Stephen C. Levinson

Publications

Displaying 1 - 100 of 117
  • Barthel, M., & Levinson, S. C. (2020). Next speakers plan word forms in overlap with the incoming turn: Evidence from gaze-contingent switch task performance. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/23273798.2020.1716030.

    Abstract

    To ensure short gaps between turns in conversation, next speakers regularly start planning their utterance in overlap with the incoming turn. Three experiments investigate which stages of utterance planning are executed in overlap. E1 establishes effects of associative and phonological relatedness of pictures and words in a switch-task from picture naming to lexical decision. E2 focuses on effects of phonological relatedness and investigates potential shifts in the time-course of production planning during background speech. E3 required participants to verbally answer questions as a base task. In critical trials, however, participants switched to visual lexical decision just after they began planning their answer. The task-switch was time-locked to participants' gaze for response planning. Results show that word form encoding is done as early as possible and not postponed until the end of the incoming turn. Hence, planning a response during the incoming turn is executed at least until word form activation.

    Supplementary material

    Supplemental material
  • Bögels, S., Kendrick, K. H., & Levinson, S. C. (2019). Conversational expectations get revised as response latencies unfold. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/23273798.2019.1590609.

    Abstract

    The present study extends neuro-imaging into conversation through studying dialogue comprehension. Conversation entails rapid responses, with negative semiotics for delay. We explored how expectations about the valence of the forthcoming response develop during the silence before the response and whether negative responses have mainly cognitive or social-emotional consequences. EEG-participants listened to questions from a spontaneous spoken corpus, cross-spliced with short/long gaps and “yes”/“no” responses. Preceding contexts biased listeners to expect the eventual response, which was hypothesised to translate to expectations for a shorter or longer gap. “No” responses showed a trend towards an early positivity, suggesting socio-emotional consequences. Within the long gap, expecting a “yes” response led to an earlier negativity, as well as a trend towards stronger theta-oscillations, after 300 milliseconds. This suggests that listeners anticipate/predict “yes” responses to come earlier than “no” responses, showing strong sensitivities to timing, which presumably promote hastening the pace of verbal interaction.

    Supplementary material

    plcp_a_1590609_sm4630.docx
  • Casillas, M., Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (2019). Early language experience in a Tseltal Mayan village. Child Development. Advance online publication. doi:10.1111/cdev.13349.

    Abstract

    Daylong at-home audio recordings from 10 Tseltal Mayan children (0;2–3;0; Southern Mexico) were analyzed for how often children engaged in verbal interaction with others and whether their speech environment changed with age, time of day, household size, and number of speakers present. Children were infrequently directly spoken to, with most directed speech coming from adults, and no increase with age. Most directed speech came in the mornings, and interactional peaks contained nearly four times the baseline rate of directed speech. Coarse indicators of children's language development (babbling, first words, first word combinations) suggest that Tseltal children manage to extract the linguistic information they need despite minimal directed speech. Multiple proposals for how they might do so are discussed.

    Supplementary material

    Tseltal-CLE-SuppMat.pdf
  • Enfield, N. J., Stivers, T., Brown, P., Englert, C., Harjunpää, K., Hayashi, M., Heinemann, T., Hoymann, G., Keisanen, T., Rauniomaa, M., Raymond, C. W., Rossano, F., Yoon, K.-E., Zwitserlood, I., & Levinson, S. C. (2019). Polar answers. Journal of Linguistics, 55(2), 277-304. doi:10.1017/S0022226718000336.

    Abstract

    How do people answer polar questions? In this fourteen-language study of answers to questions in conversation, we compare the two main strategies; first, interjection-type answers such as uh-huh (or equivalents yes, mm, head nods, etc.), and second, repetition-type answers that repeat some or all of the question. We find that all languages offer both options, but that there is a strong asymmetry in their frequency of use, with a global preference for interjection-type answers. We propose that this preference is motivated by the fact that the two options are not equivalent in meaning. We argue that interjection-type answers are intrinsically suited to be the pragmatically unmarked, and thus more frequent, strategy for confirming polar questions, regardless of the language spoken. Our analysis is based on the semantic-pragmatic profile of the interjection-type and repetition-type answer strategies, in the context of certain asymmetries inherent to the dialogic speech act structure of question–answer sequences, including sequential agency and thematic agency. This allows us to see possible explanations for the outlier distributions found in ǂĀkhoe Haiǁom and Tzeltal.
  • Holler, J., & Levinson, S. C. (2019). Multimodal language processing in human communication. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23(8), 639-652. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2019.05.006.

    Abstract

    Multiple layers of visual (and vocal) signals, plus their different onsets and offsets, represent a significant semantic and temporal binding problem during face-to-face conversation. Despite this complex unification process, multimodal messages appear to be processed faster than unimodal messages. Multimodal gestalt recognition and multilevel prediction are proposed to play a crucial role in facilitating multimodal language processing. The basis of the processing mechanisms involved in multimodal language comprehension is hypothesized to be domain general, coopted for communication, and refined with domain-specific characteristics. A new, situated framework for understanding human language processing is called for that takes into consideration the multilayered, multimodal nature of language and its production and comprehension in conversational interaction requiring fast processing.
  • Bögels, S., Casillas, M., & Levinson, S. C. (2018). Planning versus comprehension in turn-taking: Fast responders show reduced anticipatory processing of the question. Neuropsychologia, 109, 295-310. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.12.028.

    Abstract

    Rapid response latencies in conversation suggest that responders start planning before the ongoing turn is finished. Indeed, an earlier EEG study suggests that listeners start planning their responses to questions as soon as they can (Bögels, S., Magyari, L., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Neural signatures of response planning occur midway through an incoming question in conversation. Scientific Reports, 5, 12881). The present study aimed to (1) replicate this early planning effect and (2) investigate whether such early response planning incurs a cost on participants’ concurrent comprehension of the ongoing turn. During the experiment participants answered questions from a confederate partner. To address aim (1), the questions were designed such that response planning could start either early or late in the turn. Our results largely replicate Bögels et al. (2015) showing a large positive ERP effect and an oscillatory alpha/beta reduction right after participants could have first started planning their verbal response, again suggesting an early start of response planning. To address aim (2), the confederate's questions also contained either an expected word or an unexpected one to elicit a differential N400 effect, either before or after the start of response planning. We hypothesized an attenuated N400 effect after response planning had started. In contrast, the N400 effects before and after planning did not differ. There was, however, a positive correlation between participants' response time and their N400 effect size after planning had started; quick responders showed a smaller N400 effect, suggesting reduced attention to comprehension and possibly reduced anticipatory processing. We conclude that early response planning can indeed impact comprehension processing.

    Supplementary material

    mmc1.pdf
  • Byun, K.-S., De Vos, C., Bradford, A., Zeshan, U., & Levinson, S. C. (2018). First encounters: Repair sequences in cross-signing. Topics in Cognitive Science, 10(2), 314-334. doi:10.1111/tops.12303.

    Abstract

    Most human communication is between people who speak or sign the same languages. Nevertheless, communication is to some extent possible where there is no language in common, as every tourist knows. How this works is of some theoretical interest (Levinson 2006). A nice arena to explore this capacity is when deaf signers of different languages meet for the first time, and are able to use the iconic affordances of sign to begin communication. Here we focus on Other-Initiated Repair (OIR), that is, where one signer makes clear he or she does not understand, thus initiating repair of the prior conversational turn. OIR sequences are typically of a three-turn structure (Schegloff 2007) including the problem source turn (T-1), the initiation of repair (T0), and the turn offering a problem solution (T+1). These sequences seem to have a universal structure (Dingemanse et al. 2013). We find that in most cases where such OIR occur, the signer of the troublesome turn (T-1) foresees potential difficulty, and marks the utterance with 'try markers' (Sacks & Schegloff 1979, Moerman 1988) which pause to invite recognition. The signers use repetition, gestural holds, prosodic lengthening and eyegaze at the addressee as such try-markers. Moreover, when T-1 is try-marked this allows for faster response times of T+1 with respect to T0. This finding suggests that signers in these 'first encounter' situations actively anticipate potential trouble and, through try-marking, mobilize and facilitate OIRs. The suggestion is that heightened meta-linguistic awareness can be utilized to deal with these problems at the limits of our communicational ability.
  • Dediu, D., & Levinson, S. C. (2018). Neanderthal language revisited: Not only us. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 21, 49-55. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2018.01.001.

    Abstract

    Here we re-evaluate our 2013 paper on the antiquity of language (Dediu and Levinson, 2013) in the light of a surge of new information on human evolution in the last half million years. Although new genetic data suggest the existence of some cognitive differences between Neanderthals and modern humans — fully expected after hundreds of thousands of years of partially separate evolution, overall our claims that Neanderthals were fully articulate beings and that language evolution was gradual are further substantiated by the wealth of new genetic, paleontological and archeological evidence briefly reviewed here.
  • Gisladottir, R. S., Bögels, S., & Levinson, S. C. (2018). Oscillatory brain responses reflect anticipation during comprehension of speech acts in spoken dialogue. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12: 34. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00034.

    Abstract

    Everyday conversation requires listeners to quickly recognize verbal actions, so-called speech acts, from the underspecified linguistic code and prepare a relevant response within the tight time constraints of turn-taking. The goal of this study was to determine the time-course of speech act recognition by investigating oscillatory EEG activity during comprehension of spoken dialogue. Participants listened to short, spoken dialogues with target utterances that delivered three distinct speech acts (Answers, Declinations, Pre-offers). The targets were identical across conditions at lexico-syntactic and phonetic/prosodic levels but differed in the pragmatic interpretation of the speech act performed. Speech act comprehension was associated with reduced power in the alpha/beta bands just prior to Declination speech acts, relative to Answers and Pre-offers. In addition, we observed reduced power in the theta band during the beginning of Declinations, relative to Answers. Based on the role of alpha and beta desynchronization in anticipatory processes, the results are taken to indicate that anticipation plays a role in speech act recognition. Anticipation of speech acts could be critical for efficient turn-taking, allowing interactants to quickly recognize speech acts and respond within the tight time frame characteristic of conversation. The results show that anticipatory processes can be triggered by the characteristics of the interaction, including the speech act type.

    Supplementary material

    data sheet 1.pdf
  • Holler, J., Kendrick, K. H., & Levinson, S. C. (2018). Processing language in face-to-face conversation: Questions with gestures get faster responses. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 25(5), 1900-1908. doi:10.3758/s13423-017-1363-z.

    Abstract

    The home of human language use is face-to-face interaction, a context in which communicative exchanges are characterised not only by bodily signals accompanying what is being said but also by a pattern of alternating turns at talk. This transition between turns is astonishingly fast—typically a mere 200-ms elapse between a current and a next speaker’s contribution—meaning that comprehending, producing, and coordinating conversational contributions in time is a significant challenge. This begs the question of whether the additional information carried by bodily signals facilitates or hinders language processing in this time-pressured environment. We present analyses of multimodal conversations revealing that bodily signals appear to profoundly influence language processing in interaction: Questions accompanied by gestures lead to shorter turn transition times—that is, to faster responses—than questions without gestures, and responses come earlier when gestures end before compared to after the question turn has ended. These findings hold even after taking into account prosodic patterns and other visual signals, such as gaze. The empirical findings presented here provide a first glimpse of the role of the body in the psycholinguistic processes underpinning human communication
  • Hömke, P., Holler, J., & Levinson, S. C. (2018). Eye blinks are perceived as communicative signals in human face-to-face interaction. PLoS One, 13(12): e0208030. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0208030.

    Abstract

    In face-to-face communication, recurring intervals of mutual gaze allow listeners to provide speakers with visual feedback (e.g. nodding). Here, we investigate the potential feedback function of one of the subtlest of human movements—eye blinking. While blinking tends to be subliminal, the significance of mutual gaze in human interaction raises the question whether the interruption of mutual gaze through blinking may also be communicative. To answer this question, we developed a novel, virtual reality-based experimental paradigm, which enabled us to selectively manipulate blinking in a virtual listener, creating small differences in blink duration resulting in ‘short’ (208 ms) and ‘long’ (607 ms) blinks. We found that speakers unconsciously took into account the subtle differences in listeners’ blink duration, producing substantially shorter answers in response to long listener blinks. Our findings suggest that, in addition to physiological, perceptual and cognitive functions, listener blinks are also perceived as communicative signals, directly influencing speakers’ communicative behavior in face-to-face communication. More generally, these findings may be interpreted as shedding new light on the evolutionary origins of mental-state signaling, which is a crucial ingredient for achieving mutual understanding in everyday social interaction.

    Supplementary material

    Supporting information
  • Levinson, S. C. (2018). Spatial cognition, empathy and language evolution. Studies in Pragmatics, 20, 16-21.

    Abstract

    The evolution of language and spatial cognition may have been deeply interconnected. The argument goes as follows: 1. Human native spatial abilities are poor, but we make up for it with linguistic and cultural prostheses; 2. The explanation for the loss of native spatial abilities may be that language has cannibalized the hippocampus, the mammalian mental ‘GPS’; 3. Consequently, language may have borrowed conceptual primitives from spatial cognition (in line with ‘localism’), these being differentially combined in different languages; 4. The hippocampus may have been colonized because: (a) space was prime subject matter for communication, (b) gesture uses space to represent space, and was likely precursor to language. In order to explain why the other great apes haven’t gone in the same direction, we need to invoke other factors, notably the ‘interaction engine’, the ensemble of interactional abilities that make cooperative communication possible and provide the matrix for the evolution and learning of language.
  • Majid, A., Roberts, S. G., Cilissen, L., Emmorey, K., Nicodemus, B., O'Grady, L., Woll, B., LeLan, B., De Sousa, H., Cansler, B. L., Shayan, S., De Vos, C., Senft, G., Enfield, N. J., Razak, R. A., Fedden, S., Tufvesson, S., Dingemanse, M., Ozturk, O., Brown, P., Hill, C., Le Guen, O., Hirtzel, V., Van Gijn, R., Sicoli, M. A., & Levinson, S. C. (2018). Differential coding of perception in the world’s languages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(45), 11369-11376. doi:10.1073/pnas.1720419115.

    Abstract

    Is there a universal hierarchy of the senses, such that some senses (e.g., vision) are more accessible to consciousness and linguistic description than others (e.g., smell)? The long-standing presumption in Western thought has been that vision and audition are more objective than the other senses, serving as the basis of knowledge and understanding, whereas touch, taste, and smell are crude and of little value. This predicts that humans ought to be better at communicating about sight and hearing than the other senses, and decades of work based on English and related languages certainly suggests this is true. However, how well does this reflect the diversity of languages and communities worldwide? To test whether there is a universal hierarchy of the senses, stimuli from the five basic senses were used to elicit descriptions in 20 diverse languages, including 3 unrelated sign languages. We found that languages differ fundamentally in which sensory domains they linguistically code systematically, and how they do so. The tendency for better coding in some domains can be explained in part by cultural preoccupations. Although languages seem free to elaborate specific sensory domains, some general tendencies emerge: for example, with some exceptions, smell is poorly coded. The surprise is that, despite the gradual phylogenetic accumulation of the senses, and the imbalances in the neural tissue dedicated to them, no single hierarchy of the senses imposes itself upon language.
  • Seifart, F., Evans, N., Hammarström, H., & Levinson, S. C. (2018). Language documentation twenty-five years on. Language, 94(4), e324-e345. doi:10.1353/lan.2018.0070.

    Abstract

    This discussion note reviews responses of the linguistics profession to the grave issues of language endangerment identified a quarter of a century ago in the journal Language by Krauss, Hale, England, Craig, and others (Hale et al. 1992). Two and a half decades of worldwide research not only have given us a much more accurate picture of the number, phylogeny, and typological variety of the world’s languages, but they have also seen the development of a wide range of new approaches, conceptual and technological, to the problem of documenting them. We review these approaches and the manifold discoveries they have unearthed about the enormous variety of linguistic structures. The reach of our knowledge has increased by about 15% of the world’s languages, especially in terms of digitally archived material, with about 500 languages now reasonably documented thanks to such major programs as DoBeS, ELDP, and DEL. But linguists are still falling behind in the race to document the planet’s rapidly dwindling linguistic diversity, with around 35–42% of the world’s languages still substantially undocumented, and in certain countries (such as the US) the call by Krauss (1992) for a significant professional realignment toward language documentation has only been heeded in a few institutions. Apart from the need for an intensified documentarist push in the face of accelerating language loss, we argue that existing language documentation efforts need to do much more to focus on crosslinguistically comparable data sets, sociolinguistic context, semantics, and interpretation of text material, and on methods for bridging the ‘transcription bottleneck’, which is creating a huge gap between the amount we can record and the amount in our transcribed corpora.*
  • Barthel, M., Meyer, A. S., & Levinson, S. C. (2017). Next speakers plan their turn early and speak after turn-final ‘go-signals’. Frontiers in Psychology, 8: 393. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00393.

    Abstract

    In conversation, turn-taking is usually fluid, with next speakers taking their turn right after the end of the previous turn. Most, but not all, previous studies show that next speakers start to plan their turn early, if possible already during the incoming turn. The present study makes use of the list-completion paradigm (Barthel et al., 2016), analyzing speech onset latencies and eye-movements of participants in a task-oriented dialogue with a confederate. The measures are used to disentangle the contributions to the timing of turn-taking of early planning of content on the one hand and initiation of articulation as a reaction to the upcoming turn-end on the other hand. Participants named objects visible on their computer screen in response to utterances that did, or did not, contain lexical and prosodic cues to the end of the incoming turn. In the presence of an early lexical cue, participants showed earlier gaze shifts toward the target objects and responded faster than in its absence, whereas the presence of a late intonational cue only led to faster response times and did not affect the timing of participants' eye movements. The results show that with a combination of eye-movement and turn-transition time measures it is possible to tease apart the effects of early planning and response initiation on turn timing. They are consistent with models of turn-taking that assume that next speakers (a) start planning their response as soon as the incoming turn's message can be understood and (b) monitor the incoming turn for cues to turn-completion so as to initiate their response when turn-transition becomes relevant
  • Bögels, S., & Levinson, S. C. (2017). The brain behind the response: Insights into turn-taking in conversation from neuroimaging. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 50, 71-89. doi:10.1080/08351813.2017.1262118.

    Abstract

    This paper reviews the prospects for the cross-fertilization of conversation-analytic (CA) and neurocognitive studies of conversation, focusing on turn-taking. Although conversation is the primary ecological niche for language use, relatively little brain research has focused on interactive language use, partly due to the challenges of using brain-imaging methods that are controlled enough to perform sound experiments, but still reflect the rich and spontaneous nature of conversation. Recently, though, brain researchers have started to investigate conversational phenomena, for example by using 'overhearer' or controlled interaction paradigms. We review neuroimaging studies related to turn-taking and sequence organization, phenomena historically described by CA. These studies for example show early action recognition and immediate planning of responses midway during an incoming turn. The review discusses studies with an eye to a fruitful interchange between CA and neuroimaging research on conversation and an indication of how these disciplines can benefit from each other.
  • Greenhill, S. J., Wu, C.-H., Hua, X., Dunn, M., Levinson, S. C., & Gray, R. D. (2017). Evolutionary dynamics of language systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(42), E8822-E8829. doi:10.1073/pnas.1700388114.

    Abstract

    Understanding how and why language subsystems differ in their evolutionary dynamics is a fundamental question for historical and comparative linguistics. One key dynamic is the rate of language change. While it is commonly thought that the rapid rate of change hampers the reconstruction of deep language relationships beyond 6,000–10,000 y, there are suggestions that grammatical structures might retain more signal over time than other subsystems, such as basic vocabulary. In this study, we use a Dirichlet process mixture model to infer the rates of change in lexical and grammatical data from 81 Austronesian languages. We show that, on average, most grammatical features actually change faster than items of basic vocabulary. The grammatical data show less schismogenesis, higher rates of homoplasy, and more bursts of contact-induced change than the basic vocabulary data. However, there is a core of grammatical and lexical features that are highly stable. These findings suggest that different subsystems of language have differing dynamics and that careful, nuanced models of language change will be needed to extract deeper signal from the noise of parallel evolution, areal readaptation, and contact.
  • Hömke, P., Holler, J., & Levinson, S. C. (2017). Eye blinking as addressee feedback in face-to-face conversation. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 50, 54-70. doi:10.1080/08351813.2017.1262143.

    Abstract

    Does blinking function as a type of feedback in conversation? To address this question, we built a corpus of Dutch conversations, identified short and long addressee blinks during extended turns, and measured their occurrence relative to the end of turn constructional units (TCUs), the location where feedback typically occurs. Addressee blinks were indeed timed to the end of TCUs. Also, long blinks were more likely than short blinks to occur during mutual gaze, with nods or continuers, and their occurrence was restricted to sequential contexts in which signaling understanding was particularly relevant, suggesting a special signaling capacity of long blinks.
  • Magyari, L., De Ruiter, J. P., & Levinson, S. C. (2017). Temporal preparation for speaking in question-answer sequences. Frontiers in Psychology, 8: 211. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00211.

    Abstract

    In every-day conversations, the gap between turns of conversational partners is most frequently between 0 and 200 ms. We were interested how speakers achieve such fast transitions. We designed an experiment in which participants listened to pre-recorded questions about images presented on a screen and were asked to answer these questions. We tested whether speakers already prepare their answers while they listen to questions and whether they can prepare for the time of articulation by anticipating when questions end. In the experiment, it was possible to guess the answer at the beginning of the questions in half of the experimental trials. We also manipulated whether it was possible to predict the length of the last word of the questions. The results suggest when listeners know the answer early they start speech production already during the questions. Speakers can also time when to speak by predicting the duration of turns. These temporal predictions can be based on the length of anticipated words and on the overall probability of turn durations.

    Supplementary material

    presentation 1.pdf
  • Roberts, S. G., & Levinson, S. C. (2017). Conversation, cognition and cultural evolution: A model of the cultural evolution of word order through pressures imposed from turn taking in conversation. Interaction studies, 18(3), 402-429. doi:10.1075/is.18.3.06rob.

    Abstract

    This paper outlines a first attempt to model the special constraints that arise in language processing in conversation, and to explore the implications such functional considerations may have on language typology and language change. In particular, we focus on processing pressures imposed by conversational turn-taking and their consequences for the cultural evolution of the structural properties of language. We present an agent-based model of cultural evolution where agents take turns at talk in conversation. When the start of planning for the next turn is constrained by the position of the verb, the stable distribution of dominant word orders across languages evolves to match the actual distribution reasonably well. We suggest that the interface of cognition and interaction should be a more central part of the story of language evolution.
  • Barthel, M., Sauppe, S., Levinson, S. C., & Meyer, A. S. (2016). The timing of utterance planning in task-oriented dialogue: Evidence from a novel list-completion paradigm. Frontiers in Psychology, 7: 1858. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01858.

    Abstract

    In conversation, interlocutors rarely leave long gaps between turns, suggesting that next speak- ers begin to plan their turns while listening to the previous speaker. The present experiment used analyses of speech onset latencies and eye-movements in a task-oriented dialogue paradigm to investigate when speakers start planning their response. Adult German participants heard a confederate describe sets of objects in utterances that either ended in a noun (e.g. Ich habe eine Tür und ein Fahrrad (‘I have a door and a bicycle’)) or a verb form (Ich habe eine Tür und ein Fahrrad besorgt (‘I have gotten a door and a bicycle’)), while the presence or absence of the final verb either was or was not predictable from the preceding sentence structure. In response, participants had to name any unnamed objects they could see in their own display in utterances such as Ich habe ein Ei (‘I have an egg’). The main question was when participants started to plan their response. The results are consistent with the view that speakers begin to plan their turn as soon as sufficient information is available to do so, irrespective of further incoming words.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2016). “Process and perish” or multiple buffers with push-down stacks? [Commentary on Christiansen & Slater]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39: e81. doi:10.1017/S0140525X15000862.

    Abstract

    This commentary raises two issues: (1) Language processing is hastened not only by internal pressures but also externally by turntaking in language use; (2) the theory requires nested levels of processing, but linguistic levels do not fully nest; further, it would seem to require multiple memory buffers, otherwise there’s no obvious treatment for discontinuous structures, or for verbatim recall.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2016). Turn-taking in human communication, origins, and implications for language processing. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(1), 6-14. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.10.010.

    Abstract

    Most language usage is interactive, involving rapid turn-taking. The turn-taking system has a number of striking properties: turns are short and responses are remarkably rapid, but turns are of varying length and often of very complex construction such that the underlying cognitive processing is highly compressed. Although neglected in cognitive science, the system has deep implications for language processing and acquisition that are only now becoming clear. Appearing earlier in ontogeny than linguistic competence, it is also found across all the major primate clades. This suggests a possible phylogenetic continuity, which may provide key insights into language evolution.
  • Bögels, S., Magyari, L., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Neural signatures of response planning occur midway through an incoming question in conversation. Scientific Reports, 5: 12881. doi:10.1038/srep12881.

    Abstract

    A striking puzzle about language use in everyday conversation is that turn-taking latencies are usually very short, whereas planning language production takes much longer. This implies overlap between language comprehension and production processes, but the nature and extent of such overlap has never been studied directly. Combining an interactive quiz paradigm with EEG measurements in an innovative way, we show that production planning processes start as soon as possible, that is, within half a second after the answer to a question can be retrieved (up to several seconds before the end of the question). Localization of ERP data shows early activation even of brain areas related to late stages of production planning (e.g., syllabification). Finally, oscillation results suggest an attention switch from comprehension to production around the same time frame. This perspective from interactive language use throws new light on the performance characteristics that language competence involves.
  • Bögels, S., Kendrick, K. H., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Never say no… How the brain interprets the pregnant pause in conversation. PLoS One, 10(12): e0145474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0145474.

    Abstract

    In conversation, negative responses to invitations, requests, offers, and the like are more likely to occur with a delay – conversation analysts talk of them as dispreferred. Here we examine the contrastive cognitive load ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses make, either when relatively fast (300 ms after question offset) or delayed (1000 ms). Participants heard short dialogues contrasting in speed and valence of response while having their EEG recorded. We found that a fast ‘no’ evokes an N400-effect relative to a fast ‘yes’; however this contrast disappeared in the delayed responses. 'No' responses however elicited a late frontal positivity both if they were fast and if they were delayed. We interpret these results as follows: a fast ‘no’ evoked an N400 because an immediate response is expected to be positive – this effect disappears as the response time lengthens because now in ordinary conversation the probability of a ‘no’ has increased. However, regardless of the latency of response, a ‘no’ response is associated with a late positivity, since a negative response is always dispreferred. Together these results show that negative responses to social actions exact a higher cognitive load, but especially when least expected, in immediate response.

    Supplementary material

    Data availability
  • Dingemanse, M., Roberts, S. G., Baranova, J., Blythe, J., Drew, P., Floyd, S., Gisladottir, R. S., Kendrick, K. H., Levinson, S. C., Manrique, E., Rossi, G., & Enfield, N. J. (2015). Universal Principles in the Repair of Communication Problems. PLoS One, 10(9): e0136100. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0136100.

    Abstract

    There would be little adaptive value in a complex communication system like human language if there were no ways to detect and correct problems. A systematic comparison of conversation in a broad sample of the world’s languages reveals a universal system for the real-time resolution of frequent breakdowns in communication. In a sample of 12 languages of 8 language families of varied typological profiles we find a system of ‘other-initiated repair’, where the recipient of an unclear message can signal trouble and the sender can repair the original message. We find that this system is frequently used (on average about once per 1.4 minutes in any language), and that it has detailed common properties, contrary to assumptions of radical cultural variation. Unrelated languages share the same three functionally distinct types of repair initiator for signalling problems and use them in the same kinds of contexts. People prefer to choose the type that is the most specific possible, a principle that minimizes cost both for the sender being asked to fix the problem and for the dyad as a social unit. Disruption to the conversation is kept to a minimum, with the two-utterance repair sequence being on average no longer that the single utterance which is being fixed. The findings, controlled for historical relationships, situation types and other dependencies, reveal the fundamentally cooperative nature of human communication and offer support for the pragmatic universals hypothesis: while languages may vary in the organization of grammar and meaning, key systems of language use may be largely similar across cultural groups. They also provide a fresh perspective on controversies about the core properties of language, by revealing a common infrastructure for social interaction which may be the universal bedrock upon which linguistic diversity rests.

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  • Gisladottir, R. S., Chwilla, D., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Conversation electrified: ERP correlates of speech act recognition in underspecified utterances. PLoS One, 10(3): e0120068. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0120068.

    Abstract

    The ability to recognize speech acts (verbal actions) in conversation is critical for everyday interaction. However, utterances are often underspecified for the speech act they perform, requiring listeners to rely on the context to recognize the action. The goal of this study was to investigate the time-course of auditory speech act recognition in action-underspecified utterances and explore how sequential context (the prior action) impacts this process. We hypothesized that speech acts are recognized early in the utterance to allow for quick transitions between turns in conversation. Event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded while participants listened to spoken dialogues and performed an action categorization task. The dialogues contained target utterances that each of which could deliver three distinct speech acts depending on the prior turn. The targets were identical across conditions, but differed in the type of speech act performed and how it fit into the larger action sequence. The ERP results show an early effect of action type, reflected by frontal positivities as early as 200 ms after target utterance onset. This indicates that speech act recognition begins early in the turn when the utterance has only been partially processed. Providing further support for early speech act recognition, actions in highly constraining contexts did not elicit an ERP effect to the utterance-final word. We take this to show that listeners can recognize the action before the final word through predictions at the speech act level. However, additional processing based on the complete utterance is required in more complex actions, as reflected by a posterior negativity at the final word when the speech act is in a less constraining context and a new action sequence is initiated. These findings demonstrate that sentence comprehension in conversational contexts crucially involves recognition of verbal action which begins as soon as it can.
  • Hilbrink, E., Gattis, M., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Early developmental changes in the timing of turn-taking: A longitudinal study of mother-infant interaction. Frontiers in Psychology, 6: 1492. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01492.

    Abstract

    To accomplish a smooth transition in conversation from one speaker to the next, a tight coordination of interaction between speakers is required. Recent studies of adult conversation suggest that this close timing of interaction may well be a universal feature of conversation. In the present paper, we set out to assess the development of this close timing of turns in infancy in vocal exchanges between mothers and infants. Previous research has demonstrated an early sensitivity to timing in interactions (e.g. Murray & Trevarthen, 1985). In contrast, less is known about infants’ abilities to produce turns in a timely manner and existing findings are rather patchy. We conducted a longitudinal study of twelve mother-infant dyads in free-play interactions at the ages of 3, 4, 5, 9, 12 and 18 months. Based on existing work and the predictions made by the Interaction Engine Hypothesis (Levinson, 2006), we expected that infants would begin to develop the temporal properties of turn-taking early in infancy but that their timing of turns would slow down at 12 months, which is around the time when infants start to produce their first words. Findings were consistent with our predictions: Infants were relatively fast at timing their turn early in infancy but slowed down towards the end of the first year. Furthermore, the changes observed in infants’ turn-timing skills were not caused by changes in maternal timing, which remained stable across the 3-18 month period. However, the slowing down of turn-timing started somewhat earlier than predicted: at 9 months.
  • Holler, J., Kendrick, K. H., Casillas, M., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Editorial: Turn-taking in human communicative interaction. Frontiers in Psychology, 6: 1919. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01919.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2015). Other-initiated repair in Yélî Dnye: Seeing eye-to-eye in the language of Rossel Island. Open Linguistics, 1(1), 386-410. doi:10.1515/opli-2015-0009.

    Abstract

    Other-initiated repair (OIR) is the fundamental back-up system that ensures the effectiveness of human communication in its primordial niche, conversation. This article describes the interactional and linguistic patterns involved in other-initiated repair in Yélî Dnye, the Papuan language of Rossel Island, Papua New Guinea. The structure of the article is based on the conceptual set of distinctions described in Chapters 1 and 2 of the special issue, and describes the major properties of the Rossel Island system, and the ways in which OIR in this language both conforms to familiar European patterns and deviates from those patterns. Rossel Island specialities include lack of a Wh-word open class repair initiator, and a heavy reliance on visual signals that makes it possible both to initiate repair and confirm it non-verbally. But the overall system conforms to universal expectations.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2015). John Joseph Gumperz (1922–2013) [Obituary]. American Anthropologist, 117(1), 212-224. doi:10.1111/aman.12185.
  • Levinson, S. C., & Torreira, F. (2015). Timing in turn-taking and its implications for processing models of language. Frontiers in Psychology, 6: 731. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00731.

    Abstract

    The core niche for language use is in verbal interaction, involving the rapid exchange of turns at talking. This paper reviews the extensive literature about this system, adding new statistical analyses of behavioural data where they have been missing, demonstrating that turn-taking has the systematic properties originally noted by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson (1974; hereafter SSJ). This system poses some significant puzzles for current theories of language processing: the gaps between turns are short (of the order of 200 ms), but the latencies involved in language production are much longer (over 600 ms). This seems to imply that participants in conversation must predict (or ‘project’ as SSJ have it) the end of the current speaker’s turn in order to prepare their response in advance. This in turn implies some overlap between production and comprehension despite their use of common processing resources. Collecting together what is known behaviourally and experimentally about the system, the space for systematic explanations of language processing for conversation can be significantly narrowed, and we sketch some first model of the mental processes involved for the participant preparing to speak next.
  • Norcliffe, E., Konopka, A. E., Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Word order affects the time course of sentence formulation in Tzeltal. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 30(9), 1187-1208. doi:10.1080/23273798.2015.1006238.

    Abstract

    The scope of planning during sentence formulation is known to be flexible, as it can be influenced by speakers' communicative goals and language production pressures (among other factors). Two eye-tracked picture description experiments tested whether the time course of formulation is also modulated by grammatical structure and thus whether differences in linear word order across languages affect the breadth and order of conceptual and linguistic encoding operations. Native speakers of Tzeltal [a primarily verb–object–subject (VOS) language] and Dutch [a subject–verb–object (SVO) language] described pictures of transitive events. Analyses compared speakers' choice of sentence structure across events with more accessible and less accessible characters as well as the time course of formulation for sentences with different word orders. Character accessibility influenced subject selection in both languages in subject-initial and subject-final sentences, ruling against a radically incremental formulation process. In Tzeltal, subject-initial word orders were preferred over verb-initial orders when event characters had matching animacy features, suggesting a possible role for similarity-based interference in influencing word order choice. Time course analyses revealed a strong effect of sentence structure on formulation: In subject-initial sentences, in both Tzeltal and Dutch, event characters were largely fixated sequentially, while in verb-initial sentences in Tzeltal, relational information received priority over encoding of either character during the earliest stages of formulation. The results show a tight parallelism between grammatical structure and the order of encoding operations carried out during sentence formulation.
  • Roberts, S. G., Torreira, F., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). The effects of processing and sequence organisation on the timing of turn taking: A corpus study. Frontiers in Psychology, 6: 509. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00509.

    Abstract

    The timing of turn taking in conversation is extremely rapid given the cognitive demands on speakers to comprehend, plan and execute turns in real time. Findings from psycholinguistics predict that the timing of turn taking is influenced by demands on processing, such as word frequency or syntactic complexity. An alternative view comes from the field of conversation analysis, which predicts that the rules of turn-taking and sequence organization may dictate the variation in gap durations (e.g. the functional role of each turn in communication). In this paper, we estimate the role of these two different kinds of factors in determining the speed of turn-taking in conversation. We use the Switchboard corpus of English telephone conversation, already richly annotated for syntactic structure speech act sequences, and segmental alignment. To this we add further information including Floor Transfer Offset (the amount of time between the end of one turn and the beginning of the next), word frequency, concreteness, and surprisal values. We then apply a novel statistical framework ('random forests') to show that these two dimensions are interwoven together with indexical properties of the speakers as explanatory factors determining the speed of response. We conclude that an explanation of the of the timing of turn taking will require insights from both processing and sequence organisation.
  • Sicoli, M. A., Stivers, T., Enfield, N. J., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Marked initial pitch in questions signals marked communicative function. Language and Speech, 58(2), 204-223. doi:10.1177/0023830914529247.

    Abstract

    In conversation, the initial pitch of an utterance can provide an early phonetic cue of the communicative function, the speech act, or the social action being implemented. We conducted quantitative acoustic measurements and statistical analyses of pitch in over 10,000 utterances, including 2512 questions, their responses, and about 5000 other utterances by 180 total speakers from a corpus of 70 natural conversations in 10 languages. We measured pitch at first prominence in a speaker’s utterance and discriminated utterances by language, speaker, gender, question form, and what social action is achieved by the speaker’s turn. Through applying multivariate logistic regression we found that initial pitch that significantly deviated from the speaker’s median pitch level was predictive of the social action of the question. In questions designed to solicit agreement with an evaluation rather than information, pitch was divergent from a speaker’s median predictably in the top 10% of a speakers range. This latter finding reveals a kind of iconicity in the relationship between prosody and social action in which a marked pitch correlates with a marked social action. Thus, we argue that speakers rely on pitch to provide an early signal for recipients that the question is not to be interpreted through its literal semantics but rather through an inference.
  • Torreira, F., Bögels, S., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Breathing for answering: The time course of response planning in conversation. Frontiers in Psychology, 6: 284. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00284.

    Abstract

    In this study, we investigate the timing of pre-answer inbreaths in order to shed light on the time course of response planning and execution in conversational turn-taking. Using acoustic and inductive plethysmography recordings of seven dyadic conversations in Dutch, we show that pre-answer inbreaths in conversation typically begin briefly after the end of questions. We also show that the presence of a pre-answer inbreath usually co-occurs with substantially delayed answers, with a modal latency of 576 ms vs. 100 ms for answers not preceded by an inbreath. Based on previously reported minimal latencies for internal intercostal activation and the production of speech sounds, we propose that vocal responses, either in the form of a pre-utterance inbreath or of speech proper when an inbreath is not produced, are typically launched in reaction to information present in the last portion of the interlocutor’s turn. We also show that short responses are usually made on residual breath, while longer responses are more often preceded by an inbreath. This relation of inbreaths to answer length suggests that by the time an inbreath is launched, typically during the last few hundred milliseconds of the question, the length of the answer is often prepared to some extent. Together, our findings are consistent with a two-stage model of response planning in conversational turn-taking: early planning of content often carried out in overlap with the incoming turn, and late launching of articulation based on the identification of turn-final cues
  • De Vos, C., Torreira, F., & Levinson, S. C. (2015). Turn-timing in signed conversations: Coordinating stroke-to-stroke turn boundaries. Frontiers in Psychology, 6: 268. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00268.

    Abstract

    In spoken interactions, interlocutors carefully plan and time their utterances, minimising gaps and overlaps between consecutive turns. Cross-linguistic comparison has indicated that spoken languages vary only minimally in terms of turn-timing, and language acquisition research has shown pre-linguistic vocal turn-taking in the first half year of life. These observations suggest that the turn-taking system may provide a fundamental basis for our linguistic capacities. The question remains however to what extent our capacity for rapid turn-taking is determined by modality constraints. The avoidance of overlapping turns could be motivated by the difficulty of hearing and speaking at the same time. If so, turn-taking in sign might show greater toleration for overlap. Alternatively, signed conversations may show a similar distribution of turn-timing as spoken languages, thus avoiding both gaps and overlaps. To address this question we look at turn-timing in question-answer sequences in spontaneous conversations of Sign Language of the Netherlands. The findings indicate that although there is considerable overlap in two or more signers' articulators in conversation, when proper allowance is made for onset preparation, post-utterance retraction and the intentional holding of signs for response, turn-taking latencies in sign look remarkably like those reported for spoken language. This is consistent with the possibility that, at least with regard to responses to questions, speakers and signers follow similar time courses in planning and producing their utterances in on-going conversation. This suggests that turn-taking systems may well be a shared cognitive infrastructure underlying all modern human languages, both spoken and signed.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2014). Language and Wallace's problem [Review of the books More than nature needs: Language, mind and evolution by D. Bickerton and A natural history of human thinking by M. Tomasello]. Science, 344, 1458-1459. doi:10.1126/science.1252988.
  • Levinson, S. C., & Majid, A. (2014). Differential ineffability and the senses. Mind & Language, 29, 407-427. doi:10.1111/mila.12057.

    Abstract

    neffability, the degree to which percepts or concepts resist linguistic coding, is a fairly unexplored nook of cognitive science. Although philosophical preoccupations with qualia or nonconceptual content certainly touch upon the area, there has been little systematic thought and hardly any empirical work in recent years on the subject. We argue that ineffability is an important domain for the cognitive sciences. For examining differential ineffability across the senses may be able to tell us important things about how the mind works, how different modalities talk to one another, and how language does, or does not, interact with other mental faculties.
  • Levinson, S. C., & Holler, J. (2014). The origin of human multi-modal communication. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 369(1651): 2013030. doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0302.

    Abstract

    One reason for the apparent gulf between animal and human communication systems is that the focus has been on the presence or the absence of language as a complex expressive system built on speech. But language normally occurs embedded within an interactional exchange of multi-modal signals. If this larger perspective takes central focus, then it becomes apparent that human communication has a layered structure, where the layers may be plausibly assigned different phylogenetic and evolutionary origins—especially in the light of recent thoughts on the emergence of voluntary breathing and spoken language. This perspective helps us to appreciate the different roles that the different modalities play in human communication, as well as how they function as one integrated system despite their different roles and origins. It also offers possibilities for reconciling the ‘gesture-first hypothesis’ with that of gesture and speech having evolved together, hand in hand—or hand in mouth, rather—as one system.
  • Magyari, L., Bastiaansen, M. C. M., De Ruiter, J. P., & Levinson, S. C. (2014). Early anticipation lies behind the speed of response in conversation. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 26(11), 2530-2539. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00673.

    Abstract

    RTs in conversation, with average gaps of 200 msec and often less, beat standard RTs, despite the complexity of response and the lag in speech production (600 msec or more). This can only be achieved by anticipation of timing and content of turns in conversation, about which little is known. Using EEG and an experimental task with conversational stimuli, we show that estimation of turn durations are based on anticipating the way the turn would be completed. We found a neuronal correlate of turn-end anticipation localized in ACC and inferior parietal lobule, namely a beta-frequency desynchronization as early as 1250 msec, before the end of the turn. We suggest that anticipation of the other's utterance leads to accurately timed transitions in everyday conversations.
  • Dediu, D., & Levinson, S. C. (2013). On the antiquity of language: The reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences. Frontiers in Language Sciences, 4: 397. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00397.

    Abstract

    It is usually assumed that modern language is a recent phenomenon, coinciding with the emergence of modern humans themselves. Many assume as well that this is the result of a single, sudden mutation giving rise to the full “modern package”. However, we argue here that recognizably modern language is likely an ancient feature of our genus pre-dating at least the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals about half a million years ago. To this end, we adduce a broad range of evidence from linguistics, genetics, palaeontology and archaeology clearly suggesting that Neandertals shared with us something like modern speech and language. This reassessment of the antiquity of modern language, from the usually quoted 50,000-100,000 years to half a million years, has profound consequences for our understanding of our own evolution in general and especially for the sciences of speech and language. As such, it argues against a saltationist scenario for the evolution of language, and towards a gradual process of culture-gene co-evolution extending to the present day. Another consequence is that the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.
  • Levinson, S. C., & Majid, A. (2013). The island of time: Yélî Dnye, the language of Rossel Island. Frontiers in Psychology, 4: 61. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00061.

    Abstract

    This paper describes the linguistic description of time, the accompanying gestural system, and the “mental time lines” found in the speakers of Yélî Dnye, an isolate language spoken offshore from Papua New Guinea. Like many indigenous languages, Yélî Dnye has no fixed anchoring of time and thus no calendrical time. Instead, time in Yélî Dnye linguistic description is primarily anchored to the time of speaking, with six diurnal tenses and special nominals for n days from coding time; this is supplemented with special constructions for overlapping events. Consequently there is relatively little cross-over or metaphor from space to time. The gesture system, on the other hand, uses pointing to sun position to indicate time of day and may make use of systematic time lines. Experimental evidence fails to show a single robust axis used for mapping time to space. This suggests that there may not be a strong, universal tendency for systematic space-time mappings.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2013). Recursion in pragmatics. Language, 89, 149-162. doi:10.1353/lan.2013.0005.

    Abstract

    There has been a recent spate of work on recursion as a central design feature of language. This short report points out that there is little evidence that unlimited recursion, understood as center-embedding, is typical of natural language syntax. Nevertheless, embedded pragmatic construals seem available in every language. Further, much deeper center-embedding can be found in dialogue or conversation structure than can be found in syntax. Existing accounts for the 'performance' limitations on center-embedding are thus thrown into doubt. Dialogue materials suggest that center-embedding is perhaps a core part of the human interaction system, and is for some reason much more highly restricted in syntax than in other aspects of cognition.
  • 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
  • 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). 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., & 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.
  • Dunn, M., Greenhill, S. J., Levinson, S. C., & Gray, R. D. (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature, 473, 79-82. doi:10.1038/nature09923.

    Abstract

    Languages vary widely but not without limit. The central goal of linguistics is to describe the diversity of human languages and explain the constraints on that diversity. Generative linguists following Chomsky have claimed that linguistic diversity must be constrained by innate parameters that are set as a child learns a language1, 2. In contrast, other linguists following Greenberg have claimed that there are statistical tendencies for co-occurrence of traits reflecting universal systems biases3, 4, 5, rather than absolute constraints or parametric variation. Here we use computational phylogenetic methods to address the nature of constraints on linguistic diversity in an evolutionary framework6. First, contrary to the generative account of parameter setting, we show that the evolution of only a few word-order features of languages are strongly correlated. Second, contrary to the Greenbergian generalizations, we show that most observed functional dependencies between traits are lineage-specific rather than universal tendencies. These findings support the view that—at least with respect to word order—cultural evolution is the primary factor that determines linguistic structure, with the current state of a linguistic system shaping and constraining future states.

    Supplementary material

    Supplementary information
  • Haun, D. B. M., Rapold, C. J., Janzen, G., & Levinson, S. C. (2011). Plasticity of human spatial memory: Spatial language and cognition covary across cultures. Cognition, 119, 70-80. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.009.

    Abstract

    The present paper explores cross-cultural variation in spatial cognition by comparing spatial reconstruction tasks by Dutch and Namibian elementary school children. These two communities differ in the way they predominantly express spatial relations in language. Four experiments investigate cognitive strategy preferences across different levels of task-complexity and instruction. Data show a correlation between dominant linguistic spatial frames of reference and performance patterns in non-linguistic spatial memory tasks. This correlation is shown to be stable across an increase of complexity in the spatial array. When instructed to use their respective non-habitual cognitive strategy, participants were not easily able to switch between strategies and their attempts to do so impaired their performance. These results indicate a difference not only in preference but also in competence and suggest that spatial language and non-linguistic preferences and competences in spatial cognition are systematically aligned across human populations.

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  • Levinson, S. C. (2011). Pojmowanie przestrzeni w różnych kulturach [Polish translation of Levinson, S. C. 1998. Studying spatial conceptualization across cultures]. Autoportret, 33, 16-23.

    Abstract

    Polish translation of Levinson, S. C. (1998). Studying spatial conceptualization across cultures: Anthropology and cognitive science. Ethos, 26(1), 7-24. doi:10.1525/eth.1998.26.1.7
  • Levinson, S. C., Greenhill, S. J., Gray, R. D., & Dunn, M. (2011). Universal typological dependencies should be detectable in the history of language families. Linguistic Typology, 15, 509-534. doi:10.1515/LITY.2011.034.

    Abstract

    1. Introduction We claim that making sense of the typological diversity of languages demands a historical/evolutionary approach.We are pleased that the target paper (Dunn et al. 2011a) has served to bring discussion of this claim into prominence, and are grateful that leading typologists have taken the time to respond (commentaries denoted by boldface). It is unfortunate though that a number of the commentaries in this issue of LT show significant misunderstandings of our paper. Donohue thinks we were out to show the stability of typological features, but that was not our target at all (although related methods can be used to do that: see, e.g., Greenhill et al. 2010a, Dediu 2011a). Plank seems to think we were arguing against universals of any type, but our target was in fact just the implicational universals of word order that have been the bread and butter of typology. He also seems to think we ignore diachrony, whereas in fact the method introduces diachrony centrally into typological reasoning, thereby potentially revolutionising typology (see Cysouw’s commentary). Levy & Daumé think we were testing for lineage-specificity, whereas that was in fact an outcome (the main finding) of our testing for correlated evolution. Dryer thinks we must account for the distribution of language types around the world, but that was not our aim: our aim was to test the causal connection between linguistic variables by taking the perspective of language evolution (diversification and change). Longobardi & Roberts seem to think we set out to extract family trees from syntactic features, but our goal was in fact to use trees based on lexical cognates and hang reconstructed syntactic states on each node of these trees, thereby reconstructing the processes of language change.
  • Majid, A., & Levinson, S. C. (2011). The senses in language and culture. The Senses & Society, 6(1), 5-18. doi:10.2752/174589311X12893982233551.

    Abstract

    Multiple social science disciplines have converged on the senses in recent years, where formerly the domain of perception was the preserve of psychology. Linguistics, or Language, however, seems to have an ambivalent role in this undertaking. On the one hand, Language with a capital L (language as a general human capacity) is part of the problem. It was the prior focus on language (text) that led to the disregard of the senses. On the other hand, it is language (with a small "l", a particular tongue) that offers key insights into how other peoples onceptualize the senses. In this article, we argue that a systematic cross-cultural approach can reveal fundamental truths about the precise connections between language and the senses. Recurring failures to adequately describe the sensorium across specific languages reveal the intrinsic limits of Language. But the converse does not hold. Failures of expressibility in one language need not hold any implications for the Language faculty per se, and indeed can enlighten us about the possible experiential worlds available to human experience.
  • Majid, A., Evans, N., Gaby, A., & Levinson, S. C. (2011). The grammar of exchange: A comparative study of reciprocal constructions across languages. Frontiers in Psychology, 2: 34, pp. 34. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00034.

    Abstract

    Cultures are built on social exchange. Most languages have dedicated grammatical machinery for expressing this. To demonstrate that statistical methods can also be applied to grammatical meaning, we here ask whether the underlying meanings of these grammatical constructions are based on shared common concepts. To explore this, we designed video stimuli of reciprocated actions (e.g. ‘giving to each other’) and symmetrical states (e.g. ‘sitting next to each other’), and with the help of a team of linguists collected responses from 20 languages around the world. Statistical analyses revealed that many languages do, in fact, share a common conceptual core for reciprocal meanings but that this is not a universally expressed concept. The recurrent pattern of conceptual packaging found across languages is compatible with the view that there is a shared non-linguistic understanding of reciprocation. But, nevertheless, there are considerable differences between languages in the exact extensional patterns, highlighting that even in the domain of grammar semantics is highly language-specific.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2010). Advancing our grasp of constrained variation in a crucial cognitive domain [Comment on Doug Jones]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 391-392. doi:10.1017/S0140525X1000141X.

    Abstract

    Jones's system of constraints promises interesting insights into the typology of kin term systems. Three problems arise: (1) the conflation of categories with algorithms that assign them threatens to weaken the typological predictions; (2) OT-type constraints have little psychological plausibility; (3) the conflation of kin-term systems and kinship systems may underplay the "utility function" character of real kinship in action.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2010). Questions and responses in Yélî Dnye, the Papuan language of Rossel Island. Journal of Pragmatics, 42, 2741-2755. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2010.04.009.

    Abstract

    A corpus of 350 naturally-occurring questions in videotaped interaction shows that questions and their responses in Yélî Dnye (the Papuan language of Rossel Island) both conform to clear universal expectations but also have a number of language-specific peculiarities. They conform in that polar and wh-questions are unrelated in form, wh-questions have the usual sort of special forms, and responses show the same priorities as in other languages (for fast cooperative, adequate answers). But, less expected perhaps, Yélî Dnye polar questions (excepting tags) are unmarked in both morphosyntax and prosody, and the responses include conventional facial expressions, conforming to the propositional response system type (so that assent to ‘He didn’t come?’ means ‘no, he didn’t’). These visual signals are facilitated by high levels of mutual gaze making rapid early responses possible. Tags can occur with non-interrogative illocutionary forces, and could be held to perform speech acts of their own. Wh-questions utilize about a dozen wh-forms, which are only optionally fronted, and there are some interesting specializations of forms (e.g. ‘who’ for any named entities other than places). Most questions of all types are genuinely information seeking, with 27% (mostly tags) seeking confirmation, 19% requesting repair.
  • Levinson, S. C., & Evans, N. (2010). Time for a sea-change in linguistics: Response to comments on 'The myth of language universals'. Lingua, 120, 2733-2758. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2010.08.001.

    Abstract

    This paper argues that the language sciences are on the brink of major changes in primary data, methods and theory. Reactions to ‘The myth of language universals’ ([Evans and Levinson, 2009a] and [Evans and Levinson, 2009b]) divide in response to these new challenges. Chomskyan-inspired ‘C-linguists’ defend a status quo, based on intuitive data and disparate universalizing abstract frameworks, reflecting 30 years of changing models. Linguists driven by interests in richer data and linguistic diversity, ‘D-linguists’, though more responsive to the new developments, have tended to lack an integrating framework. Here we outline such an integrative framework of the kind we were presupposing in ‘Myth’, namely a coevolutionary model of the interaction between mind and cultural linguistic traditions which puts variation central at all levels – a model that offers the right kind of response to the new challenges. In doing so we traverse the fundamental questions raised by the commentary in this special issue: What constitutes the data, what is the place of formal representations, how should linguistic comparison be done, what counts as explanation, what is the source of design in language? Radical changes in data, methods and theory are upon us. The future of the discipline will depend on responses to these changes: either the field turns in on itself and atrophies, or it modernizes, and tries to capitalize on the way language lies at the intersection of all the disciplines interested in human nature.
  • Majid, A., & Levinson, S. C. (2010). WEIRD languages have misled us, too [Comment on Henrich et al.]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 103. doi:10.1017/S0140525X1000018X.

    Abstract

    The linguistic and cognitive sciences have severely underestimated the degree of linguistic diversity in the world. Part of the reason for this is that we have projected assumptions based on English and familiar languages onto the rest. We focus on some distortions this has introduced, especially in the study of semantics.
  • Noordzij, M. L., Newman-Norlund, S. E., De Ruiter, J. P., Hagoort, P., Levinson, S. C., & Toni, I. (2010). Neural correlates of intentional communication. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 4, E188. doi:10.3389/fnins.2010.00188.

    Abstract

    We know a great deal about the neurophysiological mechanisms supporting instrumental actions, i.e. actions designed to alter the physical state of the environment. In contrast, little is known about our ability to select communicative actions, i.e. actions directly designed to modify the mental state of another agent. We have recently provided novel empirical evidence for a mechanism in which a communicator selects his actions on the basis of a prediction of the communicative intentions that an addressee is most likely to attribute to those actions. The main novelty of those finding was that this prediction of intention recognition is cerebrally implemented within the intention recognition system of the communicator, is modulated by the ambiguity in meaning of the communicative acts, and not by their sensorimotor complexity. The characteristics of this predictive mechanism support the notion that human communicative abilities are distinct from both sensorimotor and linguistic processes.
  • De Ruiter, J. P., Noordzij, M. L., Newman-Norlund, S., Hagoort, P., Levinson, S. C., & Toni, I. (2010). Exploring the cognitive infrastructure of communication. Interaction studies, 11, 51-77. doi:10.1075/is.11.1.05rui.

    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.
  • Sauter, D., & Levinson, S. C. (2010). What's embodied in a smile? [Comment on Niedenthal et al.]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 457-458. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10001597.

    Abstract

    Differentiation of the forms and functions of different smiles is needed, but they should be based on empirical data on distinctions that senders and receivers make, and the physical cues that are employed. Such data would allow for a test of whether smiles can be differentiated using perceptual cues alone or whether mimicry or simulation are necessary.
  • Stivers, T., Enfield, N. J., & Levinson, S. C. (2010). Question-response sequences in conversation across ten languages: An introduction. Journal of Pragmatics, 42, 2615-2619. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2010.04.001.
  • Evans, N., & Levinson, S. C. (2009). With diversity in mind: Freeing the language sciences from universal grammar [Author's response]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(5), 472-484. doi:10.1017/S0140525X09990525.

    Abstract

    Our response takes advantage of the wide-ranging commentary to clarify some aspects of our original proposal and augment others. We argue against the generative critics of our coevolutionary program for the language sciences, defend the use of close-to-surface models as minimizing crosslinguistic data distortion, and stress the growing role of stochastic simulations in making generalized historical accounts testable. These methods lead the search for general principles away from idealized representations and towards selective processes. Putting cultural evolution central in understanding language diversity makes learning fundamental in the cognition of language: increasingly powerful models of general learning, paired with channelled caregiver input, seem set to manage language acquisition without recourse to any innate “universal grammar.” Understanding why human language has no clear parallels in the animal world requires a cross-species perspective: crucial ingredients are vocal learning (for which there are clear non-primate parallels) and an intentionattributing cognitive infrastructure that provides a universal base for language evolution. We conclude by situating linguistic diversity within a broader trend towards understanding human cognition through the study of variation in, for example, human genetics, neurocognition, and psycholinguistic processing.
  • Evans, N., & Levinson, S. C. (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(5), 429-492. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999094X.

    Abstract

    Talk of linguistic universals has given cognitive scientists the impression that languages are all built to a common pattern. In fact, there are vanishingly few universals of language in the direct sense that all languages exhibit them. Instead, diversity can be found at almost every level of linguistic organization. This fundamentally changes the object of enquiry from a cognitive science perspective. This target article summarizes decades of cross-linguistic work by typologists and descriptive linguists, showing just how few and unprofound the universal characteristics of language are, once we honestly confront the diversity offered to us by the world's 6,000 to 8,000 languages. After surveying the various uses of “universal,” we illustrate the ways languages vary radically in sound, meaning, and syntactic organization, and then we examine in more detail the core grammatical machinery of recursion, constituency, and grammatical relations. Although there are significant recurrent patterns in organization, these are better explained as stable engineering solutions satisfying multiple design constraints, reflecting both cultural-historical factors and the constraints of human cognition.
  • Levinson, S. C., & Burenhult, N. (2009). Semplates: A new concept in lexical semantics? Language, 85, 153-174. doi:10.1353/lan.0.0090.

    Abstract

    This short report draws attention to an interesting kind of configuration in the lexicon that seems to have escaped theoretical or systematic descriptive attention. These configurations, which we dub SEMPLATES, consist of an abstract structure or template, which is recurrently instantiated in a number of lexical sets, typically of different form classes. A number of examples from different language families are adduced, and generalizations made about the nature of semplates, which are contrasted to other, perhaps similar, phenomena
  • Noordzij, M., Newman-Norlund, S. E., De Ruiter, J. P., Hagoort, P., Levinson, S. C., & Toni, I. (2009). Brain mechanisms underlying human communication. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 3:14. doi:10.3389/neuro.09.014.2009.

    Abstract

    Human communication has been described as involving the coding-decoding of a conventional symbol system, which could be supported by parts of the human motor system (i.e. the “mirror neurons system”). However, this view does not explain how these conventions could develop in the first place. Here we target the neglected but crucial issue of how people organize their non-verbal behavior to communicate a given intention without pre-established conventions. We have measured behavioral and brain responses in pairs of subjects during communicative exchanges occurring in a real, interactive, on-line social context. In two fMRI studies, we found robust evidence that planning new communicative actions (by a sender) and recognizing the communicative intention of the same actions (by a receiver) relied on spatially overlapping portions of their brains (the right posterior superior temporal sulcus). The response of this region was lateralized to the right hemisphere, modulated by the ambiguity in meaning of the communicative acts, but not by their sensorimotor complexity. These results indicate that the sender of a communicative signal uses his own intention recognition system to make a prediction of the intention recognition performed by the receiver. This finding supports the notion that our communicative abilities are distinct from both sensorimotor processes and language abilities.
  • Stivers, T., Enfield, N. J., Brown, P., Englert, C., Hayashi, M., Heinemann, T., Hoymann, G., Rossano, F., De Ruiter, J. P., Yoon, K.-E., & Levinson, S. C. (2009). Universals and cultural variation in turn-taking in conversation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106 (26), 10587-10592. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903616106.

    Abstract

    Informal verbal interaction is the core matrix for human social life. A mechanism for coordinating this basic mode of interaction is a system of turn-taking that regulates who is to speak and when. Yet relatively little is known about how this system varies across cultures. The anthropological literature reports significant cultural differences in the timing of turn-taking in ordinary conversation. We test these claims and show that in fact there are striking universals in the underlying pattern of response latency in conversation. Using a worldwide sample of 10 languages drawn from traditional indigenous communities to major world languages, we show that all of the languages tested provide clear evidence for a general avoidance of overlapping talk and a minimization of silence between conversational turns. In addition, all of the languages show the same factors explaining within-language variation in speed of response. We do, however, find differences across the languages in the average gap between turns, within a range of 250 ms from the cross-language mean. We believe that a natural sensitivity to these tempo differences leads to a subjective perception of dramatic or even fundamental differences as offered in ethnographic reports of conversational style. Our empirical evidence suggests robust human universals in this domain, where local variations are quantitative only, pointing to a single shared infrastructure for language use with likely ethological foundations.

    Supplementary material

    Stivers_2009_universals_suppl.pdf
  • Burenhult, N., & Levinson, S. C. (2008). Language and landscape: A cross-linguistic perspective. Language Sciences, 30(2/3), 135-150. doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2006.12.028.

    Abstract

    This special issue is the outcome of collaborative work on the relationship between language and landscape, carried out in the Language and Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. The contributions explore the linguistic categories of landscape terms and place names in nine genetically, typologically and geographically diverse languages, drawing on data from first-hand fieldwork. The present introductory article lays out the reasons why the domain of landscape is of central interest to the language sciences and beyond, and it outlines some of the major patterns that emerge from the cross-linguistic comparison which the papers invite. The data point to considerable variation within and across languages in how systems of landscape terms and place names are ontologised. This has important implications for practical applications from international law to modern navigation systems.
  • Dunn, M., Levinson, S. C., Lindström, E., Reesink, G., & Terrill, A. (2008). Structural phylogeny in historical linguistics: Methodological explorations applied in Island Melanesia. Language, 84(4), 710-759. doi:10.1353/lan.0.0069.

    Abstract

    Using various methods derived from evolutionary biology, including maximum parsimony and Bayesian phylogenetic analysis, we tackle the question of the relationships among a group of Papuan isolate languages that have hitherto resisted accepted attempts at demonstration of interrelatedness. Instead of using existing vocabulary-based methods, which cannot be applied to these languages due to the paucity of shared lexemes, we created a database of STRUCTURAL FEATURES—abstract phonological and grammatical features apart from their form. The methods are first tested on the closely related Oceanic languages spoken in the same region as the Papuan languages in question. We find that using biological methods on structural features can recapitulate the results of the comparative method tree for the Oceanic languages, thus showing that structural features can be a valid way of extracting linguistic history. Application of the same methods to the otherwise unrelatable Papuan languages is therefore likely to be similarly valid. Because languages that have been in contact for protracted periods may also converge, we outline additional methods for distinguishing convergence from inherited relatedness.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2008). Landscape, seascape and the ontology of places on Rossel Island, Papua New Guinea. Language Sciences, 30(2/3), 256-290. doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2006.12.032.

    Abstract

    This paper describes the descriptive landscape and seascape terminology of an isolate language, Yélî Dnye, spoken on a remote island off Papua New Guinea. The terminology reveals an ontology of landscape terms fundamentally mismatching that in European languages, and in current GIS applications. These landscape terms, and a rich set of seascape terms, provide the ontological basis for toponyms across subdomains. Considering what motivates landscape categorization, three factors are considered: perceptual salience, human affordance and use, and cultural ideas. The data show that cultural ideas and practices are the major categorizing force: they directly impact the ecology with environmental artifacts, construct religious ideas which play a major role in the use of the environment and its naming, and provide abstract cultural templates which organize large portions of vocabulary across subdomains.
  • Majid, A., & Levinson, S. C. (2008). Language does provide support for basic tastes [Commentary on A study of the science of taste: On the origins and influence of the core ideas by Robert P. Erickson]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31, 86-87. doi:10.1017/S0140525X08003476.

    Abstract

    Recurrent lexicalization patterns across widely different cultural contexts can provide a window onto common conceptualizations. The cross-linguistic data support the idea that sweet, salt, sour, and bitter are basic tastes. In addition, umami and fatty are likely basic tastes, as well.
  • De Ruiter, J. P., & Levinson, S. C. (2008). A biological infrastructure for communication underlies the cultural evolution of languages [Commentary on Christiansen & Chater: Language as shaped by the brain]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(5), 518-518. doi:10.1017/S0140525X08005086.

    Abstract

    Universal Grammar (UG) is indeed evolutionarily implausible. But if languages are just “adapted” to a large primate brain, it is hard to see why other primates do not have complex languages. The answer is that humans have evolved a specialized and uniquely human cognitive architecture, whose main function is to compute mappings between arbitrary signals and communicative intentions. This underlies the development of language in the human species.
  • Ameka, F. K., & Levinson, S. C. (2007). Introduction-The typology and semantics of locative predicates: Posturals, positionals and other beasts. Linguistics, 45(5), 847-872. doi:10.1515/LING.2007.025.

    Abstract

    This special issue is devoted to a relatively neglected topic in linguistics, namely the verbal component of locative statements. English tends, of course, to use a simple copula in utterances like “The cup is on the table”, but many languages, perhaps as many as half of the world's languages, have a set of alternate verbs, or alternate verbal affixes, which contrast in this slot. Often these are classificatory verbs of 'sitting', 'standing' and 'lying'. For this reason, perhaps, Aristotle listed position among his basic (“noncomposite”) categories.
  • Dunn, M., Foley, R., Levinson, S. C., Reesink, G., & Terrill, A. (2007). Statistical reasoning in the evaluation of typological diversity in Island Melanesia. Oceanic Linguistics, 46(2), 388-403.

    Abstract

    This paper builds on a previous work in which we attempted to retrieve a phylogenetic signal using abstract structural features alone, as opposed to cognate sets, drawn from a sample of Island Melanesian languages, both Oceanic (Austronesian) and (non-Austronesian) Papuan (Science 2005[309]: 2072-75 ). Here we clarify a number of misunderstandings of this approach, referring particularly to the critique by Mark Donohue and Simon Musgrave (in this same issue of Oceanic Linguistics), in which they fail to appreciate the statistical principles underlying computational phylogenetic methods. We also present new analyses that provide stronger evidence supporting the hypotheses put forward in our original paper: a reanalysis using Bayesian phylogenetic inference demonstrates the robustness of the data and methods, and provides a substantial improvement over the parsimony method used in our earlier paper. We further demonstrate, using the technique of spatial autocorrelation, that neither proximity nor Oceanic contact can be a major determinant of the pattern of structural variation of the Papuan languages, and thus that the phylogenetic relatedness of the Papuan languages remains a serious hypothesis.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2007). Cut and break verbs in Yélî Dnye, the Papuan language of Rossel Island. Cognitive Linguistics, 18(2), 207-218. doi:10.1515/COG.2007.009.

    Abstract

    The paper explores verbs of cutting and breaking (C&B, hereafter) in Yeli Dnye, the Papuan language of Rossel Island. The Yeli Dnye verbs covering the C&B domain do not divide it in the expected way, with verbs focusing on special instruments and manners of action on the one hand, and verbs focusing on the resultant state on the other. Instead, just three transitive verbs and their intransitive counterparts cover most of the domain, and they are all based on 'exotic' distinctions in mode of severance[--]coherent severance with the grain vs. against the grain, and incoherent severance (regardless of grain).
  • Haun, D. B. M., Rapold, C. J., Call, J., Janzen, G., & Levinson, S. C. (2006). Cognitive cladistics and cultural override in Hominid spatial cognition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103(46), 17568-17573. doi:10.1073/pnas.0607999103.

    Abstract

    Current approaches to human cognition often take a strong nativist stance based on Western adult performance, backed up where possible by neonate and infant research and almost never by comparative research across the Hominidae. Recent research suggests considerable cross-cultural differences in cognitive strategies, including relational thinking, a domain where infant research is impossible because of lack of cognitive maturation. Here, we apply the same paradigm across children and adults of different cultures and across all nonhuman great ape genera. We find that both child and adult spatial cognition systematically varies with language and culture but that, nevertheless, there is a clear inherited bias for one spatial strategy in the great apes. It is reasonable to conclude, we argue, that language and culture mask the native tendencies in our species. This cladistic approach suggests that the correct perspective on human cognition is neither nativist uniformitarian nor ‘‘blank slate’’ but recognizes the powerful impact that language and culture can have on our shared primate cognitive biases.
  • Haun, D. B. M., Call, J., Janzen, G., & Levinson, S. C. (2006). Evolutionary psychology of spatial representations in the hominidae. Current Biology, 16(17), 1736-1740. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2006.07.049.

    Abstract

    Comparatively little is known about the inherited primate background underlying human cognition, the human cognitive “wild-type.” Yet it is possible to trace the evolution of human cognitive abilities and tendencies by contrasting the skills of our nearest cousins, not just chimpanzees, but all the extant great apes, thus showing what we are likely to have inherited from the common ancestor [1]. By looking at human infants early in cognitive development, we can also obtain insights into native cognitive biases in our species [2]. Here, we focus on spatial memory, a central cognitive domain. We show, first, that all nonhuman great apes and 1-year-old human infants exhibit a preference for place over feature strategies for spatial memory. This suggests the common ancestor of all great apes had the same preference. We then examine 3-year-old human children and find that this preference reverses. Thus, the continuity between our species and the other great apes is masked early in human ontogeny. These findings, based on both phylogenetic and ontogenetic contrasts, open up the prospect of a systematic evolutionary psychology resting upon the cladistics of cognitive preferences.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2006). Cognition at the heart of human interaction. Discourse Studies, 8(1), 85-93. doi:10.1177/1461445606059557.

    Abstract

    Sometimes it is thought that there are serious differences between theories of discourse that turn on the role of cognition in the theory. This is largely a misconception: for example, with its emphasis on participants’ own understandings, its principles of recipient design and projection, Conversation Analysis is hardly anti-cognitive. If there are genuine disagreements they rather concern a preference for ‘lean’ versus ‘rich’ metalanguages and different methodologies. The possession of a multi-levelled model, separating out what the individual brings to interaction from the emergent properties of interaction, would make it easier to resolve some of these issues. Meanwhile, these squabbles on the margins distract us from a much more central and more interesting issue: is there a very special cognition-for-interaction, which underlies and underpins all language and discourse? Prime facie evidence suggests that there is, and different approaches can contribute to our understanding of it.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2006). Parts of the body in Yélî Dnye, the Papuan language of Rossel Island. Language Sciences, 28(2-3), 221-240. doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2005.11.007.

    Abstract

    This paper describes the terminology used to describe parts of the body in Ye´lıˆ Dnye, the Papuan language of Rossel Island (Papua New Guinea). The terms are nouns, which display complex patterns of suppletion in possessive and locative uses. Many of the terms are compounds, many unanalysable. Semantically, visible body parts divide into three main types: (i) a partonomic subsystem dividing the body into nine major parts: head, neck, two upper limbs, trunk, two upper legs, two lower legs, (ii) designated surfaces (e.g. ‘lower belly’), (iii) collections of surface features (‘face’), (iv) taxonomic subsystems (e.g. ‘big toe’ being a kind of ‘toe’). With regards to (i), the lack of any designation for ‘foot’ or ‘hand’ is notable, as is the absence of a term for ‘leg’ as a whole (although this is a lexical not a conceptual gap, as shown by the alternate taboo vocabulary). Ye´lıˆ Dnye body part terms do not have major extensions to other domains (e.g. spatial relators). Indeed, a number of the terms are clearly borrowed from outside human biology (e.g. ‘wing butt’ for shoulder).
  • Levinson, S. C. (2006). Language in the 21st century. Language, 82, 1-2.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2006). Matrilineal clans and kin terms on Rossel Island. Anthropological Linguistics, 48, 1-43.

    Abstract

    Yélî Dnye, the language of Rossel Island, Louisiade archipelago, Papua New Guinea, is a non-Austronesian isolate of considerable interest for the prehistory of the area. The kin term, clan, and kinship systems have some superficial similarities with surrounding Austronesian ones, but many underlying differences. The terminology, here properly described for the first time, is highly complex, and seems adapted to a dual descent system, with Crow-type skewing reflecting matrilineal descent, but a system of reciprocals also reflecting the "unity of the patriline." It may be analyzed in three mutually consistent ways: as a system of classificatory reciprocals, as a clan-based sociocentric system, and as collapses and skewings across a genealogical net. It makes an interesting contrast to the Trobriand system, and suggests that the alternative types of account offered by Edmund Leach and Floyd Lounsbury for the Trobriand system both have application to the Rossel system. The Rossel system has features (e.g., patrilineal biases, dual descent, collective [dyadic] kin terms, terms for alternating generations) that may be indicative of pre-Austronesian social systems of the area
  • Dunn, M., Terrill, A., Reesink, G., Foley, R. A., & Levinson, S. C. (2005). Structural phylogenetics and the reconstruction of ancient language history. Science, 309(5743), 2072-2075. doi:10.1126/science.1114615.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2005). [Comment on: Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Piraha by Daniel L. Everett]. Current Anthropology, 46, 637-638.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2005). Languages: Europe puts it's money where its mouth is [Letter to the editor]. Nature, 438, 914-914. doi:doi:10.1038/438914c.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2005). Living with Manny's dangerous idea. Discourse Studies, 7(4-5), 431-453. doi:10.1177/1461445605054401.

    Abstract

    Daniel Dennett, in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, argues that natural selection is a universal acid that eats through other theories, because it can explain just about everything, even the structure of the mind. Emanuel (Manny) Schegloff (1987) in ‘Between Micro and Macro: Context and Other Connections’ opposes the importation of ‘macro’ (sociological/sociolinguistic) factors into the ‘micro’ (interaction analysis), suggesting that one might reverse the strategy instead. Like Darwin, he is coy about whether he just wants his own turf, but the idea opens up the possibility of interactional reductionism. I will argue against interactional reductionism on methodological grounds: Don't bite off more than you can chew! Instead I'll support the good old Durkheimian strategy of looking for intermediate variables between systems of different orders. I try and make the case with data from Rossel Island, Papua New Guinea.
  • Majid, A., Bowerman, M., Kita, S., Haun, D. B. M., & Levinson, S. C. (2004). Can language restructure cognition? The case for space. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(3), 108-114. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.01.003.

    Abstract

    Frames of reference are coordinate systems used to compute and specify the location of objects with respect to other objects. These have long been thought of as innate concepts, built into our neurocognition. However, recent work shows that the use of such frames in language, cognition and gesture varies crossculturally, and that children can acquire different systems with comparable ease. We argue that language can play a significant role in structuring, or restructuring, a domain as fundamental as spatial cognition. This suggests we need to rethink the relation between the neurocognitive underpinnings of spatial cognition and the concepts we use in everyday thinking, and, more generally, to work out how to account for cross-cultural cognitive diversity in core cognitive domains.
  • Levinson, S. C., & Meira, S. (2003). 'Natural concepts' in the spatial topological domain - adpositional meanings in crosslinguistic perspective: An exercise in semantic typology. Language, 79(3), 485-516.

    Abstract

    Most approaches to spatial language have assumed that the simplest spatial notions are (after Piaget) topological and universal (containment, contiguity, proximity, support, represented as semantic primitives suchas IN, ON, UNDER, etc.). These concepts would be coded directly in language, above all in small closed classes suchas adpositions—thus providing a striking example of semantic categories as language-specific projections of universal conceptual notions. This idea, if correct, should have as a consequence that the semantic categories instantiated in spatial adpositions should be essentially uniform crosslinguistically. This article attempts to verify this possibility by comparing the semantics of spatial adpositions in nine unrelated languages, with the help of a standard elicitation procedure, thus producing a preliminary semantic typology of spatial adpositional systems. The differences between the languages turn out to be so significant as to be incompatible withstronger versions of the UNIVERSAL CONCEPTUAL CATEGORIES hypothesis. Rather, the language-specific spatial adposition meanings seem to emerge as compact subsets of an underlying semantic space, withcertain areas being statistical ATTRACTORS or FOCI. Moreover, a comparison of systems withdifferent degrees of complexity suggests the possibility of positing implicational hierarchies for spatial adpositions. But such hierarchies need to be treated as successive divisions of semantic space, as in recent treatments of basic color terms. This type of analysis appears to be a promising approachfor future work in semantic typology.
  • Levinson, S. C., & Brown, P. (2003). Emmanuel Kant chez les Tenejapans: L'Anthropologie comme philosophie empirique [Translated by Claude Vandeloise for 'Langues et Cognition']. Langues et Cognition, 239-278.

    Abstract

    This is a translation of Levinson and Brown (1994).
  • Levinson, S. C. (2002). Time for a linguistic anthropology of time. Current Anthropology, 43(4), S122-S123. doi:10.1086/342214.
  • Levinson, S. C., Kita, S., Haun, D. B. M., & Rasch, B. H. (2002). Returning the tables: Language affects spatial reasoning. Cognition, 84(2), 155-188. doi:10.1016/S0010-0277(02)00045-8.

    Abstract

    Li and Gleitman (Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning. Cognition, in press) seek to undermine a large-scale cross-cultural comparison of spatial language and cognition which claims to have demonstrated that language and conceptual coding in the spatial domain covary (see, for example, Space in language and cognition: explorations in linguistic diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, in press; Language 74 (1998) 557): the most plausible interpretation is that different languages induce distinct conceptual codings. Arguing against this, Li and Gleitman attempt to show that in an American student population they can obtain any of the relevant conceptual codings just by varying spatial cues, holding language constant. They then argue that our findings are better interpreted in terms of ecologically-induced distinct cognitive styles reflected in language. Linguistic coding, they argue, has no causal effects on non-linguistic thinking – it simply reflects antecedently existing conceptual distinctions. We here show that Li and Gleitman did not make a crucial distinction between frames of spatial reference relevant to our line of research. We report a series of experiments designed to show that they have, as a consequence, misinterpreted the results of their own experiments, which are in fact in line with our hypothesis. Their attempts to reinterpret the large cross-cultural study, and to enlist support from animal and infant studies, fail for the same reasons. We further try to discern exactly what theory drives their presumption that language can have no cognitive efficacy, and conclude that their position is undermined by a wide range of considerations.
  • Levinson, S. C. (2000). Yélî Dnye and the theory of basic color terms. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 10( 1), 3-55. doi:10.1525/jlin.2000.10.1.3.

    Abstract

    The theory of basic color terms was a crucial factor in the demise of linguistic relativity. The theory is now once again under scrutiny and fundamental revision. This article details a case study that undermines one of the central claims of the classical theory, namely that languages universally treat color as a unitary domain, to be exhaustively named. Taken together with other cases, the study suggests that a number of languages have only an incipient color terminology, raising doubts about the linguistic universality of such terminology.
  • Levinson, S. C. (1999). Maxim. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 9, 144-147. doi:10.1525/jlin.1999.9.1-2.144.
  • Levinson, S. C. (1998). Studying spatial conceptualization across cultures: Anthropology and cognitive science. Ethos, 26(1), 7-24. doi:10.1525/eth.1998.26.1.7.

    Abstract

    Philosophers, psychologists, and linguists have argued that spatial conception is pivotal to cognition in general, providing a general, egocentric, and universal framework for cognition as well as metaphors for conceptualizing many other domains. But in an aboriginal community in Northern Queensland, a system of cardinal directions informs not only language, but also memory for arbitrary spatial arrays and directions. This work suggests that fundamental cognitive parameters, like the system of coding spatial locations, can vary cross-culturally, in line with the language spoken by a community. This opens up the prospect of a fruitful dialogue between anthropology and the cognitive sciences on the complex interaction between cultural and universal factors in the constitution of mind.
  • Pederson, E., Danziger, E., Wilkins, D. G., Levinson, S. C., Kita, S., & Senft, G. (1998). Semantic typology and spatial conceptualization. Language, 74(3), 557-589. doi:10.2307/417793.
  • Levinson, S. C. (1997). Language and cognition: The cognitive consequences of spatial description in Guugu Yimithirr. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 7(1), 1-35. doi:10.1525/jlin.1997.7.1.98.
  • Levinson, S. C. (1997). Language and cognition: The cognitive consequences of spatial description in Guugu Yimithirr. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 7(1), 98-131. doi:10.1525/jlin.1997.7.1.98.

    Abstract

    This article explores the relation between language and cognition by examining the case of "absolute" (cardinal direction) spatial description in the Australian aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr. This kind of spatial description is incongruent with the "relative" (e.g., left/right/front/back) spatial description familiar in European languages. Building on Haviland's 1993 analysis of Guugu Yimithirr directionals in speech and gesture, a series of informal experiments were developed. It is shown that Guugu Yimithirr speakers predominantly code for nonverbal memory in "absolute" concepts congruent with their language, while a comparative sample of Dutch speakers do so in "relative" concepts. Much anecdotal evidence also supports this. The conclusion is that Whorfian effects may in fact be demonstrable in the spatial domain.
  • Levinson, S. C. (1996). Language and space. Annual Review of Anthropology, 25, 353-382. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.25.1.353.

    Abstract

    This review describes some recent, unexpected findings concerning variation in spatial language across cultures, and places them in the context of the general anthropology of space on the one hand, and theories of spatial cognition in the cognitive sciences on the other. There has been much concern with the symbolism of space in anthropological writings, but little on concepts of space in practical activities. This neglect of everyday spatial notions may be due to unwitting ethnocentrism, the assumption in Western thinking generally that notions of space are universally of a single kind. Recent work shows that systems of spatial reckoning and description can in fact be quite divergent across cultures, linguistic differences correlating with distinct cognitive tendencies. This unexpected cultural variation raises interesting questions concerning the relation between cultural and linguistic concepts and the biological foundations of cognition. It argues for more sophisticated models relating culture and cognition than we currently have available.
  • Levinson, S. C., & Brown, P. (1994). Immanuel Kant among the Tenejapans: Anthropology as empirical philosophy. Ethos, 22(1), 3-41. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/640467.

    Abstract

    This paper confronts Kant’s (1768) view of human conceptions of space as fundamentally divided along the three planes of the human body with an empirical case study in the Mayan community of Tenejapa in southern Mexico, whose inhabitants do not use left/right distinctions to project regions in space. Tenejapans have names for the left hand and the right hand, and also a term for hand/arm in general, but they do not generalize the distinction to spatial regions -- there is no linguistic expression glossing as 'to the left' or 'on the left-hand side', for example. Tenejapans also show a remarkable indifference to incongruous counterparts. Nor is there any system of value associations with the left and the right. The Tenejapan evidence that speaks to these Kantian themes points in two directions: (a) Kant was wrong to think that the structure of spatial regions founded on the human frame, and in particular the distinctions based on left and right, are in some sense essential human intuitions; (b) Kant may have been right to think that the left/right opposition, the perception of enantiomorphs, clockwiseness, East-West dichotomies, etc., are intimately connected to an overall system of spatial conception.

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