Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speaker: Jonas Nölle (Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh)

Title: An experimental approach to the evolution of competing spatial referencing strategies

Abstract: Recently, there has been lively debate about the relation of language and its wider environment. The idea is that language structure does not evolve in a void, but is partly motivated by social and ecological variables leading to diversity (Lupyan & Dale, 2016). Whether the striking cross-cultural variation in spatial language and cognition can also be explained by adaptation to specific ‘niches’ is subject of an ongoing debate (e.g., Majid et al., 2004), where different proposals such as socio-topographic and contact diffusion have been put forward (Bohnemeyer et al., 2015; Palmer, Lum, Schlossberg, & Gaby, 2017). However, exact causal relationships and evolutionary trajectories have yet to be shown, as there are many contributing and confounding variables and quantification can become extremely complex. I therefore suggest complementing this line of research, that so far has mostly relied on field-work, with an evolutionary approach by modelling the evolution of competing spatial referencing strategies in different environments using both experiments and simulations. I will discuss work in progress regarding a series of VR referential games, were subject pairs must establish spatial referencing conventions in order to score. The experiments assess whether salient affordances in the task environment (e.g., a simulated forest vs a slope-like environment) can motivate referencing based on different strategies in otherwise identical tasks. In addition, I show how findings from such experiments can be integrated these with findings from a series of computational models using artificial agents (Spranger, 2016) to simulate how different strategies stabilize in interaction over large timescales that we could not easily observe in the lab or in field-work.


  • Bohnemeyer, J., Donelson, K. T., Moore, R. E., Benedicto, E., Eggleston, A., O’Meara, C. K., … Gómez, M. de J. S. H. (2015). The Contact Diffusion of Linguistic Practices. Language Dynamics and Change, 5(2), 169–201.
  • Lupyan, G., & Dale, R. (2016). Why Are There Different Languages? The Role of Adaptation in Linguistic Diversity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(9), 649–660.
  • Majid, A., Bowerman, M., Kita, S., Haun, D. B., & Levinson, S. C. (2004). Can language restructure cognition? The case for space. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(3), 108–114.
  • Palmer, B., Lum, J., Schlossberg, J., & Gaby, A. (2017). How does the environment shape spatial language? Evidence for sociotopography. Linguistic Typology, 21(3), 457–491.
  • Spranger, M. (2016). The evolution of grounded spatial language. Language Science Press.


Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Andres Karjus

Centre for Language Evolution

Sep 04 2018 -

Language evolution seminar

2018-09-04: An experimental approach to the evolution of competing spatial referencing strategies

Room 1.17, Dugald Stewart Building, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AD