Category Archives: Uncategorized

New Evidence for Neanderthal Language Announced (on April 1st…)

In keeping with Sean’s previous Evolang Preview some Neanderthal&language evolution-related news:

As Andrew Lamont writes on the official LINGUIST List Blog:

The controversy over whether Neanderthals possessed a capacity for language may have been resolved. After years of speculation by evolutionary anthropologists and geneticists, a group of linguists has announced today that they have uncovered written evidence proving the Neanderthal capacity for language.


Schmaltz’ team was able to identify and translate two texts left by Neanderthals. The first, a recent discovery in Spain, is a fragment of a teenager’s diary. It reads oog.oog.oog and has been translated as ‘[Dear diary, I feel] emotionally distant. [I wish I had my own cave]’.”

Read the whole thing here.

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EvoLang Preview: Detecting differences between the languages of humans and Neandertals

This year’s EvoLang is busy – around 100 talks in 4 parallel sessions and 40 posters.  Replicated Typo is hosting a series of EvoLang previews to help people decide on what to go and see.  If you’d like to post a preview of your own presentation, please get in touch with

Roberts, Dediu & Levinson.  Detecting differences between the languages of Neanderthals and modern humans.  Thursday, 17:45, session A.

Recently, Dediu & Levinson (2013) argued that, given recent genetic and archaeological evidence, the default assumption should be that Neandertals spoke modern languages (not protolanguages).  Dediu will be giving a talk on this work in the same session.  My talk will discuss whether there are methods that can test these ideas.  Is there any way to estimate what Neandertal languages were like?  It’s a  controversial topic, but could have big implications for the field.

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Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia

It finally happened! A press release from PLOS landed in my inbox with the words “Language Evolution” in the title!

The paper’s “Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia” by Sicoli and Holton. Given that PLOS have released this as a press release, the media may well pick it up, so I’ve made a quick and easy-to-read list of details which probably won’t reach the papers:

What? Phylogenetic models applied to linguistic data to make inferences about human migration into and out of North America.
Why? Hypothesis testing/model fitting an Out-of-Beringia (to Asia) hypothesis compared to an Out-of-Central Asia (to North America) hypothesis.
Languages? North American languages and Central Siberia languages – about 40 languages (2 Yeniseian languages, 37 Na-Dene languages and Haida (isolate))
What’s the data? Binary coded 116 typological features (26 of which were excluded later for being “uninformative”). Data from Sherzer’s An areal-typological study of American Indian languages north of Mexico, the Alaska Native Language Archive and other grammars
Methods? Bayesian likelihood modelling (using Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods in MrBayes) and neighbour joining distance methods (using NeighborNet and SplitsTree4)
Results? The  Out-of-Beringia model fits better (the results section is massive, you should go and read it if you’re interested in the details). This model supports the story that there was a back-migration into Asia from Beringia, which is in contrast to recent arguments that the connections between Na-Dene languages and Yeniseian languages show that the Native Americans migrated from Central Asia.


This seems to be a reasonably solid piece of work, though I should leave it to someone else to assess the legitimacy of the statistical analysis/results. It’s nice to see also that the press release does state that: “the authors cannot conclusively determine the migration pattern just from these results, and state that this study does not necessarily contradict the popular tale of hunters entering the New World through Beringia, it at the very least indicates that migration may not have been a one-way trip.” Back-migration is rarely considered when testing hypotheses using models for serial-founder effects – and I think this must happen more than we often assume in linguistic phylogenies.

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The great language game: Confusing languages

This is a guest post by Hedvig Skirgård.

The Great Language Game, have you heard of it? It’s an online game where players compete in matching audio clips to the correct language. The game was created by Lars Yencken earlier this year and has become very popular. Data generated by the game can be used to map what languages the players find hardest to tell apart and support what we’ve known all along: Portuguese does sound a bit slavic!

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Syntax of Mind Conference

A conference on the Syntax of Mind is taking place April 17-19 in Vienna, immediately following Evolang.  Registration is free and they are accepting abstracts for talks and posters.  From the website:

This conference will provide a state-of-the-art update on this fast-moving field, and will focus on overlaps between and evolution of spoken language and music, researching employing artificial grammar learning, and comparative work in these areas with a wide range of animal species.


Language Games with the Museum of Parallel Art

I’ve just found a new online game called the museum of parallel art (thanks to my friend Robin). The info on the trailer reads as follows:

Visiting the virtual Museum of Parallel Art is a very special experience you’ll share with someone. You’ll express your thoughts and feelings towards art with cards, or try to view the world as your peer and guess the cards he or she has played. Comparing cards will prompt conversation and is sure to connect you two.

This game was originally made in 48 hours by Neverpants (Dom2D, technobeanie & seventysevian), featuring art both classic and new, with contributions by many amazing artists like Anthony Clark, Justin Chan, Nic ter Horst, Tom Eccles, Aliceffekt and way more! Randomly generated from a database of over 200 “paintings” and a multitude of cards, the Museum of Parallel Art is different every time you visit.

Museum of Parallel Art – Trailer from Dom2D on Vimeo.

Basically, it’s an online game where you go through a digital museum with 10 cards which you need to assign to 6 random paintings. You decide which card represents which painting the best. Then a partner does the same thing, but instead of making their own connections, they have to guess which cards the first person placed on each painting.

Why am I mentioning this on replicated typo? It seems to me that this game could potentially make a fun language game experiment  because choosing the same card to represent a painting is tantamount to deciding on a signal to represent that painting.  Researchers could potentially use this paradigm as a fun way to look at the effects of iconicity on bootstrapping communication systems, or look at how communication strategies arise over repeated instances of the game.

An article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun already hypothesised that during the second round of the game, the cards had much less transparency between the paintings they were meant to represent. Though perhaps this might just be because of the paintings being randomly generated from a set of hundreds of paintings.  It’s also interesting to think about the levels of theory of mind you need to play this game, or the effects of having a shared history with the person you are playing with.

You can download and play the museum of parallel art here:


What made us human? Biological and cultural Evolution of Homo sapiens

There are some interesting speakers at this workshop with some talking about language evolution:

What made us human? Biological and cultural Evolution of Homo sapiens

Erice, Sicily, October 14-19, 2014

Purpose of the workshop:

The science of human evolution has recently been changing rapidly. We know that Homo sapiens is the last surviving branch of a once-luxuriant tree of hominid species. For until very recent times, our lineage shared the planet with several other human species, like Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis. Following its biological and anatomical birth in Africa, around 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens spread around the world following multiple paths of expansion that we can now track using the techniques of molecular biology, ancient DNA studies and paleoanthropology. In this global, ecological and demographic scenario, at one point our species began, somewhere, to express cognitively modern behaviors: a “symbolic intelligence” so peculiar that scientists view it as the hallmark of human creativity and uniqueness itself. Was there a gap between our biological birth and our mental birth? Was the process a gradual or a punctuational one? What triggered the so-called Paleolithic Revolution? How did our cultural evolution interact with our biological evolution? What might have been the role of other human species? Is articulate language our “secret weapon”? In the form of an interdisciplinary meeting involving prominent experts in primatology, paleoanthropology, genetics, anthropology, ethology and philosophy, the Erice International School of Ethology proposes a special workshop on human evolution, to ask, “What exactly was it that made us human?” This is perhaps the most fundamental question of all about human nature, for scientists, philosophers, theologians, and anyone interested in our history.


Quentin Atkinson (University of Auckland); Peter Brown (University of New England, Armidale, Australia); Emiliano Bruner (Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana, Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos); Francesco D’Errico (Université Bordeaux 1); Dean Falk (Florida State University); Pier Francesco Ferrari (University of Parma); John Dupré (University of Exeter); Robert D. Martin (The Field Museum, Chicago); Robert Desalle (American Museum of Natural History, New York); Will Harcourt-Smith (Lehman College, City University of New York); Philip Lieberman (Brown University); Giuseppe Longobardi (University of York); Giorgio Manzi (La Sapienza Università, Rome); Paola Palanza (University of Parma); Stefano Parmigiani (University of Parma); Telmo Pievani (University of Padua); Thomas Plummer (Queens College, City University of New York); Yoel Rak (Tel Aviv University); Jeffrey Schwartz (University of Pittsburgh); Ian Tattersall (American Museum of Natural History, New York), Bernard Wood (George Washington University, Washington DC).


Change and diversity in human evolution. The emergence of genus Homo. The earliest stone tools and cognitive implications. Homo floresiensis. Early and Middle Pleistocene hominids of Africa. Brain evolution in genus Homo. Neanderthal origins, biology and lifestyles. Morphology of Homo sapiens and origins in Africa. DNA and putative Neanderthal/Homo sapiens hybridization. Homo sapiens dispersal around the world. Brains, culture and early imagery. Symbolic intelligence. Genes and languages. Language and the evolution of human cognition. The evolution of modern human cognition.

Further info here:

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Fellowship opportunity in Language Evolution, Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh are offering a Chancellor’s fellowship and are keen to attract applicants particularly in the area of language evolution.  The position is a 5 year post doc that is expected to result in a permanent position.  More details are available here, including Chancellor’s fellowships in other areas of linguistics.

There’s been much anxiety about opportunities for early career researchers, but the last two years have seen a bumper crop of jobs in cultural evolution, including projects in Reading, St. Andrews, Tübingen, Rome and ANU Canberra.  The future’s bright!

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Five Year Postdoctoral Position, Australian National University: The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity

This is a job advert for a computational linguist/cultural evolutionist at the Australian National University in Canberra.  It’s basically the dream job for a modeller – you’ll get to help design the data that a team of field linguists collect, then be handed loads of linguistic and demographic data to model.   And 5 years is a huge amount of job security for an early career researcher.  

The official advert follows:

This position is being re-advertised with a new deadline of March 2nd 2014.

Applications are invited from suitably qualified scholars for a postdoctoral fellowship to work with Prof Nick Evans’ Laureate Fellowship project, ‘The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity’. The role of this position will be to develop appropriate computationally-based models of language change and diversification in small-scale and multilingual language communities, in close collaboration with a team of field linguists who will be gathering on-the-ground data from field sites in Aboriginal Australia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Samoa, and small-scale communities in Australia (English) and Latin America (Spanish or Portuguese). Full details of the position and a background description of the project can be found at:

This is a five year fixed term research position within the School of Culture, History and Language, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, commencing June 30th, 2014.

The successful applicant will have a PhD in a relevant discipline. S/he will carry out independent and team based research as per project plan and focus on computational modelling of language evolution within the overall team, who will be collecting data and feeding that data back into the models being developed. The appointee will work under the supervision of the Laureate Project Leader and work closely with other team members and PhD students working on the project in the design and analysis of linguistic data to be gathered across a range of small-scale speech communities, since the goal of the project is to achieve a new type of interaction between detailed sociolinguistic field research on small-scale communities and computational approaches to modelling linguistic change and diversification. They will interact informally with a wide range of scholars in Linguistics and neighbouring disciplines.

The purpose of this position is to provide computational modelling expertise within the overall team, so as to (a) develop models of how micro-variation iterates over many generations to produce linguistic change (b) model the effects of multilingualism and societal scale and structure on the evolution of linguistic diversity and disparity (c) work with project members gathering linguistic and social data in a range of small-scale speech communities to design appropriate data structures for the representation and analysis of linguistic, cultural and demographic data (d) test theoretical models against the actual linguistic data collected by project members, and feed that data back into the models being developed. Ample opportunities for publication will exist, both individually and with various combinations of project members.

For further information, please contact:

Prof Nick Evans

Ph: +61 (0)2 6125 0028