skip to content

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. The Symposium will take place in person at Cripps Court, Magdalene College. Presentations and posters will be available after the event on Cambridge Open Engage, the Cambridge University Press early research platform. 

The Symposium is open to University of Cambridge researchers and guests, and registration is free. Registration will open on 24 October (registration deadline: 18 November 23:30 GMT).

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

  • 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) 
  • Defining boundaries and creating commonalities: the case of Jewish Arabic, Esther-Miriam Wagner (The Woolf Institute) 

Session Chair: David Willis (University of Oxford)

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. Poster submissions are currently under review. A final list of posters will be available soon.

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 Kershembaum (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 105 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.

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.

18.15-19.45 Drinks reception

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


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.