Advances in Visual Methods for Linguistics (AVML2012)

Some peeps over the the University of York are organising a conference on the advances in visual methods for linguistics (AVML) to take place in September next year.

Some peeps over the the University of York are organising a conference on the advances in visual methods for linguistics (AVML) to take place in September next year. This might be of interest to evolutionary linguists who use things like phylogenetic trees, networks, visual simulations or other fancy dancy visual methods. The following is taken from their website:

Linguistics, like other scientific disciplines, is centrally reliant upon visual images for the elicitation, analysis and presentation of data. It is difficult to imagine how linguistics could have developed, and how it could be done today, without visual representations such as syntactic trees, psychoperceptual models, vocal tract diagrams, dialect maps, or spectrograms. Complex multidimensional data can be condensed into forms that can be easily and immediately grasped in a way that would be considerably more taxing, even impossible, through textual means. Transforming our numerical results into graphical formats, according to Cleveland (1993: 1), ‘provides a front line of attack, revealing intricate structure in data that cannot be absorbed in any other way. We discover unimagined effects, and we challenge imagined ones.’ Or, as Keith Johnson succinctly puts it, ‘Nothing beats a picture’ (2008: 6).

So embedded are the ways we visualize linguistic data and linguistic phenomena in our research and teaching that it is easy to overlook the design and function of these graphical techniques. Yet the availability of powerful freeware and shareware packages which can produce easily customized publication-quality images means that we can create visual enhancements to our research output more quickly and more cheaply than ever before. Crucially, it is very much easier now than at any time in the past to experiment with imaginative and innovative ideas in visual methods. The potential for the inclusion of enriched content (animations, films, colour illustrations, interactive figures, etc.) in the ever-increasing quantities of research literature, resource materials and new textbooks being published, especially online, is enormous. There is clearly a growing appetite among the academic community for the sharing of inventive graphical methods, to judge from the contributions made by researchers to the websites and blogs that have proliferated in recent years (e.g. InfostheticsInformation is BeautifulCool InfographicsBBC Dimensions, or Visual Complexity).

In spite of the ubiquity and indispensability of graphical methods in linguistics it does not appear that a conference dedicated to sharing techniques and best practices in this domain has taken place before. This is less surprising when one considers that relatively little has been published specifically on the subject (exceptions are  Stewart (1976), and publications by the LInfoVisgroup). We think it is important that researchers from a broad spectrum of linguistic disciplines spend time discussing how their work can be done more efficiently, and how it can achieve greater impact, using the profusion of flexible and intuitive graphical tools at their disposal. It is also instructive to view advances in visual methods for linguistics from a historical perspective, to gain a greater sense of how linguistics has benefited from borrowed methodologies, and how in some cases the discipline has been at the forefront of developments in visual techniques.

The abstract submission deadline is the 9th January.

Deictic Gestures in Ravens

Ravens can point. It’s scary how clever birds can be.

Guys! Guys! Guys!

Ravens can point. It’s scary how clever birds can be. People keep sending me this paper so I thought I’d link to it here so that people know I’ve seen it and stop bothering me (I actually don’t mind being bothered, especially if it’s about interesting things like this, please don’t stop). Abstract below.

Around the age of one year, human children start to use gestures to coordinate attention towards a social partner and an object of mutual interest. These referential gestures have been suggested as the foundation to engage in language, and have so far only been observed in great apes. Virtually nothing is known about comparable skills in non-primate species. Here we record thirty-eight social interactions between seven raven (Corvus corax) dyads in the Northern Alps, Austria during three consecutive field seasons. All observed behaviours included the showing and/or offering of non-edible items (for example, moss, twigs) to recipients, leading to frequent orientation of receivers to the object and the signallers and subsequent affiliative interactions. We report evidence that the use of declarative gestures is not restricted to the primate lineage and that these gestures may function as ‘testing-signals’ to evaluate the interest of a potential partner or to strengthen an already existing bond.

If you’re interested in reading about referencial gestures in humans and chipanzees and why these things are relevant to the evolution of language you should read Michael’s post here.

Language Evolution Session at EHBEA 2012

H/T: Evolutionary Linguistics.

Call deadline: 25 November 2011
Event Dates: 15-28 March 2012
Event Location: Durham, UK
Event URL:
Dear colleagues,

We are organising a special themed session on language evolution at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association, which is held in Durham, UK, 25th-28th March 2012 ( EHBEA is an excellent venue for interdisciplinary work on the cultural and biological evolution of human behaviour, including language. Given that EHBEA is running shortly after EVOLANG next year, we are happy for research that is targeted at EVOLANG to also be submitted here, although note that the audience for each is likely to be different.

If you would like to submit an abstract for consideration as part of this themed session, please follow the submission instructions on the EHBEA website, marking your abstract as for consideration in the language evolution special session, organised by Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith. Abstracts will be independently reviewed by the usual EHBEA reviewers, so bear that in mind when preparing your submission. The themed session will only run if sufficient abstracts are accepted – of course, papers on language evolution could be presented independently as standard EHBEA talks.

The deadline for submissions is November 25th.


Best wishes,
Simon & Kenny

New Blog: A Rare Bite of Linguistics

Being someone who likes to welcome new academics blogs on the scene, particularly ones of a linguistic tilt, I urge you to go over, visit, read and maybe even leave a comment at A Rare Bite of Linguistics. It’s only one-post old, but the subject topic of language change and grammaticalisation fits in nicely with this blog’s overarching themes. As some of you might know, I wrote a bit about grammaticalisation at the start of this year, so the work is especially useful to lay folk such as myself. The post is the first of two that report the author’s findings of her MA project, which focused on the grammatical status of certainly in collocation with modal verbs. In the author’s own words:

My hypothesis is that the adverb is not fully grammaticalised even though it might show signatures of grammaticalisation.

Following Noël (2007), Bybee (2003) and Hopper and Traugott (2003) grammaticalisation affects a construction primarily and a single word secondarily; I suggest that, for modal synergy, a structural unit is formed of a modal verb and an adjacent modal adverb in mid-position, e.g. would certainly, must certainly etc. Mid-position is the ‘natural habitat’ of the modal particle and if there is grammaticalisation of certainly into a modal particle, this is consequently where we would expect to find it. Moreover, if this were a grammatical unit/construction consisting of two grammatical constituents, the grammaticality would lie in the bondedness (syntagmatic restriction) of the two elements, and the semantic and paradigmatic restrictions which are said to be part of grammaticalisation (cf. Lehmann’s parameters): we would expect an abstract meaning and perhaps reduced phonological properties (which I cannot test), paradigmaticity, low paradigmatic variability and high cohesion with modal verbs in general. Scope is a contested parameter and it seems that in this case too, we will deal with increased scope. Lastly, as Bybee (2003) indicated, frequency plays a staple role in the propagation of an item to becoming grammaticalised (see also Croft 2000).

It’s at quite a high level, but she does provide good, comprehensive definitions of what she’s studying and, more importantly, a fleshed out understanding of grammaticalisation theory and the processes underpinning it.

Neural Language Networks at Birth

I haven’t had chance to read this paper, but it throws up some interesting discussion points relating to this blog. In particular, it relates to a hypothesis I put forward last year on Domain-General Regions and Domain-Specific Networks. Here is the abstract:

The ability to learn language is a human trait. In adults and children, brain imaging studies have shown that auditory language activates a bilateral frontotemporal network with a left hemispheric dominance. It is an open question whether these activations represent the complete neural basis for language present at birth. Here we demonstrate that in 2-d-old infants, the language-related neural substrate is fully active in both hemispheres with a preponderance in the right auditory cortex. Functional and structural connectivities within this neural network, however, are immature, with strong connectivities only between the two hemispheres, contrasting with the adult pattern of prevalent intrahemispheric connectivities. Thus, although the brain responds to spoken language already at birth, thereby providing a strong biological basis to acquire language, progressive maturation of intrahemispheric functional connectivity is yet to be established with language exposure as the brain develops.

Paper Link:


Confrontational scavenging as a possible source for language and cooperation

New language/cooperation paper by Bickerton and Szathmáry today. What a dream team. The best news is that it’s open access. WOO! GO OPEN ACCESS!

Here’s the abstract:

The emergence of language and the high degree of cooperation found among humans seems to require more than a straightforward enhancement of primate traits. Some triggering episode unique to human ancestors was likely necessary. Here it is argued that confrontational scavenging was such an episode. Arguments for and against an established confrontational scavenging niche are discussed, as well as the probable effects of such a niche on language and co-operation. Finally, several possible directions for future research are suggested.

Here’s a link: