During every LOT school there is a public lecture in honour of Henk Schultink. The speaker this year is Michael Ramscar. This public lecture will take place on Wednesday June 27, 16.30-17.30 in the Van Swinderenhuys, Oude Boteringestraat 19. The lecture will be followed by a reception. Note that the Wednesday RDGs are scheduled an hour later than normal because of this event.

The discriminative nature of human communication systems
Michael Ramscar (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen)

Linguists often talk about language using words like “encode,” “semantics” and “communicate.” They use these words in the absence of clear formal definitions, the assumption being that these will emerge out of further study. By contrast, information theory has provided precise mathematical definitions for at least some of these terms, albeit within an abstract formal framework that focuses on discriminating the actual message sent in a signal from all of the possible messages that might have been sent.

In this talk, I’ll describe how the precise, if abstract, nature of information theory makes clear predictions about the kind of statistical structures that we should expect to find throughout any communicative code, and show how these exact structures are to be found everywhere in natural languages, even in arcane areas such as personal name grammars and grammatical gender systems (which many linguists consider to be barely communicative at all). I will show how a geometric distribution of name tokens is universal across the world’s major languages, and describe how this gives rise to the communicative functions of personal names. I then will show how the sets of nouns and verbs that English speakers actually encounter in communication also have a geometric distribution, such that they appear to support the same kind of communicative process. Finally I will describe some of the implications the empirical phenomena I identify have for our understanding of human communication and cognition.