What we do

The Cultural Evolution of Language Lab is a research group and laboratory in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. It is directed by Gareth Roberts.

We conduct experimental research on the cultural evolution of language. Experiments we run often involve “laboratory languages”. That is, they often involve participants learning miniature artificial languages and using them to communicate with each other; alternatively, they involve participants constructing novel communication systems from scratch. This approach is sometimes referred to as Experimental Semiotics. In some cases, no communication is involved per se, and we simply focus on the process of learning. One of the focuses of our research at Penn, with its long and distinguished history of innovative research on language variation, is on the role of social factors in cultural evolution. But our research is not wholly restricted to this, or even to laboratory language experiments; some current project areas are listed below. On the left is a list of current lab members.

  • The organization of phonological spaces (with Robin Clark and Jianjing Kuang; NSF-funded!)
  • The interpretation of unexpected redundancy (with Inthat Boonpongmanee and Sophie Faircloth)
  • Interaction, indexicality and change in a computer game (with Betsy Sneller)
  • Drift and selection in regularization and lexical replacement (with Rafael Ventura)
  • Labels and categorization (with Aja Altenhof)
  • Polysemy, synonymy, and connotation (with Aja Altenhof)
  • Variation in attitudes to Welsh mutation (with Yosiane White)
  • Basic properties of signaling (with Greg Mills and Madeleine McGrath)
  • The emergence of indexicality (with Aini Li)