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SFB 1287: Limits of Variability in Language

Foto: Jan Ries

The language faculty forms part of the cognitive system, and thus the use of language is constrained by the cognitive limitations of the individual language user. At the same time, language is a tool for interaction and communication, and must provide flexible but efficient mechanisms which enable the language users to achieve communicative success with a variety of interlocutors. The linguistic system must therefore exhibit a high degree of variability at all levels of linguistic description. We define this variability as a range of different possible linguistic behaviours that are available to an individual language user, a group of language users, or in specific languages. The variability is limited by the constraints of the underlying linguistic system and shaped by cognitive and social or communicative factors. Limits of variability can be observed when a linguistic behaviour is relatively consistent, that is, resistant to influences of cognitive factors or communicative situations, conventions, and change, and/or when it shows relative consistency across and within languages, groups of language users, and individuals. To identify the more or less stable constraints and the design features of the underlying linguistic system, this CRC explores the systematicity and the limits of variability in linguistic behaviours across different subtypes of variability.

We have shown that variability is not just reducible to random noise but provides an important source of information to explain and predict linguistic behaviour. Furthermore, we have found that variability in the input can be a necessary precondition for the establishment of abstract mental representations. At the same time, we have found instances of “hidden variability”, that is, consistency at the surface that arises from different sources in different languages. By modelling the factors influencing linguistic behaviours, projects in the CRC are contributing to a better understanding of the underlying mental representations and processing architectures in individual language users, as well as of the grammatical options available in languages and in specific varieties of languages, and options shared by particular subgroups of languages users. The application of neuro-computational models provides systematic theoretical explanations for variability and consistency in the linguistic behaviour of human language users, also from machine learning perspectives. We are working jointly on several linguistic phenomena, from various perspectives, in a broad range of populations, and in different language families, to uncover the dual nature of language as part of the constrained cognitive system and as a flexible tool for interaction and communication to advance linguistic, psycho-/neurolinguistic, as well as computational and neural network models of the linguistic system at large.


Participating Institutions:

Faculty of Arts, German Dept., University of Potsdam www.uni-potsdam.de/germanistik/

Human Sciences Faculty, Cognitive Sciences, Dept. Linguistics, University of Potsdam www.ling.uni-potsdam.de/

Human Sciences Faculty, Cognitive Sciences, Dept. Psychology, University of Potsdam www.psych.uni-potsdam.de/

Human Sciences Faculty, Cognitive Sciences, Potsdam Research Institute for Multilingualism, University of Potsdam www.uni-potsdam.de/prim/

Faculty of Philology, Dept. German Studies, Ruhr-Universität Bochum www.germanistik.blogs.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/


Contact: SFB1287@uni-potsdam.de

More information: https://www.sfb1287.uni-potsdam.de/

Foto: Jan Ries