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Simon Kirby - Centre for Language Evolution
There are few questions in cognitive science more contentious than those surrounding innateness. This is particularly true for linguistics, where much of the field can be divided between those who assume that an explanatory approach must appeal to an innate faculty for language that all humans share, and those that emphasise instead domain general mechanisms for learning.
Language universals are often used as evidence in favour of a domain-specific language faculty. The argument being that seemingly arbitrary linguistic properties that all languages share can be explained easily if all humans share the same common knowledge of language encoded in their genes.
In this talk, I will argue that the language faculty is indeed domain-specific, and that language is innate, but crucially that this does not mean what (almost) everyone thinks it means! To make the case, I will look in detail at the structure of the noun phrase using: cross-linguistic data; artificial language learning; silent gesture experiments; and corpus statistics (Culbertson, Schouwstra & Kirby, 2020). I will conclude that there are innate features of human biology that make language possible, but they aren’t specific to language. In addition, we do have a domain-specific language faculty, but it is not innate.
Culbertson, J., Schouwstra, M., & Kirby, S. (2020). From the world to word order: deriving biases in noun phrase order from statistical properties of the world. Language, 96(3), 696-717.
This week we will be discussing the paper " Difficult poetry processing: Reading times and the narrativity hypothesis" by Davide Castiglione, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963947017704726
This study presents an experiment that uses reading times as a measure of the processing effort demanded by ‘difficult’ poems, where difficulty is defined as a text-driven response phenomenon associated with resistance to reading fluency. Reading times have been used before to explore the processing of literature, but seldom with the aim of shedding light on difficulty. There is then scope to redress this research gap, also in light of Shklovsky’s claim that the technique of art is ‘to increase the difficulty and length of perception’. In the current experiment, a group of participants read six poems on-screen. The poems are by Mark Strand, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Geoffrey Hill, Susan Howe and Jeremy Prynne, and have been selected based on critics’ remarks on their difficulty or lack thereof. An extract from a novel by JG Ballard was also included to find out how its narrativity would compare, in processing terms, to the more elliptical narrativity of Strand’s and Pound’s poems. The time spent on each line was recorded by software E-Prime, commonly used in psycholinguistics. The results indicate that three of these texts – Ballard’s, Strand’s and Pound’s – were read at a much higher speed than non-narrative poems by Stevens, Hill, Prynne and Howe. The proposed explanation was that it is sufficient for readers to recognize traces of a narrative schema to read the text fluently, even if such text is low in coherence. By contrast, when prototypical narrative features cannot be mapped onto a text, the processing effort as measured by reading times remarkably increases. Overall, the results refine our understanding of the relationship between difficulty and the stylistic strategies associated with it.
Mark your calendar on the 4th of December for yet another EGM, brought back by popular demand! We are looking for a second Social Secretary to complete the duo! If you think you are the right person for the job, just fill out this form to let us know:
https://forms.office.com/Pages/ResponsePage.aspx... ! If you wish to propose any constitutional amendments, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org and make sure to state which clause number you wish to amend, or if you are proposing an entirely new clause then state which section the clause should go in.
Please also bear in mind that only fully matriculated student members are eligible to vote or run. The EGM will take place on the LingSoc Teams Space, which you will have already been added to if you have bought membership.