The Birmingham Lectures

The Department of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham is happy to host the Birmingham Lectures, a lecture series that will bring well known researchers from around the world together to discuss a range of important topics in modern linguistics in a public forum online.

Language Structure and Language Use

In this series, we will explore the connection between language structure and language use. The series will take place on Tuesdays from 16:30-18:00 GMT starting 9 February 2021. A list of speakers and dates can be found below, with further details to follow.

Tuesday 9 February

Information processing explains cross-linguistic universals, Ted Gibson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Ted Gibson talk details

Finding explanations for patterns that characterize all human languages is a primary goal of linguistics, and promises to shed light on the nature of human cognition. One particularly attractive set of explanations is functional in nature, holding that language universals are inevitable consequences of the known properties of human information processing. The idea is that lexicons and grammars of languages have evolved so as to enable language users to communicate efficiently, using words and sentences that are relatively easy to produce and understand. In this talk, I summarize results from a body of work exploring the nature of words and sentence structures from an information-processing perspective. First, in the lexical domain, I show that word lengths are optimized on average according to predictability in context (more predictable words are shorter), as would be expected under an information-theoretic analysis. I then apply a related analysis to the language for color words and show that new words emerge in a culture when they can convey useful meaning distinctions. Then, in the domain of syntax, I show that all the world’s languages that we can currently analyze minimize syntactic dependency lengths to some degree, as would be expected based on information processing considerations (longer dependencies are harder to process). And finally, I examine a phenomenon which has long been provided within Chomsky’s generative tradition as evidence of a purely form-based component to language: so called syntactic “islands”. These “islands” have been argued to be unlearnable, part of universal grammar. However, building on earlier functionalist accounts, I will show that frequency and meaning-related properties of these structures can in some cases explain their unacceptability. We conjecture that this may generalize to all such cases. Overall, my lab’s research shows the core role of both usage frequency and meaning in understanding the nature of human language structure.

This talk is now viewable on YouTube, accessible here.

Tuesday 16 February

The usage-based constructionist approach: where lexical semantics meets grammar, Adele Goldberg, Princeton University


Adele Goldberg talk details

As language users, our goals are simple. We want to understand messages on the basis the formal patterns we witness, and we aim to produce patterns that successfully convey our intended messages while following the conventions of our language community as best we can. From these twin goals, it follows that we must learn the ways in which formal patterns and their functions are conventionally paired in the language(s) we speak or sign; that is, we must learn the constructions of our languages, which are defined as learned pairings of form and function. Constructions vary in their internal complexity and abstractness and include words, partially filled words (aka morphemes) and grammatical constructions. Our constructicon consists of an incredibly rich and complex high-dimensional tapestry of generalizations and subregularities, as well as nuanced and detailed information. An ideal way to understand the usage-based constructionist approach is to appreciate the richness and complexity involved in lexical semantics, so this is where we will begin.

This talk can also be seen on YouTube, accessible here

Tuesday 23 February

Grammar in Language Use: A Minimalist View, David Adger, Queen Mary University of London


David Adger talk details

Language use is a behaviour like walking or knitting a hat. Like walking it has biological underpinnings and is uniform across all human cultures for those individuals physiologically able to engage in it; like knitting a hat, it requires a great deal of cultural input before we are able to do it.  Grammar is clearly deeply implicated in language use, but grammar is not a behaviour. So what is it?

In the first part of the lecture I lay out a number of perspectives on what grammar is,  contrasting a minimalist with a maximalist perspective (Langacker 1987), but also contrasting the idea that grammar is a cognitive versus a cultural object. I try to draw out the commonalities rather than the differences. 

In the second part of the lecture, I develop in more detail the minimalist perspective on what grammar is, and how it is integrated with language use. I draw on recent work by myself and colleagues on putative universal features of grammar, and sketch out a way of thinking about their universality, and about how they are put to use in behaviour.  

This talk is now viewable on YouTube, accessible here

Tuesday 2 March 

What can be learned from usage, Dagmar Divjak, University of Birmingham

Dagmar Divjak talk details

Usage-based linguistics is predicated upon the premise that languages are dynamic systems shaped by usage in a process that is mediated by general cognitive abilities and functional considerations. The general cognitive abilities that have received most attention to date are classification, abstraction and imagination (metaphor, metonymy). Processes or functions that would enable ‘growing’ a system from use have, however, been conspicuously absent from usage-based considerations. In fact, learning constitutes our very own “elephant in the room”. Learning was exiled vigorously from the linguistic landscape by Chomsky’s (1959) criticism of Skinner (1957) and although recent years have seen a resurgence in the interest in learning, it is still to make a full comeback onto the linguistic scene.

Together with the Out of our Minds team I am doing work to redress the balance. In my talk I will present some of the work we are doing on aspects of (nominal and verbal) morphology that factor learning in by using computational techniques that implement principles of learning. I will argue that allowing what can be learned from input constrain the units and generalizations that linguistic theory allows is one way of honoring the cognitive commitment by which cognitive linguists are bound. Ultimately, such an approach provides valuable insights into the kinds of generalizations or abstractions that can lay claim to cognitive plausibility and may ultimately alter the way in which we think about language.

This talk is now viewable on YouTube here

Tuesday 9 March 

Explaining diverse language structures from convergent evolution of linguistic conventions, Martin Haspelmath, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Martin Haspelmath talk details

Linguists often say that language structures can be analyzed or understood “functionally”, but it remains unclear what this means unless we adopt an evolutionary perspective. Just as we observe similar structures in different biological lineages for well-understood reasons, languages of different families are often found to be similar, and the reasons are the same: Languages are under selection pressure to adapt to their functions. While the most popular approaches in linguistics are “cognitive” (and some even deny the relevance of language use or communication), I argue here that linguistic diversity is best understood by treating languages as systems of social (or cultural) conventions. Language change is thus merely one aspect of the evolution of cultural patterns, and both its adaptiveness and its widespread randomness have parallels in other evolutionary processes. In this talk, I will emphasize the degree to which linguists of different communities actually agree on the basic points, and I make the optimistic suggestion that if we make an effort to be clearer about our basic terms and concepts, we may actually get closer to a unification of our field.

Each session will consist of including a 45 minute presentation from the speaker followed by an extended discussion period, led by a panel of linguists from our department as well as the other speakers from the series. Questions will also be encouraged from the audience.

To access the series via Zoom please register for each session you would like to attend using the links above. Closed captioning and BSL interpretation will be provided within the Zoom platform. In addition, the series will be live streamed on Youtube, where an archive of the lectures will also be held. More information to follow.

 If you have any questions please contact Jack Grieve at