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: http://wiki.urbandead.com/index.php/Category:Zombese_Linguists

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.

Defining iconicity and its repercussions in language evolution

There was an awful lot of talk about iconicity at this year’s EvoLang conference (as well as in previous years), and its ability to bootstrap communication systems and solve symbol grounding problems, and this has lead to talk on its possible role in the emergence of human language. Some work has been more sceptical than other’s about the role of iconicity, and so I thought it would be useful to do a wee overview of some of the talks I saw in relation to how different presenters define iconicity (though this is by no stretch a comprehensive overview).

As with almost everything, how people define iconicity differs across studies. In a recent paper, Monaghan, Shillcock, Christiansen & Kirby (2014) identify two forms of iconicity in language; absolute iconicity and relative iconicity. Absolute iconicity is where some linguistic feature imitates a referent, e.g. onomatopoeia or gestural pantomime. Relative iconicity is where there is a signal-meaning mapping or there is a correlation between similar signals and similar meanings. Relative iconicity is usually only clear when the whole meaning and signal spaces can be observed together and systematic relations can be observed between them.

Liz Irvine gave a talk on the core assumption that iconicity played a big role in in bootstrapping language. She teases apart the distinction above by calling absolute iconicity, “diagrammatic iconicity” and relative iconicity, “imagic iconicity”. “Imagic iconicity” can be broken down even further and can be measured on a continuum either in terms of how signals are used and interpreted by language users, or simply by objectively looking at meaning-signal mappings where signs can be non-arbitrary, but not necessarily treated as iconic by language users. Irvine claims that this distinction is important in accessing the role of iconicity in the emergence of language. She argues that diagrammatic or absolute iconicity may aid adults in understanding new signs, but it doesn’t necessarily aid early language learning in infants. Whereas imagic, or relative iconicity, is a better candidate to aid language acquisition and language emergence, where language users do not interpret the signal-meaning mappings explicitly as being iconic, even though they are non-arbitrary.

Irvine briefly discusses that ape gestures are not iconic from the perspective of their users. Marcus Perlman, Nathaniel Clark and Joanne A. Tanner presented work on whether iconicity exists in ape gesture. They define iconicity as being gestures which in any way resemble or depict their meanings but break down these gestures into pantomimed actions, directive touches and visible directives, which are all arguably examples of absolute iconicity. Following from Irvine’s arguments, this broad definition of iconicity may not be so useful when drawing up scenarios for language evolution, and the authors try to provide more detailed and nuanced analysis drawing from the interpretation of signs from the ape’s perspective. Theories which currently exist on iconicity in ape gesture maintain that any iconicity is an artefact of the gesture’s development through inheritance and ritualisation. However, the authors argue that these theories do not currently account for the variability and creativity seen in iconic ape gestures which may help frame iconicity from the perspective of its user.

It’s difficult to analyse iconicity from an ape’s perspective, however, it should be much easier to get at how human’s perceive and interpret different types of iconicity via experiments. I think that experimental design can help get at this, but also analysis from a user perspective from post-experimental questionnaires or even post-experimental experiments (where naive participants are asked to rate to what degree a sign represents a meaning).

Gareth Roberts and Bruno Galantucci presented a study where their hypothesis was that a modality’s capacity for iconicity may inhibit the emergence of combinatorial structure (phonological patterning) in a system. This hypothesis may explain why emerging sign languages, which have more capacity for iconicity than spoken languages, can have fully expressive systems without a level of combinatorial structure (see here). They used the now famous paradigm from Galantucci’s 2005 experiment here. They asked participants to communicate a variety of meanings which were either lines, which could be represented through absolute iconicity with the modality provided, or circles which were various shades of green, which could not be iconically represented. The experiment showed that indeed, the signals used for circles were made up from combinatorial elements where the lines retained iconicity throughout the experiment. This is a great experiment and I really like it, however, I worry that it is only looking at two extreme ends of the iconicity continuum, and has not considered the effects of relative iconicity, or nuances of signal-meaning relations.  In de Boer and Verhoef (2012), a mathematical model shows that shared topology between signal and meaning spaces will generate an iconic system with signal-meaning mapping, but mismatched topologies will generate systems with conventionalised structure. I think it is important that experimental work now looks into more slight differences between signal and meaning spaces and the effects these differences will have on structure in emerging linguistic systems in the lab, and also how participant’s interpretation of any iconicity or structure in a system effects the nature of that iconicity or structure. I’m currently running some experiments exploring this myself, so watch this space!


Where possible, I’ve linked to studies as I’ve cited them.

All other studies cited are included in Erica A. Cartmill, Seán Roberts, Heidi Lyn & Hannah Cornish, ed., The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 10th international conference (EvoLang 10). It’s only £87.67 on Amazon, (but it may be wiser to email the authors if you don’t have a friend with a copy).