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Special interest groups (SIGs)

Last modified: 29/07/2022

Evolution - Research, NCCR Evolving Language, National Centre of Competence in Research

The SIGs are ad-hoc groups of PIs from at least two different research fields and possibly including further internal and/or external collaborators. They target research questions that are relevant to the NCCR agenda but are not yet covered by existing projects and thus can be developed as projects or work packages in future phases.

Cetacean communication

The Cetacean communication SIG is composed of NCCR PIs K. Zuberbühler and R. Hahnloser, and other external collaborators M. Krützen (UZH), S. King (Uni Bristol), J. Rychen (ETHZ) and C. Baumgartner (ETHZ). The SIG intends to collaborate with research teams of the Projects Grammar, Diversification, Cooperation and Sociality to a) develop a research program on understanding the relationship between physically coordinated joint action and flexible vocal communication in cetaceans, with comparisons between humans and non-human primates; b) determine what linguistic features are present in cetacean communication systems and compare communication structures with species under similar and different social and ecological pressures; c) develop technological advancements that enable researchers to process large amounts of high-quality acoustic data, collect high-resolution tracking data of wild cetaceans and conduct field-based experiments to test the function of cetacean communication signals in the wild.


The Metaphor SIG is led by NCCR PIs S. Stoll and P. Widmer in close collaboration with S. Narayanan from Google Research. This SIG is interested in the underlying mechanisms that create meaning through metaphors and in processes related to the evolution of metaphors. The researchers will focus on the development of metaphors in phylogeny and the use and understanding of metaphors in human ontogeny. The main research questions in this SIG are: a) How do metaphors evolve and what role do they play for the evolution of language? b) How do children learn about meaning and the use of figurative language? c) Are there precursors to metaphoric usage of meaning units in other species? In addressing these questions, the researchers in this SIG are especially interested in the underlying cognitive mechanisms that make the use of metaphors possible. They will combine cross-linguistic corpus study and analysis with machine learning techniques to arrive at concrete proposals for such mechanisms. The SIG is currently reviewing applications for two externally-funded PhD positions at UZH in collaboration with Google Research in Zurich.

Reading disorders

The Reading disorders SIG is led by NCCR PIs D. Bavelier, S. Brem, P. Zesiger and A-L. Giraud. It aims to characterize the processes that mediate reading acquisition using a comparative approach across languages, whether these dier in transparency or in writing systems across possible phonological and morphological representations. At stake is the understanding of the common mechanisms that facilitate or constrain trajectories of reading acquisition, separately from those properties that may be more idiosyncratic to a given language. This SIG intends to pave the way for our NCCR in Phase 2 to become the leader of an international, cross-linguistic eort around digital interventions, targeting reading acquisition, with or without neuromodulation.

Mechanisms of Vocal Learning in Ovo and Utero

The SIG Mechanisms of Vocal Learning in Ovo and Utero consists of AI Alexis Hervais-Adelman, PIs Simon Townsend and Richard Hahnloser and external collaborator Andras Jakab (U Zurich). This SIG combines interdisciplinary expertise to investigate in ovo and in utero mechanisms that underpin the development of vocal learning capacity in songbirds and humans. Their departure point are theories of language evolution that usually consider only selection pressures after hatching or birth but ignore factors that may affect development prior to that point. More precisely, these dominant theories neglect the potentially crucial role of in ovo or in utero experience, which are likely instrumental in brain development. The SIG’s focus is to elucidate the developing mechanisms of vocal learning and how ultra-precocious exposure to (conspecific) vocal stimuli shapes the neural and genetic foundations of vocal learning.


The SIG Meaning consists of PIs Judith Burkart, Hans-Johann Glock, NCCR researchers Piera Filippi, Stuart Watson and external collaborator Luca Gasparri (CNRS, France). The SIG focuses on the concept of meaning from a cross-species and evolutionary perspective. Although much progress has recently been made in our knowledge of animal vocal and gestural communication, comparative research focusing specifically on the concepts of meaning remains sparse.

Cultures and Action Structures

The SIG Cultures and Action Structures consists of AI Thibaud Gruber and PIs Balthasar Bickel, Anne-Lise Giraud, Martin Meyer and Didier Grandjean. It combines research from comparative and developmental psychology with neuroscience, linguistic and cultural evolution studies to better understand the relevance of social life for the evolution of language. The goal of this SIG is to broaden the discussions on the origin of language but with a particular focus on how structured actions are processed and socially shared. It aims at a holistic approach to the social transmission of hierarchically structured phenomena.