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Cambridge Language Sciences

Interdisciplinary Research Centre

Internal event for researchers in language sciences at the University of Cambridge

An opportunity for members of the Cambridge Language Sciences research community to come together for the presentation and discussion of research, for informal networking, and to take part in our annual open meeting. PLEASE NOTE THAT WE WILL BE FILMING SOME OF THE TALKS .

The event will be held at Emmanuel College.




Name badges will be available from 13.15.

13.30-14.00 Poster session

 The Old Library, Emmanuel College

Presenting research by PhD students and postdoctoral researchers at the University of Cambridge. Tea and coffee will be available.

Download the abstracts

14.00-16.00 Talks

Theatre, Queen's Building, Emmanuel College

Statistical Acoustic-Phonetic Historical Linguistics: A short introduction

Prof. John Aston, Dept of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics

Prof. John Coleman, Phonetics Laboratory, University of Oxford

Ancient Sounds project

For the last several years we have been working together, developing methods for modelling linguistic sound changes using acoustic representations computed from sound recordings rather than text. In this way, we aim to reconstruct the methods of comparative philology on quantitative, acoustic foundations. In this talk, we consider such questions as: What would comparative and historical phonology be like if we worked with sound recordings instead of symbols? Can quantitative methods give insights into language variation and change? Could even we “bring back to life” the sounds of languages from the past?

We hope that this highly interdisciplinary talk will interest Romance philologists and linguists, classical philologists, statisticians, computational linguists, phoneticians and pretty much anyone with an interest in language history, modelling etc.


Dr Laura Wright, Faculty of English

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first reference to eggs sunnyside up is 1901.  Sunnyside was the title of a Charlie Chaplin film of 1919, in which Charlie works as a farmhand.  Keep Your Sunnyside Up, Up was a hit from the film Sunny Side Up of 1929, written by Buddy De Sylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson, as was On the Sunny Side of the Street, written by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, 1930, both depression-era songs being about maintaining optimism in the face of adversity.  Sunnyside is a common British house-name, associated with suburban nineteen-twenties and thirties semi-detached housing.  The British Royal Mail database available to the public for looking up postcodes (that is, not to linguists searching for house names) presently returns 14,703 hits for Sunnyside in the UK.  Yet prior to 1859, so far as I can discover, there were no houses called Sunnyside in London at all.

There is no scholarly history of British house names.  Place names have been studied for nearly a century by the English Place-Name Society (begun by the great Sir Allan Mawer (1879-1942), son of a commercial traveller in fancy trimmings from Bow) but the Scottish and Welsh Place-Name Societies are very new and even the English volumes have included farm names only sporadically.  Writing the history of a house name is therefore a challenge in that sources have to be found.

My talk will be about the extraordinary history of Sunnyside, a seemingly semantically transparent name, which, it turns out, has been hiding in plain sight.  I begin by identifying the early adopters in London, finding what they have in common, and following those avenues back to earlier users.  Said avenues lead far away both in place and in time, to outside the British Isles, and into prerecorded history.


Crowdsourcing big data in English dialectology

Dr Bert Vaux, Dept. of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics

The Harvard Dialect Survey of 2002-3 represented the first linguistic foray into large-scale crowdsourcing (60K respondents) incentivized by dynamic geospatial imaging. Working in tandem with statistics graduate student Josh Katz of North Carolina State University I expanded this in 2013 to make the New York Times dialect quiz, which deployed Josh's brilliant tweaks of existing clustering, visualization, and prediction algorithms to attract responses to my survey questions from more than 21 million humans. Since that time I have been collaborating with forensic linguist Jack Grieve of Aston University to extract linguistically-significant patterns and trends from our megacorpus. In this talk I report on the development of the New York Times quiz and some of the leading discoveries that have emerged from it, including isogloss conspiracies and stability, the role of political and commuting zones, and multivariate non-local cultural regions.

Understanding generative learning in the individual brain

Prof. Zoe Kourtzi, Dept. of Psychology

Learning from experience and adapting to new situations is fundamental to human development and wellbeing. Research on human learning has primarily focused on domain-specific skills (e.g. learning language, sports). However, a wide range of everyday behaviours—from detecting targets in clutter (e.g. finding a friend in the crowd), to navigating a new city, and co-ordinating our social interactions—critically depend on extracting meaningful structure from an initially incomprehensible stream of events. Extracting meaningful structures is critical for optimising not only our ability to interpret incoming information but also to predict upcoming events and react successfully to novel situations. We refer to this domain-general skill of extracting the principles of organisation that determine the structure of the environment, as generative learningTo understand individual ability for generative learning, we combine behavioral and brain imaging measurements with computational modeling. Our work determines prototypical strategies for generative learning and links individual learning strategies to brain computations. Our behavioural findings suggest that successful learning relies on extracting behaviorally relevant structures that are predictive of upcoming events rather than simply memorizing all possible statistical dependencies. Further, we provide evidence that generative learning is implemented by a cortico-striatal circuit that may select, monitor and adjust individual learning strategies over time. We propose that these brain computations may determine domain-general strategies for generative learning that can become specialized to support higher cognitive functions, such as navigating a new city, understanding music and language.

16.00-16.30 Refreshments; poster session

The Old Library, Emmanuel College

16.30-17.00 Annual open meeting

 Theatre, Queen's Building, Emmanuel College


17.00-18.00 Turn-taking, language processing and the evolution of language 

Prof. Stephen Levinson (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen) 

The diversity of languages contrasts with the universality of much of the communicational infrastructure that makes language possible. An important component of this infrastructure is the turn-taking system of conversation, the Stephen Levinsoncore ecological niche for language use. This system puts intense pressure on language processing: cross-linguistically, we mostly respond within 200 milliseconds, even though language encoding takes at least three times as long. It can be shown using many different measures (e.g. response times, breathing, EEG) that we beat the clock by predicting what the other is going to say and starting production as soon as we can. This raises interesting questions about why this system is the way it is, what functional pressures it puts on language structure and language diversity, and how it originated, which I will briefly address.

I will argue that the current system can best be understood within an evolutionary context in which the turn-taking system was antecedent to the complexities of modern language so that increasingly complex messages became squeezed into short turns, with the consequence of extreme compression, inference enrichment of the Gricean kind, a tendency for fixed word orders, amongst other things. Some support for this account can be found in ontogenetic and phylogenetic studies of turn-taking which I will briefly review. 

18.00-19.30 Drinks reception 

The Old Library

With the kind support of Cambridge University Press

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Contacts: Jamie Douglas (, Guy Emerson (


Thursday, 12 November, 2015 - 13:30 to 19:30
Contact name: 
Jane Walsh
Contact email: 
Event location: 
Emmanuel College, St Andrew's St, CB2 3AP

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.