The Cognitive and Interactional Causes of Regularity in Language

Kenny Smith, Elizabeth Wonnacott, Olga Feher, Anna Samara, & Helen Brown

Why are humans special? Are we special because of our biology, or our capacity to learn from one another, or both? In this ESRC-funded project we are using the learning and transmission of unpredictable variation as a window onto the relationship between language universals, language learning, and language transmission, in order to address these fundamental questions.

Unpredictable variation

Languages exhibit variation: for instance, in English the precise way in which we pronounce the plural marker -s varies (e.g. sometimes “s”, as in the plural “cats”, sometimes “z”, as in “dogs”). However, while it seems logically possible that this kind of variation could occur completely at random (e.g. speakers could randomly chose to use either “s” or “z”, so-called free variation), this type of behaviour very rarely (possibly never) occurs in human languages. Instead, linguistic variation is predictable: in the case of -s, the pronunciation is predictable from the last sound in the noun. Why do languages work like this?

The acquisition of variation by children and adults

Dr Elizabeth Wonnacott & Dr Anna Samara, UCL

Dr Helen Brown, University of Warwick

Some experiments seem to suggest that the lack of free variation in languageis due to strong biases which children impose on language: children don’t expect unpredictable variation, and therefore ignore or eliminate it during learning. We are using artificial language learning experiments to test for differences in how children and adults respond to unpredictable variation, and the extent to which a single learner of any age can re-shape an unpredictable input language to be more regular.

Wonnacott, E. (2011) Balancing generalization and lexical conservatism: an artificial language study with child learners. Journal of Memory and Language, 65, 1-14.

Wonnacott, E., Newport, E. L. and Tanenhaus, M. K. (2008) Acquiring and processing verb argument structure : distributional learning in a miniature language. Cognitive Psychology, 56, 165-209.

The impact of interaction and transmission on variation


Dr Kenny Smith & Dr Olga Feher, University of Edinburgh

Languages might be predictable because learners have a strong preference for predictability, and eliminate variation when learning. An alternative possibility is that regularity in language might be due to weaker biases in learners, which have a very small impact for a particular child learning a particular language, but have a strong effect as a result of the transmission of language over many episodes of language learning and language use. We test this idea using Iterated Learning techniques (an experimental equivalent to the parlour game “Telephone” or “Chinese whispers”, where language passes from person to person and potentially changes as it goes) which allow us to simulate, in a very simple way, the transmission and use of language in a population.

Smith, K., Fehér, O., & Ritt, N. (2014). Eliminating unpredictable linguistic variation through interaction. In P. Bello, M. Guarini, M. McShane & B. Scassellati (Eds.), Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1461-1466). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Smith, K., & Wonnacott, E. (2010). Eliminating unpredictable variation through iterated learning. Cognition, 116, 444-449.

Kirby, S., Cornish, H., & Smith, K. (2008). Cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory: an experimental approach to the origins of structure in human language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 105, 10681-10686.