Alcohol Consumption affects Morphological Complexity

I previously talked about how changes in the demography of learners can affect the cultural evolution of a language.  The hypothesis is that language adapts to the balance between declarative and procedural memory users.  Since alcohol consumption affects procedural but not declarative memory (Smith & Smith, 2003), we might expect to see communities that have a high alcohol consumption using less complex morphology.

I find that communities that have a morphologically marked future tense have significantly higher alcohol consumption than communities that have a lexically marked future tense (Alcohol consumption data from WHO, language structure data from World atlas of language structures, 198 languages, t = 14.8, p<0.0001).  This statistic does not take into account many factors, but is meant as a motivation for further research into language structure and social structure.

Smith C, & Smith D (2003). Ingestion of ethanol just prior to sleep onset impairs memory for procedural but not declarative tasks. Sleep, 26 (2), 185-91 PMID: 12683478

Language Log and The Future of Science Blogging

Last night I head a talk by Geoffrey Pullum about the linguistics mega-blog language log.  Amusing as always, Pullum introduced us to the writers and took us through some of his favourite posts.  We even got to see a post being published live!  I shouldn’t have to tell this audience about language log, but I did learn a few new things – did you know that Mark Liberman sometimes gets up at 4am to write posts?  Did you know Pullum has written his own computer program for keeping track of what he’s said?

Recently, I was talking to a mathematician about blogging and he revealed that most research in mathematics is presented, reviewed, criticised, corrected and incorporated before the journal article reaches print.  Publishing is more about prestige while the actual research has bypassed the review process.  David Dobbs writes this week about the inflated importance of paper publishing and argues that mediums like blogging are faster, cheaper and engage the public – which should be a priority for science.

I asked Pullum whether he thought blogs would take a similar role in Linguistics.  I was expecting a reply about the self-evident nature of mathematics and how Linguistics is a subject where you really need a peer-review and editorial process.  However, Pullum was very positive about the role of blogs in research, and pointed out that many theories undergo rigorous criticism on language log, sometimes within minutes of being posted.  Further, he feels that the blog has had an effect on science journalism and that people are much more cautious about putting forward the kinds of views that Language Log takes apart (Snowclones, prescriptive grammar etc.).  Pullum also feels that blogging requires more bravery than peer-reviewed publishing:  Your idea is open to the wide world without careful consideration by many people.

Certainly, I’ve benefited from blogging about my research.  On the one hand, it forces me to put my research in a clear, concise format.  On the other hand, other people do some of the work for me by asking questions, pointing out problems and even, in one case, checking the validity of my data.  There’s even talk of blogging being part of assessed coursework for the MSc course here.  Maybe one day, there will be no more need for the mysterious art of printing research on paper.

Memory, Social Structure and Language: Why Siestas affect Morphological Complexity

Children are better than adults at learning second languages.  Children find it easy, can do it implicitly and achieve a native-like competence.  However, as we get older we find learning a new language difficult, we need explicit teaching and find some aspects difficult to master such as grammar and pronunciation.  What is the reason for this?  The foremost theories suggest it is linked to memory constraints (Paradis, 2004; Ullman, 2005).  Children find it easy to incorporate knowledge into procedural memory – memory that encodes procedures and motor skills and has been linked to grammar, morphology and pronunciation.  Procedural memory atrophies in adults, but they develop good declarative memory – memory that stores facts and is used for retrieving lexical items.  This seems to explain the difference between adults and children in second language learning.  However, this is a proximate explanation.  What about the ultimate explanation about why languages are like this?

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The Evolution of Religion

I’ve been attending the Language as Social Coordination: An Evolutionary Perspective conference in Warsaw, Poland.  I heard a talk by Konrad Talmont-Kaminski on the Evolution of Religion.  Although there have been many approaches to this before (and he has a blog on related themes here), his talk was particularly clear.

First, he drew a distinction between the co-ordination of action between a group of people and the co-ordination of long-term goals.  For co-ordination of action (e.g. carrying a heavy load/ sharing food), the discourse must reflect reality.  However, for co-ordination of goals, this need not be the case.  He gave an example of a hunt.  Talking about where to go and plans for herding or trapping should try to reflect the real problem as closely as possible.  However, if the hunt becomes long and arduous, some members might give up.  Invoking a wrathful god that might motivate people to continue.

In this sense, long-term co-ordination needs to sole the free-rider problem (where a lazy minority who still reap the benefits of the group will eventually destabilise the group and the benefits disappear).  You can do this by invoking beliefs in higher powers that punish defectors or reward co-operators.  However, evidence against these beliefs might destabilise the group.

The evidence against a belief can come in three forms:  Evidence can directly contradict the content of a belief.  A belief that there is a Unicorn that follows me around will soon be destabilised.  The answer is to make the beliefs invisible, dangerous of far away (the Flying Spaggetti Monster comes to mind).

A belief can also exploit the current methodological context.  For example, it’s easy to claim the shroud of Turin really does date back to the time of Christ if Carbon Dating hasn’t been invented yet.

Finally, a belief can use social context to protect it from destabilisation – for example, you can make the shroud of Turin ‘sacred’ so that it can’t be examined or questioned.

A belief that harnesses all three of these tactics is, in Talmont-Kaminski’s terms, ‘Superempirical’.  That is, you can’t disprove it because it resists empirical investigation. This means that religion can be shaped by functionality rather than evidence.  This is exactly what you want to achieve social co-ordination of long-term goals.

Talmont-Kaminski also points out that the consequences of defecting should also be Superempirical.  For example, going to Heaven or Hell in an afterlife.

In the conference, a commentator pointed out that many nations that have very good co-ordination of social goals (e.g. Sweden) seem to be aethist, while many nations that are very un-coordinated (e.g. Afghanistan) are rife with religious belief.  Talmont-Kaminski took this point, but argued that there are now social constructs (banks, government) that can take over the role of co-ordination of goals more effectively.

Talmont-Kaminski has a book coming out soon, a preview chapter can be found here.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski (2008). In a Mirror, Darkly: Does Superstition Reflect Rationality? Skeptical Inquirer, 32 (4)

More on The Social Sensitivity Hypothesis

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgIn a recent post, James wrote about the Social Sensitivity hypothesis.  Given findings that certain genetic variants will make a person more sensitive to social contact and more reliant on social contact under stress, it proposes that certain genetic variants ‘fit’ better with certain social structures.  In support of this idea, Way and Lieberman (2010) find a correlation between the prevalence of this variant and the level of collectivism (as opposed to individualism) in a society.

An alternative explanation I’ve been thinking about is migration patterns.  If genetic differences make a person less reliant on social networks, they may be more likely to migrate.  This would predict that areas settled later in human history will have more ‘non socially sensitive’ individuals.

Continue reading “More on The Social Sensitivity Hypothesis”


Searching Research Blogging for “bilingualism”, two blogs dominate the recent posts: mine and Language on the Move – a blog started by Ingrid Piller and Kimie Takahashi at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.  Since starting last year, they have been joined by a host of international collaborators.  It’s a really well organised blog – they even have separate facebook and twitter officers!

The blog discusses topics on language learning, multilingualism and multicultural sociolinguistics.  The writers are bilingual and certainly pro-bilingualism, but it’s good to see a genuine debate over the so-called ‘bilingual edge’ (see Piller 2010- a review of ‘the bilingual edge’ which argues that differences elicited in controlled conditions don’t necessarily translate to the real world where variables are correlated).

There’s been a recent spurt of posts and publications aimed at trying to get people out of a mono-mindset.  Alastair Pennycook writes about Metrolingualism (see also, Otsuji & Pennycook, 2010) – the common use of many languages to construct identity.  He reminds us that people are most cultural traits are not mutually exclusive.  Indeed, the majority of people can communicate in many mediums.  Despite this, there is a tendency both in research and general opinion to see monolingualism as the norm and bilingualism as exceptional.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the monolingual mindset extends into computational modelling of language acquisition and evolution.  Often, there are implicit monolingual assumptions.  On the other hand, whole paradigms such as Steels & Belpeame’s ‘Naming Game’ focus on how populations of agents can arrive at the same, single mapping between words and meanings.

In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that children can acquire multiple languages easily.  My own research focusses on a simple question – why did we evolve to be able to learn multiple languages?  It would be more efficient to have a single human language – especially if it were innately specified.  Instead, we have a culturally transmitted system that exhibits a large amount of variation.

I’m looking at two possible answers:  Either there is no selective pressure on language and bilingualism is the product of historical accident (drift) or there is an inherent advantage to the flexibility that bilingualism affords, both for communication and for the evolvability of the system.  Along the way, I’m hoping to look at whether monolingualism is a legitimate abstraction, or whether bilingualism is a fundamental part of language (for a recent talk, see here).

However, Pennycook points out the paradox of a monolingual mindset in a pervasively bilingual world, suggesting that it may be a  political affliction rather than a scientific approach:
“If we take the current sociolinguistic literature on styles, registers, discourses, genres and practices seriously, then monolingualism is also a myth: a monolingual mindset does not emerge from a state of monolingualism, because no such state can exist. If languages are myths, so too is monolingualism!”

Piller, I. (2010). The bilingual edge: why, when, and how to teach your child a second language International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 13 (1), 115-118 DOI: 10.1080/13670050802645942

Otsuji, E., & Pennycook, A. (2010). Metrolingualism: fixity, fluidity and language in flux International Journal of Multilingualism, 7 (3), 240-254 DOI: 10.1080/14790710903414331

Language Evolution and Tetris! Part 2

Ok, so my previous experiment was an incredible failure.  The program crashed in sixteen different ways, including suddenly deciding not to respond to key presses for no apparent reason.  A rather lazy Ghost in The Shell.  Although about 8 people participated, the data was unusable.  What on earth was I trying to achieve?

The experiment was a typical human Iterated Learning experiment (e.g. Kirby, Cornish, Smith, 2008) – there were a set of meanings (Tetris blocks) which varied along two dimensions (shape and colour).  Participants were shown the words for half of the meanings, but then asked to recall words for each meanings.  These responses were then given to the next participant as input.  Over time, other such experiments result in meanings which are compositional and more learnable.  However, the meaning space tends to ‘collapse’ as the same label is applied to many meanings.

I was trying to do an iterated learning experiment which teased apart the difference between labelling a form and labelling a function.  If participants label the function of an object, the environment will play a greater role in the evolution of the language.

There were two chains –  one played Tetris where you have to complete lines to score points – colours are irrelevant.  The other chain played “Coltris” where you scored points by placing more than 4 blocks of the same colour next to each other.  Also, each individual block in a brick finds its own lowest point (i.e. the brick breaks apart), meaning that shape is much less important. That is, for Tetris, the functionally salient feature was shape while for Coltris it was colour.

What I was hoping was that, for the Tetris players, the signal space would ‘collapse’ in the colour dimension.  That is, labels would distinguish bricks by shape, but not colour.  For the Coltris, the opposite should have happened – labels would have distinguished bricks by colour but not shape.

Gary Lupyan has shown that naming categories of objects can affect your perception of those objects (Lupyan, G. (2008). The Conceptual Grouping Effect: Categories Matter (and named categories matter more). Cognition, 108, 566-577.).  My experiment looks into where those distinct category names came from in the first place.  Having said this, the experiment would have been more neat than illuminating.

Oh Well.

Language Evolution and Tetris!

Hello, people of the Blogosphere!

Why not take some time out from your dedicated reading to do a little language evolution experiment!  And all you have to do is play Tetris!

The Evolution of Tetris

… and learn an alien language.  It takes no more than 10 minutes.

The instructions and game are here:

Due to me being a terrible programmer, it’ll probably crash or do some weird things.  But it’s all in the name of pseudo-science!

P.S. – users of the latest Firefox will need to update java.