Taming the Devil within Us. Nature, 478, 309-311.(2011).
Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books. Science, 331, 176-182. WebsiteAbstract(2011).
We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of ‘culturomics,’ focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. Culturomics extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.
The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 8893-8999. Website(2010).
Lexical semantics and irregular inflection. Language and Cognitive Processes, 25, 1-51.(2010).
Rationales for indirect speech: The theory of the strategic speaker. Psychological Review, 117(3), 785-807.Abstract(2010).
Speakers often do not state requests directly but employ innuendos such as Would you like to see my etchings? Though such indirectness seems puzzlingly inefficient, it can be explained by a theory of the strategic speaker, who seeks plausible deniability when he or she is uncertain of whether the hearer is cooperative or antagonistic. A paradigm case is bribing a policeman who may be corrupt or honest: A veiled bribe may be accepted by the former and ignored by the latter. Everyday social interactions can have a similar payoff structure (with emotional rather than legal penalties) whenever a request is implicitly forbidden by the relational model holding between speaker and hearer (e.g., bribing an honest maitre d’, where the reciprocity of the bribe clashes with his authority). Even when a hearer’s willingness is known, indirect speech offers higher-order plausible deniability by preempting certainty, gossip, and common knowledge of the request. In supporting experiments, participants judged the intentions and reactions of characters in scenarios that involved fraught requests varying in politeness and directness.
Sequential Processing of Lexical, Grammatical, and Phonological Information Within Broca’s Area. Science, 326, , 326(5951), 445-449. WebsiteAbstract(2009).
Words, grammar, and phonology are linguistically distinct, yet their neural substrates are difficult to distinguish in macroscopic brain regions. We investigated whether they can be separated in time and space at the circuit level using intracranial electrophysiology (ICE), namely by recording local field potentials from populations of neurons using electrodes implanted in language-related brain regions while people read words verbatim or grammatically inflected them (present/past or singular/plural). Neighboring probes within Broca’s area revealed distinct neuronal activity for lexical (~200 milliseconds), grammatical (~320 milliseconds), and phonological (~450 milliseconds) processing, identically for nouns and verbs, in a region activated in the same patients and task in functional magnetic resonance imaging. This suggests that a linguistic processing sequence predicted on computational grounds is implemented in the brain in fine-grained spatiotemporally patterned activity.
Compound formation is constrained by morphology: A reply to Seidenberg, MacDonald, & Haskell. The Mental Lexicon, 3(2), 176-187.Abstract(2008).
Why do compounds containing regular plurals, such as rats-infested, sound so much worse than corresponding compounds containing irregular plurals, such as mice-infested? Berent and Pinker (2007) reported five experiments showing that this theoretically important effect hinges on the morphological structure of the plurals, not their phonological properties, as had been claimed by Haskell, MacDonald, and Seidenberg (2003). In this note we reply to a critique by these authors. We show that the connectionist model they invoke to explain the data has nothing to do with compounding but exploits fortuitous properties of adjectives, and that our experimental results disconfirm explicit predictions the authors had made. We also present new analyses which answer the authors’ methodological objections. We conclude that the interaction of compounding with regularity is a robust effect, unconfounded with phonology or semantics.
The logic of indirect speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(3), 833-838. WebsiteAbstract(2008).
When people speak, they often insinuate their intent indirectly rather than stating it as a bald proposition. Examples include sexual come-ons, veiled threats, polite requests, and concealed bribes. We propose a three-part theory of indirect speech, based on the idea that human communication involves a mixture of cooperation and conflict. First, indirect requests allow for plausible deniability, in which a cooperative listener can accept the request, but an uncooperative one cannot react adversarially to it. This intuition is sup- ported by a game-theoretic model that predicts the costs and benefits to a speaker of direct and indirect requests. Second, language has two functions: to convey information and to negotiate the type of relationship holding between speaker and hearer (in particu- lar, dominance, communality, or reciprocity). The emotional costs of a mismatch in the assumed relationship type can create a need for plausible deniability and, thereby, select for indirectness even when there are no tangible costs. Third, people perceive language as a digital medium, which allows a sentence to generate common knowledge, to propagate a message with high fidelity, and to serve as a reference point in coordination games. This feature makes an indirect request qualitatively different from a direct one even when the speaker and listener can infer each other’s intentions with high confidence.
Dating, Swearing, Sex and Language: A Conversation with Questions between Steven Pinker and Ian McEwan. Areté: The Arts Tri-Quarterly, 24, Winter 2007, 24, 81-100.(2007).
The evolutionary social psychology of off-record indirect speech acts. Intercultural Pragmatics. Intercultural Pragmatics, 4(4), 437–461.Abstract(2007).
This paper proposes a new analysis of indirect speech in the framework of game theory, social psychology, and evolutionary psychology. It builds on the theory of Grice, which tries to ground indirect speech in pure rationality (the demands of e‰cient communication between two cooperating agents) and on the Politeness Theory of Brown and Levinson, who proposed that people cooperate not just in exchanging data but in saving face (both the speaker’s and the hearer’s). I suggest that these theories need to be supple- mented because they assume that people in conversation always cooperate. A reflection on how a pair of talkers may have goals that conflict as well as coincide requires an examination of the game-theoretic logic of plausible denial, both in legal contexts, where people’s words may be held against them, and in everyday life, where the sanctions are social rather than judi- cial. This in turn requires a theory of the distinct kinds of relationships that make up human social life, a consideration of a new role for common knowledge in the use of indirect speech, and ultimately the paradox of ra- tional ignorance, where we choose not to know something relevant to our interests.
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