Protolang 5 in Barcelona!

Plenary speakers:

Sonja Vernes
Olga Feher
Martin Kuhlwilm
João Zilhão

Animal cognition
Animal communication
Cognitive science
Cognitive semiotics
Computational modelling
General evolutionary theory
Genetics of language
Gesture studies
Neuroscience of language
Philosophy of biology
Philosophy of language
Pleistocene archaeology
Psychology (evolutionary, comparative, developmental)
Speech physiology

Talks and posters
Please submit an anonymous abstract of 400 words to the Easychair website, .
You will have the option of submitting an abstract to be considered for a presentation, poster or either. The file must be in .PDF format.

Talks should be suitable for 30 minutes (20 minutes for presentation/10 minutes for discussion).
Posters should be no larger than A0 size, vertical (841 x 1189 mm / 33.1 x 46.8 in).

Please submit a proposal to including: (a) Title of the mini-symposium, (b) name and affiliation of the organizers, (c) a general description (400 words), and (d) abstract of each contributed talk (100-150 words).

Submissions should be suitable for a two-hour session and include 3 to 5 presentations.
The organizers of accepted mini-symposia will also act as chairs of their session.

Extra Event – Workshop on Lenneberg
On September 29, there will be a workshop on the 50 years of Eric Lenneberg’s Biological Foundations of Language, including also a talk by Tecumseh Fitch (University of Vienna). If you are already in town for Protolang 5, stick around one extra day and join us. There is no registration fee for this event.
Submissions of abstracts are welcome. Please submit the abstract of your talk (400 words) Talks should be suitable for 30 minutes (20 minutes presentation/10 minutes for discussion). Make sure to send both an identified and an anonymous version.

Important dates
Submission deadline: April 20, 2017
Notifications of acceptance: June 15, 2017
Early registration deadline: July 15, 2017
Late registration deadline: September 25, 2017
Conference: September 26—28, 2017
Extra event (Workshop on Lenneberg): September 29, 2017

More info here:

Dan Everett’s Dark Matter @ 3QD

Consider these three words: gavagai, gabagaí, gabagool. If you’ve been binge watching episodes in the Star Trek franchise you might suspect them to be the equivalent of veni, vidi, vici, in the language of a space-faring race from the Gamma Quadrant. The truth, however, is even stranger.

The first is a made-up word that is well-known in certain philosophical circles. The second is not quite a word, but is from Pirahã, the Amazonian language brought to our attention by ex-missionary turned linguist, Daniel Everett, and can be translated as “frustrated initiation,” which is how Everett characterized his first field trip among the Pirahã. The third names an Italian cold cut that is likely spelled “capicola” or “capocolla” when written out and has various pronunciations depending on the local language. In New York and New Jersey, Tony Soprano country, it’s “gabagool”.

Everett discusses first two in his wide-ranging new book, Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious (2016), which I review at 3 Quarks Daily. As for gabagool, good things come in threes, no?

Why gavagai? Willard van Orman Quine coined the word for a thought experiment that points up the problem of word meaning. He broaches the issue by considering the problem of radical translation, “translation of the language of a hitherto untouched people” (Word and Object 1960, 28). He asks us to consider a “linguist who, unaided by an interpreter, is out to penetrate and translate a language hitherto unknown. All the objective data he has to go on are the forces that he sees impinging on the native’s surfaces and the observable behavior, focal and otherwise, of the native.” That is to say, he has no direct access to what is going on inside the native’s head, but utterances are available to him. Quine then asks us to imagine that “a rabbit scurries by, the native says ‘Gavagai’, and the linguist notes down the sentence ‘Rabbit’ (of ‘Lo, a rabbit’) as tentative translation, subject to testing in further cases” (p. 29).

Quine goes on to argue that, in thus proposing that initial translation, the linguist is making illegitimate assumptions. He begins his argument by nothing that the native might, in fact, mean “white” or “animal” and later on offers more exotic possibilities, the sort of things only a philosopher would think of. Quine also notes that whatever gestures and utterances the native offers as the linguist attempts to clarify and verify will be subject to the same problem.

As Everett notes, however, in his chapter on translation (266):

On the side of mistakes never made, however, Quine’s gavagai problem is one. In my field research on more than twenty languages—many of which involved monolingual situations …, whenever I pointed at an object or asked “What’s that?” I always got an answer for an entire object. Seeing me point at a bird, no one ever responded “feathers.” When asked about a manatee, no one ever answered “manatee soul.” On inquiring about a child, I always got “child,” “boy,” or “girl,” never “short hair.”


I believe that the absence of these Quinean answers results from the fact that when one person points toward a thing, all people (that I have worked with, at least) assume that what is being asked is the name of the entire object. In fact, over the years, as I have conducted many “monolingual demonstrations,” I have never encountered the gavagai problem. Objects have a relative salience… This is perhaps the result of evolved perception.

Frankly, I forget how I reacted to Quine’s thought experiment when I first read it as an undergraduate back in the 1960s. I probably found it a bit puzzling, and perhaps I even half-believed it. But that was a long time ago. When I read Everett’s comments on it I was not surprised to find that the gavagai problem doesn’t arise in the real world and find his suspected explanation, evolved perception, convincing.

As one might expect, Everett devotes quite a bit of attention to recursion, with fascinating examples from Pirahã concerning evidentials, but I deliberately did not bring that up in my review. Why, given that everyone and their Aunt Sally seem to be all a-twitter about the issue, didn’t I discuss it? That’s why, I’m tired of it and think that, at this point, it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog. I understand well enough why it’s an important issue, but it’s time to move on.

The important issue is to shift the focus of linguistic theory away from disembodied and decontextualized sentences and toward conversational interaction. That’s been going on for some time now and Everett has played a role in that shift. While the generative grammarians use merge as a term for syntactic recursion it could just as well be used to characterize how partners assimilate what they’re hearing with what they’re thinking. Perhaps that’s what syntax is for and why it arose, to make conversation more efficient–and I seem to think that Everett has a suggestion to that effect in his discussion of the role of gestures in linguistic interaction.

Anyhow, if these and related matters interest you, read my review and read Everett’s book.

Mutable stability in the transmission of medieval texts

I’ve just checked in at and was alerted to this article:

Stephen G. Nichols, Mutable Stability, a Medieval Paradox: The Case of Le Roman de la Rose, Queste 23 (2016) 2, pp. 71-103.

I’ve not yet read it, but a quick skim makes it clear that it speaks to a current debate in cultural evolution concerning the high-fidelity transmission of “memes” (Dan Dennett) vs. the variable transmission of objects as guided by “factors of attraction” (Dan Sperber). I’ve not yet read it, but here’s some tell-tale passages. This is from the beginning (p. 71):

Yet even those who argue, to the contrary, that ‘transmission errors’ often represent creative ‘participation’ by a talented scribe, must recognize the attraction of a stable work.After all, despite an extraordinary record of innovation, invention, and discovery, the Middle Ages are an era that resisted change in and for itself. And yet this same veneration of conservative values underlies a fascinating paradox of medieval culture: its delicate and seemingly contradictory balance between stability, on the one hand, and transformation, on the other. It may be that only an era that saw no contradiction in promulgating an omnipotent, unchanging divinity, which was at the same time a dynamic principle of construction and transformation, could have managed the paradox of what I want to call ‘mutable stability’.

Here’s Dawkins in the 2nd chapter of The Selfish Gene:

Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation–rocks, galaxies, ocean waves–are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms.


Back to Nichols, a bit later in the article (p. 77):

In this case, however, it’s one that allows us to understand the paradox of medieval narrative forms whose ‘stability’ over time – in some cases over several centuries – depends on what I call the generative – or regenerative – force of transmission. Why ‘regenerative’ if transmission involves reproducing the ‘same’ work from one representation to another? The answer to that question involves recognizing the complex forces at play in the transmission of me- dieval texts, beginning with concepts like ‘the same’ and ‘seeing’ or ‘perspective’. After all, in a culture where the technology of transmission depends on copying each text by hand, what the scribe sees, or thinks she or he sees, must be factored into our definition of ‘sameness’ when comparing original and copy.

In the event, ‘sameness’, for the medieval mind had a very different connotation from our modern senses of the term. Indeed, it even involves a different process of perception and imagination. Whereas in our age of mechanical and digital reproduction, we are used to standards of ‘exactness’ for things we recognize as identical, me- dieval people had neither the means nor the expectation to make ‘same’ and ‘exact imitation’ synonymous. Indeed, one may even question the existence at that time of such a concept as ‘exact imitation’, at least as we understand it. Continue reading “Mutable stability in the transmission of medieval texts”

Monkey vocal tracts are speech-ready

A new paper in Science Advances (Fitch, de Boer, Mathur & Ghazanfar, 2016) uses models informed by x-rays of macaque vocal tracts to claim that monkeys have the tools neccessary to make enough speech sounds to create a productive spoken language. This means that the evolution of speech is likely to be primarily dependent on cognitive adaptation, rather than adaptation of the vocal tract.

Abstract here:

For four decades, the inability of nonhuman primates to produce human speech sounds has been claimed to stem from limitations in their vocal tract anatomy, a conclusion based on plaster casts made from the vocal tract of a monkey cadaver. We used x-ray videos to quantify vocal tract dynamics in living macaques during vocalization, facial displays, and feeding. We demonstrate that the macaque vocal tract could easily produce an adequate range of speech sounds to support spoken language, showing that previous techniques based on postmortem samples drastically underestimated primate vocal capabilities. Our findings imply that the evolution of human speech capabilities required neural changes rather than modifications of vocal anatomy. Macaques have a speech-ready vocal tract but lack a speech-ready brain to control it.

ABACUS symposium: speech from an evolutionary perspective

Advancing Behavioral And Cognitive Understanding of Speech (ABACUS) Symposium 
Jan 14, 2017
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen
Attendance is free, but registration is required. You can register here: 
Registration deadline: December 15th 2016
The ABACUS symposium presents a series of lectures by invited speakers from a wide range of disciplines, and aims to discuss how we can further advance the study of speech from an evolutionary perspective. The evolutionary perspective entails trying to understand how linguistic signals, as well as the cognitive and anatomical machinery to use them, came to be the way they are. The symposium is held in the context of the end of the ERC project ABACUS led by Prof. Bart de Boer.
Dan Dediu – Language & Genetics (MPI Nijmegen, The Netherlands)
Tecumseh Fitch – Cognitive Biology (University of Vienna, Austria)
Marco Gamba – Primatology & Bioacoustics (University of Turin, Italy)
Odette Scharenborg -Human and automatic speech processing (Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands)
Marieke Schouwstra – Simulating conventionalization in the lab (University of Edinburgh, UK)
Tessa Verhoef – Evolution of linguistic structure (UC San Diego, USA)
Anne Warlaumont – Emergence of communication (UC Merced, USA)
Andy Wedel – Language change (University of Arizona, USA)
Sabine van der Ham,

Special session on language evolution at CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing

The 30th CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing will take place March 30 – April 1, 2017 at MIT, Cambridge MA. The theme of the Special Session is Language processing and language evolution.

Abstracts for papers and posters are due December 12, 2016.

Invited Speakers

Michael Dunn, Uppsala University, Sweden
Maryia Fedzechkina, University of Arizona
Susan Goldin-Meadow, University of Chicago
Adele Goldberg, Princeton University
Simon Kirby, University of Edinburgh
Stephen Levinson, Max Planck Institute, Holland
Emily Morgan, Tufts University
Kaius Sinnemäki, University of Helsinki

Organizing Committee

Edward Gibson
Evelina Fedorenko
Richard Futrell
Melissa Kline

Contact e-mail:

Online Experiment on Language Evolution

A forthcoming exhibition in  Dresden, Germany entitled “LANGUAGE: THE WORLD OF WORDS, SIGNS, AND GESTURES” will feature an interesting language evolution experiment.

In the experiment, conducted by Dr Christine Cuskley at the University of Edinburgh, you learn an alien language called Ferro. Since the more participants the merrier, you can also learn Ferro from your computer at home!

So if you want to learn Ferro and participate in language evolution research you can do so here!


10 post-docs join new language evolution group in Nijmegen

In 2016 and 2017, ten post-doc researchers will join the MPI for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen to form the Language Evolution and Interaction Scholars of Nijmegen group (LEvInSON).

The group will explore the biological and cultural origins of language, and how they are linked through social interaction. The group, led by Stephen Levinson, Seán Roberts and Mark Dingemanse, will be hosted by the Language and Cognition department.

The visitors include researchers specializing in experimental approaches (Hannah Little, Yasamin Motamedi, Alan Nielsen, Justin Sulik), computational modelling (Kevin Stadler, Bill Thompson), animal communication (Marcus Perlman, Andrea Ravignani), comparative linguistics (Piera Filipi), and conversational interaction (Ashley Micklos).


Tessa Verhoef, who was awarded a VENI grant to study the evolution of linguistic structure, will also join the group.  All together, this will be one of the largest groups studying language evolution in the world.

Several senior researchers will visit throughout the period, including Vera Kempe (Abertay University), Monica Tamariz (University of Edinburgh), Gary Lupyan (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Cedric Boeckx (ICREA/Universitat de Barcelona) and Bart de Boer (Vrije Universiteit Brussel).

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 “Words, Binding, and Conversation as Computation”

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.