Distributional Linguistics Lab

The Distributional Linguistics Lab is lead by Balthasar Bickel and seeks to uncover What’s Where Why in Human Language. Our work is distributed over several projects (see the current list in the sidebar on the left) that each combine research along two interacting avenues:

  1. Diachronic Dynamics: modeling language and trait evolution so we can disentangle random processes, event-based (e.g. contact-induced) processes, and functional pressures

  2. Mechanistic Constraints: identify (neuro-)biological and social/cultural mechanisms that cause the diachronic dynamics we see

In each project we seek to develop mechanistically explicit causal models with good predictive performance. We emphasize two needs for establishing mechanisms:

  • they need to be established through cross-linguistic research. The challenge is that there is no guarantee for any mechanism to be globally stable. Languages can shape brains as much as the brain can shape languages.

  • they need to be grounded in an understanding of human evolution, both biological and cultural. The challenge is that what has evolved is a highly dynamic system that is variably transmitted over time and space, not a fixed and immutable system.

We employ quantitative methods (mostly Bayesian) to model language and trait evolution and experimental methods (mostly EEG and eye-tracking but also artificial language learning) to probe mechanistic constraints. We rely extensively on data gathered in fieldwork worldwide and integrated into high-resolution typological databases.

Within the department our lab collaborates with the Indo-European and Southeast Asia groups on phylogenetic, phylogeographical, and areal research questions. With the Language Development Lab we cooperate on constraints rooted in learning mechanisms and learnability requirements. With the Comparative Communication and Communication group we work on the evolutionary basis of constraints.

  • If you are interested in joining the lab, please send a message to Balthasar Bickel. Current job openings are listed on the department’s job offer page
  • If you are interested in pursuing a Master’s degree project, please check out our OLAT page