Talk | Edward Gibson

18.06.2018 16:30

'Information processing and cross-linguistic universals'

Date: Monday, June 18, 2018

Time: 4:30pm

Place: Lecture room G (Faculty of Psychology, Liebiggasse 5, 1010 Vienna, 2nd floor, left wing)

Edward Gibson

Edward (Ted) Gibson received a B. Sc. from Queens University (1985), an M. Phil. from Cambridge (1986) and a PhD (computational linguistics, 1991) from Carnegie Mellon University.  He joined the faculty at MIT in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences in 1993, where he has been a full professor since 2004.

About the talk 'Information processing and cross-linguistic universals'

Finding explanations for the observed variation in human languages is the primary goal of linguistics, and promises to shed light on the nature of human cognition. One particularly attractive set of explanations is functional in nature, holding that language universals are grounded in the known properties of human information processing. The idea is that lexicons and grammars of languages have evolved so that language users can communicate using words and sentences that are relatively easy to produce and comprehend.  In this talk, I summarize results from explorations in two linguistic domains, from an information-processing point of view.  First, I show that word lengths are optimized on average according to predictability in context, as would be expected under an information theoretic analysis. Second, I show that all the world’s languages that we can currently analyze minimize syntactic dependency lengths to some degree, as would be expected under information processing considerations. Finally, we apply a simple information theory analysis to the language for color.  The number of color terms varies drastically across languages. Yet despite these differences, certain terms (e.g., red) are prevalent, which has been attributed to perceptual salience. Our work provides evidence for an alternative hypothesis: The use of color terms depends on communicative needs.  Across languages, from the hunter-gatherer Tsimane’ people of the Amazon to students in Boston, warm colors are communicated more efficiently than cool colors. This cross-linguistic pattern reflects the color statistics of the world: Objects (what we talk about) are typically warm-colored, and backgrounds are cool-colored. Communicative needs also explain why the number of color terms varies across languages: Cultures vary in how useful color is. Industrialization, which creates objects distinguishable solely based on color, increases color usefulness. 

About the speaker

Gibson’s research examines how language is processed, and how language processing constraints constrain language structure (words and sentences). One constraint is that language is processed over a noisy-channel, leading to systematic misunderstandings in particular contexts (Gibson et al. 2013, PNAS).  This approach may lead to a better understanding of language deficits such as aphasia (Gibson et al. 2015, Aphasiology). In recent projects exploring language universals, Gibson’s group has shown that all the world’s languages minimize syntactic dependency lengths (Futrell, Mahowald & Gibson, 2015, PNAS) and that information-theory can explain how different cultures divide the visual color space into different sets of color terms (Gibson et al., 2017, PNAS).  Gibson has received most of his funding from the National Science Foundation of the US.  He was elected a fellow of the Cognitive Science Society in 2017, and his research has been covered extensively in the media in recent years. He is also a great teacher, and he has won advising awards at MIT.  In his spare time, he is an avid rower, having competed for Canada at the 1984 Olympics (where he came 7th), and for Cambridge in 1986 in the famous Oxford Cambridge boat race, which his crew won.


Lecture Hall G (Psychologicum)

Faculty of Psychology
University of Vienna
Liebiggasse 5, left wing, 2rd floor
A-1010 Wien