The first day of EvoLang includes several workshops (full list here) to which all attendees are invited. Gregory Mills and I are running a workshop on language evolution and interaction, and the schedule and papers are now available online.
Language Adapts to Interaction, 08:30-13:30, Monday, 21st March, 2016, New Orleans
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. 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 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. 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. That is, Language Adapts to Interaction.
The keynote talk is given by John Haviland, who covers an emerging sign language called Z, and argues that interactional tools such as gaze, pointing and attention management form the basis of both aspects of interaction such as turn taking, but also grammatical features in the language.
This is a preview of the talk Redundant Features Are Less Likely To Survive: Empirical Evidence From The Slavic Languages by Aleksandrs Berdicevskis and Hanne Eckhoff. Tuesday 22nd March, 14:30, room D.
One of the methodological trends of this year’s EvoLang seems to be intelligent exaptation. What I mean by this is that people do research on language evolution using tools that were developed for a completely different purpose. Examples include using zombies to observe the emergence of languages under severe phonological constraints, Minecraft to investigate the role of pointing in the emergence of language and EvoLang to study EvoLang. In addition to that, Hanne Eckhoff and I use syntactic parsers to quantify morphological redundancy.
The basic idea is to put to test an assumption that redundant features are more likely to disappear from languages, especially if social factors favour the loss of excessive complexity. The problem is that nobody really knows what is redundant in real languages and what is not. We can define a feature as redundant if it is not necessary for successful communication, i.e. if hearers can infer the meanings of the messages they receive without using this feature. It is, however, still a long way from this definition to a quantitative measure. In theory, one could run psycholinguistic experiments, in practice, it is a difficult and costly venture (I tried).
In this paper, we replace humans with a dependency parser. For those who are not into computational linguistics: a parser is a program which can automatically identify (well, attempt to identify) the syntactic structure of a given sentence. A typical parser is first trained on a large number of human-annotated sentences. After its learning is over, it can parse non-annotated sentences on its own, relying on the information about the form of every word, its lemma, part of speech, morphological features and the linear order of words — just like a human being. If we remove a certain feature from its input and compare performance before and after the removal, we can estimate how important (=non-redundant) the feature was.
We test whether this measure is any good by running a pilot study with the Slavic language group. We estimate the redundancy of morphological features in Common Slavic (Common Slavic itself has left no written legacy, but we happen to have an excellent treebank of Old Church Slavonic, which is often used as a proxy) and try to predict which features are likely to die out in 13 modern Slavic languages. While redundancy is not of course a sole determiner of the survivability, it turns out be a fairly good predictor.
Come to the talk to hear about fierce morphological competitions! They are friends, dative and locative, almost brothers, but if only one can stay alive, which will sacrifice itself? The perfect participle is an underdog past tense, its frequency negligible compared to that of its rivals, the aorist and the imperfect, but does its high non-redundancy score give it some hope?
Aleksandrs Berdicevskis is a postdoc in computational historical linguistics at an edge of the world (namely The Arctic University of Norway in the city of Tromsø) with a PhD in sociolinguistics from the University of Bergen, MA in theoretical linguistics from Moscow State University, two years’ experience in science journalism, two kids and a long-standing interest in language evolution.
The first question he usually gets from new acquaintances is about the spelling of his name. The first name is a common Russian name (Aleksandr-) with the obligatory Latvian inflectional marker for nominative masculine singular (-s). The full form is used in formal communication only, otherwise he is usually called Sasha (the Russian hypocorism for Aleksandr) or, for simplicity’s sake, Alex.
Replicated Typo is doing a series of previews for this year's EvoLang conference. If you'd like to add a preview of your own presentation, get in touch with Sean Roberts.
At this year's EvoLang Liz Irvine and I will be talking about how pointing can inhibit the emergence of symbolic communication.
Usually, pointing is thought to help the process of bootstrapping a symbolic system. You can point to stuff to help people agree on what certain symbols refer to. This process has been formalised in the 'naming game' (see Matt Spike's talk):
- I request an object by naming it (with an arbitrary symbol)
- You guess what I mean and give me an object
- I point to the object that I meant you to give me (feedback)
- We remember the name that referred to this object
This game is the basis for many models of the emergence of shared symbolic systems, including iterated learning experiments (e.g Feher et al., and Macuch Silva & Roberts). Here's some robots playing the naming game in Luc Steels' lab:
However, the setup of these experiments assumes one crucial thing: that the individuals can't use pointing to make the request in the first place. Most experiments are set up so that participants must communicate symbolically before they can use pointing. If you allowed pointing to be used in a naming game, then it would probably go something like this:
- I point at the object I want.
I request an object by naming it (with an arbitrary symbol)
- You guess what I mean and give me an object
- I point to the object that I meant you to give me (feedback)
We remember the name that referred to this object
That is, if we're good enough at pointing then we don't need a symbolic language for this task.
Of course, there must have been some task in our evolutionary history that provided a pressure for us to develop language. We set out to explore what kind of task this might have been by running an experiment in Minecraft.
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.
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:
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: http://wiki.urbandead.com/index.php/Category:Zombese_Linguists
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.
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").
This year, the proceedings of the Evolution of Language conference will appear online. The first group of papers are already up:
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: