Does the motor system contribute to the perception and understanding of actions?

LCO 2015 coverReflections on Gregory Hickok’s ‘The myth of mirror neurons: the real neuroscience of communication and cognition’

Blog post written by David Kemmerer based on an article in the latest issue of Language and Cognition

It has been said that mirror neurons are “the most hyped concept in neuroscience” (Jarrett, 2012). In his book The myth of mirror neurons: the real neuroscience of communication and cognition (2014), Gregory Hickok does the field a great service by cutting through this hype and showing that, contrary to the views of many laypeople as well as some experts, mirror neurons are not the fundamental ‘basis’ of action understanding.

In this article I argue, however, that he takes his critique too far by effectively denying that the motor system plays any significant role at all in the perception and interpretation of actions. In fact, a large literature strongly supports the hypothesis that motor regions in the frontal and parietal lobes not only subserve the execution of actions, but also contribute to the comprehension of actions, regardless of whether they are directly observed or linguistically represented.

In addition, recent research suggests that although the articulatory system is involved primarily in speech production, it enhances speech perception too, even when the auditory stimuli are not explicitly attended.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Does the motor system contribute to the perception and understanding of actions?’ here

The truth about transitions: What psycholinguistics can teach us about writing

Blog post written by Yellowlees Douglas author of The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You A Better Writer

The Reader's Brain Journalists, particularly those writing for American audiences, practically have transitions drilled into their heads from their first forays into writing for the public. Where’s your transition? their editors persist, as they linger over each sentence. However, those editors and newsroom sages handed on advice with well-established roots in psycholinguistics—and with particularly striking benefits for the reading public. I explore what linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience can teach us about writing in my forthcoming The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. And using an abundance of transitions is perhaps the simplest advice you can follow to make your writing easy to read, in addition to bolstering your readers’ speed and comprehension of even complex, academic prose.

As a species, we evolved to learn from observing cause and effect—and from making predictions based on those observations. For example, your everyday survival relies on your ability to predict how the driver to your right will behave on entering a roundabout, just as we predict hundreds of events that unfold in our daily lives, all of which dictate our behavior. But we feel relatively minimal cognitive strain from all these predictions, mostly made without any conscious awareness, because we can make predictions based on prior experience. We expect the familiar.

Similarly, in reading, we expect sequential sentences to relate to one another. However, most writers assume that their readers see the ideas represented in one sentence as inherently connected to the preceding sentence. But sentences can become islands of meaning, especially when writers fail to provide explicit linguistic cues that inform readers how one sentence follows another.

Take, for example, your typical university mission statement, the kind invariably featured in American university catalogues and websites:

Teaching—undergraduate and graduate through the doctorate—is the fundamental purpose of the university. Research and scholarship are integral to the education process and to expanding humankind’s understanding of the natural world, the mind and the senses. Service is the university’s obligation to share the benefits of its knowledge for the public good.

Chances are, even if someone offered you the lottery jackpot for recalling this content in a mere half-hour, you’d fail—at least, not without some serious sweat put into rote memoriziation. Why? Despite the mission statement containing a mere three sentences, nothing connects any sentence to the others—aside from the writer’s implicit belief that everyone knows that universities focus on teaching, research, and service. Unfortunately, only an academic would understand that research, teaching, and service form the bedrock of any research university. As a result, we can safely guess that the writer was an academic. Sadly, the actual audience for the mission statement—the family members tendering up their retirement savings or mortgaging the house for tuition—fail to see any connections at all. As studies documented as early as the 1970s, readers read these apparently disconnected sentences more slowly and with greater activity in the parts of the brain dedicated to reading. In addition, readers also show poorer recall of sentences lacking any apparently logical or referential continuity.

Because prediction is the engine that enables readers’ comprehension, transitions play a vital role in enabling us to understand how sentences refer to one another. In fact, certain types of transitions—particularly those flagging causation, time, space, protagonist, and motivation—bind sentences more tightly together. When you use as a result, thus, then, because, or therefore, your reader sees the sentence she’s about to read as causally related to the sentence she’s just read. Moreover, when writers place transitions early in sentences, prior to the verb, readers grasp the relationship before they finish making predictions about how the sentence will play out. These predictions stem from our encounters with tens of thousands of sentences we’ve previously read. But put the transition after the verb, and your readers have already completed the heavy lifting of prediction. Or, worse, they’ve made the wrong predictions and need to reread your sentences again.

You might think that a snippet like too or also or even flies beneath your readers’ radar. Think again. Transitions are your readers’ linguistic lifelines that link sentences and ideas smoothly together, making your reading easy to understand and recall. You can discover more about not only transitions but also of how your readers’ brains work through every facet of your writing—from the words you choose to the cadence of your sentences in The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer.

No, the rise of the emoji doesn’t spell the end for language

Vyv Evans emojisEditor of the journal Language and Cognition and author of several Cambridge books including the forthcoming The Crucible of Language Vyv Evans has been in the news recently discussing the increase in the use of emojis.

In this post for Cambridge Extra Vyv summaries the main themes and also provides links to some great videos and essays.

The emoji has become one of the fastest growing forms of communication in history. But those who are worried that its growth could mean the death of written language are wrong – emojis are being used to enhance, rather than replace words in our digital communications.

An emoji is an iconic, visual representation of an idea, entity, feeling, status or event, that is used alongside or instead of words in digital messaging and social media. You could call them today’s modern hieroglyphics.

Initial results from market research by the company TalkTalk Mobile that used an emoji IQ study that I developed gives us a first glimpse of how the use of emojis are growing. The survey of 2,000 UK residents aged 18-65 found that 80% of Brits are now using these colourful symbols to communicate on a regular basis. And 62% of smartphone users report that their use of emojis has increased from a year ago. The 18 to 25-year-old age group were the biggest users, with 72% of younger people agreeing that they find it easier to express their emotions using emojis.

Is emoji a language?

Irrespective of the medium, what makes something a language boils down to a couple of things. First, there needs to be a wide set of expressions, like words, that can either be pronounced or signed, or represented in some other form, like writing. While English has well over a million words, depending on education and background, an adult English speaker will regularly use somewhere between 30-60,000, and recognise many more. So, even with the 800+ emojis available today, this falls well short of the vocabulary required to express the semantic range of a full-blown language.

Emojis are mainly used to support and enhance the meaning conveyed by text in a digital message. In spoken language, intonation and gesture provide additional information not always readily gleaned in the spoken message. We rely on intonation to both “punctuate” our spoken utterances, and to provide key cues as to what our words mean and whether we’re asking a question or giving an answer.

You can view some great videos and essays  in the links below:


Are emojis the future of communication? Vyv talking about the role of emoji in digital communication–12th June 2015

How to be an emoji master Fun guide to using emoji, based on my research with TalkTalk Mobile–19th May 2015.


“It’s official: The twitter hashtag is now a word”. Psychology Today–15th June 2015.

“Sorry, emoji doesn’t make you dumber”. Psychology Today–8th June 2015

“No, the rise of the emoji doesn’t spell the end for language”. Essay in The Conversation–22nd May 2015

Can emojis really be used to make terror threats? Article in The Guardian, February 2015

We will be joining Vyv at the International Cognitive Linguistics conference this week. If you are attending please come and visit the Cambridge stand to explore our key books and journals in this area.

Machine learning helps computers predict near-synonyms

The article is published in Natural Language Engineering, a journal that meets the needs of professionals and researchers working in all areas of computerised language processing

Choosing the best word or phrase for a given context from among candidate near-synonyms, such as “slim” and “skinny”, is something that human writers, given some experience, do naturally; but for choices with this level of granularity, it can be a difficult selection problem for computers.

Researchers from Macquarie University in Australia have published an article in the journal Natural Language Engineering, investigating whether they could use machine learning to re-predict a particular choice among near-synonyms made by a human author – a task known as the lexical gap problem.

They used a supervised machine learning approach to this problem in which the weights of different features of a document are learned computationally. Through using this approach, the computers were able to predict synonyms with greater accuracy and reduce errors.

The initial approach solidly outperformed some standard baselines, and predictions of synonyms made using a small window around the word outperformed those made using a wider context (such as the whole document).

However, they found that this was not the case uniformly across all types of near-synonyms.  Those that embodied connotational or affective differences — such as “slim” versus “skinny”, with differences in how positively the meaning is presented — behaved quite differently, in a way that suggested that broader features related to the ‘tone’ of the document could be useful, including document sentiment, document author, and a distance metric for weighting the wider lexical context of the gap itself  (For instance, if the chosen near-synonym was negative in sentiment, this might be linked to other expressions of negative sentiment in the document).

The distance weighting was particularly effective, resulting in a 38% decrease in errors, and these models turned out to improve accuracy not just on affective word choice, but on non-affective word choice also.

Read the full article ‘Predicting word choice in affective text’ online in the journal Natural Language Engineering

Can your phone make you laugh?

Funny Texting

Examples of humorous and sometimes awkward autocorrect substitutions happen all the time. Typing ‘funny autocorrect’ into Google brings up page upon page of examples where phones seem to have a mind of their own.

A group of researchers at the University of Helsinki, under the lead of Professor Hannu Toivonen, have been examining word substitution and sentence formation, to see the extent to which they can implement a completely automatic form of humour generation. The results have been published online in the in the journal Natural Language Engineering.

Basing the experiment on the ideas and methods of computational humour explored by Alessandro Valitutti for several years, the researchers worked with short length text messages changing one word to another one, turning the text to a pun, possibly using a taboo word. By isolating and manipulating the main components of such pun-based texts, they were able to generate humorous texts in a more controllable way.

For example, it was proved that replacing a word at the end of the sentence surprised recipients, contributing to the humorous effect. They also proved that word replacement is funnier if the word is phonetically similar to the original word and when the word is a “humorously inappropriate” taboo word.

The experiment involved over 70,000 assessments in total, and used crowd sourcing to test funniness of the texts. This is the largest experiment that Professor Toivonen knows of related to this field of research.

How funny?

People were asked to assess individual messages for their funniness on a scale of 0 to 4 with 0 indicating the text wasn’t funny. And comedians can sigh with relief – the initial median score from the research was just 0.55, indicating that on average the text can hardly be called funny. But by following a combination of rules, this median increased by 67% showing that by inserting certain criteria could impact upon how funny the text message was.

Does this mean that in the future people will ‘rofl’ (roll on the floor laughing) in response to a funny quip or witty banter made by a phone?

Professor Toivonen sees a future where programs will be able to generate humorous automated responses and sentences:

“Some of the first applications of this type of research are likely to be seen in the automated production of funny marketing messages and help with creative writing. But who knows, maybe phones will one day be intelligent enough to make you laugh.”

Read the article ‘Computational generation and dissection of lexical replacement humor’ online in the journal Natural Language Engineering– please note that the article contains language that some may find offensive.

5 of the funniest texts*

Message Original Word Replacement word
Okie, pee ya later see pee
How come u r back so fart? fast fart
Now u makin me more curious…smell me pls… Tell smell
Dunno…My mum is kill bathing. still kill
No choice have to eat her treat eat

*There were funnier texts but due to offensive language we were not able to publish them on this blog

He drug the box to the door before he snuck into the room…or he dragged the box to the door before he sneaked into the room?

ENG 2015Post written by Camilla Søballe Horslund based on an article in English Today 

What is the past tense form of the verb to sneak? Some say snuck and others say sneaked. According to dictionaries, sneaked is the more formal form. Likewise the past tense form of the verb to drag varies between the forms drug and dragged, but while snuck is considered acceptable in informal speech, drug is described as non-standard and is generally not accepted by people with high socio-economic status. Despite the apparent similarity with former forms like holp and clomb, snuck and drug are newer than their regular counterparts sneaked and dragged. In fact, sneak and drag were originally regular verbs with the past tense forms sneaked and dragged but have recently developed the irregular past tense forms snuck and drug. Interestingly, this is a development in the reverse direction from the typical trend of irregular (strong) verbs turning regular (weak), as for instance in the cases of holp/helped and clomb/climbed.

This study investigates the historical development of the neologisms snuck and drug in American English as well as their current distribution across both spoken and written registers in British and American English with data from the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the British National Corpus (BNC).

Snuck and drug are first attested in American English in the 1880s, but while the occurrences of snuck increase over time, reaching a proportion of 48% of the past tense forms of the verb to sneak in present day English, drug remains a minority form over time only taking up a mere 1% of the past tense forms of the verb to drag in present day English, and there is no evidence that the form is becoming common. Both irregular past tense forms are more frequent in American English than in British English; no occurrences of drug are attested in the BNC.  With respect to register, the irregular form of both verbs is most common in the spoken register for both American and British English and least common in the academic and newspaper registers.

Explore the full article ‘How snuck sneaked into English and drug is still dragging behind: A corpus study on the usage of new past tense forms for sneak and drag in British and American English’ here

The Language of Organizational Styling

The Language of Organizational StylingPost written by author Lionel Wee discussing his recently published book The Language of Organizational Styling

Organizations are interesting because of the promise and problems they represent. They have promise because they allow individuals to pool their resources and scale up their activities, thus making it possible to achieve things at a supra-individual level. In fact, one might say that this is the very reason why organizations exist at all. At the same time, there is great irony in the fact that, having been created, many organizations then go on to acquire an existence and independence beyond the goals and wishes of their founders. Especially when constituted as virtual persons, organizations can make claims and exert rights that sometimes come into conflict with those of individuals.

One might say, with perhaps only slight exaggeration, that organizations are a form of artificial intelligence – created by us but then coming to have priorities and values that are not always within our control. And just like their better-known computational counterparts, organizations, too, are often portrayed in dystopian terms. Especially in popular media, big businesses are ideologically characterized as faceless, anonymous and profit-seeking entities that undermine the authentic nature of life in small towns and neighborhoods by eroding their individuality and rendering them homogeneous. Scholarly analyses are of course more nuanced, but even here, while organizations have figured prominently as direct objects of study in sociology and business studies, they have been somewhat neglected in sociolinguistics. Organizations usually come into play as part of the backdrop against which the activities of individuals or communities are constrained or enabled; they are rarely the actual focus.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, however, organizations are fascinating because – just like individual speakers – they are entities that employ various semiotic resources, in particular, linguistic resources in order to project specific kinds of identities, cultivate certain kinds of relationships with other organizations, and foster ties with the various communities. But precisely because organizations are entities sui generis, their communiqués and other linguistic activities cannot be reduced to those of the individuals who populate them without at the same time raising a number of conceptual problems. This is because the organization in principle exists above and beyond the intentions and activities of any single individual, however powerful or senior that person might be. And this raises the rather interesting question of how organizations might be best studied.

This is where the sociolinguistic notion of style proves useful, in my view. The analytical beauty of a style-theoretic framework is that it raises issues of strategy, agency and choice as being in need of more careful attention. Speakers make stylistic choices, though not always freely, which means that they have to be mindful of the social and political consequences of these choices. But curiously, the stylistic practices of organizations have not been subjected to any in-depth sociolinguistic analysis and theorizing, even though the extrapolation of style from speaker activity to organizational activity seems a natural one to make. And once this extension is seriously contemplated, we can start asking questions such as the following: Do organizations engage in styling the other? What might prompt an organization to attempt to re-style itself, and what kinds of linguistic maneuvers are involved? Given that big businesses are often seen as anathema to the preservation of a community’s identity, how do big businesses then attempt to overcome this ideological bias? How does talking about organizational styling differ from talking about branding or corporate communications? And perhaps most fundamental of all, does the application of the notion of style to organizational activity require us to revisit and re-evaluate any of our current assumptions about the nature of style (since the predominant tendency is to think of style in connection with people rather than organizations)?

The sociolinguistic study of organizations is relatively new but important, given how ubiquitous organizations are in our lives. Many of us work in organizations; we have our lives regulated by organizations; and more than a few of us join (religious, political, grassroots) organizations because we feel that the goals they pursue can give meanings to our lives.

Find out more on Lionel Wee’s new book ‘The Language of Organizational Styling’ published by Cambridge University Press.

The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy

The Rise of Writing, Deborah BrandtPost written by author Deborah Brandt discussing her recently published book The Rise of Writing 

The belief that writing ability is a subsidiary of reading ability runs deep in society and schooling. You can only write as well as you can read. The best way to learn how to write is to read, read, and read some more. Commonplaces like these are easy to find in the advice of teachers and often well-known authors as well. Reading is considered the fundamental skill, the prior skill, the formative skill, the gateway to writing. At minimum, reading is thought to teach the techniques of textuality, the vocabulary, diction, spelling, punctuation, and syntax that any aspiring writer must master. Even more profound, reading is thought to shape character and intellect and provide the wisdom and worldliness that make one worthy to write. In every way reading is treated as the well from which writing springs. We need only try to reverse the commonplace advice to appreciate the superior position that reading holds. How many would readily agree that you can only read as well as you can write? Or that the best way to learn how to read is to write, write, and write some more? Writing has never attained the same formative and morally wholesome status as reading. Indeed, writing unmoored from the instructiveness of reading is often considered solipsistic and socially dangerous.

But in the wider society and over the last fifty years or more, writing has ascended as the main basis of many people’s daily literacy experiences and the main platform for their literacy development. Millions of working adults now spend four hours or more each day (sometimes, a lot more) with their hands on keyboards and their minds on audiences, writing so much, in fact, that they have little time or appetite for reading. In the so-called information economy writing has become a dominant form of labor and production. As a result, writing is eclipsing reading as the literate experience of consequence.   Spurred on especially by digital technologies, writing is crowding out reading and subordinating reading to its needs. The rise of writing over reading represents a new chapter—and a new challenge– in the history of mass literacy, a challenge especially for the school, which from its founding has been much more organized around a reading literacy, around a presumption that readers would be many and writers would be few.

But now writers are becoming many. What are some of the changes that we need to pay attention to? Increasingly, people read from inside acts of writing, as they respond to others; research, edit or review other people’s writing; or search for styles or approaches to use in their own writing.  “Reading to write” in school has usually meant using reading to stimulate ideas or generate content, but in the wider world reading to write actually stands for a broader, more diverse, more diffused, more sustained and more comprehensive set of practices. Increasingly, how and why we write conditions how and why we read. Relatedly, we write among other people who also write. Learning to write along with other people who write (rather than from authors who address us abstractly) is a new aspect of mass literacy development. Audiences are made up not merely (or mostly) of receptive readers but also responsive writers; increasingly people write to catalyze or anticipate other people’s writing and people read with the aim of writing back.

Further, in an information society, writing is consequential. The kind of writing done by everyday people turns the wheels of finance, law, health care, government, commerce. As the power and consequence of writing courses through the consciousness of everyday people, their acts of writing are often sites of intellectual, moral, and civic reflection- but not necessarily in the same ways as acts of reading. Reading is an internalizing process. That is why the effects of literacy have been sought mostly on the inside: in the formation of character or the quality of inner life or intellectual growth.  But writing is a relentlessly externalizing process. Because writing unleashes language into the world, it engages people’s sense of power and responsibility.  It can be expected to bring more wear and tear, potentially more trouble. Writing risks social exposure, blame, even, in some cases, retaliation. It requires a level of courage and ethical conviction rarely cultivated in school-based literacy and rarely measured in standard assessments of writing ability.

We are at a critical crossroad in the history of mass literacy in which relationships between writing and reading are undergoing profound change. Writing is overtaking reading as the skill of critical consequence. Until only recently writing was a minor strain in the history of mass literacy, playing second fiddle to reading. But it is surging into prominence, bringing with it a cultural history, a set of cognitive dispositions, and a developmental arc that stand in contrast to reading. As an educational community, we have been slow to incorporate these shifting relationships into the questions we ask and the perspectives that we take. That writing remains so under-studied and under-articulated in comparison to reading is perhaps our greatest challenge.

To find out more about Deborah Brandt’s new book published by Cambridge University Press please click here

The dangling participle – a language myth?

ENG-Leiden-imageArticle written by Carmen Ebner based on an article in the latest issue of English Today

In our research project Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public at Leiden University we would like to encourage a critical discussion of so-called usage problems between the three involved groups. What constitutes a usage problem, however, is not always an question with an easy and straightforward answer.

In my English Today feature I am discussing the dangling participle, which is often said to cause ambiguity and misunderstandings due to the lack of a suitable subject in the participle clause. I have conducted an online questionnaire which includes an example of the dangling participle. The results of this survey show that the acceptability of using the dangling participle has increased in comparison to an earlier study conducted by W.H. Mittins and his colleagues at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the late 1960s. By discussing a few of responses my informants in detail, I am trying to highlight the role context plays in deciding on the acceptability of the dangling participle.

What do you think? Do you think context can make up for the lack of a suitable subject? Or do you condemn the dangler openly and strongly? Find out more about the dangling participle in my feature. To join the discussion, visit our blog and fill in the online questionnaire.

Read the full article ‘The dangling participle – a language myth?’ here

Read more about the collaboration between English Today and Bridging the Unbridgeable here