23 October: Svenja Wagner

Testing various predictors of acquisition ease of inflectional and agglutinating languages

Svenja Wagner (Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh)

Tuesday, 23 October 2018
11:30am – 12:30pm
G.32, 7 George Square

Different factors have been put forward that could affect the morphological structure of languages, including size of the speaker community, number of L2 speakers, and language contact situations giving rise to pidgins and creoles (Lupyan & Dale 2010, Siegel 2004, Trudgill 2012). In this study, I examine aspects related to the learning of morphological structures that could explain why some structures pose more difficulties than others. A common classification of languages with implications for the complexity of morphemes is that into morphological types. Specifically focusing on the differences between inflectional and agglutinating languages, I present results from an artificial language learning paradigm in which I manipulate the costs and benefits of learning each type. Several predictors have been suggested that should make agglutinating systems easier to learn than inflectional systems. However, we find that there is no significant difference between the success of acquisition of the agglutinating and the inflectional system. This suggests that agglutinating systems might have learning benefits over inflectional systems, but only under certain circumstances. I will discuss additional learning biases and further factors inbuilt into agglutinating systems that could make these systems difficult to acquire.

16 October: Cathleen O’Grady

Perspective-taking is spontaneous but not automatic: evidence from the dot perspective task

Cathleen O’Grady (Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh)
Tuesday, 16 October, 11:30am – 12:30pm
G.32 George Square
Data from a range of different experimental paradigms – in particular (but not only) the dot perspective task – have been interpreted as evidence that humans automatically track the perspective of other individuals. Results from other studies, however, have cast doubt on this interpretation. The issue remains unsettled in significant part because different schools of thought, with different theoretical perspectives, implement the experimental tasks in subtly different ways, making direct comparisons difficult. Here, we resolve these issues. In a series of experiments, we show that perspective-taking in the dot perspective task is not automatic (it is not purely stimulus-driven), but nor is it the product of simple behavioural rules that do not involve mentalizing. Instead, participants do compute the perspectives of other individuals rapidly, unconsciously and involuntarily, but only when attentional systems prompt them to do so (just as, for instance, the visual system puts external objects into focus only as and when required). This finding prompts us to distinguish spontaneous cognitive processes from automatic ones, and we suggest that spontaneous perspective taking may be a computationally efficient means of navigating the social world.

9 October: Zanna Clay

Vocal communication in our great ape relatives, the bonobos and chimpanzees: Insights into the evolution of language

Zanna Clay (Department of Psychology, Durham University)

Tuesday, 9 October, 11:00am -12:30pm
G.32 George Square

Our capacity for language is a central aspect of what it means to be human and sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Given that language does not fossilize, one way to understand how and when it first evolved is to examine the communicative capacities of our closest living relatives, the great apes. In this talk, I will review recent research that explores natural communication in our ours closest living relatives, the bonobos and the chimpanzees. I will primarily focus on what their natural vocal communication can tell us about their underlying social awareness and how this relates to the evolution of language. I report findings that highlight considerable communicative complexity, flexibility, and intentionality which, cumulatively, suggest that many of the building blocks for language are deeply rooted in our primate past.

25 September: Mora Maldonado

Priming semantic representations: An experimental approach to plurality

Mora Maldonado (Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh)

Tuesday 25 September, 11:30-12:30

G.32, 7 George Square

Sentences involving plural expressions can give rise to distributive and non-distributive interpretations (in (a) and (b) respectively):

(1) The girls ate two cookies.
(a) The girls ate two cookies each.
(b) The girls ate two cookies in total.

(2) The bags are light.
(a) The bags together are light.
(b) Each bag is individually light without the bags together being light.

In formal semantics, the derivation of these readings has been traditionally accounted for by assuming that non-distributive readings are obtained by default (as soon as the plural subject is in the predicate denotation), whereas distributive readings arise through the insertion of a covert distributivity operator D, whose meaning roughly corresponds to that of the word each in English (Link, 1987; Champollion, to appear). The D operator applies the VP to each atomic member of the plural subject.

While the availability of distributive and non-distributive readings for sentences in (1) and (2) is undisputed, one could ask whether the abstract mechanisms proposed to derive the contrast are accessed as such during sentence comprehension. I will report the results of three studies showing that non-distributive and distributive interpretations can be independently primed for both sentences in (1) and (2). Priming serves here to complement introspection on truth-value and inferential judgments, revealing the abstract mechanisms underlying semantic interpretation. Our findings suggest that the compositional operations proposed to derive the non-distributive/distributive contrast are at play during comprehension. The existence of distributive priming in absence of object covariation (e.g. 2) reveals an abstract representation of the non-distributive/distributive distinction, which is orthogonal to specific verification strategies.

18 September: Michael Franke

Listeners rationally adapt how they predictively process intonation when exposed to unreliable input

Michael Franke (Institute for Cognitive Science, University of Osnabrück)

Tuesday 18 September, 11:00-12:30

G.32, 7 George Square

Intonation plays an integral role in comprehending spoken language. It is also remarkably variable, often exhibiting only probabilistic mappings between form and function. Despite this apparent uncertainty, listeners can rapidly integrate intonational information to predictively map a given pitch accent onto the speaker’s likely referential intentions. We use manual response dynamics (mouse-tracking) to investigate two questions: (i) whether listeners draw predictive inferences from the presence and absence of an intonational marking and (ii) whether and how listeners adapt their online interpretation of intonational cues when these are reliable or stochastically unreliable. Our results are compatible with the assumption that comprehenders rapidly and rationally integrate all available intonational information, that they expect reliable intonational information initially, and that they adapt these initial expectations gradually during exposition to unreliable input. We explore the predictions of a Bayesian model of rational incremental belief update and observe a good fit to the empirical data.

4 September: Jonas Nölle

An experimental approach to the evolution of competing spatial referencing strategies

Jonas Nölle (Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh)

Tuesday 4 September 2018, 11:30–12:30
1.17 Dugald Stewart Building

Recently, there has been lively debate about the relation of language and its wider environment. The idea is that language structure does not evolve in a void, but is partly motivated by social and ecological variables leading to diversity (Lupyan & Dale, 2016). Whether the striking cross-cultural variation in spatial language and cognition can also be explained by adaptation to specific ‘niches’ is subject of an ongoing debate (e.g., Majid et al., 2004), where different proposals such as socio-topographic and contact diffusion have been put forward (Bohnemeyer et al., 2015; Palmer, Lum, Schlossberg, & Gaby, 2017). However, exact causal relationships and evolutionary trajectories have yet to be shown, as there are many contributing and confounding variables and quantification can be become extremely complex. I therefore suggest complementing this line of research, that so far has mostly relied on field-work, with an evolutionary approach by modelling the evolution of competing spatial referencing strategies in different environments using both experiments and simulations. I will discuss work in progress regarding a series of VR referential games, were subject pairs must establish spatial referencing conventions in order to score. The experiments assess whether salient affordances in the task environment (e.g., a simulated forest vs a slope-like environment) can motivate referencing based on different strategies in otherwise identical tasks. In addition, I show how findings from such experiments can be integrated these with findings from a series of computational models using artificial agents (Spranger, 2016) to simulate how different strategies stabilize in interaction over large timescales that we could not easily observe in the lab or in field-work.

Bohnemeyer, J., Donelson, K. T., Moore, R. E., Benedicto, E., Eggleston, A., O’Meara, C. K., … Gómez, M. de J. S. H. (2015). The Contact Diffusion of Linguistic Practices. Language Dynamics and Change, 5(2), 169–201.
Lupyan, G., & Dale, R. (2016). Why Are There Different Languages? The Role of Adaptation in Linguistic Diversity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(9), 649–660.
Majid, A., Bowerman, M., Kita, S., Haun, D. B., & Levinson, S. C. (2004). Can language restructure cognition? The case for space. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(3), 108–114.
Palmer, B., Lum, J., Schlossberg, J., & Gaby, A. (2017). How does the environment shape spatial language? Evidence for sociotopography. Linguistic Typology, 21(3), 457–491. https://doi.org/10.1515/lingty-2017-0011
Spranger, M. (2016). The evolution of grounded spatial language. Language Science Press.

28 August: Alexander Martin

Cross-linguistic evidence for cognitive universals in the noun phrase

Alexander Martin, Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh

Tuesday 28 August 2018, 11:30–12:30
1.17 Dugald Stewart Building

Of the 24 possible orderings of the nominal modifiers Demonstrative, Numeral, Adjective and the Noun, two specific patterns dominate the typology: Dem Num Adj N (as in English) and its mirror order N Adj Num Dem (as in Thai). This has been argued to follow from a universal underlying structure in which Adj forms a constituent with N first, Num scopes over that constituent, and finally Dem takes widest scope. We refer to noun phrase orders that follow this structure as scope-isomorphic. To test for general scope-isomorphic preferences in language users and assess a possible asymmetry between pre- and postnominal modifiers, we tested two linguistic populations with different NP orderings (English and Thai). Learners were exposed to a new language where modifiers were placed on the opposite side of the noun from their native language (i.e., English speakers learned that modifiers in the new language were postnominal and Thai speakers that they were prenominal). Crucially, though, learners were exposed only to single-modifier NPs (e.g., ‘car green’ or ‘car this’) but were not shown how modifiers were ordered relative to one another in multiple modifier phrases. In a test phase, participants were asked how to translate phrases with multiple modifiers into the new language (e.g., ‘this green car’). Speakers of both languages overwhelmingly inferred scope-isomorphic patterns (i.e., they preferred ‘car green this’ over ‘car this green’). We additionally found that Thai participants showed a stronger preference for scope isomorphism, suggesting the possibility that prenominal orders which violate scope isomorphism are particularly dispreferred. We will discuss these results in light of syntactic theory which predicts a pre-/postnominal asymmetry, but will also consider the possible influence of L2 knowledge (specifically Thai speakers’ knowledge of English) on these results, and outline future studies designed to tackle this issue.

21 August: Limor Raviv

Social structure affects the emergence of linguistic structure: experimental evidence

Limor Raviv (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics)

Tuesday 21 August 2018, 11:00-12.30, DSB 1.17

17 August: Shira Tal

Learning biases and language change: The effect of pragmatic factors on differential case marking

Shira Tal (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Friday 17 August 2018, 11:00-12.30, DSB 3.10

03 July: Carmen Saldana and Jenny Culbertson

Do cross-linguistic patterns of morpheme order reflect a cognitive bias? 

Carmen Saldana and Jenny Culbertson (University of Edinburgh)

Tuesday 03 July 2018, 11:30–12.30
DSB 3.10