforming our numerical results into graphical formats, according to Cleveland (1993: 1), ‘provides a front line of attack, revealing intricate structure in data that cannot be absorbed in any other way. We discover unimagined effects, and we challenge imagined ones.’ Or, as Keith Johnson succinctly puts it, ‘Nothing beats a picture’ (2008: 6).

So embedded are the ways we visualize linguistic data and linguistic phenomena in our research and teaching that it is easy to overlook the design and function of these graphical techniques. Yet the availability of powerful freeware and shareware packages which can produce easily customized publication-quality images means that we can create visual enhancements to our research output more quickly and more cheaply than ever before. Crucially, it is very much easier now than at any time in the past to experiment with imaginative and innovative ideas in visual methods. The potential for the inclusion of enriched content (animations, films, colour illustrations, interactive figures, etc.) in the ever-increasing quantities of research literature, resource materials and new textbooks being published, especially online, is enormous. There is clearly a growing appetite among the academic community for the sharing of inventive graphical methods, to judge from the contributions made by researchers to the websites and blogs that have proliferated in recent years (e.g. InfostheticsInformation is BeautifulCool InfographicsBBC Dimensions, or Visual Complexity).

In spite of the ubiquity and indispensability of graphical methods in linguistics it does not appear that a conference dedicated to sharing techniques and best practices in this domain has taken place before. This is less surprising when one considers that relatively little has been published specifically on the subject (exceptions are  Stewart (1976), and publications by the LInfoVisgroup). We think it is important that researchers from a broad spectrum of linguistic disciplines spend time discussing how their work can be done more efficiently, and how it can achieve greater impact, using the profusion of flexible and intuitive graphical tools at their disposal. It is also instructive to view advances in visual methods for linguistics from a historical perspective, to gain a greater sense of how linguistics has benefited from borrowed methodologies, and how in some cases the discipline has been at the forefront of developments in visual techniques.

The abstract submission deadline is the 9th January.

Laryngeal Air Sacs

So, I got a request from a friend of mine to make an abstract on the fly for a poster for Friday. I stayed up until 3am and banged this out. Tonight, I hope to write the poster justifying it into being. A lot of the work here builds on Bart de Boer’s work, with which I am pretty familiar, but much of it also started with a wonderful series of posts over on Tetrapod Zoology. Rather than describe air sacs here, I’m just going to link to that – I highly suggest the series!

Here’s the abstract I wrote up, once you’ve read that article on air sacs in primates. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated – I’ll try to make a follow-up post with the information that I gather tonight and tomorrow morning on the poster, as well.

Re-dating the loss of laryngeal air sacs in hominins

Laryngeal air sacs are a product of convergent evolution in many different species of primates, cervids, bats, and other mammals. In the case of Homo sapiens, their presence has been lost. This has been argued to have happened before Homo heidelbergensis, due to a loss of the bulla in the hyoid bone from Austrolopithecus afarensis (Martinez, 2008), at a range of 500kya to 3.3mya. (de Boer, to appear). Justifications for the loss of laryngeal air sacs include infection, the ability to modify breathing patterns and reduce need for an anti-hyperventilating device (Hewitt et al, 2002), and the selection against air sacs as they are disadvantageous for subtle, timed, and distinct sounds (de Boer, to appear). Further, it has been suggested that the loss goes against the significant correlation of air sac retention to evolutionary growth in body mass (Hewitt et al., 2002).

I argue that the loss of air sacs may have occurred more recently (less than 600kya), as the loss of the bulla in the hyoid does not exclude the possibility of airs sacs, as in cervids, where laryngeal air sacs can herniate between two muscles (Frey et al., 2007).  Further, the weight measurements of living species as a justification for the loss of air sacs despite a gain in body mass I argue to be unfounded given archaeological evidence, which suggests that the laryngeal air sacs may have been lost only after size reduction in Homo sapiens from Homo heidelbergensis.

Finally, I suggest two further justifications for loss of the laryngeal air sacs in homo sapiens. First, the linguistic niche of hunting in the environment in which early hominin hunters have been posited to exist – the savannah – would have been better suited to higher frequency, directional calls as opposed to lower frequency, multidirectional calls. The loss of air sacs would have then been directly advantageous, as lower frequencies produced by air sac vocalisations over bare ground have been shown to favour multidirectional over targeted utterances (Frey and Gebler, 2003). Secondly, the reuse of air stored in air sacs could have possibly been disadvantageous toward sustained, regular heavy breathing, as would occur in a similar hunting environment.


Boer, B. de. (to appear). Air sacs and vocal fold vibration: Implications for evolution of speech.

Fitch, T. (2006). Production of Vocalizations in Mammals. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Elsevier.

Frey, R, & Gebler, A. (2003). The highly specialized vocal tract of the male Mongolian gazelle (Procapra gutturosa Pallas, 1777–Mammalia, Bovidae). Journal of anatomy, 203(5), 451-71. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from

Frey, Roland, Gebler, Alban, Fritsch, G., Nygrén, K., & Weissengruber, G. E. (2007). Nordic rattle: the hoarse vocalization and the inflatable laryngeal air sac of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus). Journal of Anatomy, 210(2), 131-159. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7580.2006.00684.x.

Martínez, I., Arsuaga, J. L., Quam, R., Carretero, J. M., Gracia, a, & Rodríguez, L. (2008). Human hyoid bones from the middle Pleistocene site of the Sima de los Huesos (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain). Journal of human evolution, 54(1), 118-24. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.07.006.

Hewitt, G., MacLarnon, A., & Jones, K. E. (2002). The functions of laryngeal air sacs in primates: a new hypothesis. Folia primatologica international journal of primatology, 73(2-3), 70-94. Retrieved from

Sound good? I hope so! That’s all for now.

Chomsky derides purely statistical methods

This month sees MIT’s Brains, Minds, and Machines symposium. The opening panel discussion was moderated by Steven Pinker and called for a reboot in artificial intelligence. The panel consisted of Noam Chomsky, Marvin Minsky, Patrick Winston, Susan Carey, Emilio Bizzi, and Sidney Brenner. Most panelists called for a reboot of old style research methods in AI as opposed to the more narrow applications of AI seen today. An article on Technology review summarizes Chomsky’s contribution:

Chomsky derided researchers in machine learning who use purely statistical methods to produce behavior that mimics something in the world, but who don’t try to understand the meaning of that behavior. Chomsky compared such researchers to scientists who might study the dance made by a bee returning to the hive, and who could produce a statistically based simulation of such a dance without attempting to understand why the bee behaved that way. “That’s a notion of [scientific] success that’s very novel. I don’t know of anything like it in the history of science,” said Chomsky.

I wondered what people thought of this argument and how it relates to the computational and statistical models used to demonstrate language that are becoming so fashionable these days.

Academic Blogging

Natalia Cecire has a good post on academic blogging over at Arcade. Tne ensuing discussion is excellent.

Here’s what I posted to the discussion:

Excellent post, Natalia, and excellent discussion all.

I come at this subject from a different angle. I was trained as an academic, held an academic post, then failed to get tenure. Since then I’ve done this and that, while maintaining an active intellectual life. The advent of the web was a godsend to me, for it opened up new lines communication. Now I could easily find out about things and stuff and contact any scholar with an email address. I was once again in the mix, though a somewhat different mix, to be sure.

It’s within that context that I see my blogging. I do most of my blogging at my own blog, New Savanna, which is a mixture of various things. I could easily break it into 3 or 4 more tightly focused blogs, but why do that? (Perhaps readers would be less confused.) I post photos, personal essays (not so many of those), and material on a wide variety of topics at varying levels of sophistication and intellectual development.

I’m particularly fond of the work I’ve been doing on cartoons, most of which is analytic and descriptive. I regard that as being as important as anything I’m doing, but I don’t see how I could do that work in a formal academic venue. As far as I know, there’s no place to publish largely analytic descriptive work on cartoons. So I blog it. Most recently, a series of four posts on Porky in Wackland and eight on The Greatest Man in Siam. While some of those posts get just a tad heavy here and there, for the most part they’re pretty straightforward and accessible. Anyone who’s interested in that material can read those posts. And there’s a substantial community of folks interested in animation that isn’t being served by academia.

So, I’m a public intellectual without the reputation that seems to be part of the implicit understanding of the term. Continue reading “Academic Blogging”

Chomsky Chats About Language Evolution

If you go to this page at Linguistic Inquiry (house organ of the Chomsky school), you’ll find this blurb:

Episode 3: Samuel Jay Keyser, Editor-in-Chief of Linguistic Inquiry, has shared a campus with Noam Chomsky for some 40-odd years via MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. The two colleagues recently sat down in Mr. Chomsky’s office to discuss ideas on language evolution and the human capacity for understanding the complexities of the universe. The unedited conversation was recorded on September 11, 2009.

I’ve neither listened to the podcast nor read the transcript—both linked available here. But who knows, maybe you will. FWIW, I was strongly influenced by Chomsky in my undergraduate years, but the lack of a semantic theory was troublesome. Yes, there was co-called generative semantics, but that didn’t look like semantics to me, it looked like syntax.

Then I found Syd Lamb’s stuff on stratificational grammar & that looked VERY interesting. Why? For one thing, the diagrams were intriguing. For another, Lamb used the same formal constructs for phonology, morphology, syntax and (what little) semantics (he had). That elegance appealed to me. Still does, & I’ve figured out how to package a very robust semantics into Lamb’s diagrammatic notation. But that’s another story.