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Cambridge Language Sciences

Interdisciplinary Research Centre
Perspectives on Language Change

Perspectives on Language Change

A research and networking event for researchers in the language sciences at the University of Cambridge

This annual meeting of minds brings the Cambridge Language Sciences research community together for an afternoon of talks and poster presentations, and provides an opportunity for informal networking. The theme of this year's Symposium is Language Change.


13.00-13.30 Registration and coffee
13.30-14.30 Change and stability in the native language of migrants
Professor Monika S. Schmid (Dept. of Language & Linguistics, University of Essex)

Despite increasing evidence from psycho- and neurolinguistic investigations that multilinguals use and process all of their languages differently from monolinguals including the native one, there remains a strong bias in research and theory towards L2 development and L1-to-L2 transfer. The prevalent assumption is (still) that the native language, once completely acquired, is immune to change except in extreme situations of long-term non-use. This presentation will discuss to what extent first language attrition is part and parcel of the overall process of multilingual development, to what extent it is shaped and constrained by external factors (such as age at learning or frequency of use), and whether it is possible to distinguish attriters from non-attriters.

14.30-15.00 Darling, dukeling, duckling: how historical corpora can verify predicted pathways of language change
Dr Marieke Meelen (Theoretical & Applied Linguistics)

Over the years, scholars in formal semantic and morpho-syntactic frameworks have observed a number of ‘universal tendencies’ in language change. Jurafsky’s (1996) study of diminutives, for example, aims to predict the cross-linguistic origin and developments of words and suffixes that are linked to children such as ‘-ling’ in ‘duck-ling’, a baby duck. Recent work in comparative syntax goes one step further attempting to explain how cross-linguistic constraints on word-order variation are manifested and why that might lead to certain changes. These observations, however, are often based on a limited number of examples. In order to trace the exact history of predicted changes and verify postulated mechanisms of change, it is important to dive deeper and more rigorously into a large amount of historical data. In this talk I demonstrate why it is essential to build good historical corpora and how state-of-the-art methods of data mining can not only reveal a wealth of previously unknown linguistic features, they can also check predictions regarding cross-linguistic differences and similarities in semantics, morphology and syntax.

15.00-15.30 Poster slam

One-minute talks by the poster presenters

Poster presenters will give a lightning talk during the plenary session to advertise their poster. Presenters will be given exactly one minute and one slide to let the audience know what their poster is about. 

15.30-16.30 Poster exhibition and refreshments

The poster session will showcase research being carried out within Cambridge Language Sciences with a particular focus on PhD students and postdocs and new and/or interdisciplinary research. It will feature a wide range of disciplinary perspectives relating to Language Sciences and is not restricted to the theme of language change.

16.30-17.00 Language change as a (random?) walk in entropy space
Dr Christian Bentz (Dept. of General Linguistics, University of Tübingen)

This talk explores language change from an information-theoretic perspective. The word entropy of more than 1000 written languages from over 100 families is mapped along two dimensions to measure lexical diversity and runs of the same word combinations. Both turn out to be highly constrained in the sense that languages of the world fall into relatively narrow ranges in both dimensions. However, zooming into these ranges, there is also considerable variation between languages. As languages change over time, they move around in the entropy space. A fundamental question is whether this walk in entropy space is purely random, directed, or a combination of both. In a first step to answer these questions, I explore how ancient languages within the same language family compare to their modern counterparts.

17:00-18:00 The acquisition and evolution of linguistic variation
Professor Kenny Smith (Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh)

Variation is ubiquitous in natural language: phonetic, morphological, syntactic, semantic and lexical variation are all common. However, this variation tends to be predictable. How does this pattern of conditioned variation develop, in individuals and in languages themselves? I’ll present a series of experiments, based around artificial language learning, dyadic interaction and iterated learning paradigms, which allow us to explore how adult and child learners respond to variation in artificial languages, and how their biases in learning and using variable linguistic systems shape how that variation evolves over time. This work shows how interactions between learning, use, and transmission serve to preserve, condition, or eliminate variation in artificial linguistic systems. More generally, this work speaks to constraints on variation within and across natural languages, and the mechanisms which shape the structure of human language.

18.40-19.45 Reception

Drinks reception supported by Cambridge University Press



A full list of poster titles and presenters will be published shortly.

We would like to thank Joyce Lim and James Algie for organising the poster slam and exhibition



Registration is now closed. Please email for enquiries. 


PHOTO CREDIT: Tree image by Felix Mittermeier from Pixabay


Tuesday, 19 November, 2019 - 13:00 to 19:30
Contact name: 
Jane Walsh
Contact email: 
Event location: 
Cripps Court, Magdalene College

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.