Simon Kirby & Jenny Culbertson
Fri 15 Apr 2016, 11:00 - 12:30
Informatics Forum (IF-4.31/4.33)

If you have a question about this talk, please contact: Diana Dalla Costa (ddallac)


The extent to which the linguistic system—its architecture, the representations it operates on, the constraints it is subject to—is specific to language has broad implications for cognitive science and its relation to evolutionary biology. An evolutionary approach to the language faculty might at first blush appear to favor domain-specificity, with individual properties of the language faculty being specifically linguistic adaptations. However, recent computational models of the interactions between learning, culture, and biological evolution show that any domain-specific adaptations that evolve will take the form of weak biases rather than hard constraints.

Conversely, there may be domain-general constraints on language that nevertheless interact with the linguistic system in a way that is unique. In this talk we will highlight a very general bias, simplicity, which operates widely in cognition and yet interacts with linguistic representations in domain-specific ways. We will survey computational and experimental results showing that a simplicity bias is reflected in a range of language universals that cut across very different aspects of the linguistic system: compositionality, regularity, harmony, and isomorphism. In each case, the simplicity bias interacts with linguistic representations to give rise to domain-specific effects.


Simon Kirby is Professor of Language Evolution at the University of Edinburgh and head of the Centre for Language Evolution. He uses computational simulations and lab experiments to study the cultural evolution of human behaviour and its impact on the biological evolution of our species. He also collaborates with sculptors and musicians to create interactive art installations exploring issues of communication and cultural evolution in the online world. His most well known work is the BAFTA-winning Cybraphon, now part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of Scotland.

Jenny Culbertson is a Chancellor's Fellow at the Centre for Language Evolution in the School of Philosophy, Psychology & Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh. She did her PhD in Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Rochester. She works on understanding how cognitive biases shape natural language syntax and morphology.