Special Session

Language processing and language evolution

Why are human languages the way they are? The special session at CUNY 2017 at MIT will explore the hypothesis that how language evolves is deeply intertwined with how humans use language to comprehend and communicate meaning.

Typically, languages are viewed as arbitrary static objects that humans must learn and use. In this session we will explore the idea of language as a dynamically evolving product of human interaction, shaped by information processing constraints and by the social context in which it is used.  Following this reasoning, general properties of human information processing may explain variation in language, including differences among languages and differences between grammatical constructions within languages, emergence of languages (e.g., homesign), and their development over time.  This approach can, in turn, allow for a deeper understanding of basic language processing mechanisms because it richly characterizes the linguistic systems being learned and used.

The time is now ripe to ask fundamental questions at the intersection of language processing and language evolution. The field of psycholinguistics has arrived at fairly robust generalizations about sources of processing difficulty for humans, including memory constraints and the effects of prior linguistic experience.  In linguistic typology, the availability of large public datasets such as the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures has enabled faster, reproducible testing of hypotheses, as well as synergistic communication with other fields.  In addition, phylogenetic and statistical methods have provided valuable means of validating generalizations beyond particular language families and geographic areas.  In computational linguistics, new large annotated datasets have recently become available, which can be used to rigorously evaluate scientific hypotheses.  The special session will include talks from these diverse areas and related research programs that advance the field of language research toward treating languages as evolving entities.

Invited speakers:

Morten Christiansen, Cornell University
Michael Dunn, Uppsala University, Sweden
Maryia Fedzechkina, University of Arizona
Susan Goldin-Meadow, University of Chicago
Adele Goldberg, Princeton University
Simon Kirby, University of Edinburgh
Stephen Levinson, Max Planck Institute, Holland
Emily Morgan, Tufts University
Kaius Sinnemäki, University of Helsinki