Videos from the The Evolution of Phonetic Capabilities Satellite Event

This year, as part of the International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, I hosted a satellite event about the evolution of speech.

Here’s the preamble:

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in research in the evolution of language and speech. New techniques in computational and mathematical modelling, experimental paradigms, brain and vocal tract imaging, corpus analysis and animal studies, as well as new archeological evidence, have allowed us to address questions relevant to the evolution of our phonetic capabilities. The workshop will focus on recent work addressing the emergence of our phonetic capabilities, with a special focus on the interaction between biological and cultural evolution.

And here’s the meeting, in video form, should anyone have regretted missing it, or wanted to watch the talks again!

Here’s the play order:

  1. John H. Esling, Allison Benner & Scott R. Moisik – Laryngeal Articulatory Function and Speech Origins

2.  Scott R. Moisik & Dan Dediu – Anatomical biasing and clicks: Preliminary biomechanical modeling

3. Seán G. Roberts, Caleb Everett & Damián Blasi  – Exploring potential climate effects on the evolution of human sound systems

4. Padraic Monaghan & Willem H. Zuidema – General purpose cognitive processing constraints and phonotactic properties of the vocabulary

5. Bodo Winter & Andy Wedel – Simulating the interaction of functional pressure, redundancy and category variation in phonetic systems

6. Bill Thompson – Universality in Cultural Transmission

Universal Principles in the Repair of Communication Problems

Yesterday, my colleagues and I published a paper on Universal Principles in the Repair of Communication Problems.

People are constantly having problems with communication, like these two people:

In this paper, a team of linguists looked at over 2000 cases of problems with communication in 12 languages.  On average, people have a problem with understanding every 90 seconds! The team coded each instance and found that the same 3 basic tools were used in each language:

  • Open Request: Signalling a problem with the whole utterance (Huh?)
  • Restricted Request: Asking for clarification of a part (Go where?)
  • Restricted Offer: Asking for confirmation of what was heard (Go between them?)

Each tool is increasingly specific about the source of the problem, but takes longer on average to produce.  This means that the amount of work to repair the problem is shared between the speakers.  We can see this in the following graph:  The more I contribute to repair in initiation, the less you have to contribute in response:


We also found that, on average, a problem takes about as long to repair as it did to produce, regardless of type.

What this suggests is that people have a pro-social bias.  In principle, any problem can be fixed with the easy-to-produce huh?  So if people were being selfish, they might just produce this all the time.  However,  each langauge uses each type, which suggests that listeners try to help out as much as they can:  speakers treat conversation as a joint activity and try to work together to fix problems.

We found some variation between languages in the proportion of repair types used.  However, we also found that the same factors which cause problems (e.g. noise, parallel activities) affected which tool was chosen in the same way across all languages.   That is, the repair system works in the same way for all languages.

This was tested using a mixed effects model which controlled for the shared history between languages.  Specifically, we show that knowing what language was being spoken does not help predict what type of repair was used, over and above factors which cause problems.  I’m quite proud of this mix of qualitative coding, quantitative measures and statistical methods.  With 12 authors from 6 institutions, it’s also a great example of collaborative science.  12 languages may not seem like much compared to typological studies of language structure, but it has to be kept in mind that the instances come from recordings of ordinary conversations which are then transcribed, translated and coded (48 hours of video in total!).  The languages are also far from a convenience sample, ranging from Yeli Dyne in Papua to Argentine Sign Language.

As far as we know, no other species has this kind of sophisticated set of tools for solving communication problems.  In fact, even basic repair seems to be unique to humans.  We suggest, then, that this system of repair is a universal principle of human communication which emerges from a need to be understood in a noisy world.

You can read the paper here, and some more details on the ideophone blog.


Call for papers the journal of Language Evolution

Submissions are now open for the Journal of Language Evolution, a new peer-reviewed journal from Oxford University Press.

Journal Scope

Launching in 2016 the journal aims to be the venue of choice for new research within the field of language evolution. The journal will be highly interdisciplinary and cover theoretical, computational, database-driven, and experimental work emerging from disciplines including, but not limited to:

  • Linguistics
  • (Neuro-)cognitive sciences
  • Psychology
  • Anthropology
  • Biology
  • Evolutionary theory
  • Computer sciences
  • Philosophy

Journal of Language Evolution is aiming for a fast review and decision process, in general aiming at 4-6 weeks for most submission types, but up to 12 weeks for complex reviews, target articles and debates.

All articles in the journal will be freely available online for the first two years and will benefit from a wide range of promotion and publicity to the language evolution community. The launch of JoLE will be an important event for the language evolution field and therefore provides an opportunity for high-visibility publication for anyone working in the field.

JoLE is part of Oxford Open.

Article Types

The journal invites submissions for the following article types:

  • Research articles (3,000-8,000 words)

These should be strongly empirical articles focussed on results, including solid negatives and failed replications.

  • Introductions and How-tos (maximum 5,000 words)

These articles should be for non-specialist audiences introducing fundamental concepts and theories (Introductions) or procedures (How-tos) from the different disciplines that make up language evolution research. Proposals for this type of article should be sent to the editors first.

  • Short reports (maximum 3,000 words)

Short reports should be tightly focused with a clear account of the data, methods, and results. These reports will receive very fast review and decision.

  • Target articles and Debates (8,000-10,000 words)

These should be longer articles on major topics accompanied by short comments from peers and the authors’ response, or a dialogue between authors with opposing points of view. Proposals for this type of article should be sent to the editors first.

  • Reviews (3,000-8,000 words)

These should be comprehensive, up-to-date and impartial reviews of a topic of major interest or novelty for a general academic audience.

  • Methodology (maximum 5,000 words)

Methodology articles should introduce and describe novel research methods.

Submissions can be made online here: Submit Now. Full instructions to authors and details of the journal’s interdisciplinary editorial team are also available.

EvoLang paper submission now open

The website for paper submission to EvoLang XI is now open.  The link is here (external EasyChair link).

The deadline is September 4th, 2015.

This year there will be no printed book of papers.  All accepted papers will be made available online.  The submission form also allows an optional tweet-length summary, which will be included in the printed proceedings alongside the title and will be live-tweeded during the conference.

It’s possible to include supplementary materials alongside the submission.  Authors are encouraged to make data or code available, but all information necessary to understand and evaluate the submission should be included in the main paper.  Reviewers will not see the supplementary materials.

All supplementary materials should be submitted within a single zip file, which should also include a readme file describing the contents.  Supplementary materials should be referenced in the main text (e.g. “see supplementary materials”).

See the conference website for more details.


An Inquiry into & a Critique of Dennett on Intentional Systems

A new working paper. Downloads HERE:

Abstract, contents, and introduction below:

* * * * *

Abstract: Using his so-called intentional stance, Dennett has identified so-called “free-floating rationales” in a broad class of biological phenomena. The term, however, is redundant on the pattern of objects and actions to which it applies and using it has the effect of reifying the pattern in a peculiar way. The intentional stance is itself a pattern of wide applicability. However, in a broader epistemological view, it turns out that we are pattern-seeking creatures and that phenomenon identified with some pattern must be verified by other techniques. The intentional stance deserves no special privilege in this respect. Finally, it is suggested that the intentional stance may get its intellectual power from the neuro-mental machinery it recruits and not from any special class of phenomena it picks out in the world.


Introduction: Reverse Engineering Dan Dennett 2
Dennett’s Astonishing Hypothesis: We’re Symbionts! – Apes with infected brains 6
In Search of Dennett’s Free-Floating Rationales 9
Dan Dennett on Patterns (and Ontology) 14
Dan Dennett, “Everybody talks that way” – Or How We Think 20

Introduction: Reverse Engineering Dan Dennett

I find Dennett puzzling. Two recent back-to-back videos illustrate that puzzle. One is a version of what seems to have become his standard lecture on cultural evolution, this time entitled


As such it has the same faults I identify in the lecture that occasioned the first post in this collection, Dennett’s Astonishing Hypothesis: We’re Symbionts! – Apes with infected brains. It’s got a collection of nicely curated examples of mostly biological phenomenon which Dennett crafts into an account of cultural evolution though energetic hand-waving and tap-dancing.
And then we have a somewhat shorter video that is a question and answer session following the first:


I like much of what Dennett says in this video; I think he’s right on those issues.

What happened between the first and second video? For whatever reason, no one asked him about the material in the lecture he’d just given. They asked him about philosophy of mind and about AI. Thus, for example, I agree with him that The Singularity is not going to happen anytime soon, and likely not ever. Getting enough raw computing power is not the issue. Organizing it is, and as yet we know very little about that. Similarly I agree with him that the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness is a non-issue.

How is it that one set of remarks is a bunch of interesting examples held together by smoke and mirrors while the other set of remarks is cogent and substantially correct? I think these two sets of remarks require different kinds of thinking. The second set involve philosophical analysis, and, after all Dennett is a philosopher more or less in the tradition of 20th century Anglo-American analytic philosophy. But that first set of remarks, about cultural evolution, is about constructing a theory. It requires what I called speculative engineering in the preface to my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil. On the face of it, Dennett is not much of an engineer.

And now things get really interesting. Consider this remark from a 1994 article [1] in which Dennett gives an overview of this thinking up to that time (p. 239):

My theory of content is functionalist […]: all attributions of content are founded on an appreciation of the functional roles of the items in question in the biological economy of the organism (or the engineering of the robot). This is a specifically ‘teleological’ notion of function (not the notion of a mathematical function or of a mere ‘causal role’, as suggested by David LEWIS and others). It is the concept of function that is ubiquitous in engineering, in the design of artefacts, but also in biology. (It is only slowly dawning on philosophers of science that biology is not a science like physics, in which one should strive to find ‘laws of nature’, but a species of engineering: the analysis, by ‘reverse engineering’, of the found artefacts of nature – which are composed of thousands of deliciously complicated gadgets, yoked together opportunistically but elegantly into robust, self-protective systems.)

I am entirely in agreement with his emphasis on engineering. Biological thinking is “a species of engineering.” And so is cognitive science and certainly the study of culture and its evolution.

Earlier in that article Dennett had this to say (p. 236):

It is clear to me how I came by my renegade vision of the order of dependence: as a graduate student at Oxford, I developed a deep distrust of the methods I saw other philosophers employing, and decided that before I could trust any of my intuitions about the mind, I had to figure out how the brain could possibly accomplish the mind’s work. I knew next to nothing about the relevant science, but I had always been fascinated with how things worked – clocks, engines, magic tricks. (In fact, had I not been raised in a dyed-in-the-wool ‘arts and humanities’ academic family, I probably would have become an engineer, but this option would never have occurred to anyone in our family.)

My reaction to that last remark, that parenthesis, was something like: Coulda’ fooled me! For I had been thinking that an engineering sensibility is what was missing in Dennett’s discussions of culture. He didn’t seem to have a very deep sense of structure and construction, of, well, you know, how design works. And here he is telling us he coulda’ been an engineer.

Continue reading

EvoLang XI: Call for workshop proposals

In addition to the general session, The 11th Evolution of Language Conference will be able to host a number of thematically focused half-day workshops to be held between 09:00 and 13:45 on the first day of the conference March 21st (e.g. accommodating 8 half-hour slots, 15 minutes for an introduction, and 30 minutes for a coffee break).

Workshop proposals should be sent to EvoLang2016@gmail.com by October 2nd, 2015.  Proposals should include a title, the names of the organisers and a one paragraph summary of the theme.

Notification of acceptance will be given by October 16th, 2015. The responsibility for the detailed scheduling of the workshops and for the quality of workshop contributions will rest with workshop conveners. It is suggested that the workshop contributions be short papers (e.g. 4 pages) in the format of the main submissions to the conference (see the Call for Papers section of the website).  It will be possible to publish the workshop papers online, alongside the main conference papers.  A list of workshops from the previous conferences is available here.

For more information, see the EvoLangXI website.


Vocal Iconicity Challenge (Deadline Extension: August 15th)

Earlier this year I mentioned that Gary Lupyan and Marcus Perlman were running a competition to win a $1000. All you have to do is pop over to their website, record yourself doing some sounds, and then submit. The good news is that they’ve extended the deadline until August 15th. So, if you fancy yourself as the iconic vocalisation master, then go to http://sapir.psych.wisc.edu/vocal-iconicity-challenge/

Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween