Robustness, Evolvability, Degeneracy and stuff like that…

Much of the work I plan to do for this year involves integrating traditional and contemporary theories of language change within an evolutionary framework. In my previous post I introduced the concept of degeneracy, which, to briefly recap, refers to components that have a structure-to-function ratio of many-to-one, with a single degenerate structure being capable of performing distinct functions under different conditions (pluripotent). Whitcare (2010: 5) provides a case in point for biological systems: here, the adhesin gene family in A. Saccharomyces “ expresses proteins that typically play unique roles during development, yet can perform each other’s functions when expression levels are altered”.

But what about degeneracy in language? For a start, we already know from basic linguistic theory forms (i.e. structures) are paired with meanings (i.e. functions). More recent work has expanded upon this notion, especially in developing the concept of constructions (Goldberg, 2003): “direct form-meaning pairings that range from the very specific (words or idioms) to the more general (passive constructions, ditranstive construction), and from very small units (words with affixes, walked) to clause-level or even discourse-level units” (Beckner et al., 2009: 5). When applied to constructions, degeneracy fits squarely with work identifying language as a Complex Adaptive System (see here) and as a culturally transmitted replicator (see here and here), which offers a link between the generation of first order synchronic variation – in the form of innovation (e.g. newly introduced linguistic material in the form of sounds, words, grammatical constructions etc) – and the selection, propagation and fixation of linguistic variants within a speaker community.

For the following example, I’m going to look at a specific type of discourse-pragmatic feature, or construction, which has undergone renewed interest over the last thirty-years. Known as General Extenders (GEs) – utterance- or clause-final discourse particles, such as and stuff and or something – researchers are realising that, far from being superfluous linguistic baggage, these features “carry social meaning, perform indispensible functions in social interaction, and constitute essential elements of sentence grammar” (Pichler, 2010: 582). Of specific relevance, GEs, and discourse-pragmatic particles more generally, are multifunctional: that is, they are not confined to a single communicative domain, and can even come to serve multiple roles within the same communicative context or utterance.

It is proposed the concept of degeneracy will allow us to explain how multifunctional discourse markers emerge from variation existent at structural components of linguistic organisation, such as the phonological and morphosyntactic components. If anything, I hope the post might serve as some food for thought, as I’m still grappling with the applications of the theory (and whether there’s anything useful to say!).

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The emergence of stable bilingualism in the lab: An experiment proposal

There is a huge amount of linguistic diversity in the world. Isolation and drift due to cultural evolution can explain much of this, but there are many cases where interacting groups use several languages. In fact, by some estimates, bilingualism is the norm for most societies. If one views language as a tool for communicating about objects and events, it seems strange that linguistic diversity should be maintained over time for two reasons. First, it seems more efficient, during language use, to have a one-to-one mapping between signals and meanings. In fact, mutual exclusivity is exhibited by young children and has been argued to be an innate bias and crucial to the evolution of a linguistic system. How or why do bilinguals over-ride this bias? Secondly, learning two language systems must be more difficult than learning one. What is the motivation for expending extra effort on learning an apparently redundant system?

Despite these obstacles, stable bilingualism exists in many parts of the world.   How might these arise and be maintained?  Continue reading “The emergence of stable bilingualism in the lab: An experiment proposal”

A history of evolution pt. 2: The Wealth of Nations, Populations and On the Origin

Title page of the original edition of Malthus' 1798 work

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Some Links #6: We are all Keynesians now. Yeah, but which type?

If you think economic cuts are necessary, you’re being fooled. Martyn Winters (known to me as dad) writes about Joseph Stiglitz’s thoughts on George Osborne’s attempts to reduce the deficit:

You may have heard of Professor Joseph Stiglitz – he’s the Nobel laureate economist who correctly predicted the global crash. He’s distinctly unimpressed with Osbourne’s budget. This, he predicts, will make Britain’s recovery from recession longer, slower and harder than it needs to be. The rise in VAT could even tip us into a double-dip recession. He took time to offer George Osbourne a bit of advice – which will probably go unheeded, because Osbourne’s objectives aren’t necessarily to improve the economy. They are an ideological attack on the state, with the intention of shrinking it by forty percent.

The basis for this is part Keynesian, and has been echoed by other commentators such as Johann Hari, in that we must spend our way out of economic woes. Now I must admit I’m not too fond of how Osborne is going about reducing deficit (raising VAT… huh?), but, for reasons that’ll become apparent below, I do think we need to tackle the deficit.

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The economy as an evolutionary system

A developing interest of mine is that of complex adaptive systems. Like language, ant colonies and the immune system, the economy is such an evolutionary system. As Plektix explains in a very interesting article:

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An article a day… starting some time soon

Having handed in my disseration and, with the notable exception of graduation, all but completed my course, I’m now free to spend much more time working on this blog. From now on I’m hoping to post at least an article a day — varying from research-related posts to just my reading for the day. Probably the most pertinent thing to write about is what I have been working on over these past few months, but being a precocious topic-hopper I’m going to provide a video of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an economist who appears to hold a lot of sensible views about the economy.

N.B. The video I was watching doesn’t appear to be compatible with wordpress. So, here is the link to that video, and the video below is a far shorter segment from Newsnight. It’s dumbed down to the extreme, but you get the gist of Mr Taleb’s stance. Enjoy.