March 23rd: Gareth Roberts

The social modulation of learning and communicative pressures in the cultural evolution of language

Gareth Roberts, University of Pennsylvania

Tuesday, Mar 23 2021, 16:00-17:00 GMT
Zoom Details: [Please Request]

It has long been recognised that linguistic features are not distributed evenly across the world’s languages. For example, subjects are more likely to precede objects in ordinary declarative sentences, and languages with case marking are likely to have freer word order than languages without it. Such typological facts have been argued in many cases to result from pressures arising in learning and in language use. The apparent trade-off between case marking and fixed word order, for instance, has been argued to reflect a trade-off between the reduction of effort and the reduction of meaning uncertainty in learning and use. However, humans do not learn use language in a vacuum; they also inhabit social networks and use language to signal their social identity, introducing pressures that might be expected to modulate other pressures acting on language, leading in some cases to less efficient outcomes. In this talk I present a set of artificial miniature language experiments designed to investigate the role of social factors of this kind in the cultural evolution of language, presenting evidence that such factors do indeed modulate the other factors, leading in some cases to languages that are less efficient from the point of view of communication alone.