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Cambridge Language Sciences

Interdisciplinary Research Centre
Cambridge Language Sciences Annual Symposium 2022 banner

The Cambridge Language Sciences (CLS) Annual Symposium is an annual meeting of minds, bringing together language scientists of all disciplines from the University of Cambridge for an afternoon of talks, poster presentations and informal networking. This year's Symposium will take place in person at Cripps Court, Magdalene College on Thursday 24 November. Presentations and posters will be available after the event on Cambridge Open Engage, the Cambridge University Press early research platform. 


This year's theme, 'What does language diversity mean for the past, present and future of humankind?', is one of the CLS ‘moonshot’ questions. The moonshots are ambitious questions of societal importance with potential for further large-scale interdisciplinary research. 

The sessions will follow a dialogue format, with pairs of researchers offering different perspectives on a topic relevant to the overarching theme.   

Dialogue 1: Language, culture and identity: perspectives from historical linguistics and sociolinguistics

Dialogue 2: Exolanguages and communicating with exobeings


13.00-13.30 Registration & coffee

13.30-15.15 Research Dialogue 1: Language, culture and identity: perspectives from historical linguistics and sociolinguistics

Session Chair: David Willis (University of Oxford)

'Aloof's Ramp', 'Jardin de Glynn': Gibraltar's street names and an eighteenth-century Western Mediterranean spatial practice

Laura Wright (Faculty of English) & Daniel Weston (University of Hong Kong) 

We will be talking about why Gibraltar’s assemblage of historic English and Gibraltar Spanish streetnames is unique. The personal-names within Gibraltar’s streetnames were borne by an eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century community of practice who specialised in servicing Western Mediterranean forts. We count about 70 civilian personal-names in Gibraltar’s (official) historic English streetnames (predominantly of English, Genoese, Moroccan-Sephardic, Menorcan origin) and about 30 in Gibraltar’s (unofficial, but still historic) Spanish streetnames, which unsurprisingly contain Spanish surnames too. Thus Gibraltar streetnames provide archaeological trace of this Western Mediterranean economic workforce, not apparent in streetnames elsewhere.

However the Gibraltar Spanish streetnames are now oral-only, preserved through memory, as the generation affected by Franco’s closure of the frontier 1969-85 stopped speaking in Gibraltar Spanish to children. In pre-Franco days, Gibraltar Spanish was predominantly maintained and replenished by the Spanish brides of Gibraltarian grooms, so that loss of Gibraltar Spanish streetnames can be equated with a termination of the historic female voice. Gibraltar’s half-written, half-oral personal-name streetnames are testament to a cohesive core of eighteenth-century families whose settlement seeded the stability of Gibraltar’s civilian population, underpinning Gibraltarian identity. Many of Gibraltar’s inhabitants continue to bear these family names to this day.

Speaker profiles: Laura Wright & Daniel Weston

Defining boundaries and creating commonalities: the case of Jewish Arabic

Esther-Miriam Wagner (The Woolf Institute) 

Because of living circumstances and social practices, Jewish communities around the world have produced distinct language forms, in speech and in writing, that differ substantially from surrounding registers. A prime example for this is Yiddish, a language which emerged from German but was transformed by language contact and other sociolinguistic processes to a degree that it became unintelligible to German speakers and is quite rightly classified as a language in its own right.

In the Arabic realm, social contact between Jewish and non-Jewish communities remained closer, in comparison to the European counterparts. Jewish forms of speaking are therefore often very similar to speech used by non-Jewish neighbours, such as in Cairo or Mosul. Notable exceptions are dialects where communal splits were caused by mass migration and change in prestige of spoken varieties. One such example is the Jewish dialect of Baghdad, which is close to Christian spoken Baghdadi but very different from Muslim speech. 

Some of these features have prompted scholars to posit a specific Jewish Arabic, a ‘macro Judaeo-Arabic’, analogous to Yiddish, with a significant supra-territorial relationship between Jewish varieties across the Middle East. Others, such as Ella Shohat, have protested this and called such efforts a nationalist projection of Judaeo-Arabic, reflecting “an undergirding investment in dislocating Arab-Jews from their Arab past, as well as in partitioning Jewishness and Hebrew off from their affiliation with Arab/Muslim civilization”. 

In my talk, I will investigate these issues, also with respect to written forms of Jewish Arabic, commonly called Judaeo-Arabic, and evidence from various Arabic dialects. This will involve discussions of how and why the dialects differ, but also reflections of that on a local level, distinct language forms serve as identity markers and are being used to draw up communal boundaries. 

All this will be investigated in a wider framework and linked to issues such as language diversity in past and present, with reference to how tolerance of ambiguity can be tied in with ideology, also exploring how a shared future might present itself through reflection of a mutual linguistic heritage.

Speaker profile: Esther-Miriam Wagner

15.15-15.45 Poster slam

Poster presenters have one minute and one slide to tell the audience about their poster.  

15.45-16.30 Poster exhibition & refreshments

Posters can be on any topic within language sciences, and interdisciplinary research is especially welcome. Please see below for the list of posters which will be presented. 

We are very grateful to the poster session organisers: Aurora Gao ( and Yuyan Xue (

16.30-18.15 Research Dialogue 2: Exolanguages and communicating with exobeings

Session Chair: Ian Roberts (Theoretical & Applied Linguistics, Faculty of MMLL)

Could a parrot build a spaceship? Evolutionary constraints on the language of a space-faring species

Arik Kershenbaum (Dept. of Zoology) 

It is uncontroversial that a technological civilisation anywhere in the universe capable of building interplanetary transport (or even capable of sending and receiving interstellar communication) must possess a form of language, so that complex cooperation between individuals is possible. However, the nature of ETI language (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) is potentially very different from human language, both in its modality (e.g. acoustic, visual), and possibly also in its information encoding paradigm (e.g. words and sentences, grammar).

Many researchers (myself included) have postulated that whatever the details of ETI language, it is likely to conform to certain information theoretical constraints such as Zipf’s Law, which describe an efficient balance between information content and cognitive demands. However, estimation of Zipf’s Law is accurate only for systems with large vocabulary sizes, such as human language. If an alien species communicated with a very small repertoire of sounds, would it be incapable of developing sophisticated cooperative technology? Non-human animals on Earth communicate with repertoire sizes far less than that of human language: typically of the order of tens of discrete sounds, as compared to a vocabulary of around 100,000 words for humans. Even such a small vocabulary has the combinatorial potential to encode large amounts of information. Could such communication systems ever evolve to be true language?

Empirically, the actual diversity of sequences in non-human animals is far lower than their potential capacity. Evolutionary forces probably drive an increase in repertoire size as communicative demands increase, and this is likely a universal constraint, so ETI will likely have a language with a large vocabulary. But if physical constraints on the diversification of repertoire lead to the evolution of a low-vocabulary communication system, language may develop in unexpected directions, which would pose a problem for the identification and interpretation of ET signals.

Speaker profile: Arik Kershenbaum

Life and Language Beyond Earth: Could we communicate with exobeings?

Raymond Hickey (University of Limerick) 

My talk will address four basic questions about life and language beyond Earth with a specific focus on attempted answers to the fourth. 

  1. Is there any life beyond Earth?
  2. Is there intelligent life beyond Earth?
  3. Is this life technologically advanced enough to communicate with us?
  4. Does such life have a communication system which we would recognise as language?

(1) The first question is the most basic and may well be answered in the near future by scientists examining planets and moons within our Solar System, assuming that such life does not have the same source as that on Earth.

(2) The second question concerns intelligent life, which here refers to sentient beings on an exoplanet with cognitive abilities comparable to those of humans on Earth.

(3) The third question centres on possible communication across the vast distances of interstellar space and would require advanced technology allowing beings on exoplanets to manipulate radio and/or light waves.

(4) The fourth question, and the one which is of most relevance for language sciences, involves judging whether beings on exoplanets would have evolved a system which would be functionally comparable to human language. Offering an answer here necessitates looking at how language evolved on Earth and what organisation and structural principles can be found across terrestrial languages. Then one must assess the likelihood that a similar linguistic system (including an internal, genetically encoded language faculty) might evolve on an exoplanet and what type of biology might support such an exolanguage.

Speaker profile: Raymond HIckey

18.15-19.45 Drinks reception

We gratefully acknowledge the support of Cambridge University Press & Assessment in making this event possible.


  • Yibing Shi (Modern & Medieval Languages & Linguistics), ‘Perception of corrective focus in Xiangshan Wu Chinese’
  • Chenyi Zhang (Theoretical & Applied Linguistics), ‘Cross-codal Processing of Bridging Inferences: A Comparison between English and Chinese Speakers’
  • Alice Paver (Theoretical & Applied Linguistics), Natalie Braber, David Wright ‘Listener judgements of speaker pitch and rate of articulation: a forensic perspective’
  • Ibtehaj Alrushoud (Education), Michelle Ellefson, Rui Wang ‘The Links between Executive Functions, Reading Comprehension and Second Language Proficiency in Learners of English as an Additional Language: Pilot Study' 
  • Lucy J MacGregor (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit), Fritz Peters, Rebecca A Gilbert, Matthew H Davis, ‘Vocabulary knowledge and non-verbal IQ predict successful comprehension of ambiguous sentences’
  • Jacqueline von Seth (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit), Máté Aller, Matt Davis, ‘Individual differences in audiovisual benefit for acoustically degraded speech’
  • Can Jin (Education), ‘Maximizing EFL learners’ ZPD in inferential reading through computerized-group dynamic assessment (C-GDA)’
  • Chrysoula Vassiliu (Theoretical & Applied Linguistics), Henriette Hendriks, Victoria Leong, ‘Second-language training effects on the cognitive control of Greek preschool children’
  • Kshipra Gurunandan (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit), Manuel Carreiras, Pedro M. Paz-Alonso, ‘Neural plasticity of speech production systems
  • Yuyan Xue (Theoretical & Applied Linguistics), John Williams, ‘Novel grammatical knowledge causes shifts in both attentional and preattentive visual processing: ERP evidence for linguistic relativity’
  • Yinhong Liu, Guy  Emerson (Computer Science & Technology), ‘Learning Functional Distributional Semantics with Visual Data’
  • Margreet Vogelzang (Modern & Medieval Languages & Linguistics), Jacopo Torregrossa, ‘Distinct profiles of bilingual reference production’
  • Yuchen Zong (Education), ‘Infusing “hope” in writing strategy instruction and moving towards “skill and will” EFL writers in China’
  • Lorna Garcia-Penton (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit), Ajay D. Halai, Siddharth Ramanan, Nikil Patel, Ruth U. Ingram, Stefano F. Cappa, Karalyn Petterson, James B.Rowe, Peter Garrard, Matthew A. Lambon Ralph, ‘Deconstructing the transdiagnostic nature of language symptoms in frontotemporal lobar degeneration’
  • Jérémy Giroud (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit), ‘Investigating neural processing of syllabic and phonemic timescales information in spoken language’
  • Máté Aller, Matthew H.  Davis (MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit), ‘Parallels and divergences in spoken word recognition between humans and machines’
  • Rowan Hall Maudslay (Computer Science & Technology), Francis Bond, Simone Teufel, ‘A New Dataset of Lexicalised Metaphor Meanings’
  • Katrina Kechun Li (Modern & Medieval Languages & Linguistics), Christopher Bryant, Kayeon Yoo, Li Nguyen, ‘Tonal aspects of code-switching: Three case studies of English- Cantonese/Mandarin/Vietnamese’
  • Ahmed Izzidien (Law), Holli Sargeant, Felix Steffek, ‘A topology of conflict causing clauses in England and Wales courts from 1781 to 2021 using legal language machine learning’
  • Margreet Vogelzang (Modern & Medieval Languages & Linguistics), Robyn Carston, Ianthi Tsimpli ‘When we verb a noun: Processing and understanding denominal verbs through pragmatic inferences’
  • Christine De Kock, Tom Stafford, Andreas Vlachos (Computer Science & Technology, Cambridge / Psychology, University of Sheffield), ‘How to disagree well: Investigating the dispute tactics used on Wikipedia’
Thursday, 24 November, 2022 - 13:00 to 19:45
Event location: 
Cripps Court, Magdalene College, Cambridge

What we do

Cambridge Language Sciences is an Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. Our virtual network connects researchers from five schools across the university as well as other world-leading research institutions. Our aim is to strengthen research collaborations and knowledge transfer across disciplines in order to address large-scale multi-disciplinary research challenges relating to language research.