June 11th: Silvia Radulescu and Lea ter Meulen

On June 11, we will have our last Origins of Language meeting. During this meeting, two Linguistics Master students will present their work, and I am very happy to announce that both presentations will be truly interdisciplinary! 

Date: June 11, 17:15-19:00

Venue: Sweelinckzaal, Drift 21

Speakers: Silvia Radulescu and Lea ter Meulen



Silvia Radulescu

Remote dependencies in human language and bird song

Several bird song studies have been carried out so far to investigate birds’ alleged ability to discriminate complex syntactic rules in strings of song units that go beyond finite-state grammars and extend to center-embedding patterns captured by an AnBn context-free grammar.

However the results of these studies lie under much debate, since the experimental designs used in these studies fail to clearly point to the exact underlying computational mechanism used by the birds to discriminate between patterns. Center-embedding structures are extremely complex syntactic structures which pose processing problems to humans as well: complex cognitive processes and high working memory capacity is needed to spontaneously process this kind of patterns.

‪Future research in this area should focus on the following question: What underlying computational skills and capacities are necessary to process center-embedded strings and are they part of birds’ cognitive capacities? In an attempt to answer this question, I will briefly discuss the experimental methods used so far to test the ability to track remote (non-adjacent) dependencies both in birds and humans, and I will make some suggestions as to how the ability to track these hierarchical structures could be further investigated. 


Lea ter Meulen

The torqued brain – Hemispheric lateralization and the evolution of language

Cerebral lateralization, the functional and anatomical asymmetry between the two hemispheres, is a striking and distinctive characteristic of the human brain – perhaps the most evident instantiation of this is the fact that the overwhelming majority of people are right-handed, while most other species appear to lack such population-level asymmetries (Chance & Crow, 2007; Boesch, 1991). Stronger lateralization is associated with stronger verbal performance (e.g. Leask & Crow, 2001), and reduced functional lateralization has been linked with a wide range of language-related disorders (e.g. Moore & Haynes, 1980; Preibisch et al., 2003; Sommer, Ramsey & Kahn, 2001; Rinehart et al., 2002; Habib, 2000), suggesting a profound relation between the lateralization of our brain and language. While evidence for a handedness bias can already be found in fossil records dating back to 1.9 million years ago, modern language is generally estimated to have emerged much later, somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 years ago (Toth, 1985; Bermúdez de Castro et al., 1988). Unlike the gestural theory of language evolution suggests (Armstrong et al., 1995; Corballis, 2003), language and handedness are not necessarily directly related – it seems that partly independent mechanisms are at work for the lateralization of handedness and language. This presentation will explore the mechanisms through which the lateralization of handedness and language has emerged. Considering the advantages of hemispheric specialization and the sex differences in structural and functional asymmetries, both natural and sexual selection appear to play a role.