The Diversity in Language, Culture & Cognition Colloquium series is a joint initiative of the Centre for Language Studies and Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. It brings together the Meaning, Culture and Cognition, Languages in Contact, and Multimodal Language and Cognition groups, as well as the Language and Cognition department, for cutting-edge talks on diversity. It is co-organized by Ewelina Wnuk and Alex Carstensen. For further information, please contact Ewelina Wnuk. Meetings take place weekly on Thursdays at 3.45pm at the MPI.
28 SEPTEMBER 2017
Causality across languages: State of the art
This presentation introduces the project Causality Across Languages (CAL; NSF Award #BCS-1535846). The principal objective of CAL is the first large-scale comparison of how speakers of different languages categorize causal chains for the purposes of describing them. The presentation summarizes three ongoing studies, drawing on data from Datooga (Nilotic, Tanzania), English, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Sidaama (Cushitic, Ethiopia), Spanish, Urdu, and Yucatec (Mayan, Mexico and Belize). The first study targeted narrative production data. Results indicate remarkably parallel patterns of what is expressed (specifically or generically) and what is left implicit. The second study implemented a multiphasic design protocol combining production and the collection of goodness-of-fit judgments between descriptions and scenes. Regression models indicate a strong, highly significant correlation between domain (physical vs. psychological vs. speech act causation) and most compact construction type acceptable. Surprisingly, however, the involvement of an intermediate human participant did not exert a significant effect. The third study investigates the role of intentionality in attributions of responsibility. Participants watched scenes featuring two actors involved in a causal chain initiated by one of them. They then divided tokens into piles indicating their assignment of responsibility for the resulting event. A linear mixed effects regression model indicated a significant interaction between intentionality and population. This supports previous findings suggesting that the role of internal dispositions in responsibility attribution is variable across cultures. A follow-up question we intend to take up is whether folk theories of agency influence grammars.
05 OCTOBER 2017
Unsung Heroes, Last Words, Elephants, and Other Tropes
To manage a flood of usable information and strategize about potential directions, journalists rely on tropes or story patterns. Most popular writing about language topics uses a restricted set of tropes, but many others could shed light on language in society and the language sciences more effectively. In this colloquium — a departure from the usual — I will present some common tropes as well as ones I regularly use (and ones I aspire to use more). This will serve as further introduction to my work and an opportunity to work with one trope, which could be called “Sketching the Elephant.” Here “the elephant” (which is a large topic, ungraspable as a whole) will be “the evolution of individual variation in linguistic production” or “the evolution of style.” Do individuals possess unique ways of speaking and/or writing? If so, why does this occur? People with expertise or insights about this topic are encouraged to attend. I will also describe the article I’m working on in which this discussion would fit.
12 OCTOBER 2017
Grammatical innovation in emerging signed languages: distinguishing alternate event construals
When new languages are formed, are some types of concepts grammaticalized before others? Observing how deaf individuals create new signed languages offers insight into this question. In my talk, I compare how adult signers of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), adult Nicaraguan homesigners and child Guatemalan homesigners describe simple change-of-state events. “Homesign” refers to the gestural systems created by deaf individuals who do not have access to a sign language community but are not able to acquire the spoken language around them. Almost all of the individuals I studied use morphosyntactic devices to distinguish events with a causative agent (e.g., a woman tipping over a book) from events with no agent (e.g., a book falling over). Nonetheless, only those individuals who received signing input from an older peer used morphosyntactic devices to encode alternate construals of an event, i.e. viewing a causative event from the perspective of the patient rather than the agent. I discuss multiple explanations for this asymmetry, including the relative functional need to express each concept, as well as the possibility that these concepts require different levels of socio-cognitive maturity.
19 OCTOBER 2017
Symbolic play provides a rich socio-cognitive context for language acquisition
There has been a long-attested empirical relationship between symbolic (or pretend) play and language acquisition. Early explanations of this relationship appealed to the inherently symbolic nature of the two systems. For instance, object substitutions such as pretending a block is a car mimics the mostly arbitrary symbolic relationship between words and referents. Following Piaget (1962), the play-language relationship was therefore attributed to the development of a general capacity for symbolic representation during later stages of sensorimotor development. In contrast, socio-cultural approaches to development (e.g., Rakoczy, 2008; Tomasello, 1999; Vygotsky, 1962) assume that the context of symbolic play provides a unique social context for development by virtue of both its symbolic nature (X represents Y in context C) and the fact successful play interactions require the establishment of collective intentionality. In this talk I describe a research project that re-visits the play-language relationship in light of suggestions from socio-cultural theory that social processes underlie the relationship.
I first present a meta-analysis that establishes the strength of the play-language relationship across development. I will then present the results from a longitudinal study that investigated socio-communicative behaviours in infant-caregiver dyads across two play contexts (symbolic versus functional play). We found that, compared to functional play, infant-caregiver dyads engaged in greater amounts of joint attention during symbolic play, and produced more representational gestures. Linguistic interaction also differed, with caregivers notably using more interrogatives and less imperatives in symbolic than in functional play. Finally, there were significantly more conversational turns during symbolic play, which longitudinally predicted children’s language development. The data suggest that symbolic play provides a fertile context in which infants can refine communicative skills that are important for language development.
09 NOVEMBER 2017
17 NOVEMBER 2017
Early language experience in a Mayan village
Recent work on socioeconomically diverse Western samples has convincingly shown that children’s linguistic input affects their language learning. However, generally speaking, acquisition is quite robust. Children grow up to be competent language users under radically different conditions of caregiver-infant interaction across the world’s cultures. By studying development in non-Western cultures, we stand to better understand the scope of variation in early language experience—a crucial step toward finding out which aspects of language learning are sensitive to early experience and which are more robust. I will present initial findings from an ongoing project on linguistic and communicative development in children under age five from two non-Western cultures: one in which caregivers engage children in intensive, face-to- face verbal interaction from infancy (Papua New Guinean: Rossel Island) and one in which early caregivers instead aim to keep their infants calm and quiet (Tseltal Mayan: Tenejapa, Chiapas, Mexico). I will primarily focus on the Mayan community, in which caregiver-infant interaction is reported to most widely differ from Western middle-class norms.
23 NOVEMBER 2017
29 NOVEMBER 2017
Towards a semantic typology of complex predicates: Auxiliary verb constructions vs. serial verb constructions vs. light verb constructions
The terms serial verb, auxiliary verb and light verb have each been used by various authors to cover virtually every complex predicate subtype and it is not clear what a given scholar intends when using them. To put some order into this chaos, I offer a semantic approach to distinguish them across all of the different language groups and traditions. First all such terms are meaningful only in a larger constructional context. Such formations minimally consist of two elements, one of which is purely lexical. The other element in such constructional frames can be designated the serial verb, auxiliary verb or the light verb. I propose that an element is an auxiliary verb if it contributes functional semantics to the overall constructional sense, a serial verb if it contributes lexical semantics, and a light verb if it contributes no other semantics except instantiating valence and/or serving as an inflectable verbal element in a complex predicate, the other component of which has predicative potential but cannot be inflected as a verbal element in the language for a variety of different reasons (it’s an ideophone, a borrowed stem, phonologically defective, etc.). Examples from many languages are used to demonstrate these claims.