Never mind language, emotions are in a category of their own

A new paper in the journal ‘Emotion’ has presented research which has implications for the evolution of language, emotion and for theories of linguistic relativity.

A new paper in the journal ‘Emotion’ has presented research which has implications for the evolution of language, emotion and for theories of linguistic relativity. The paper, entitled ‘Categorical Perception of Emotional Facial Expressions Does Not Require Lexical Categories’, looks at whether our perception of other people’s emotions depend on the language we speak or if it is universal. The results come from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Evolutionary Anthropology.

Human’s facial expressions are perceived categorically and this has lead to hypotheses that this is caused by linguistic mechanisms.

The paper presents a study which compared German speakers to native speakers of Yucatec Maya, which is a language which has no labels which distinguish disgust from anger. This was backed up by a free naming task in which speakers of German, but not Yucatec Maya, made lexical distinctions between disgust and anger.

The study comprised of a match-to-sample task of facial expressions, and both speakers of German and Yucatec Maya perceived emotional facial expressions of disgust and anger, and other emotions, categorically. This effect was shown to be just as significant across the language groups, as well as across emotion continua (see figure 1.) regardless of lexical distinctions.

The results show that the perception of emotional signals is not the result of linguistic mechanisms  which create different lexical labels but instead shows evidence that emotions are subject to their own biologically evolved mechanisms. Sorry Whorfians!


Sauter DA, Leguen O, & Haun DB (2011). Categorical perception of emotional facial expressions does not require lexical categories. Emotion (Washington, D.C.) PMID: 22004379

Talk to the Virtual Hands

A new paper in PlosOne has used new fancy research methods to look at whether humans are more capable of describing a word using just spoken communication, or whether the use of gesture also helps. This research is pertinent to the field of language evolution because it might help us understand if spoken language co-evolved with gesture as well as helping us understand how language is processed in the brain.

This new study builds on previous research in this area by using avatars in a virtual reality setting. Participants were either in control of the movements of their avatar, or not.

The study found that participants were much more successful in communicating concepts when the speaker was able to use their own gestures when explaining a concept using spoken language. The body language of the listener also impacted success at the task, showing the need for nonverbal feedback from the listener.

It’s worth noting that the primary purpose of this research wasn’t to find if gesture is helpful in communication (though that is certainly interesting and worthwhile) but rather whether using virtual reality is fruitful in these kinds of experiments.

The press release discusses some of the problems with using avatars:

The researchers note that there are limitations to nonverbal communication in virtual reality environments. First, they found that participants move much less in a virtual environment than they do in the “real world.” They also found that the perspective of the camera in the virtual environment affected the results.

Lead author, Dr. Trevor Dodds maintains, “this research demonstrates that virtual reality technology can help us gain a greater understanding of the role of body gestures in communication. We show that body gestures carry extra information when communicating the meaning of words. Additionally, with virtual reality technology we have learned that body gestures from both the speaker and listener contribute to the successful communication of the meaning of words.  These findings are also important for the development of virtual environments, with applications including medical training, urban planning, entertainment and telecommunication.”

The work was led by Dr. Trevor Dodds at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany.

 Dodds TJ, Mohler BJ, Bu¨ lthoff HH (2011) Talk to the Virtual Hands: Self-Animated Avatars Improve Communication in Head-Mounted Display Virtual Environments. PLoS ONE 6(10): e25759. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025759

New Language and Genetics department

Next week, on the 1st October, there will be a new language and genetics department opening at the Max Planck Institute, the first research department in the world entirely devoted to understanding the relationship between language and genes!!!

This excites me so I wanted to share the news.

This statement is from Simon Fisher, who will head the new department about what they will be trying to achieve:

‘We aim to uncover the DNA variations which ultimately affect different facets of our communicative abilities, not only in children with language-related disorders but also in the general population, and even through to people with exceptional linguistic skills’, says L&G director Simon Fisher. ‘Our work attempts to bridge the gaps between genes, brains, speech and language, by integrating molecular findings with data from other levels of analysis, particularly cell biology and neuro-imaging. In addition, we hope to trace the evolutionary history and worldwide diversity of the key genes, which may shed new light on language origins.’

More signs of the growing and diversifying field of language evolution!

Here’s a link to the news on the MPI website:

Language, Thought, and Space (IV): Comparing Different Cultures

In my last post on the relationship between language, thought and (thinking and talking about) space I wrote that one of the most interesting, but also one of the most difficult questions is to what extent linguistic differences in talking about space reflect conceptual and perceptual differences.
Researchers at the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics (Nijmegen, Netherlands) and at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) have done very interesting experiments that shed light on this question
As I mentioned in a previous posts (see here) work done by Stephen Levinson and others on how different cultures talk about and conceptualize space has shown that not all of them employ a bodily, egocentric frame of reference or coordinate system as their dominant organizing principle for their experiences and thoughts. Speakers of “several indigenous languages of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Nepal, and south West Africa,” in contrast, organize the axes of their dominant coordinate system by absolute principles such as fixed landmarks (e.g. uphill vs. downhill) or cardinal directions (e.g. move the chair to the north). In addition, there are also langouages that primarily use “intrinsic,” object-centred Frames of Reference, such as in “The dog is at the front of the library.”
Differences between Relative and Absolute Speakers in Non-linguistic Spatial Tasks
In a set of clever experiments Levinson and his colleagues have also shown that speakers of relative and absolute languages differ in how they solve non-linguistic spatial tasks.

Language, Thought, and Space (II): Universals and Variation

Spatial orientation is crucial when we try to navigate the world around us. It is a fundamental domain of human experience and depends on a wide array of cognitive capacities and integrated neural subsystems. What is most important for spatial cognition however, are the frames of references we use to locate and classify ourselves, others, objects, and events.

Often, we define a landmark (say ourselves, or a tree, or the telly) and then define an object’s location in relation to this landmark (the mouse is to my right, the bike lies left of the tree, my keys have fallen behind the telly). But as it turns out, many languages are not able to express a coordinate system with the meaning of the English expression “left of.” Instead, they employ a compass-like system of orientation.

They do not use a relative frame of reference, like in the English “the cat is behind the truck” but instead use an absolute frame of reference that can be illustrated in English by sentences such as “the cat is north of the truck.” (Levinson 2003: 3). This may seem exotic for us, but for many languages it is the dominant – although often not the only – way of locating things in space.

What cognitive consequences follow from this?

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New Blog: Culture Evolves!

… Well, new to me at least. It’s run by Fiona Jordan of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, and her latest post is an interview with one of my favourite researchers, Simon Greenhill (I didn’t know he designed a sudoku solving program). Also, after having done a little digging into her publications, I found the following forthcoming paper: The effect of population size and density on rates of linguistic evolution. Here is the abstract:

Evolutionary theory from population genetics predicts that demography may play an important role in determining the rate at which cultural and linguistic traits change over time. However, relatively few studies have explored this relationship for language at an appropriate scale and in a quantitative way, nor controlled for the problem of non-independence induced by the historical relationships between languages. Here we use phylogenetic trees of 351 Austronesian languages to test whether the rate of change in core vocabulary is affected by population size and population density. We detected a strong phylogenetic signal in both population size and density, indicating the need for historical control. We find a significant inverse relationship between lexical replacement and population size, no relationship with population density, and we confirm that splitting events influence lexical evolution. These results support the idea that a process analogous to genetic drift may be an important factor in lexical evolution. Furthermore, the strong phylogenetic signal in these demographic factors suggests that despite repeated population splits the social conditions that influence speech community size and density are maintained and inherited from one generation to the next.

I’m not going to say anything on a paper I haven’t yet read, other than it looks pretty cool and that more people should be considering the influence of demographic factors in linguistics.

Marc Hauser investigated for scientific misconduct

The Boston Globe reported today that Marc Hauser is on leave due to scientific misconduct . The Great Beyond summarises the article as follows:

The trouble centers on a 2002 paper published in the journal Cognition (subscription required). Hauser was the first author on the paper, which found that cotton-top tamarins are able to learn patterns – previously thought to be an important step in language acquisition. The paper has been retracted, for reasons which are reportedly unclear even to the journal’s editor, Gerry Altmann.

Two other papers, a 2007 article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B and a 2007 Science paper, were also flagged for investigation. A correction has been published on the first, and Science is now looking into concerns about the second. And the Globe article highlights other controversies, including a 2001 paper in the American Journal of Primatology, which has not been retracted although Hauser himself later said he was unable to replicate the results. Findings in a 1995 PNAS paper were also questioned by an outside researcher, Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany, who reviewed the original data and said he found “not a thread of compelling evidence” to support the paper’s conclusions.

Hauser has taken a year-long leave from the university.

Continue reading “Marc Hauser investigated for scientific misconduct”