[Colloquium] Modelling functional and communicative dimensions of linguistic structure and use

Event Date: 

Thursday, January 17, 2019 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm

Event Location: 

  • South Hall 3605

The emergence of a field of cognitively grounded computational linguistics, which is distinct from natural language processing, has introduced new ways to look at linguistic data, that offer novel and exciting insights into the functional and communicative dimensions of language.

From a cognitive perspective, language is a coded communication system that must be learned and processed by its speakers. Research into learning shows how different coding systems can be effectively acquired by different learners as a result of the common discriminative properties of the systems (Ramscar and Yarlett 2007, Ramscar et al. 2013). In return, an understanding of the underpinnings of coding systems can yield insights into the nature of linguistic structure and the motivations behind patterns of synchronic usage and diachronic change.


This talk presents a range of phenomena that are of perennial interest in the field of typology and, more generally, in general linguistic theory, notably allomorphy and polysemy, syncretism and homophony, optionality, and element ordering. It will suggest how a discriminative perspective contributes to expanding the understanding of linguistic structure from a perspective based on discrete units to a perspective that encompasses whole systems. The underlying conceptual shift highlights, in particular, the interactive functional significance of linguistic units within a communicative structure. It will illustrate the benefits of approaching language as a dynamic discriminative multimodal communication system which continuously adapts at all levels to achieve maximum discriminative efficiency (Davis et al 2002, Baayen et al 2003, Kemps et al 2005, Gahl 2008, Drager 2011, Ramscar 2013, Deppermann 2015, Plag et al 2015, Baayen et al 2016, Dye et al 2017, among others).


Capturing interactions between communicative pressures and linguistic patterns requires comprehensive resources as well as appropriate quantitative methodologies. Drawing on examples from typologically diverse languages, this presentation will show (i) how languages can be seen to be shaped by common communicative pressures, (ii) how interactions between communicative pressures and language structure have been captured in previous quantitative studies of well-resourced languages, and (iii) how efficient computational techniques for enhancing data collection can be exploited to extend quantitative methodologies to low-resource or underdescribed languages.



Selected references

Baayen, R. H., J. M. McQueen, T. Dijkstra, & R. Schreuder (2003). ‘Frequency effects in regular inflectional morphology: Revisiting Dutch plurals’. In R.H. Baayen & R. Schreuder, (eds), Morphological Structure in Language Processing. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 355–370.

Baayen, R. H., F. Tomaschek, S. Gahl, & M. Ramscar (2016). ‘The Ecclesiastes principle in language change’. In M. Hundt, S. Mollin & S. Pfenninger (eds) The changing English language: Psycholinguistic perspectives. Cambridge: CUP, 21-48.

Davis, M., W. D. Marslen-Wilson, & M. G. Gaskell (2002). ‘Leading up the lexical garden-path: Segmentation and ambiguity in spoken word recognition’. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception Performance 28, 218–244.

Deppermann, A. (2015). ‘When recipient design fails: Egocentric turn-design of instructions in driving school lessons leading to breakdowns of intersubjectivity’. Gesprächsforschung - Online-Zeitschrift zur verbalen Interaktion 16, 63-101.

Drager, K. (2011). ‘Sociophonetic variation and the lemma’. Journal of Phonetics 39(4), 694–707.

Gahl, S. (2008). ‘“Time” and “Thyme” are not homophones: The effect of lemma frequency on word durations in spontaneous speech’. Language 84(3), 474–496.

Dye, M., P. Milin, R. Futrell, & M. Ramscar (2017). ‘A functional theory of gender paradigms’. In F. Kiefer, J. P. Blevins, & H. Bartos (eds.), Perspectives on Morphological Structure: Data and Analyses. Leiden: Brill, 213-239.

Kemps, R. J. J. K., M. Ernestus, R. Schreuder, R. H. Baayen (2005). ‘Prosodic cues for morphological complexity: The case of Dutch plural nouns’. Memory & Cognition 33(3), 430–446.

Plag, I., J. Homann, & G. Kunter (2015). ‘Homophony and morphology: The acoustics of word-final S in English’. Journal of Linguistics 53, 181–216.

Ramscar, M. (2013). ‘Suffixing, prefixing, and the functional order of regularities in meaningful strings’. Psihologija, 46(4), 377–396.

Ramscar, M. & D. Yarlett. (2007). ‘Linguistic self-correction in the absence of feedback: A new approach to the logical problem of language acquisition’. Cognitive Science 31(3), 927–960.