James Winters

About Me

mug_shotI am currently a Postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, with the Minds and Traditions Research Group (group leader: Olivier Morin).

I did my PhD with Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith at the University of Edinburgh in the Centre for Language Evolution. Previously, I studied at Cardiff University (2010-11) for an MA in Language and Communication Research, and I received an MSc at the University of Edinburgh (2008-09) in the Evolution of Language and Cognition.

Image result for blog logo replicated typo Image result for twitter logo@replicatedtypo Image result for email logo winters@shh.mpg.de  Image result for CV logo James Winters

Research Interests

My research uses experimental and statistical models to understand how cultural transmission shapes the structural properties of language.

At the Mint, I use referential communication games to investigate under what conditions graphic codes do and do not emerge in the laboratory. My current project explores how the emergence of optimal systems vary as a function of the mode (synchronous or asynchronous) and type (interpersonal or intrapersonal) of communication. Optimal is defined here as the most compressible set of form-meaning mappings capable of identifying the intended meaning. The basic idea being that optimal communication systems should be harder to achieve in some conditions (e.g., asynchronous + interpersonal) than others (e.g., synchronous + interpersonal).

During my time at Edinburgh, I demonstrated that contextual factors interact with pressures found in learning and communication to shape the structure of language (see Winters, Kirby & Smith, 2015; Winters, Kirby & Smith, submitted to cognition). I’ve also written about the application of statistical approaches to large-scale, cross-cultural studies (see Roberts & Winters, 2013), and the associated pitfalls of not controlling for cultural evolutionary factors, such as shared inheritance and borrowing (see Roberts, Winters & Chen, 2015).


Winters, J., & Morin, O. (submitted). From context to code: Information transfer constrains the emergence of graphic codes.

Winters, J., Kirby, S., & Smith, K. (under review). Contextual predictability shapes signal autonomy.

Hartmann, S., Pleyer, M., Zlatev, J., & Winters, J. (in press). Interaction and Iconicity in the evolution of language: Introduction to the special issue. Interaction Studies, TBA.

Roberts, S.G., Winters, J., & Chen, K. (2015). Future tense and economic decisions: controlling for cultural evolution. PLoS One, 10(7): e0132145. [link].

Pleyer, M., & Winters, J. (2015). Integrating cognitive linguistics and language evolution research. Theoria Et Historia Scientiarium, 11, 19-44. [link].

Winters, J., Kirby, S., & Smith, K. (2015). Languages adapt to their contextual niche. Language and Cognition, 7(3): 415-449. [Preprint] [Language & Cognition].

Littauer, R., Roberts, S.G., Winters, J., Bailes, R., Pleyer, M., & Little, H. (2014). From the Savannah to the Cloud: Blogging Evolutionary Linguistics Research. In: The Past, Present and Future of Language Evolution Research, Eds., L. McCrohon, B. Thompson, T. Verhoef, H. Yamauchi [link].

Roberts, S. G., & Winters, J. (2013). Linguistic diversity and traffic accidents: Lessons from statistical studies of cultural traits. PLoS One, 8(8): e70902. [link].

Roberts, S. G., & Winters, J. (2012). Social structure and language structure: The new nomothetic approach. Psychology of Language and Communication, 16: 89-112. [link].

Conference Proceedings

Winters J., Kirby S., & Smith K. (2016). Signal Autonomy Is Shaped By Contextual Predictability. In S.G. Roberts, C. Cuskley, L. McCrohon, L. Barceló-Coblijn, O. Fehér & T. Verhoef (eds.) The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11). [abstract]

Winters, J., Kirby, S., & Smith, K. (2014). Experimentally investigating the role of context in the structure of linguistic systems over cultural evolution. In: E.A. Cartmill et al, Proceedings of the 10th International Conference (EVOLANG X).

Littauer, R., Winters, J., Roberts, S.G., Little, H., Pleyer, M., & Benzon, B (2012). Academic research in the blogosphere: Adapting to new risks and opportunities on the Internet. In: Jan Christoph Meister (Ed.): Digital Humanities 2012. Conference Abstracts. University of Hamburg, July 16-22. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press, 268-269 [abstract].

Roberts, S. & Winters, J. (2012). Constructing Knowledge: Nomothetic approaches to language evolution. In: L. McCrohon, T et al, Five Approaches to Language Evolution: Proceedings of the Workshops of the 9th International Conference on the Evolution of Language. Evolang9 Organizing Committee [link].


Winters, J. (2016). Context, Cognition, and Communication in language. Supervised by Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith for a PhD in Linguistics and English Language. Examiners: Mike Frank and Holly Branigan. [link].

Winters, J. (2011). Crossing those curious parallels: Investigating the relationship between segment inventory size, demography and subsystem tradeoffs. Supervised by Gerard O’Grady for an MA in Language and Communication Research.

Winters, J. (2009). Adaptive structure, cultural transmission and language: Investigating a population dynamic in human iterated learning. Supervised by Monica Tamariz and Hannah Cornish for an MSc in the Evolution of Language and Cognition.