Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speaker: Jonas Nölle (CLE, University of Edinburgh)

Title: Why left/right rather than uphill/downhill? An experimental approach to the evolution of spatial referencing

Abstract: There is considerable variation in how languages express spatial relations between objects. Strikingly, in many globalized and WEIRD societies (hence "GEIRD"), an egocentric system is preferred to express figure-ground relations (e.g., "the ball is to the left of the car"), while many non-GEIRD societies prefer perspective-independent geocentric systems that are often directly grounded in the environment (e.g., "the ball is uphill of the car"), even for expressing relations on a smaller scale such as in tabletop configurations. These strategies are associated with different underlying conceptualizations and there has been a considerable debate about their origin. More recent fieldwork lends support to the idea that spatial language could be an example of linguistic adaptation, where linguistic features are motivated by the social or physical environment. However, there are many confounding factors that are hard to disentangle, such as topography, language contact, subsistence style etc., making it difficult to uncover straightforward causal relationships from field-work data alone. For a more mechanistic understanding of how spatial referencing strategies emerge and evolve, I propose to complement this line of research with laboratory experiments that allow isolating contributing variables. I will present two virtual reality (VR) experiments where we tested participants' preference for egocentric/geocentric strategies in large-scale VR environments such as a mountain slope or a dense forest. Experiment 1 showed that using their native language (that has a preference for egocentric solutions such as left/right), dyads solving a spatial coordination game were more likely to produce geocentric utterances (such as uphill/downhill) in a VR environment that afforded geocentric solutions strongly, suggesting that language is potentially adaptive to such salient cues, which could give rise to geocentric systems. By contrast, one of the reasons for the relative success of egocentric systems could be their flexibility. Experiment 2 thus tested whether, when switching VR environments, dyads where more likely to abandon a geocentric strategy in favour of an egocentric strategy than vice versa. However, the results did not support this prediction. This might have been due participants there being no cost for establishing a new system as participants had both strategies readily available in their native language. I will discuss the design of a third experiment (currently at the piloting stage) that tries to overcome this issue by using an Experimental Semiotics approach, where strategies have to be grounded first. We predict that introducing this cost will enable us to observe differences in the flexibility of egocentric and geocentric systems in the lab.


Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Andres Karjus

Centre for Language Evolution

Jun 11 2019 -

Language evolution seminar

2019-06-11: Why left/right rather than uphill/downhill? An experimental approach to the evolution of spatial referencing

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