Stephen C. Levinson

Publications

Displaying 1 - 13 of 13
  • Dediu, D., & Levinson, S. C. (2012). Abstract profiles of structural stability point to universal tendencies, family-specific factors, and ancient connections between languages. PLoS One, 7(9), e45198. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045198.

    Abstract

    Language is the best example of a cultural evolutionary system, able to retain a phylogenetic signal over many thousands of years. The temporal stability (conservatism) of basic vocabulary is relatively well understood, but the stability of the structural properties of language (phonology, morphology, syntax) is still unclear. Here we report an extensive Bayesian phylogenetic investigation of the structural stability of numerous features across many language families and we introduce a novel method for analyzing the relationships between the “stability profiles” of language families. We found that there is a strong universal component across language families, suggesting the existence of universal linguistic, cognitive and genetic constraints. Against this background, however, each language family has a distinct stability profile, and these profiles cluster by geographic area and likely deep genealogical relationships. These stability profiles reveal, for example, the ancient historical relationships between the Siberian and American language families, presumed to be separated by at least 12,000 years. Thus, such higher-level properties of language seen as an evolutionary system might allow the investigation of ancient connections between languages and shed light on the peopling of the world.

    Supplementary material

    journal.pone.0045198.s001.pdf
  • Gisladottir, R. S., Chwilla, D., Schriefers, H., & Levinson, S. C. (2012). Speech act recognition in conversation: Experimental evidence. In N. Miyake, D. Peebles, & R. P. Cooper (Eds.), Proceedings of the 34th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci 2012) (pp. 1596-1601). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society. Retrieved from http://mindmodeling.org/cogsci2012/papers/0282/index.html.

    Abstract

    Recognizing the speech acts in our interlocutors’ utterances is a crucial prerequisite for conversation. However, it is not a trivial task given that the form and content of utterances is frequently underspecified for this level of meaning. In the present study we investigate participants’ competence in categorizing speech acts in such action-underspecific sentences and explore the time-course of speech act inferencing using a self-paced reading paradigm. The results demonstrate that participants are able to categorize the speech acts with very high accuracy, based on limited context and without any prosodic information. Furthermore, the results show that the exact same sentence is processed differently depending on the speech act it performs, with reading times starting to differ already at the first word. These results indicate that participants are very good at “getting” the speech acts, opening up a new arena for experimental research on action recognition in conversation.
  • Janzen, G., Haun, D. B. M., & Levinson, S. C. (2012). Tracking down abstract linguistic meaning: Neural correlates of spatial frame of reference ambiguities in language. PLoS One, 7(2), e30657. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030657.

    Abstract

    This functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study investigates a crucial parameter in spatial description, namely variants in the frame of reference chosen. Two frames of reference are available in European languages for the description of small-scale assemblages, namely the intrinsic (or object-oriented) frame and the relative (or egocentric) frame. We showed participants a sentence such as “the ball is in front of the man”, ambiguous between the two frames, and then a picture of a scene with a ball and a man – participants had to respond by indicating whether the picture did or did not match the sentence. There were two blocks, in which we induced each frame of reference by feedback. Thus for the crucial test items, participants saw exactly the same sentence and the same picture but now from one perspective, now the other. Using this method, we were able to precisely pinpoint the pattern of neural activation associated with each linguistic interpretation of the ambiguity, while holding the perceptual stimuli constant. Increased brain activity in bilateral parahippocampal gyrus was associated with the intrinsic frame of reference whereas increased activity in the right superior frontal gyrus and in the parietal lobe was observed for the relative frame of reference. The study is among the few to show a distinctive pattern of neural activation for an abstract yet specific semantic parameter in language. It shows with special clarity the nature of the neural substrate supporting each frame of spatial reference
  • Levinson, S. C. (2012). Authorship: Include all institutes in publishing index [Correspondence]. Nature, 485, 582. doi:10.1038/485582c.

    Supplementary material

    485582c-s1-1.pdf

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  • Levinson, S. C. (2012). Preface. In A. Kopecka, & B. Narasimhan (Eds.), Events of putting and taking: A crosslinguistic perspective (pp. xi-xv). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

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  • Levinson, S. C. (2012). Kinship and human thought. Science, 336(6084), 988-989. doi:10.1126/science.1222691.

    Abstract

    Language and communication are central to shaping concepts such as kinship categories.
  • Levinson, S. C., & Brown, P. (2012). Put and Take in Yélî Dnye, the Papuan language of Rossel Island. In A. Kopecka, & B. Narasimhan (Eds.), Events of putting and taking: A crosslinguistic perspective (pp. 273-296). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    Abstract

    This paper describes the linguistic treatment of placement events in the Rossel Island (Papua New Guinea) language Yélî Dnye. Yélî Dnye is unusual in treating PUT and TAKE events symmetrically with a remarkable consistency. In what follows, we first provide a brief background for the language, then describe the six core PUT/TAKE verbs that were drawn upon by Yélî Dnye speakers to describe the great majority of the PUT/TAKE stimuli clips, along with some of their grammatical properties. In Section 5 we describe alternative verbs usable in particular circumstances and give an indication of the basis for variability in responses across speakers. Section 6 presents some reasons why the Yélî verb pattern for expressing PUT and TAKE events is of broad interest.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2012). Interrogative intimations: On a possible social economics of interrogatives. In J. P. De Ruiter (Ed.), Questions: Formal, functional and interactional perspectives (pp. 11-32). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2012). Foreword. In J. B. Carroll, S. C. Levinson, & P. Lee (Eds.), Language, thought, and reality: selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (2nd ed.) (pp. vii-xxiii). Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Levinson, S. C., & Gray, R. D. (2012). Tools from evolutionary biology shed new light on the diversification of languages. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(3), 167-173. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.01.007.

    Abstract

    Computational methods have revolutionized evolutionary biology. In this paper we explore the impact these methods are now having on our understanding of the forces that both affect the diversification of human languages and shape human cognition. We show how these methods can illuminate problems ranging from the nature of constraints on linguistic variation to the role that social processes play in determining the rate of linguistic change. Throughout the paper we argue that the cognitive sciences should move away from an idealized model of human cognition, to a more biologically realistic model where variation is central.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2012). The original sin of cognitive science. Topics in Cognitive Science, 4, 396-403. doi:10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01195.x.

    Abstract

    Classical cognitive science was launched on the premise that the architecture of human cognition is uniform and universal across the species. This premise is biologically impossible and is being actively undermined by, for example, imaging genomics. Anthropology (including archaeology, biological anthropology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology) is, in contrast, largely concerned with the diversification of human culture, language, and biology across time and space—it belongs fundamentally to the evolutionary sciences. The new cognitive sciences that will emerge from the interactions with the biological sciences will focus on variation and diversity, opening the door for rapprochement with anthropology.
  • De Ruiter, J. P., Noordzij, M. L., Newman-Norlund, S., Newman-Norlund, R., Hagoort, P., Levinson, S. C., & Toni, I. (2012). Exploring the cognitive infrastructure of communication. In B. Galantucci, & S. Garrod (Eds.), Experimental Semiotics: Studies on the emergence and evolution of human communication (pp. 51-78). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    Abstract

    Human communication is often thought about in terms of transmitted messages in a conventional code like a language. But communication requires a specialized interactive intelligence. Senders have to be able to perform recipient design, while receivers need to be able to do intention recognition, knowing that recipient design has taken place. To study this interactive intelligence in the lab, we developed a new task that taps directly into the underlying abilities to communicate in the absence of a conventional code. We show that subjects are remarkably successful communicators under these conditions, especially when senders get feedback from receivers. Signaling is accomplished by the manner in which an instrumental action is performed, such that instrumentally dysfunctional components of an action are used to convey communicative intentions. The findings have important implications for the nature of the human communicative infrastructure, and the task opens up a line of experimentation on human communication.

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  • Whorf, B. L. (2012). Language, thought, and reality: selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf [2nd ed.]: introduction by John B. Carroll; foreword by Stephen C. Levinson. (J. B. Carroll, S. C. Levinson, & P. Lee, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Abstract

    The pioneering linguist Benjamin Whorf (1897–1941) grasped the relationship between human language and human thinking: how language can shape our innermost thoughts. His basic thesis is that our perception of the world and our ways of thinking about it are deeply influenced by the structure of the languages we speak. The writings collected in this volume include important papers on the Maya, Hopi, and Shawnee languages, as well as more general reflections on language and meaning. Whorf’s ideas about the relation of language and thought have always appealed to a wide audience, but their reception in expert circles has alternated between dismissal and applause. Recently the language sciences have headed in directions that give Whorf’s thinking a renewed relevance. Hence this new edition of Whorf’s classic work is especially timely. The second edition includes all the writings from the first edition as well as John Carroll’s original introduction, a new foreword by Stephen Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics that puts Whorf’s work in historical and contemporary context, and new indexes. In addition, this edition offers Whorf’s “Yale Report,” an important work from Whorf’s mature oeuvre.

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