LEC talk 17th March: Hannah Little

By Kevin | March 5, 2015

Tues 17th March 11-12.30, Room G32, 7 George Square

Hannah Little (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

An extheremental investigation into modality and the emergence of structure

There is increasing evidence that physical aspects of a linguistic modality may affect the emergence of combinatorial structure. These effects may be because of the number of possible signal distinctions that can be made within different modalities, or because of an ability to recourse to iconicity within a modality, or because modality has an effect on the number of holistic signals that can exist before combinatorial structure becomes necessary. All of these possible hypotheses are not independent of each other, and are difficult to separate. Modality also will have a very significant effect on whether emerging structure will be characterised as combinatorial or compositional, or even something which lies outside of this binary.

How the size and topology of a modality’s signalling space interfaces with iconicity and structure is an important phenomena to understand, especially within a field extrapolating results created using artificial signal space proxies to language generally. If the topology of an artificial proxy can affect the structure that emerges using that proxy, then it is important to consider these as effects of modality, and how a modality interfaces with cognition. We must identify and understand these effects before we start attributing emerging structure purely to cognitive or functional mechanisms. I will outline experiments looking at how the size and dimensionality of a continuous signalling space might affect the discretisation and emergence of structure within signals. In the most recent experiments, participants generate signals using an infrared “Leap Motion” sensor (or “theremin”). I will discuss the following experiments (or “extherements”):

1. An investigation into how participants manage a mismatch in dimensionality between the signalling space and a meaning space, where I found evidence for iconicity where the dimensionality of signal and meaning spaces matches, but not with mismatches. I have also worked with collaborators (Kerem Eryılmaz and Bart de Boer) to develop measures for structure (and iconicity) within continuous signals, which I will briefly outline and present with reference to my results.
2. A further (ongoing) investigation into dimensionality mismatches, but with more dramatic mismatches, and a bottleneck on the number of meanings participants see within the experiment to encourage the adoption of more structural strategies.
3. An investigation into whether the ability to recourse to relative iconicity (by having continuous signal dimensions map to continuous meaning dimensions) may inhibit the emergence of combinatorial structure, or facilitate it where meanings do not differ continuously. Within this experiment, I found evidence that iconicity may be maladaptive for the discrimination of signals.

Further to the above, I will discuss how we can characterise the type of structure (combinatorial or compositional) that we see emerging within these experiments, referring to how that structure relates to the meaning space, and how the participants perceive the relation. Importantly, the binary nature of linguistic structure may be a false dichotomy, and modality may have affected how the different levels of linguistic structure initially emerged and coevolved.

I will also outline the design of my ongoing social coordination experiments, and future ideas.