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Emergence of Language Structures Workshop

Abstracts

Ezra van Everbroeck, Garrison Cottrell & Maria Polinsky:
The effect of Pro-Drop on the learnability of SVO languages.

We present several computational experiments which investigate the impact of null subjects (pro-drop) on the learnability of Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) languages. The connectionist simulations varied the degree of overt morphological marking on nouns and verbs. 

The network results show that the effect of pro-drop on language learnability is very limited, at least as long as some morphological marking is present. This marking can be of different nature. Contrary to the commonly assumed view, rich agreement does not play any greater role in pro-drop languages than case marking or verbal tense marking. In the absence of morphology, however, pro-drop leads to severe learnability problems for the networks, which suggests that such a language type should be unattested among natural languages. 

We then discuss isolating languages of South-East Asia (as exemplified by Mandarin Chinese) where noun-verb category distinctions are not readily apparent. At first blush, these languages may seem like counter-examples to the results of our simulations. A closer look reveals that Mandarin has reliable cues distinguishing nouns and verbs and many of these cues are acquired by children early.

Simon Kirby:
The Origins and Evolution of Language: can we study it in the lab?

Faced with the problem of explaining the particular properties of human language, one strategy is to equate structure in language with structure in the Language Faculty. To put it another way, human behaviour is explained very directly by human nature. Furthermore, if we find that features of the structure human language are functional (in the sense that they show the appearance of design), then Evolutionary Psychologists argue that the only reasonable explanation is adaptation of the innately-given language faculty by a process of natural selection. 

Over the last ten years, a number of researchers have argued that this standard view of evolutionary linguistics is flawed because it ignores the mechanism that links the language faculty on the one hand, and the universal structure of languages on the other. This linking mechanism - bridging individual human nature and the behaviour of populations of humans - is cultural transmission, and we are becoming increasingly aware that it has complex adaptive dynamics of its own. Cultural evolution must take its place alongside individual learning and biological evolution as a crucial component of a truly explanatory linguistics. 

Whilst there has been great progress recently in mathematical and computational models of the cultural evolution, along with fascinating studies of emerging languages "in the wild", it might seem that there is no way we could study cultural evolution in laboratory conditions. In this talk I will argue against this pessimistic conclusion by presenting two experimental paradigms that allow us to examine the emergence and cultural evolution of simple languages in human subjects in controlled conditions. The first experiment implements cultural transmission, and demonstrates, for the first time, non-intentional cumulative cultural adaptation over several generations. The second experiment addresses the origins of communication itself using a two-player game in which subjects innovate a communication system despite not being provided with any explicit channel for communication.

Maria Polinsky & Robert Kluender:
No complementation without predication: The role of predication in the emergence of language structure

At least since Aristotle, the sentence structure of human language has been conceived of as the relation between a logical subject and the states, properties, or events predicated of it.  There is good reason to believe that this way of viewing the world through language has its origins in the basic figure/ground organization of the sensory system.  In this talk, we review traditional semantic and syntactic predicational analyses, including thetic/categorical judgements and topic/comment structures, and suggest how the long history of thought on this topic may be of direct relevance to questions concerning the evolution of human sentence structure. 

We focus primarily on structures not usually or necessarily assumed under this umbrella, namely relative clauses and wh-questions, and show on the basis of cross-linguistic evidence the extent to which they exhibit properties of predication in their linguistic behavior.  We also present evidence suggesting that human language can do without means of complementation as long as predicational alternatives like relative clauses are available.  This helps to shed new light on the role of complementation in the emergence of syntactic structure on the pidgin-to-creole continuum. Cumulatively, these observations point to a fundamental role for predication relations in the emergence of language structure.

Wendy Sandler & Mark Aronoff:
Is Phonology Necessary for Language?

Spoken languages universally have a level of structure consisting of a relatively small number of meaningless elements – sounds -- which combine to form meaningful units, the words and phrases of language.  Hockett (1960) named this property ‘duality of patterning’, and proposed that it was a basic design feature of language, as it affords language the potential to create enormous vocabularies using a small number of discrete building blocks.  Pinker and Jackendoff (2004) underscore the importance of phonology in all human language, pointing out that duality facilitates very large vocabularies “without requiring listeners to make finer and finer analogue discriminations among physically similar sounds” (p. 212).

Stokoe (1960) demonstrated that sign languages also have this property, and, in so doing, launched the field of sign language linguistics.  The list of distinct and meaningless handshapes, locations, and movements in lexical items, and their combination to form potentially large vocabularies, are the basis of phonology in sign languages.  Constraints on the combinations of elements in signs, assimilation rules, hierarchical structure, and other earmarks of phonology have also been shown to exist in sign languages (Sandler & Lillo-Martin 2006).

But must phonology be there at the outset?  Is it possible to have a language without a clearly formed phonology?  Our investigation of the vocabulary of Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, a new language that arose in a Bedouin village in the Israeli Negev Desert, makes it possible for us to address this question.  Our investigation has revealed an unexpectedly high degree of inter-signer variation in the formation of signs in this community, suggesting that it is possible to reach a high level of linguistic proficiency before a phonological system fully crystallizes.

Irit Meir and Carol Padden:
Body as Subject: The emergence of form-meaning correspondence

The notion of subject in human language has a privileged status relative to other arguments.  This special status is manifested in the behavior of subjects at the morphological, syntactic, semantic and discourse levels. Here we bring evidence that subjects have privileged status at the lexical level as well, by analyzing lexicalization patterns of verbs in three different sign languages. Our analysis shows that the sublexical structure of iconic signs denoting state of affairs in these languages manifests an inherent pattern of form-meaning correspondence: the signer's body consistently represents one argument of the verb, the subject. The hands, moving in relation to the body, represent all other components of the event – various aspects of the event itself and all other arguments. The asymmetry between the subject and the other arguments is reflected in the lexical form of these signs:  Irrespective of semantic role, it is the subject that is represented by the signer's body. Krifka (2006) has recently pointed out that there is a strong functional similarity between the differential role of the hands in bimanual coordination and topic-comment structures. He suggests that the asymmetry of bimanual coordination "may be a preadaptation that facilitated the development of topic/comment structure in communication." (ibid., p. 15). In a similar vein, the body-hands functional asymmetry in the structure of lexical items and the subject-predicate asymmetry in language may be regarded as another manifestation of our embodied cognition. When we use our body and hands to conceptualize an event, the body can represent only one argument, thus forcing us to separate one argument from all other aspects of the event. The notion of subject as a privileged argument shows up in the very basic building blocks of a sign language. It is an essential part of how we encode an event in a word, even before we string words together into sentences.

Announcements

Congratulations to Dr. Marta Kutas on being awarded the 2015 Distinguished Career Contributions Award. Dr. Kutas will give her award lecture on Saturday, March 28, 2015 in San Francisco.

CRL is excited to present the latest CRL Newsletter, featuring technical report:
Language Skills and Speed of Auditory Processing in Young Children
J.A. Avenzino, M. Gonzalez Robledo, & G.O. Deák