DGfS Summer School – Language Development: Evolution, Change, Acquisition

Thought y’all might be interested in the below. Quite a lot of language evolution stuff going on and some big names.

DGfS Summer School – Language Development: Evolution, Change, Acquisition 

Date: 12-Aug-2013 – 30-Aug-2013
Location: Humboldt-University Berlin, Germany
Meeting URL: http://www2.hu-berlin.de/dgfs_sommerschule/ 

Meeting Description:

We invite advanced students (M.A. or Ph.D. level) in Linguistics and related fields to attend this 3-week event in August 2013. It is co-organized by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sprachwissenschaft (DGfS), the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, and the Excellence Cluster 264 – TOPOI. The Summer School offers courses in different areas of linguistics, genetics, anthropology and archeology, which look at language from the point of view of language evolution, language change, and language acquisition. The courses will be taught by distinguished researchers from Germany, Europe and the USA. The summer school is of course also open to more advanced scientists who are interested in learning about language development. Language of instruction is English and German. For further information see the summer school’s website:


Courses (language evolution in bold):

The origins and evolution of language (Maggie Tallerman) 
Empirical approaches to the cultural evolution of language (Hannah Cornish) 
Genes and language: from molecules to linguistic diversity (Dan Dediu & Sonja Vernes) 
Emergence and development of writing systems (F. Kammerzell) 
Empirical approaches to the diversity and disparity of languages (Michael Dunn) 
Mathematical and Computational Models of Language Evolution (Gerhard Jäger) 
Linguistics und Human Prehistory (Paul Heggarty) 
Sign Languages: Evolution and Change (Markus Steinbach) 
Diachronic change in four millenia: the language history of Egyptian-Coptic (Daniel Werning)
Approaches to Historical Morphology and Syntax (Alice C. Harris)
Efficiency and extravagance in morphosyntactic change (Martin Haspelmath)
Semantic Change (Dirk Geeraerts)
Indo-European linguistics revisited (Silvia Luraghi)
In search of stability in language contact. (Pieter Muysken)
Diachronic Phonology (Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero & Silke Hamann)
The social foundation of language change (Daniel Schreier)
Sprachtheoretische und didaktische Aspekte des Schriftspracherwerbs (Christa Röber)
The acquisition of sign language: influences from modality and experience (Gary Morgan)
Theoretical and Empirical approaches to first language acquisition (Heike Behrens)
Language attrition and bilingual development (Monika Schmid)
Multimodal multilingualism: Gestures, second language acquisition, bilingualism (Marianne Gullberg)
Bilingualism and second language learning: Cognitive and neuropsychological perspectives (Janet van Hell)

What happens when you get a Zebra Finch drunk?

It has now been some time since Sean posed the research question as to whether a population’s consumption of alcohol can affect the structure of that population’s language. This hypothesis is born from the finding that alcohol consumption affects procedural but not declarative memory (Smith & Smith, 2003).

This question was brought to the front of my mind again today after an article appeared in New Scientist about the findings of a study which looked at what happens when you get Zebra Finches drunk.

Zebra finches are interesting to those studying language evolution because they are known to use vocal learning to acquire their repertoire of songs. We also know that these songs can be passed on through cultural transmission and accumulate structure based on the cognitive biases of the finches, just as language does in humans.

It is not a hard leap to draw parallels between early human speech acquisition and the song development of birds (Doupe & Kuhl, 1999).  Both humans and birds are known to babble and in both innate biases and constraints interact with environmental influences to produce the final vocal output (Feher et al. 2008).

The findings published in new scientist (though, as yet, nowhere else),  state that binge drinking may permanently impair juvenile finches’ ability to learn new songs and that, while normal young Zebra Finches “babble” and experiment before settling on their own song, which is inspired by the songs of the finches around them, the drinking finches experimented less, and settled on a simple song at early on.

Christophen Olson, who presented the findings, said that the results may tell us something about how learning behaviour in the adolescent human brain is affected by binge drinking.  It is an interesting thought experiment to consider how human language may culturally evolve in a population of individuals binge drinking from an early age. I don’t think we’re going to get this one past the ethics board though.


Thanks to Rosalind King for pointing out this article to me.


Doupe, A.J. and Kuhl, P.K. (1999). Birdsong and Human Speech: Common Themes and Mechanisms. Annu. Rev. Neurosci., 13, 567-631.

Feher, O., Mitra, P.P., Sasahara, K., Tchernichovski, O., 2008. Evolution of song culture in the zebra finch. In A.D. Smith, K. Smith, R. Ferrer i Cancho, eds., The Evolution of Language. World Scientific Publishing: Singapore, pp. 423–424.

Smith C, & Smith D (2003). Ingestion of ethanol just prior to sleep onset impairs memory for procedural but not declarative tasks. Sleep, 26 (2), 185-91 PMID: 12683478

The Evolution of Speech: Learned Vocalisations in Mice

Mice can learn vocalisations! A new article realised today on PLOS ONE by Gustavo Arriaga, Eric Zhou and Erich Jarvis, shows that mice share some of the same mechanisms used to learn vocal patterning in songbirds and humans.

Mice can learn vocalisations! A new article realised today on PLOS ONE by Gustavo Arriaga, Eric Zhou and Erich Jarvis, shows that mice share some of the same mechanisms used to learn vocal patterning in songbirds and humans.

Very few animals have the capacity for vocal learning. This ability allows species to modify the sequence and pitch of sounds that create songs or speech. Currently, only three groups of birds – parrots, hummingbirds and songbirds – and some mammalian species – humans, whales, dolphins, sea lions, bats and elephants – have demonstrated vocal learning. This ability is still yet to be found even in non-human primates.

This study looks at the ultrasonic vocalizations known as mouse ‘song’ and provides evidence that mice can change at least one acoustic feature of these vocalizations based on their social exposure.

Two mice were put together and over time learned to match the pitch of their songs to one another. The paper suggests this is a limited form of vocal learning.

The paper also shows evidence that the mice can control their vocal motor neurons. In the press release, Erich Jarvis states, “This is an exciting find, as the presence of direct forebrain control over the vocal neurons may be one of the most critical aspects in the human evolution of speech.”

While this vocal learning in mice seems to be much more primitive than in songbirds or humans, it may reveal some of the intermediate steps in the process by which vocalization evolved in advanced vocal learners like songbirds and humans.

Exciting stuff!



Arriaga G, Zhou EP, Jarvis ED (2012) Of Mice, Birds, and Men: The Mouse Ultrasonic Song System Has Some Features Similar to Humans and Song-Learning Birds. PLoS ONE 7(10): e46610. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046610

The continuing rise of physics envy

A few weeks back, James posted a paper about the “Linguistic Big Bang”. Now here’s a paper about protolanguage and the linguistic “God Particle”. I’m happy to see that physics envy in the linguistic community is far from dead!

A few weeks back, James posted a paper about the “Linguistic Big Bang”. Now here’s a paper about protolanguage and the linguistic “God Particle”. I’m happy to see that physics envy in the linguistic community is far from dead!


Most scholars investigating the evolution of language subscribe to the hypothesis that protolanguage occurred as an intermediate stage between the speechless state of our remote ancestors and modern language. But some scholars – Noam Chomsky and fellow biolinguists, Bernd Heine and Tania Kuteva, and others – have expressed serious doubts about the existence of protolanguage. The present article investigates the cause of this disagreement and what it reveals about the nature of influential modern work on language evolution. It does this by analysing the case made by Derek Bickerton for the existence of protolanguage, as well as Noam Chomsky’s case against the existence of protolanguage. Both cases are shown to be weak, resting on a range of implicit and/or contentious assumptions. Invoking a conceptual distinction illustrated by physicists’ hunt for the “God particle”, the article argues that the case for the existence of protolanguage has not been strengthened by recent work attributing specific properties to protolanguage. To conclude, the article discusses the conceptual means needed for shoring up the assumption that evidence for the existence of protolanguage can be derived from so-called living linguistic fossils.

Botha, R. (2012) Protolanguage and the “God particle”, Lingua, Volume 122, Issue 12, Pages 1308-1324, ISSN 0024-3841, 10.1016/j.lingua.2012.07.005.

Niche as a determinant of word fate in online groups (featuring @hanachronism and @richlitt)


Last year Altmann, Pierrehumbert & Motter (henceforth, APM) released a great paper in PLoS One: Niche as a determinant of word fate in online groups. Having referenced the paper extensively in my non-bloggy academic world, I thought it was about time I mentioned it on a Replicated Typo. Below is the abstract:

Patterns of word use both reflect and influence a myriad of human activities and interactions. Like other entities that are reproduced and evolve, words rise or decline depending upon a complex interplay between their intrinsic properties and the environments in which they function. Using Internet discussion communities as model systems, we define the concept of a word niche as the relationship between the word and the characteristic features of the environments in which it is used. We develop a method to quantify two important aspects of the word niche: the range of individuals using the word and the range of topics it is used to discuss. Controlling for word frequency, we show that these aspects of the word niche are strong determinants of changes in word frequency. Previous studies have already indicated that word frequency itself is a correlate of word success at historical time scales. Our analysis of changes in word frequencies over time reveals that the relative sizes of word niches are far more important than word frequencies in the dynamics of the entire vocabulary at shorter time scales, as the language adapts to new concepts and social groupings. We also distinguish endogenous versus exogenous factors as additional contributors to the fates of words, and demonstrate the force of this distinction in the rise of novel words. Our results indicate that short-term nonstationarity in word statistics is strongly driven by individual proclivities, including inclinations to provide novel information and to project a distinctive social identity.

Continue reading “Niche as a determinant of word fate in online groups (featuring @hanachronism and @richlitt)”

Evolution of the Speech Code: Higher-Order Symbolism and the Linguistic Big Bang

Two months ago Daniel Silverman (San Jose State University) gave a talk at the LEC on the Evolution of the Speech Code: Higher-Order Symbolism and the Linguistic Big Bang. With his permission, I’ve posted below a PDF of a paper he’s written based on the talk — it’s really fascinating stuff and chock-a-block with ideas. Keep in mind that it’s a work in progress, but I’m sure he’ll appreciate any (informative) comments. So, on that note, go and read:

[gview file=”http://seedyroad.com/academics/Evolutionofthespeechcode.pdf” save=”1″]