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Words, Binding, and Conversation as Computation

I’ve been thinking about my draft article, Form, Event, and Text in an Age of Computation. It presents me with the same old rhetorical problem: how to present computation to literary critics? In particular, I want to convince them that literary form is best thought of as being computational in kind. My problem is this: If you’ve already got ‘it’, whatever it is, then my examples make sense. If you don’t, then it’s not clear to me that they do make sense. In particular, cognitive networks are a stretch. Literary criticism just doesn’t give you any useful intuitions of form as being independent of meaning.

Any how, I’ve been thinking about words and about conversation. What I’m thinking is that the connection between signifier and signified is fundamentally computed in the sense that I’m after. It’s not ‘hard-wired’ at all. Rather it’s established dynamically. That’s what the first part of this post is about. The second part then goes on to argue that conversation is fundamentally computational.

This is crude and sketchy. We’ll see.

Words as bindings between sound and sense

What is a word? I’m not even going to attempt a definition, as we all know one when we see it, so to speak. What I will say, however, is that the common-sense core intuition tends to exaggeration their Parmenidean stillness and constancy at the expense of the Heraclitean fluctuation. What does this word mean:


It’s a simple word, an everyday word. Out there in the middle of nowhere, without context, it’s hard to say what it means. I could mean this, it could mean that. It depends.

When I look it up in the dictionary on my computer, New Oxford American Dictionary, it lists three general senses. One, “a ginger root,” is listed as “dated.” The other two senses are the ones I know, and each has a number of possibilities. One set of meanings has to do with things moving and has many alternatives. The other deals with kinds of beings, biological or human. These meanings no doubt developed over time.

And, of course, the word’s appearance can vary widely depending on typeface or how it’s handwritten, either in cursive script or printed. The spoken word varies widely as well, depending on the speaker–male, female, adult, child, etc.–and discourse context. It’s not a fixed object at all.

What I’m suggesting, then, is that this common ‘picture’ is too static:


There we have it, the signifier and the signified packaged together in a little ‘suitcase’ with “sign” as the convenient handle for the package. It gives the impression the sentences are little ‘trains’ of meaning, with one box connected to the next in a chain of signifiers.

No one who thinks seriously about it actually thinks that way. But that’s where thinking starts. For that matter, by the time one gets around to distinguishing between signifier and signified one has begun to move away from the static conception. My guess is that the static conception arises from the fact of writing and the existence of dictionaries. There they are, one after another. No matter when you look up a word, it’s there in the same place, having the same definition. It’s a thing, an eternal Parmenidean thing.

Later in The Course in General Linguistics, long after he’s introduced the signifier/signified distinction, de Saussure presents us with this picture [1]:

waves sign

He begins glossing it as follows (112): “The linguistic fact can therefore be pictured in its totality–i.e. language–as a series of contiguous subdivisions marked off on both the indefinite plane of jumbled ideas (A) and the equally vague plane of sounds (B).” He goes on to note “the somewhat mysterious fact is rather that ‘thought-sound’ implies division, and that language words out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses.” I rather like that, and I like that he chose undulating waves as his visual image. Continue reading

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


JoLE special issue on Phonetics and Phonology: Deadline Extension

As has been advertised on the blog previously, The Journal of Language Evolution is hosting a special issue on the emergence of phonetics and phonology. The call for papers can be found here:
The deadline for papers was 17th April 2016, and is now being extended to 31st July 2016.
However, if you plan to submit to the special issue, or have any questions about it, please email Hannah Little (, if possible by the original deadline (17th April 2016).

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: 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.

EvoLang Preview: Using Minecraft to explore Language Evolution

Replicated Typo is doing a series of previews for this year's EvoLang conference.  If you'd like to add a preview of your own presentation, get in touch with Sean Roberts.

At this year's EvoLang Liz Irvine and I will be talking about how pointing can inhibit the emergence of symbolic communication.

Usually, pointing is thought to help the process of bootstrapping a symbolic system.  You can point to stuff to help people agree on what certain symbols refer to.  This process has been formalised in the 'naming game' (see Matt Spike's talk):

  1. I request an object by naming it (with an arbitrary symbol)
  2. You guess what I mean and give me an object
  3. I point to the object that I meant you to give me (feedback)
  4. We remember the name that referred to this object

This game is the basis for many models of the emergence of shared symbolic systems, including iterated learning experiments (e.g Feher et al., and Macuch Silva & Roberts).  Here's some robots playing the naming game in Luc Steels' lab:

Robots use pointing to draw attention to objects in a naming game, see here.

However, the setup of these experiments assumes one crucial thing: that the individuals can't use pointing to make the request in the first place.  Most experiments are set up so that participants must communicate symbolically before they can use pointing.  If you allowed pointing to be used in a naming game, then it would probably go something like this:

  1. I point at the object I want.
  2. I request an object by naming it (with an arbitrary symbol)
  3. You guess what I mean and give me an object
  4. I point to the object that I meant you to give me (feedback)
  5. We remember the name that referred to this object

That is, if we're good enough at pointing then we don't need a symbolic language for this task.

Of course, there must have been some task in our evolutionary history that provided a pressure for us to develop language.  We set out to explore what kind of task this might have been by running an experiment in Minecraft.

Continue reading

1st issue of The Journal of Language Evolution: discussion on tone and humidity

The origins of language, and how they change over time, are tricky topics.  We can’t travel back in time to observe how it happened, and we’re only just beginning to understand the range of variation in existing languages.  Traditionally, the study of language evolution was more of a philosophical enterprise, with many educated guesses and a lot of debate about theoretical distinctions.  But these days it’s clear that a much wider approach is needed.  Thinking about how so many diverse ways of communicating could have emerged in a single species (and that species alone) involves thinking about topics as diverse as genetics, animal communication, cultural evolution, emerging sign languages, and the history of human migration and contact (even Chomsky recently wrote of the importance of acquisition, pragmatics, computer science and neuroscience in understanding the language faculty!).

The new Journal of Language Evolution will tackle these issues by reaching out to new areas of research and by embracing new quantitative methods, as Dan Dediu discusses in the editorial of the first issue.  The issue includes an introduction to the linguistic diversity of planet Earth by Harald Hammarstrom, which demonstrates how important the work of language documentation (especially of endangered languages) is for shaping our ideas about what evolved.  Bodo Winter and also provide an introduction to mixed models and growth curves, which is becoming an increasingly important tool in the language sciences.  Extending the topics to pragmatics, Cat Silvey reviews Thom Scott Phillips’ book Speaking our Minds.

Climate and Language Evolution

But if this isn’t deep enough into the frontiers of language evolution for you, there is also a debate on humidity and tone.  Caleb Everett, Damian Blasí and myself discuss the potential effects of our ecology on language evolution.  This includes obvious differences such as some languages having more specific words for relevant climatic factors (not just words for snow, but watch this space for news on that front), to the way the climate affects population movement.  We focussed on one controversial idea: dry air affects phonation accuracy, so some sounds should be harder to produce accurately in dry climates.  Over a long period of time, this might lead to languages changing to avoid these sounds.

Here's a simple diagram of what we mean:

Continue reading