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.


May 21st: Gabriel Beckers (UU)

The next Origins of Language meeting will take place on May 21st, 17:15-19:00, Kromme Nieuwegracht 80, Stijlkamer van Ravesteyn (room 1.06). 

Gabriël Beckers, behavioural neurobiologist (UU), will present a talk entitled On syntactic abilities in birds.

 A new and promising direction in the emerging interdisciplinary field of biolinguistic research is that of syntax processing. Although there is so far no indication that any non-human animal produces anything like the full syntactic complexity of human language, birdsong does have a ‛phonological syntax’, as its constituent acoustic elements are often organized according to particular syntactic constraints. Surprisingly, recent research has also shown that birds are able to perceive complex syntactic patterns  in artificial vocal sequences that are generated by a center-embedding context-free grammar. I will discuss these studies as the exact nature of the underlying rules that are used remain hotly debated. Furthermore, I will discuss a new intracerebral, electrical high-density neuroimaging paradigm that may be used to test for avian syntactic abilities and to investigate underlying neural mechanisms.

Next meeting May 7: Sean Roberts (MPI)

The next Origins of Language meeting will take place on May 7, 17:15-19:00, in the Sweelinckzaal, Drift 21. 

Sean Roberts (MPI, Nijmegen) will present a talk about The role of cultural transmission, cognitive biases and population structure in linguistic universals. Abstract: 

Patterns are observable in the distribution of linguistic features that exist in the languages of the world.  A strong nativist assumption would be that these linguistic universals are constrained by genetic factors, and so they accurately reflect the innate biases of the human brain.  However, while humans have evolved biologically to speak complex languages (e.g., Berwick et al., 2013), languages have also evolved to adapt to the cognitive niche of human brains and human culture (Christiansen & Chater, 2008).  Computational models and artificial language learning experiments have shown that weak, domain-general cognitive biases in individuals can be amplified into strong linguistic universals by being repeatedly transmitted through a bottleneck (Kirby, Dowman & Griffiths, 2007; Kirby, Cornish & Smith, 2008).  This means that the nativist explanation of linguistic structure is sufficient, but not necessary.  In this talk, I’ll show that the debate about the mapping between individual, cognitive biases and population-level linguistic universals depends on our assumptions about cognitive biases, population structure and also about how to represent languages.  I suggest that bilingualism and dynamic population structures are important parts of the story of language evolution.

I hope to see you all there! 

UvA organises discussion session and talk about language, recursion and cognition

Dan Everett will present a talk in the SMART Cognitive Science series at UvA, Amsterdam  (on Friday, April 26th), and participate in a debate about language, recursion and cognition. Both events will be recorded and broadcast live as a web stream. See http://smartcognitivescience.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/livestream-everett-debate-and-lecture/ for details. 


Next meeting April 9: Sanne Moorman

The next Origins of Language meeting will take place on April 9th, 17:15-19:00, in the Sweelinckzaal, Drift 21.

Sanne Moorman, behavioral biologist (UU), will present a talk entitled A biological perspective on origins of language: Parallels between birdsong and human speech. Abstract:

To approach language evolution from a biological viewpoint, I will discuss behavioral, linguistic, genetic and neural parallels between birdsong and human speech. Unlike non-human primates, songbirds learn to vocalize very much like human infants acquire spoken language. Songbirds learn to sing in two partly overlapping phases: a memorization phase during which they form an internal representation (a ‘template’) of the song of their tutor, and a sensorimotor learning phase in which they start to produce their own song. In humans, Broca’s area in the frontal lobe and Wernicke’s area in the temporal lobe are crucially involved in speech production and perception, respectively. There is a similar neural dissociation between song perception and production in songbirds. Human brain regions involved in speech and language show characteristic left-sided dominance in their activation pattern. We have recently shown that similar lateralization can be found in the songbird brain. It is possible that auditory-vocal learning is associated with hemispheric specialization, and that this association arose in songbirds and humans through convergent evolution. 


I hope to see you all there!

Next meeting March 26: Hayo Terband

The next Origins of Language meeting will take place on March 26, 17:15-19:00, in the Sweelinckzaal, Drift 21. 

Hayo Terband (speech researcher, UiL OTS) will talk about  the origin of spoken language. Abstract:

The study of the origin and evolution of language cannot be separated from its use and purpose, as follows intuitively from Tinbergen’s four basic questions in the understanding of behaviour. This presentation will thus focus on spoken language. First, I will discuss the evolutionary background of some key anatomical, genetic, neurological, and cognitive features that enable humans to talk. Subsequently, some self-organisational mechanisms that enable the emergence of structure in communication will be reviewed. 


I hope to see all of you there!

BTW, this web page now has a new tab (see menu above), entitled background info, where you can find a list of the researchers involved in this series, and the slides/handouts of all previous meetings. 


Lecture by Jan Odijk on February 26th

During the next Origins of Language session, Jan Odijk will present The Conceptual Copy Theory for the Origin of Language.

Date & time: Feb 26th, 17:00 – 19:00

Venue: Kromme Nieuwegracht 80, Stijlkamer van Ravesteyn (room 1.06)


Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch 2002 [HCF 2002] propose that a recursive computational system (narrow syntax) and interfaces to other components form the core (and perhaps even only) component of the Narrow Language Faculty (FLN). In addition, they argue that the origin of language must have been recent and saltationist in nature. Pinker & Jackendoff 2005 [P&J 2005] however, argue that, “the language faculty, like other biological systems showing signs of complex adaptive design, is a system of co-adapted traits that evolved by natural selection” and they support their view by pointing out that there is much more to the language faculty that is highly specific to human language than just recursion and interfaces to other components.
I agree with [HCF 2002] on the saltationist nature of the origin of language, and with [P&J 2005] that there is more to language than just recursion and interfaces to other components. Thus arises the problem how to reconcile these apparently incompatible assumptions.

I propose Conceptual Copy Theory (CC-Theory) as a solution for this problem. It consists of three very tentative and speculative hypotheses that together account for the origin of the major aspects of natural language. The core hypothesis (which I will call the Conceptual Copy Hypothesis or CC-Hypothesis) states that a very small change in the genes of our ancestors had the effect that a second copy of the conceptual-intentional (C-I) component develops: this small change at the genotype level is argued to have dramatic consequences at the phenotype level: this new copy of the C-I component starts to function as the grammatical component and many properties of the grammatical component are derived from assuming this origin. The second hypothesis states that this new component makes a link with the already existing system to generate and interpret mouth-produced sounds, gestures and facial expressions in use in primates and our direct ancestor for emotive calls and social interaction. It thus accounts for the fact that the primary media for language are speech and gesturing. The third hypothesis claims that the recursive mechanism (Merge) is not part of FLN at all (though it is part of the broad language faculty (FLB)), but this will not be discussed in this presentation.

With the CC-theory, I need two small evolutionary changes to account for the origin of (the major aspects of) language, which is compatible with a saltationist character, and requires no gradual evolutionary process.

The CC-Theory is highly tentative and speculative. Though I will provide arguments to support the (CC-Theory) and make it a plausible theory that deserves further investigation, this can only constitute the start of a research program into these matters.