Robust, Causal, and Incremental Approaches to Investigating Linguistic Adaptation

We live in an age where we have more data on more languages than ever before, and more data to link it with from other domains. This should make it easier to test hypotheses involving adaptation, and also to spot new patterns that might be explained by adaptation.  For example, the proposed link between climate and tone languages could never have been investigated without massive global databases.  However, there is not much discussion of the overall approach to research in this area.

This week I published a paper in a special issue on the Adaptive Value of Langauges, outlining the maximum robustness approach to these problems.  I then try to apply this approach to the debate about the link between tones and climate.

In a nutshell, I suggest that research should be:

Robust

Instead of aiming for the most valid test for a hypothesis, we should consider as many sources of data and as many processes as possible.  Agreement between them supports a theory, but differences can also highlight which parts of a theory are weak.

Causal

Researchers should be more explicit about the causal effects in their hypotheses.  Formal tools from causal graph theory can help formulate tests, recognise weaknesses and avoid talking past each other.

Incremental

Realistically, a single paper can’t be the final word on a topic, and shouldn’t aim to.  Statistical studies of large-scale, cross-cultural data are very complicated, and we should expect small steps to establishing causality.

I applying these ideas to the debate about tone and climate.  Caleb Everett also published a paper in this issue showing that speakers in drier regions use vowels less frequently in their basic vocabulary. I test whether the original link with tone and the new link with vowels holds up when using different data sources and different statistical frameworks.  The correlation with tone is not robust, while the correlation with vowels seems more promising.

https://www.frontiersin.org/files/Articles/327602/fpsyg-09-00166-HTML/image_m/fpsyg-09-00166-g003.jpg

I then suggest some ideas for alternative methodological approaches to this theory that could be tested.  For example:

  • An iterated artificial learning experiment
  • A phonetic study of vowel systems
  • A historical case-study of 5 Bantu languages
  • A corpus study of tone use in Cantonese and conversational repair in Mandarin
  • A corpus study of Larry King’s speech

 

Resister: A sci-fi sequel about cultural evolution and academic funding

In 2016, Casey Hattrey combined literary genres that had long been kept far apart from each other: science fiction, academic funding applications and cultural evolution theory. Space Funding Crisis I: Persister was a story that tried to “put the fun in academic funding application and the itch in hyper-niche”. It was criticised as “unrealistic and too centered on academics to be believable” and “not a very good book”. Dan Dediu’s advice was “better not even start reading it,” and Fiona Jordan’s review was literally a four-letter word. Still, that hasn’t stopped Hattrey from writing the sequel that the title of the first book tried to warn us about.

The badly conceived artwork for Resister

Space Funding Crisis II: Resister continues to follow the career of space linguist Karen Arianne. Just when she thought she’d gotten out of academia, the shadowy Central Academic Funding Council Administration pulls her back in for one more job. Or at least a part-time post-doc. Her mission: solve the mystery of the great convergence. Over thousands of years of space-faring, human linguistic diversity has exploded, but suddenly people have started speaking the same language. What could have caused this sinister twist? Who are the Panini Press? And what exactly is research insurance? Arianne’s latest adventure sees her struggle against ‘splainer bots, the conference mafia and her own inability to think about the future.

To say that this was the “difficult second book” would give too much credit to the first.  Hattrey seems to have learned nothing about writing or science since the last time they ventured into the weird world of self-published online novels. The characters have no distinct voice, the plot doesn’t make much sense and there are eye-watering levels of exposition.  In the appendix there’s even an R script which supports some of the book’s predictions, and even that is badly composed.  Even some of the apparently over-the-top futuristic ideas like insurance for research hypotheses are a bit behind existing ideas like using prediction markets for assessing replicability.

If there is a theme between the poorly formatted pages, then it’s emergence: complex patterns arising from simple rules. Arianne has a kind of spiritual belief in just reacting, Breitenberg-like, to the here-and-now rather than planning ahead. Apparently Hattrey intends this to translate into a criticism of the pressures of early-career academic life.  But this never really materialises out of the bland dialogue and insistence on putting lasers everywhere.

Still, where else are you going to find a book that makes fun of the slow science movement, generative linguistics and theories linking the emergence of tone systems to the climate?

Resister is available for free, including in various formats, including for kindle, iPad and nook. The prequel, Persister is also available (epub, kindle, iPad, nook).

Persister: Space Funding Crisis I  Resister: Space Funding Crisis II

CfP: Experimental approaches to iconicity in language

Submissions are being sought for a special issue of Language and Cognition on Experimental approaches to iconicity in language. We welcome submissions related to any aspect of the many forms and functions of iconicity in natural language (see below). Papers may feature new experimental findings, or may present novel theoretical syntheses of experimental work on iconicity in language. Manuscripts should be a maximum of 8,000 words, with shorter submissions preferred.

Many researchers in language and cognition now recognize that iconicity – resemblance between form and meaning – is a fundamental feature of human languages, spoken and signed alike (Nuckolls 1999; Taub 2001; Perniss, Thompson, & Vigliocco, 2010; Dingemanse et al., 2015; Perry, Perlman & Lupyan, 2015; Ortega, 2017). Iconicity is found across all levels
of linguistic structure, spanning discourse, grammar, morphology, lexicon, phonology and phonetics, and even orthography. It is found in the prosody of speech and sign and in the gestures that accompany linguistic behaviour.

While experimental research on iconicity in speech has long favoured the study of pseudowords like bouba and kiki, a growing body of experimental research shows that iconicity plays an active role in a number of basic language processes, cutting across cognition, development, cultural and biological evolution. The special issue aims to feature some of the most exciting new experimental research on the many forms, functions, and
timescales of iconicity in human language.

Special issue editors
Marcus Perlman, University of Birmingham
Pamela Perniss, University of Brighton
Mark Dingemanse, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

References
Dingemanse, M., Blasi, D.E., Lupyan, G., Christiansen, M.H., & Monaghan, P. (2015). Arbitrariness, iconicity, and systematicity in language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19, 603-615.
Nuckolls, J.B. (1999). The case for sound symbolism. Annual Review of Anthropology, 28, 255-282.
Ortega, Gerardo. “Iconicity and Sign Lexical Acquisition: A Review.” Frontiers in Psychology 8 (2017). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01280.
Perniss, P., Thompson, R.L., & Vigliocco, G. (2010). Iconicity as a general property of language: Evidence from spoken and signed languages. Frontiers in Psychology, 1, 227.
Perry, L.K., Perlman, M. & Lupyan, G. (2015). Iconicity in English and Spanish and its relation to lexical category and age of acquisition. PLoS ONE, 10, e0137147.
Taub, S. (2001). Language from the body: Iconicity and metaphor in American Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

How to submit. If you would like to contribute, please email us an 800-1000-word abstract by 1st April, 2018. Abstracts should be sent to Marcus Perlman (m.perlman@bham.ac.uk). We will return a decision on your abstract by 15th April, and first submissions will be due on 15th August. Manuscripts will be submitted through the Language and Cognition submission interface. We aim to put out the complete issue by the beginning of 2019. Notably, submissions that proceed faster can appear online first.

CfP: Measuring Language Complexity at EvoLang

This is a guest post from Aleksandrs Berdicevskis about the workshop Measuring Language Complexity.

A lot of evolutionary talks and papers nowadays touch upon language complexity (at least nine papers did this at the Evolang 2016). One of the reasons is probably that complexity is a very convenient testbed for testing hypotheses that establish causal links between linguistic structure and extra-linguistic factors. Do factors such as population size, or social network structure, or proportion of non-native speakers shape language change, making certain structures (for instance, those that are morphologically simpler) more evolutionary advantageous and thus more likely? Or don’t they? If they do, how exactly?

Recently, quite a lot has been published on that topic, including attempts to do rigorous quantitative tests of the existing hypotheses. One problem that all such attempts face is that complexity can be understood in many different ways, and operationalized in yet many more. And unsurprisingly, the outcome of a quantitative study depends on what you choose as your measure! Unfortunately, there currently is little consensus about how measures themselves can be evaluated and compared.

To overcome this, we organize a shared task “Measuring Language Complexity”, a satellite event of Evolang 2018, to take place in Torun on April 15. Shared tasks are widely used in computational linguistics, and we strongly believe they can prove useful in evolutionary linguistics, too. The task is to measure the linguistic complexity of a predefined set of 37 language varieties belonging to 7 families (and then discuss the results, as well as their mutual agreement/disagreement at the workshop). See the detailed CfP and other details here.

So far, the interest from the evolutionary community has been rather weak. But there is still time! We extended the deadline until February 28 and are looking forward to receiving your submissions!

CfP: Applications in Cultural Evolution, June 6-8, Tartu

Guest post by Peeter Tinits and Oleg Sobchuk
As mentioned in this blog before, evolutionary thinking can help the study of various cultural practices, not just language. The perspective of cultural evolution is currently seeing an interesting case of global growth and coordination – the widely featured founding of the Cultural Evolution Society (also on replicatedtypo), the recent inaugural conference and follow-ups are bringing a diverse set of researchers around the same table. If this has gone past you unnoticed – there’s nice resourcesgathered on the society website.
Evolutionary thinking seems useful for various purposes. However does it work the same everywhere, and can research progress in one domain be easily carried over to another?
To make better sense of it, we’re organizing a small conference to discuss the ways that evolutionary thinking can be best applied in different domains. The event “Applications in Cultural Evolution: Arts, Languages, Technologies” is to take place in June 6-8 in Tartu, Estonia. Pleanary speakers include:
We  invite contributions from cultural evolution researchers of various persuasions and interests to talk about their work and how the evolutionary models help with that. Deadline for abstracts on Feb 14.
Discussion of individual contributions will hopefully lead to a better understanding of commonalities and differences in how cultural evolution is applied in different areas, and help build an understanding of how to most productively use evolutionary thinking – what are the prospects and limitations. We aim to allow for building a common ground through plenty of space and opportunities for formal and informal discussion on site.
Both case studies and general perspectives welcome. In addition to original research we encourage participants to think of the following questions:
– What do you get out of cultural evolution research?
– How should we best apply evolutionary thinking to culture?
– What matters when we apply this to different domains or timescales?
Deadline for abstracts: February 14, 2018
Event dates: June 6-8
Location: Tartu University, Estonia
Full call for papers and information on the website. Also available as PDF.

Call for participation: IACS3 in Toronto

Call for papers of IACS3 in Toronto is below, including research topics of experimental semiotics, speech and gesture and the evolution of language. And lots more, of course. Full call can be seen here: http://www.perceptualartifacts.org/iacs-2018/cfp.html

The International Association for Cognitive Semiotics in cooperation with OCAD University and Ryerson University is pleased to announce The Third Conference of the International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS3 – 2018) TorontoOntarioCanada: iacs-2018.org

Plenary speakers confirmed (as of )

  • John M. Kennedy • University of Toronto
  • Kalevi Kull • University of Tartu
  • Maxine Sheets-Johnstone • University of Oregon

Conference Theme: MULTIMODALITIES

This non-restrictive theme is intended to encourage the exploration of pre-linguistic and extra-linguistic modes of semiotic systems and meaning construal, as well as their intersection with linguistic processes.

Cognitive Semiotics investigates the nature of meaning, the role of consciousness, the unique cognitive features of human beings, the interaction of nature and nurture in development, and the interplay of biological and cultural evolution in phylogeny. To better answer such questions, cognitive semiotics integrates methods and theories developed in the human, social, and cognitive sciences.

The International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS, founded 2013) aims at establishing cognitive semiotics as a trans-disciplinary study of meaning. More information on the International Association for Cognitive Semiotics can be found at http://iacs.dk

The IACS conference series seeks to gather together scholars and scientists in semiotics, linguistics, philosophy, cognitive science, psychology and related fields, who wish to share their research on meaning and contribute the interdisciplinary dialogue.

Topics of the conference include (but are not limited to):

  • Biological and cultural evolution of human cognitive specificity
  • Cognitive linguistics and phenomenology
  • Communication across cultural barriers
  • Cross-species comparative semiotics
  • Evolutionary perspectives on altruism
  • Experimental semiotics
  • Iconicity in language and other semiotic resources
  • Intersubjectivity and mimesis in evolution and development
  • Multimodality
  • Narrativity across different media
  • Semantic typology and linguistic relativity
  • Semiosis (sense-making) in social interaction
  • Semiotic and cognitive development in children
  • Sign use and cognition
  • Signs, affordances, and other meanings
  • Speech and gesture
  • The comparative semiotics of iconicity and indexicality
  • The evolution of language

We invite abstract submissions for theme sessions, oral presentations and posters. Please select your chosen format along with your submission. Format types and guidelines are here:  http://www.perceptualartifacts.org/iacs-2018/cfp.html

Important Dates

Deadline for submission of theme sessions:
Deadline for abstract submission (oral presentations, posters):
Notification of acceptance (oral presentations, posters):
Last date for early registration:

MMIEL Summer School in experimental and statistical methods

September Tutorial in Empiricism: Practical Help for Experimental Novices

In September, the Language Evolution and Interaction Scholars of Nijmegen (LEvInSoN group), based in the Language and Cognition Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics will be hosting a workshop about research in Language Evolution and Interaction (September 21-22) – call for posters here: http://www.mpi.nl/events/MMIEL

As an addition to this workshop, we will be hosting a short tutorial series bookending the workshop (Sept 20 & 23) covering experimental and statistical methods that should be of broad interest to a general audience. In this tutorial series, we will cover all aspects of creating, hosting, and analysing the data from a set of experiments that will be run live (online) during the workshop.

Details of the summer school can be found here: http://www.mpi.nl/events/MMIEL/summer-school

 

Registration is free, but required. Spots are limited and come on a first come first served basis, and a waitlist will be established if necessary.

Register here

EVOLANG XII (2018): Call for Papers

The 12th International Conference on the Evolution of Language invites substantive contributions relating to the evolution of human language.

IMPORTANT DATES
Abstract submission: 1 September 2017 Add deadline to calendar
Notification of acceptance: 1 December 2017
Early-bird fee: 31 December 2017
Conference: 16-19 April 2018

Submission Information
Submissions may be in any relevant discipline, including, but not limited to: anthropology, archeology, artificial life, biology, cognitive science, genetics, linguistics, modeling, paleontology, physiology, primatology, philosophy, semiotics, and psychology. Normal standards of academic excellence apply. Submitted papers should aim to make clear their own substantive claim, relating this to the relevant, up to date scientific literature in the field of language evolution. Submissions should set out the method by which the claim is substantiated, the nature of the relevant data, and/or the core of the theoretical argument concerned. Novel and original theory-based submissions are welcome. Submissions centred around empirical studies should not rest on preliminary results.

Please see http://evolang.org/submissions for submission templates and further guidance on submission preparation. Submissions can be made via EasyChair (https://easychair.org/conferences/?conf=evolang12) by SEPTEMBER 1, 2017 for both podium presentations (20 minute presentation with additional time for discussion) and poster presentations. All submissions will be refereed by at least three relevant referees, and acceptance is based on a scoring scheme pooling the reports of the referees. In recent conferences, the acceptance rate has been about 50%. Notification of acceptance will be given by December 1, 2017.

For any questions regarding submissions to the main conference please contact scientific-committee@evolang.org.

Workshops: in addition to the general session, EVOLANG XII will host up to five thematically focused, half-day workshops. See here for the Call for Workshops.

Deadline extended for Triggers of Change in the Language Sciences

The deadline for the 2nd XLanS conference on Triggers of Change in the Language Sciences has extended its submission deadline to June 14th.

This year’s topic is ‘triggers of change’:  What causes a sound system or lexicon or grammatical system to change?  How can we explain rapid changes followed by periods of stability?  Can we predict the direction and rate of change according to external influences?

We have also added two new researchers to our keynote speaker list, which now stands as:

 

Wh-words sound similar to aid rapid turn taking

A new paper by Anita Slonimska and myself attempts to link global tendencies in the lexicon to constraints from turn taking in conversation.

Question words in English sound similar (who, why, where, what …), so much so that this class of words are often referred to as wh-words. This regularity exists in many languages, though the phonetic similarity differs, for example:

English Latvian Yaqui Telugu
haw ka: jachinia elaa
haw mɛni tsik jaikim enni
haw mətʃ tsik jaiki enta
wət kas jita eem;eemi[Ti]
wɛn kad jakko eppuDu
wɛr kuɾ jaksa eTa; eedi; ekkaDa
wɪtʃ kuɾʃ jita eevi
hu kas jabesa ewaru
waj ˈkaːpeːts jaisakai en[du]ceeta; enduku

In her Master’s thesis, Anita suggested that these similarities help conversation flow smoothly.  Turn taking in conversation is surprisingly swift, with the usual gap between turns being only 200ms.  This is even more surprising when one considers that the amount of time it takes to retrieve, plan and begin pronouncing one word is 600ms.  Therefore, speakers must begin planning what they will say before current speaker has finished speaking (as demonstrated by many recent studies, e.g. Barthel et al., 2017). Starting your turn late can be interpreted as uncooperative, or lead to missing out on a chance to speak.

Perhaps the harshest environment for turn-taking is answering a content question.  Responders must understand the question, retrieve the answer, plan their utterance and begin speaking.  It makes sense to expect that cues would evolve to help responders recognise that a question is coming.  Indeed there are many paralinguistic cues, such as rising intonation (even at the beginning of sentences) and eye gaze.  Another obvious cue is question words, especially when they appear at the beginning of question sentences. Slonimska hypothesised that wh-words sound similar in order to provide an extra cue that a question is about to be asked, so that the speaker can begin preparing their turn early.

We tried to test this hypothesis, firstly by simply asking whether wh-words really do have a tendency to sound similar within languages.  We combined several lexical databases to produce a word list for 1000 concepts in 226 languages, including question words.  We found that question words are:

  • More similar within languages than between languages
  • More similar than other sets of words (e.g. pronouns)
  • Often composed of salient phonemes

Of course, there are several possible confounds, such as languages being historically related, and many wh-words being derived from other wh-words within a language. We attempted to control for this using stratified permutation, excluding analysable forms, and comparing wh words to many other sets of words such as pronouns which are subject to the same processes.  Not all languages have similar-sounding wh-words, but across the whole database the tendancy was robust.

Another prediction is that the wh-word cues should be more useful if they appear at the beginning of question sentences.  We tested this using typological data on whether wh-words appear in initial position.  While the trend was in the right direction, the result was not significant when controlling for historical and areal relationships.

Despite this, we hope that our study shows that it is possible to connect constraints from turn taking to macro-level patterns across languages, and then test the link using large corpora and custom methods.

Anita will be presenting an experimental approach to this question at this year’s CogSci conference.  We show that /w,h/ is a good predictor of questions in real English conversations, and that people actually use /w,h/ to help predict that a question is coming up.

Slonimska, A., & Roberts, S. G. (2017). A case for systematic sound symbolism in pragmatics: Universals in wh-words. Journal of Pragmatics, 116, 1-20. ArticlePDF.

All data and scripts are available in this github repository.