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Inttranews Special Report: Andrew Wedel, assistant professor of linguistics, University of Arizona

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One of the most fascinating - and enduring - questions in linguistics is how language gets its structure: is this structure genetically determined, and innate, or does emerge over time under the influence of physical and social constraints on its use? The issue is not just an academic one: it has ramifications in fields as seemingly wide apart as primatology and artificial intelligence.
A new and potentially revolutionary area of research in this area is based on the idea that like many kinds of complex systems, language is fractal, i.e. its overall structure evolves from repeated small-scale interactions between its smaller elements, a phenomenon known as "self-organisation".
To find out more, Inttranews contacted Andrew Wedel, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

1. How did the concept of self-organisation come about?

Our understanding of the world has benefited greatly from the reductionist strategy that models systems as the simple sum of their parts, but it has long been recognized that under some circumstances, the parts may interact in complex ways that simple reductionism cannot illuminate. For example, ripples a streambed arise when flowing water causes sand grains to bump against one another. The little piles of sand change the way the water flows, which changes the way the sand grains move, and so on. The interesting point here is that one cannot easily pinpoint causes for the specific ripples that develop, because causation is diffusely distributed over the countless tiny interactions between the elements of the system. Furthermore, because of the feedback loops involved, imperceptibly tiny differences in the starting state can have enormous consequences in the development of the system, making it essentially impossible to predict in any specific way how the ripples will form, just by looking at the sand grains at the start.
Research on systems like this indicate that there are only a few necessary ingredients for self-organisation-driven emergence of structure:
1) Distinct system elements that interact with one another in different ways.
2) Negative and positive feedback loops which accentuate or suppress differences.
3) Local structure that persists over cycles of interaction between elements.

This is a very general set of requirements, and as a consequence, it is likely that self-organisation is not rare, but is rather a ubiquitous source of structure in the universe. Language, in particular, is rich in the kinds of interaction that support self-organisation, so it makes sense to ask what aspects of language structure may be emergent.

2. When was the idea first developed?

The concept in its modern form seems to have taken shape over time from the 1940’s through the 1970’s. Concise reviews of the idea and its history can be found under the headings of ‘self-organization’ and ‘emergence’ in Wikipedia. It is of course still a topic of very intense research.

3. Could you briefly describe your experiment in computer simulation of speech development?

To start with, each of two computers are given a set of randomized sound-meaning categories, i.e, words. In each round, one of the computers says all of its words to the other computer, which tries to match the sound with one of its own word-categories. If a computer recognizes a word, it is stored in memory and may influence that computer’s future pronunciation of that word. This results in a positive feedback loop between perception and pronunciation. The computers also have a tendency, like people, to mumble, which in the context of the feedback loop puts pressure on the words to become more and more alike over time.
Here’s the crux of the experiment: If I allow the speaking computer to ‘point’ at the meaning it wants to express, the listening computer doesn’t have to pay attention to the sound of the word in order to recognize it, and it turns out that eventually all their words devolve into homophony. This sort of makes sense – if the meaning is always clear from pointing, who needs different-sounding words? However, if the computers have to pay attention to the sounds in order to recognize words, the words get as simple as they can without ever becoming the same. Crucially, this tendency to retain contrastive words in the program is dependent on the simple statistics of categorization behavior over time, not on any built-in contrast-supporting mechanism.

5. Does your research indicate language is innate, or acquired?

It is my considered opinion that making such a black-and-white distinction obscures more than it reveals. Given that every feature of behavior relies in some way on a mapping over time from genotype to phenotype in the context of an environment, nothing is ever entirely one or the other (see Barbara Scholz, Nature 415: 739 for brief discussion of this issue). What I have shown is that a linguistic system of contrastive sounds does not have to be directly specified in the genes, but can rather be an emergent consequence of more basic, innate categorization processes interacting with communicative behavior.

6. What are the implications of your research?

The dominant, ‘universal grammar’ model of linguistics holds that much of the structure of language is defined by a highly specified ‘instinct’ for language. My work, and that of many others (see the that of e.g., Juliette Blevins, Bart de Boer, Joan Bybee, Jeffrey Elman, James Hurford, Simon Kirby, Bjorn Lindblom, Pierre-Ives Oudeyer, Janet Pierrehumbert, Luc Steels and many more), suggests instead that many recurring features of language structure may emerge from the interaction of more basic cognitive behaviors with each other and with the external environment over generations of language use and transmission. This recognition has opened up a vast, exciting new research frontier.

7. Noam Chomsky put forward his theories at same time as the computer age began. Is the concept of self-organization part of a move towards New Age principles?

We have always had a tendency to characterize things we do not understand in mystical terms, so it makes sense that some people would like to see ‘self-organization’ in this way. However, it is important to remember that the same, garden-variety laws of cause and effect are still operative in self-organization-driven emergence of structure. What is different is our ability to clearly identify the causal chain leading from one state to another. Two factors can make this difficult in self-organizing systems: 1) the fact that causality is widely distributed among many different elements, as well as being distributed over time; 2) the fact that feedback loops can amplify initial differences that are too small for us to identify. These together can make the development of structure seem ‘magical’, but in fact it is not.

Please indicate below any reviews, references or links you would like us to cite:

Good, introductory texts of varying length:
‘Self-organization’ and ‘Emergence’ in Wikipedia (
Rauch, J. 2002. Seeing around corners. Atlantic Monthly, April 2002.
Kaufmann, S. A. 1995. At home in the universe: The search for the laws of self-organization and complexity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

A more detailed explanation of the work described in this interview can be found at:

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