CfP: Interaction and Iconicity in the Evolution of Language

Following the ICLC theme session on "Cognitive Linguistics and the Evolution of Language" last year,  I'm guest-editing a Special Issue of the journal Interaction Studies together with Michael Pleyer, James Winters, and Jordan Zlatev. This volume, entitled "Interaction and Iconicity in the Evolution of Language: Converging Perspectives from Cognitive and Evolutionary Linguistics", will focus on issues that emerged as common themes during the ICLC workshop.

Although many contributors to the theme session have already agreed to submit a paper, we would like to invite a limited number of additional contributions relevant to the topic of the volume. Here's our Call for Papers.

Continue reading

1st issue of The Journal of Language Evolution: discussion on tone and humidity

The origins of language, and how they change over time, are tricky topics.  We can’t travel back in time to observe how it happened, and we’re only just beginning to understand the range of variation in existing languages.  Traditionally, the study of language evolution was more of a philosophical enterprise, with many educated guesses and a lot of debate about theoretical distinctions.  But these days it’s clear that a much wider approach is needed.  Thinking about how so many diverse ways of communicating could have emerged in a single species (and that species alone) involves thinking about topics as diverse as genetics, animal communication, cultural evolution, emerging sign languages, and the history of human migration and contact (even Chomsky recently wrote of the importance of acquisition, pragmatics, computer science and neuroscience in understanding the language faculty!).

The new Journal of Language Evolution will tackle these issues by reaching out to new areas of research and by embracing new quantitative methods, as Dan Dediu discusses in the editorial of the first issue.  The issue includes an introduction to the linguistic diversity of planet Earth by Harald Hammarstrom, which demonstrates how important the work of language documentation (especially of endangered languages) is for shaping our ideas about what evolved.  Bodo Winter and also provide an introduction to mixed models and growth curves, which is becoming an increasingly important tool in the language sciences.  Extending the topics to pragmatics, Cat Silvey reviews Thom Scott Phillips’ book Speaking our Minds.

Climate and Language Evolution

But if this isn’t deep enough into the frontiers of language evolution for you, there is also a debate on humidity and tone.  Caleb Everett, Damian Blasí and myself discuss the potential effects of our ecology on language evolution.  This includes obvious differences such as some languages having more specific words for relevant climatic factors (not just words for snow, but watch this space for news on that front), to the way the climate affects population movement.  We focussed on one controversial idea: dry air affects phonation accuracy, so some sounds should be harder to produce accurately in dry climates.  Over a long period of time, this might lead to languages changing to avoid these sounds.

Here's a simple diagram of what we mean:

Continue reading


EvoLang Preview: Zombies, MMORPGs and Language Evolution

As readers of this blog will know, in evolutionary linguistics we use artificial languages in communication games all the time to investigate language evolution. However, these games, for the most part, remain very simple and confined to the lab. Massive multiplayer online role play games (MMORPGs)  may provide a new avenue for hypothesis testing in language evolution.

Below is just a case study of an MMORPG, so people can get an idea of what  we might be able to explore with a MMORPG set up. Though, this game was launched back in 2005, and was not designed as an experiment, so while there's obviously experimental design issues, there's still some pretty interesting things that have come out of it.


Urban Dead is a zombie apocalypse MMORPG by Kevan Davis. You can either be a "survivor", with your main aim being to kill zombies and to stay alive, or a "zombie", who try to kill survivors and eat their brains. When a survivor is killed, they become a zombie. Zombies can also come back to life. So nearly everyone ends up being a zombie and a survivor at some point.  When alive, players can interact as normal with other players in the same location, using a text field. However, when a player becomes a zombie their ability to use language is restricted. The game manipulates the input text for zombies using a set of rules which include, but are not limited to:

  • all occurrences of e, i, o, u replaced with "r"
  • all characters other than "zhrgbmna .!?-" are deleted
  • lower-case "r" at the end of words replaced with "rh"
  • an "a" by itself will be replaced with "hra"

This constrained speech is called "death rattle". As a result of these restrictions, several coded languages have emerged (e.g. Zombish and Zomese), which simply replace banned characters with combinations of allowed characters.


However, another language (Zamgrh) has also emerged, which uses a phonemic orthography. Zamgrh was originally bootstrapped by knowledge of English, but has since developed its own syntax, simple morphology and phonological rules. Some of these are similar to patterns found in pidgin languages, for example the use of "nah" before a verb as negation (1), and pronouns show no case, e.g. “ma zambah” can be used for “I” or “me” (1).

(1) Mah zambah nah     harm brazzarz.
    I          do  not hurt friends.

The lexicon of Zamgrh remains limited because of the constrained phonemic/orthographic limitations. Players are much more likely to use an existing word and allow context to dictate its meaning, e.g. using "babah" (baby) to mean "little", "son", "prince", etc., which of course is facilitated by the context of the game being so small. Previously, small language populations have been hypothesised to use more context dependent language, because in tightly knit communities people have a lot of shared knowledge (see Wray & Grace, 2007). Zamgrh may help us shed light on whether context dependence is not only the result of shared knowledge, but also the result of smaller phoneme inventories allowing for less productivity in the language (interesting to think about in light of the correlations found by Hay & Bauer (2007) that small language populations have smaller phonemic inventories). There are many incidences in Zamgrh of established lexical items being adopted over new lexical inventions, even with knowledge of English facilitating new items being bootstrapped, almost certainly because of the constrained phonemic inventory. For example "barn" is used for any building, e.g. "Baghzbarn", which refers to a warehouse, literally, "box barn" and "Agzbarn", which refers to a fire station, literally, "axe barn".

Death rattle may also have implications relevant to the size of inventories possible in different linguistic modalities, and how this might effect language evolution.

There currently exists a Zamgrh dictionary, as well as corpora containing some naturalistic zombie discourse and a small number of translated texts, including the poetry of Robert Burns (Rabar Barnz), Beowulf and some more contemporary texts, such as Rick Astley's "Never gonna give you up" (Nabar Ganna Brang Gaa H!gh) and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (Bahaman Rhabzag).

I have emailed the creator of the game, Kevan Davis, to see about the potential existence of a corpus of interactions as the language was developing, but this data is not available. Though, the data would be problematic anyway, as the the language seems to have developed quite a lot off-game by linguistics nerds, which is obviously not analogous to pidginisation at all. Also, the coded languages emerged much more quickly and more often than more pidgin-like languages, so any studies looking at using a similar paradigm would need to find ways to avoid this happening.

However, I think the game shows that with a bit more consideration for data collection and methodological problems, simple online games may become a useful tool for investigating mechanisms of pidginisation, linguistic bootstrapping, and conventionalisation.

I'll be presenting some more thoughts on Zamgrh andMMORPGs at the Createvolang worksop at this year's EvoLang.


Data and examples from the Urban Dead Wiki,  a list of contributors to the Zamgrh Project can be found here:

Hay, J., & Bauer, L. (2007). Phoneme inventory size and population size. Language, 83(2), 388-400.

Wray, A. & Grace, G. (2007). The consequences of talking to strangers: Evolutionary corollaries of socio-cultural influences on linguistic form. Lingua 117 (3): 543-578.

Two grants for PhD students in cultural evolution at Max Planck Institute (Jena)

The MPI for the Science of Human History is offering two grants for PhD students, starting 2016 (deadline for applications is March 21st, 2016).

The Minds and Traditions research group (“the Mint”), an Independent Max Planck Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena (Germany) is offering two grants for two doctoral projects focusing on “cognitive science and cultural evolution of visual culture and graphic codes“.

Funding is available for four years (three years renewable twice for six months), starting in September 2016. The PhD students will be expected to take part in a research project devoted to the cognitive science and cultural evolution of graphic codes.

More details here.

Poeppel's "parts list" for language, and why there's more to it than syntax

This year's Nijmegen lectures were given by David Poeppel on his work linking language processing to low-level neural mechanisms.  He called for more "muscular" linguists to step up and propose a "parts list" of linguistic primitives that neuro researchers could try and detect in the brain.  In this post, I cover the generativist answer to this, as proposed by Norbert Hornstien, who appeared as a panelist at the Nijmegen lectures, and why it bothered me (TLDR: I think there's more to language science than syntax, and other areas can also draw up a "parts list").

Continue reading

EvoLang proceedings are now online

This year, the proceedings of the Evolution of Language conference will appear online.  The first group of papers are already up:

Browse the EvoLang Electronic Proceedings

The move to self-publishing is a bit of an experiment, but hopefully it'll mean that the papers are more accessible to a wider audience.  To aid this, the papers are published under Creative Commons licenses.  Some papers also include supplementary materials.

The full list of papers will be updated as revisions come in, but here are some interesting papers available so far:

Continue reading

Visiting opportunities to study Language Evolution at the MPI for Psycholinguistics

The MPI for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands is inviting scholars to visit in 2016 and 2017 to participate in Language Evolution research.

Under the running guest programme of the Institute, special opportunities are available in 2016-2017 for visitors – both senior scholars and post-docs - participating in the research theme “Evolution of Language”, starting at any time in 2016. The theme will be hosted by the Language & Cognition department (run by Stephen Levinson) in collaboration with the other departments at the Institute.

The MPI for Psycholinguistics and its partners in Nijmegen offer an exciting environment in which to explore the evolution of language, both in its biological and cultural dimensions, and the interactions between them. The MPI has departments in language and genetics, the neurobiology of language, the psychology of language, language and cognition, and (in development) the acquisition of language. The MPI is a partner in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition & Behaviour, Centre for Language Studies, and the Language in Interaction consortium, which bring together many different perspectives on language evolution.

Senior Visitorships are available for any period from one month up to one year until the end of 2017, and Postdocs are available for up to one year starting at any time in 2016.

More details here.


Special Issue on the Emergence of Phonetics and Phonology Call For Papers

Special Issue on the Emergence of Phonetics and Phonology Call For Papers: Special issue of the Journal of Language Evolution

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in research in the evolution of language and speech. This special issue will focus on recent work addressing the evolution of speech apparatus, and the emergence of phonetic and phonological structure. The focus will be on the interaction between biological and cultural evolution, and the interaction between the cognitive evolution of language, and the biological evolution of speech. We are interested in submissions that consider how the physical aspects of a linguistic modality might shape our language, and how our phonetic capabilities at the speech level may influence our phonology at the language level.

The primary goal of the special issue is to exchange the latest advances in the study of the evolution of speech. We are interested in computational and mathematical modeling, experimental studies, brain and vocal tract imaging, corpus analysis and comparative data from animal studies, especially nonhuman primates. These techniques have allowed us to address questions relevant to the evolution of our phonetic capabilities, and the special issue will aim to open an interdisciplinary discourse.

Submissions must provide relevant empirical insight within the remit of this special issue.

Authors should prepare their manuscript according to the Instructions for Authors available from the online submission page of the Journal of Language Evolution at All the papers will be peer-reviewed.

Submission deadline: 17th April 2016

Guest Editor: Hannah Little (


EvoLang Workshop: Language Adapts to Interaction

This week the workshops appearing at EvoLang have been announced.   Participation is free to those attending the main conference.

Gregory Mills and I are running a workshop on language evolution and interaction.  Details are on the workshop website, including a call for papers.


Language Adapts to Interaction

Language has been shown to be adapted to constraints from many domains such as production, transmission, memory, processing and acquisition. These adaptations and constraints have formed the basis for theories of language evolution, but arguably the primary ecology of language is interaction – face-to-face conversation (Levinson, 2006). Taking turns at talk, repairing problems in communication and organising conversation into contingent sequences seem completely natural to us, but are in fact highly organised, tightly integrated systems (Sacks et al., 1974) which are not shared by any other species. Therefore, the infrastructure for interaction may provide an insight into the origins of our unique communicative abilities (Mills, 2014a; Micklos, 2014).

Indeed, recent studies on interaction have shown that an approach that emphasises interaction can sharpen our understanding of linguistic universals (Kendrick et al., 2014; Dingemanse et al., 2015), ontogeny and acquisition (Hilbrink, et al. 2015; Vogt, 2014), on-line processing constraints (Bögels et al., 2015) and animal signalling (Levinson & Holler, 2014).

The emerging picture is that the infrastructure for interaction is an evolutionary old requirement for the emergence of a complex linguistic system, and for a cooperative, cumulative culture more generally. These issues are also being integrated into computational models of the cultural evolution of linguistic systems (Vogt and Haasdijk, 2010; Roberts, & Levinson, 2015) and are being explored through studies of experimental semiotics (Mills, 2014b; Christensen et al., 2016).

This workshop is interested in addressing the following questions:

  • How did the infrastructure for interaction emerge and how did it shape the emergence of language?
  • What evidence is there that language structures show adaptation to interaction?
  • How do interactional constraints interact with other domains such as processing?
  • What are the limits of interactional abilities in non-human animals?

For instructions on how to submit, please see the Abstract Submissions page.


Bögels, S., Magyari, L., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Neural signatures of response planning occur midway through an incoming question in conversation. Scientific Reports, 5: 12881.

Christensen, P., Fusaroli, R., and Tylén, K. (2016). Environmental constraints shaping constituent order in emerging communication systems: Structural iconicity, interactive alignment and conventionalization. Cognition, 146:67–80.

Dingemanse, M., Roberts, S. G., Baranova, J., Blythe, J., Drew, P., Floyd, S., Gisladottir, R. S., Kendrick, K. H., Levinson, S. C., Manrique, E., Rossi, G., & Enfield, N. J. (2015). Universal Principles in the Repair of Communication Problems. PLoS One, 10(9).

Hilbrink, E., Gattis, M., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Early developmental changes in the timing of turn-taking: A longitudinal study of mother-infant interaction. Frontiers in Psychology, 6: 1492.

Kendrick, K. H., Brown, P., Dingemanse, M., Floyd, S., Gipper, S., Hayano, K., Hoey, E., Hoymann, G., Manrique, E., Rossi, G., & Levinson, S. C. (2014). Sequence organization: A universal infrastructure for action. 4th International Conference on Conversation Analysis. UCLA, CA.

Levinson, S. (2006). On the human interaction engine. In Enfield, N. and Levinson, S., editors, Roots of Human Sociality: Culture, Cognition and Human Interaction, pages 39–69. Oxford: Berg.

Levinson, S. C., & Holler, J. (2014). The origin of human multi-modal communication. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 369(1651): 2013030.

Micklos, A. (2014) The Nature of Language in Interaction. Proceedings of the 10th Evolution of Language conference. World Scientific: Vienna, Austria.

Mills, G. (2014a) Establishing a communication system: Miscommunication drives Abstraction. Proceedings of the 10th Evolution of Language conference. World Scientific: Vienna, Austria.

Mills, G. J. (2014b). Dialogue in joint activity: complementarity, convergence and conventionalization. New Ideas in Psychology, 32:158–173.

Roberts, S. G. & Levinson (2015) On-line pressures for turn-taking constrain the cultural evolution of word order. Workshop on Cognitive Linguistics and the Evolution of Language, International Cognitive Linguistics Conference, Newcastle University, UK.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., and Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 40(4):696–735.

Vogt, P. (2014) Language acquisition through interactions: A cross-cultural corpus of multimodal interactions with 1-to 2-years old infants. 8th International Conference on Construction Grammar. Osnabrück University, Germany.

Vogt, P. and Haasdijk, E. (2010). Modeling social learning of language and skills. Artificial Life, 16(4):289–309.

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 13.04.14

The effect of climate on individual speech: Does Larry King use more vowels when it's warmer?

This weekend I appeared in an NPR article about Ian Maddieson and Christophe Coupe's work on the effects of climate and ecology on the sound systems of languages.  I haven't read the study itself, but I did get to see the slides that Maddieson and Coupe presented this week at the Acoustical Society of America.  Essentially, they find that speech sounds have high efficacy - adaptation to being transmitted and received in the local ecology.  Specifically, languages tend to be more sonorous (less 'consonant heavy') in warmer places with more tree cover.  This makes sense, since these kind of sounds are better at cutting through these obstacles.

I was interviewed for about an hour, but the quotes from me in the piece are actually a bit out of context.  For instance, I claim that this is the first study of its kind, when there have been several studies which looks at climate and language (including one I co-authored with Caleb Everett and Damian Blasi).  But, to be fair, Maddieson and Coupe's study is probably the one with the greatest range of ecological variables and most sophisticated linguistic measure (although I'm not sure yet how they control for historical relatedness).

You can read about the study in the article above, but I wanted to address another thing I'm quoted as saying.  The interviewer asked if it was possible to see these effects in a single language or a single speaker, and I said that it was very unlikely, but that I'd tried to do this with transcripts of Larry King.  I went on to say that I absolutely wouldn't publish this because it was a crazy idea that nobody would believe.

But now the cat's out of the bag,  so here's what I found.

Does Larry King use more vowels when it's warmer?

If we see language change as natural selection operating on individual utterances in conversation (a la Croft and others), then we should be able to see selective pressures at work in the utterances of an individual speaker.  This should also apply to the influence of climate.  Given enough data, you should be able to see an individual adapting over the seasons.  In light of Maddieson and Coupe's hypothesis, speakers should use proportionately more vowels compared to consonants when it's warmer.

CNN provides transcripts for every show broadcast between 2000 and 2012.  Larry King has done an interview practically every day on the show 'Larry King Live' (which has been used before in linguistic studies), so I extracted Larry King's speech transcripts (excluding the guest's speech, mentions of the location of the studio and the guest's names).  For each transcript I counted the frequency of each letter, then calculated the ratio of vowels (aeiouy) to consonants.    Then, for each air date, I found the actual temperature and humidity data for that date and the location of the show (CNN studios in LA). The show is occasionally recorded in Washington DC or New York.  I tried to detect these automatically and matched them with the climate measures for the CNN studios in those cities.

There are about 3,500 transcripts over 11 years, about 90% of which were aired on consecutive days. (I know nothing about this show, and am a bit surprised by its frequency!  I'll have to check whether the transcripts include repeats).

Here is a depiction of the results for temperature and humidity:


The Black lines show King's vowel ratio (higher = more vowels) and bars are 95% confidence intervals around the mean for each week of the year.  The maximum and minimum temperature are shown in red and blue.  Below is a similar graph for specific humidity.


Surprisingly, there is some variation in proportion of vowels, and it looks like there's a trend in the right direction.

To analyse the data, I used a linear mixed effects model, predicting vowel ratio by (log) text length and maximum temperature, with random effects for year and each week (580 separate weeks, to try to control for topical issues).

Maximum temperature significantly improves the fit of the model over a null model with text length (Chi Squre = 23.7, df = 1, p < 0.00001).

Model estimates: 
                       Estimate Std. Error t value 
(Intercept)           4.100e-01  8.114e-04   505.3 
maxTempC.loc          9.628e-05  1.973e-05     4.9 5.340e-03  8.400e-04     6.4 

King uses proportionately more vowels when it's warmer.  The effect is very small: On average, there is a difference of about 15 vowels used in an hour of conversation between summer and winter.  A model with location-specific maximum temperature improves the model fit over one with just LA-specific maximum temperature (Chi Sqaured = 11.59, df=1 , p=0.0007).

Of course, the temperature is not independent from day to day, so I also tried a lagged regression, predicting vowel ratio by text length (total) and maximum temperature of the recording location (maxTempC.loc).  Lagging back in time by days.

                          Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|) 
(Intercept)              4.076e-01  7.342e-04 555.073  < 2e-16 *** 
d[lag.0, ]$textLength    3.772e-07  6.715e-08   5.618 2.08e-08 *** 
d[lag.0, ]$maxTempC.loc  1.008e-04  3.300e-05   3.055  0.00227 ** 
d[lag.1, ]$maxTempC.loc  5.009e-05  3.812e-05   1.314  0.18893 
d[lag.2, ]$maxTempC.loc  1.549e-07  3.840e-05   0.004  0.99678 
d[lag.3, ]$maxTempC.loc -7.405e-05  3.809e-05  -1.944  0.05195 . 
d[lag.4, ]$maxTempC.loc -2.418e-06  3.300e-05  -0.073  0.94159 

The temperature of actual day is still significant, taking into account previous days.  Note that the coefficient is negative after 3 lagged days. (please forgive the rough analysis- it's all I have left after my computer broke recently).

I'm not really sure what to make of this.  Given the data above, there is an argument that King is adapting the way he speaks to the climate.  However, a LOT more needs to be done in order to show this.  There are several confounding factors, such as the show being recorded in an air conditioned studio, the topics or guests might be different, there might be seasonal topics or key-words which affect the results (though one might argue that the lexicon for things related to cold climates has adapted).  The graphs show big jumps around week 32, which I can't explain yet.  Then there is the question of the mechanism - how exactly is King adapting?  By choice of alternative words, or constructions?  And, of course, the transcripts are orthorgraphic.  And, of course, the idea is crazy.

Still, I think it's amazing that we're now in a position where we can even start asking these kind of questions with data.

Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween