Category Archives: Uncategorized

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Workshop on Causality in the Language Sciences

The MPI for Mathematics in the Sciences in Leipzig is hosting a workshop on Causality in the Language Sciences on April 13 – 15, 2015.

There is a call for talks and posters here (deadline January 10th, 2015).

Invited speakers include Balthasar Bickel, Claire Bowern, Morten Christiansen, Dan Dediu, Michael Dunn, T. Florian Jaeger, Gerhard Jaeger, Anne Kandler and Richard Sproat.

From the conference website:

Although the tenet of “correlation does not imply causation” is still an important guiding principle in language research, a number of techniques developed in the last few decades opened new scenarios where testing causal relations becomes possible. Recent advances in information theory, time series analysis, phylogenetics, stochastic processes, dynamical systems, graphical models and Bayesian inference (among many others) set the stage for a new and exciting chapter in the field.

In parallel, in the last few decades an unprecedented amount of data became available on a large number of language-related phenomena. We have massive matrices of voxel activation in the neural circuits involved in speech production and comprehension, several years of annotated conversations between young children and their caregivers, hundreds of hours of phonetic and anatomical measurements and multiple environmental, genetic, and demographic variables related to populations of speakers for a large number of the world’s languages.

The aim of this workshop is to address these two issues: how do we properly test causal relations in (eventually noisy, sparse or incomplete) data, and how can we infer or test the mechanisms underlying them?

Following a half a day school on cutting-edge methods for causal analysis, world class scientists will present their research on topics ranging from language history, writing systems, speech processing, typology, lexical semantics, and others.

We invite contributions from researchers facing specific problems in determining causality in language systems and also from researchers offering perspectives from the methodological and theoretical point of view of causal inference.



Language Evolution at Nacht van Kunst en Kennis festival

This year’s Nacht van Kunst en Kennis Science Festival in Leiden features an experiment on language evolution.  Come and take part in our interactive iterated learning experiment at the Museum Boerhaave from 19:30 on Saturday 20th September.

Mark Dingemanse, Tessa Verhoef, Shawn Tice, Marisa Cassillas and I will be there to answer questions.  Our results will be displayed live on the night!

You can read more about the experiment at the Taal in de reageerbuis page.

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Functional trade-off between lexical tone and intonation

Languages can use pitch to make lexical contrasts (so called tone languages) or to mark contrasts at the utterance level, usually called intonation, such as using rising pitch to indicate a question as opposed to a statement.  In fact, a language can use pitch to do both by various means such as changes in pitch range.  However, lexical tone and intonation are often seen as mechanisms that compete for pitch resources.  Yip (2002) holds that “it is commonplace that many lexical tone languages avoid the potential conflicts between intonation and lexical tone by using a different mechanism altogether: the sentence-final particle.”

Can we see the evolutionary effects of this dependency in the typology of the world’s languages? (at the very least, the terminology is in competition!  I’ll use ‘intonation’ to mean phrase-level pitch)

Continue reading

PhD positions in the Dynamics of Language

The ARC centre of excellence for the Dynamics of language is offering a number of PhD positions, including on the topic of language evolution.  The positions are hosted at ANU in Canberra, the University of Melbourne and the University of Queensland.  These are on top of the Wellsprings of Diversity positions.

From the website:

The Evolution program will engage with central questions about the evolution of language across scales that range from the whole span of human evolution to the adaptations that occur as speech capacities are lost in speech-impaired individuals. This program will explore what possible structures languages can develop, how learning and processing biases shape the direction of evolution, what is the role of the speech community in language evolution, and how insights from language evolution can help develop more flexible ways of robots learning speech.

Details can be found in the pdfs below.


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Review of correlational studies in linguistics

Articles from the first edition of the Annual Review of Linguistics are appearing online this week.  Bob Ladd, Dan Dediu and I wrote a review of correlations in linguistics.

We review a number of recent studies that have identified either correlations between different linguistic features (e.g., implicational universals) or correlations between linguistic features and nonlinguistic properties of speakers or their environment (e.g., effects of geography on vocabulary). We compare large-scale quantitative studies with more traditional theoretical and historical linguistic research and identify divergent assumptions and methods that have led linguists to be skeptical of correlational work. We also attempt to demystify statistical techniques and point out the importance of informed critiques of the validity of statistical approaches. Finally, we describe various methods used in recent correlational studies to deal with the fact that, because of contact and historical relatedness, individual languages in a sample rarely represent independent data points, and we show how these methods may allow us to explore linguistic prehistory to a greater time depth than is possible with orthodox comparative reconstruction.  Whether researchers are for or against these new techniques, understanding them is becoming increasingly necessary to interface with discussions in the field.

One of the most fun parts of putting the paper together was drawing this diagram (below) of all the links that we discuss.  It turns out that there are a lot of complicated links between linguistic and social variables!  I’m currently working on methods to disentangle this web.

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We also include three appendices as supplementary materials.  First, a list of electronic databases relevant for cross-cultural statistical comparisons.  Secondly, a very brief introduction to statistical hypothesis testing, which could be useful for linguists who are not familiar with statistical approaches.  Thirdly, a discussion of robustness and validity in statistical approaches to linguistics.

Other reviews also look interesting, for example, Johansson on Language abilities of Neandertals, Fisher and Vernes on genetics and linguistics, de Vos on village sign languages and Kroll et al. on bilingualism.

Ladd, D. R., Roberts, S. G., and Dediu, D. (2015). Correlational studies in typological and historical linguistics. Annual Review of Linguistics, 1(1). preview

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SpecGram Essential Guide to Linguistics: electronic version

The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics is now available in electronic format.  In the highest tradition of satire, this book gives a unique insight into the world of linguistics.  It is crucial reading for any linguist who is trying to maintain a sense of perspective (or for those seeking the comfort of realising their own perspective is relatively grounded ).

There’s also a special discount for the readers of Replicated Typo! Follow this link for 16.8% off.

From the blurb:

The book is written for linguists, by linguists. It’s about Linguistics and Language, but it’s not a textbook. Rather, it takes a sidelong look at all that is humorous about the field. Containing over 150 articles, poems, cartoons, humorous ads and book announcements—plus a generous sprinkling of quotes, proverbs and other witticisms—the book discovers things to laugh about in most major subfields of Linguistics.

What people have been saying:

“Don’t wait for Jon Stewart or Louis C.K. to do something with linguisticsit ain’t gonna happen. Just get this book and give a copy to everyone who needs a laugh.”

—Stephen Dodson, Languagehat

“[The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics] will be a symbolic expression of your inner linguistic nerd.”

—Phaedra Royle, on Linguist List

“Complete with a choose-your-own-career-in-linguistics adventure game (German-sign-language-shaped dice not included), this is the ultimate gift for the budding language student, the jaded academic or the holistic forensic linguist.”

—Sean Roberts, A Replicated Typo

And just in time for Christmas.


Beyond Quantification: Digital Criticism and the Search for Patterns

I’ve collected some recent posts (from New Savanna) on patterns into a working paper. It’s online at SSRN. Here’s the abstract and the introduction.

Abstract: Literary critics seek patterns, whether patterns in individual texts or patterns in large collections of texts. Valid patterns are taken as indices of causal mechanisms of one sort or another. Most abstractly, a pattern emerges or is enacted as some machine makes its way in an environment. An ecological niche is a pattern “traced” by an organism in its environment. Literary texts are themselves patterns traced by writers (and readers) through their life worlds. Patterns are frequently described through visualizations. The concept of pattern thus dissolves the apparent conflict between quantification and meaning, for quantification is but a means to describing a pattern. It is up to the critic to determine whether or not a pattern is meaningful by identifying the mechanism that produced the pattern. Examples from Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad.

Introduction: Patterns and Descriptions There is a sense, of course, in which I’ve been aware of and have been perceiving and thinking about patterns all my life. They are ubiquitous after all. But it wasn’t until I began studying cognitive science with the late David Hays that “pattern” became a term of art. Hays and his students were developing a network model of cognitive structure – such works became common in the 1970s. Such networks admit of two general kinds of computational process, path tracing and pattern recognition. Path tracing is computationally easy, while the pattern recognition is not. Human beings, however, are very good at perceiving and recognizing patterns.

What put the idea before me, though, as something demanding specific thought, are remarks Franco Moretti made in coming to grips with his work on the network analysis of plot structure. In Network Theory, Plot Analysis (Literary Lab Pamphlet 2, 2011, p. 11) he noted that he “did not need network theory; but I probably needed networks…. What I took from network theory were less concepts than visualization.” We then examine the visualizations to determine whether or not they indicate patterns that are worth further exploration. Continue reading

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PhD Opportunities: The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity

PhD positions are available at ANU, working with a team of people investigating diversity and cultural evolution.  The call is below:

Applications are now being sought for three PhD positions on the project ‘The Wellsprings of Linguistics Diversity’, funded by the Australian Research Council for the period mid-2014 to mid-2019.

Each PhD position will undertake substantial fieldwork on variation in a particular speech community: Western Arnhem Land (Bininj Gun-wok and neighbouring areas), Vanuatu (Sa and adjoining languages, South Pentecost Island), and Samoa (Samoan). Support will include a four-year stipend ($29,844 p/a), generous fieldwork funding, and embedding of the doctoral research in the dynamic team setting of the project, as well as the newly established ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.  Positions will start in early February 2015.

The project is led by Prof. Nick Evans and the project team including postdocs Dr Murray Garde, Dr Ruth Singer, and Dr Dineke Schokkin and doctoral scholar Eri Kashima (fieldworkers), postdoc Dr Mark Ellison (computational modelling), and consultants Profs. Miriam Meyerhoff and Catherine Travis (variationist sociolinguistics) and Emeritus Prof. Andy Pawley (Samoan).

The project’s goal is to understand the causes of why linguistic diversity evolves differentially in different parts of the world, through a combination of detailed sociolinguistic case-studies of small-scale speech communities in their anthropological setting, and computational modelling of how micro-variation engenders macro-variation over iterations of transmission. The three high-diversity field sites are western Arnhem Land (Bininj Gun-wok and neighbouring languages), Morehead district of Southern New Guinea (Nen, Nambu, Idi), and South Pentecost Island, Vanuatu (Sa and neighbouring languages).  Samoa (Samoan) supplies a low-diversity comparator to the Vanuatu, and controls from small speech communities in global languages (English and Spanish) will be obtained by other investigators on the project.

A fuller description of the project can be downloaded from

General information about the doctoral program in School of Culture, History and Language at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific can be found at

Specific enquiries should be directed to Nick Evans ( and completed application dossiers sent to Completed applications should include the following information:
(a)    CV with educational qualifications, any publications and other relevant experience (e.g. fieldwork, relevant internships)
(b)    a two-page statement setting out your preferred field site or sites, what skills and personal attributes you will bring to the project, and what you see as the most interesting and challenging issues you will need to solve
(c)    if available, other materials supporting your case (e.g. relevant articles or other materials)

Deadline:  Aug 3rd 2014, midnight, AEST

Once awards are made, successful applicants will be notified and then guided through making a formal application for enrolment status through the regular ANU system.