Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speaker: Maisy Hallam (University of Edinburgh)

Title: A thousand families, each alike in terminology: understanding the origins of crosslinguistic variation in kinship terminology

Abstract: Across the world, different societies categorise their family relationships differently. These differences become encoded in language as kinship terminology: the words we use to name our relationships to our family members. Despite kinship having an enormous theoretical design space, we tend to see the same handful of categories attested in different languages; many languages have kin terms with similar meanings, while some meanings are theoretically possible but not attested. It has been suggested that this pattern of constrained variation is a consequence of selective pressures imposed on kinship terminology during learning and use, and attested kinship systems have been shown to optimally balance contrasting pressures of simplicity and informativeness.

In this work-in-progress talk, I will consider two universal features of kinship terminology, feature symmetry and internal co-selection, with a view to testing experimentally whether people have a preference for kinship systems that exhibit these features. In an artificial language learning experiment, participants will be exposed to an incomplete kinship system and asked to extrapolate the missing parts. I expect that they will be more likely to give solutions that are consistent with the crosslinguistic universals, suggesting that these patterns are selected for by biases imposed during learning.

Contact

Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Jan 17 2023 -

Language evolution seminar

2023-01-17: A thousand families, each alike in terminology: understanding the origins of crosslinguistic variation in kinship terminology

Room G.16 - Doorway 4, Old Medical School, The University of Edinburgh, Central Campus, Teviot Place, Edinburgh, EH1 2QZ; online via link invitation