Director, Centre for Language Evolution
University of Edinburgh
Linking cognitive biases to language universals
A foundational goal of linguistics has been to understand why languages look the way they do. We know that languages are shaped by a range of forces, from limitations on our cognitive system, to cognition-external facts about language history. But attempts to determine exactly how these link with specific features of language has been extremely contentious, with linguists coming from different traditions engaging in decades-long debates. Historically, these debates have been grounded in evidence from typological samples of languages, small scale corpora, and speaker judgments. However, these data have well-known limitations: they are sparse, confounded, and don’t provide direct evidence linking particular mechanisms to cross-linguistic outcomes. In this talk, I highlight my own approach, which uses artificial language experiments to link individual-level biases to cross-linguistic trends in language structure, often called language universals. Using word and morpheme order as case studies, I will show how a range of different paradigms and learner populations allow us to make progress on this crucial issue in the cognitive science of language.
A pizza lunch will be served. Please bring your own beverage!