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Nonlinear biases in articulation constrain the design space of language

Janssen, R., Winter, B., Dediu, D., Moisik, S. R., & Roberts, S. G. (2016). Nonlinear biases in articulation constrain the design space of language. In S. G. Roberts, C. Cuskley, L. McCrohon, L. Barceló-Coblijn, O. Feher, & T. Verhoef (Eds.), The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11). Retrieved from
In Iterated Learning (IL) experiments, a participant’s learned output serves as the next participant’s learning input (Kirby et al., 2014). IL can be used to model cultural transmission and has indicated that weak biases can be amplified through repeated cultural transmission (Kirby et al., 2007). So, for example, structural language properties can emerge over time because languages come to reflect the cognitive constraints in the individuals that learn and produce the language. Similarly, we propose that languages may also reflect certain anatomical biases. Do sound systems adapt to the affordances of the articulation space induced by the vocal tract? The human vocal tract has inherent nonlinearities which might derive from acoustics and aerodynamics (cf. quantal theory, see Stevens, 1989) or biomechanics (cf. Gick & Moisik, 2015). For instance, moving the tongue anteriorly along the hard palate to produce a fricative does not result in large changes in acoustics in most cases, but for a small range there is an abrupt change from a perceived palato-alveolar [ʃ] to alveolar [s] sound (Perkell, 2012). Nonlinearities such as these might bias all human speakers to converge on a very limited set of phonetic categories, and might even be a basis for combinatoriality or phonemic ‘universals’. While IL typically uses discrete symbols, Verhoef et al. (2014) have used slide whistles to produce a continuous signal. We conducted an IL experiment with human subjects who communicated using a digital slide whistle for which the degree of nonlinearity is controlled. A single parameter (α) changes the mapping from slide whistle position (the ‘articulator’) to the acoustics. With α=0, the position of the slide whistle maps Bark-linearly to the acoustics. As α approaches 1, the mapping gets more double-sigmoidal, creating three plateaus where large ranges of positions map to similar frequencies. In more abstract terms, α represents the strength of a nonlinear (anatomical) bias in the vocal tract. Six chains (138 participants) of dyads were tested, each chain with a different, fixed α. Participants had to communicate four meanings by producing a continuous signal using the slide-whistle in a ‘director-matcher’ game, alternating roles (cf. Garrod et al., 2007). Results show that for high αs, subjects quickly converged on the plateaus. This quick convergence is indicative of a strong bias, repelling subjects away from unstable regions already within-subject. Furthermore, high αs lead to the emergence of signals that oscillate between two (out of three) plateaus. Because the sigmoidal spaces are spatially constrained, participants increasingly used the sequential/temporal dimension. As a result of this, the average duration of signals with high α was ~100ms longer than with low α. These oscillations could be an expression of a basis for phonemic combinatoriality. We have shown that it is possible to manipulate the magnitude of an articulator-induced non-linear bias in a slide whistle IL framework. The results suggest that anatomical biases might indeed constrain the design space of language. In particular, the signaling systems in our study quickly converged (within-subject) on the use of stable regions. While these conclusions were drawn from experiments using slide whistles with a relatively strong bias, weaker biases could possibly be amplified over time by repeated cultural transmission, and likely lead to similar outcomes.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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