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Syntax project

What was the evolutionary transition that enabled compositional abilities to be recruited for vocal (and gestural) communication? Communicative expression relies on fundamentally temporal processes where several neuro-computational timescales interact with each other during the setting and the linearisation of hierarchical depth. In the Syntax project, we focus on how meaning is regimented into syntactic form for communication.

This requires close attention to how syntactic form varies in humans, and possibly also in animal call combinations. Indeed, full characterization of the within-species dynamics at the phenotype level is a prerequisite for modeling the biological evolution of syntactic expression capabilities. We address these issues in three work packages that focus on specific aspects of syntax : WP Events, Hierarchy and Locality.

WP Events

In WP Events, we follow up on our hypothesis that the key evolutionary transition is more in expressive than conceptual abilities, focusing specifically on the difference between simple (“intransitive”) events with a single participant and complex (“transitive”) events with more than one participant. 

Event Cognition Task
PIs: Bickel, Daum, Zuberbühler; Collaborating PIs: Giraud, Stoll, Townsend
Transitivity Task
PIs: Bickel, Mansfield, Stoll; Collaborating PI: Zuberbühler

WP Hierarchy

WP Hierarchy takes a neuroscience perspective to ask how hierarchical structure is deployed in language and how this deployment has evolved in the hominin lineage.

Hierarchy Computation Task
PIs: Henderson, Garner; Collaborating PIs: Giraud, Bickel, Sennrich, Kazanina; Senior Researcher: Olasagasti

Hierarchy Implementation Task
PIs: Meyer, Giraud, Bickel Kazanina; Collaborating PIs: Hervais-Adelman; Senior Researcher: Olasagasti

Hominin Planning Task
PIs: Migliano, Meyer, NN Paleoanthropology; Collaborating PIs: NN FunGenetics, NN PopGenetics

WP Locality

When hierarchical meaning dependencies are linearized, this often necessitates the separation of meaningful units (for example, the modifier “interesting” separates the object “book” from its verb in “read interesting books”). The WP Locality probes the mechanisms that drive the balance between local vs. nonlocal dependencies in linguistic evolution and assesses the extent to which non-local dependencies might have precursors in primate call combinations.

Locality Dynamics Task
PIs: Bickel, Stoll, Sennrich; Collaborating PIs: Mansfield, Stadler, Furrer

Locality Processing Task
PIs: Golestani, Meyer; Collaborating PIs: Bickel, Giroud, Kazanina

Call Locality Task
PIs: Burkart, Townsend; Collaborating PIs: Bickel, Zuberbühler, Kazanina