Last month in Vienna, at the 10th International Conference on the Evolution of Language (EvoLang), Bodo Winter was one of the two winners of the James Hurford prize for the best student presentation. In collaboration with Graham Thompson (UC Merced) and Matthias Urban (University of Leiden), this project looks at statistical patterns that reflect how meanings in language can change. Bodo and Graham are both graduate students in the Cognitive and Information Sciences program at UC Merced.

PhD student Bodo Winter won the Hurford Prize at EvoLang, in Vienna

Their work explores how words share meanings, and how this may emerge. Take, for example, the two concepts ‘skin’ and ‘bark’, which are related by virtue of referring to the outer layer of an organism. Many languages have the same word for both of these concepts. In other languages, the word for ‘bark’ is based on the word for ‘skin,’ but no language bases the word for ‘skin’ on the concept ‘bark’. Previous research by Matthias Urban has found similar asymmetrical patterns for ‘liver’>’lungs’, ‘eggs’>’testicles’, ‘honey’>’wax’, and many other pairs.

The idea of the study by Bodo, Graham and Matthias is to look at how words relate to these conceptual patterns. It turns out that English speakers speak more of livers, skin, honey and eggs than they talk about lungs, bark, wax and testicles. Thus, statistical patterns of word frequency can be used to understand patterns of how thoughts are mapped onto words across human languages.

The EvoLang conference is a broad ranging, interdisciplinary conference that is the de facto place for research on the origins and evolution of language. Researchers from around the world attend, and present on a variety of topics from computational modeling of language, to non-human communication. The Hurford prize is the premiere student award for this conference.

The title slide from Bodo and Graham’s talk.