The University of Arizona

SISTA Colloquium Details


Monday, April 11, 2011

12:00 – 12:50 p.m.

Gould-Simpson Building, Room 906

Light refreshments in 9th floor atrium area - 11:50 a.m.



Sandiway Fong, Associate Professor
Department of Linguistics and Department of Computer Science

University of Arizona

Title:  On the Generative Capacity of Natural Languages: Human and Non-Human

Abstract:  There has been recent interest on distinguishing the generative capacity required for human language versus language for other animals. There has been a long history of discourse on the generative capacity of human language. For example, results involving center-embedding phenomena and cross-serial dependencies point to the fact that human language is intrinsically non-finite state and non-context-free, respectively. There has been further debate as to whether human language belong to the class of mildly context-sensitive languages.  However, given our inability to properly deconstruct utterance meanings for non-humans, there have been comparatively few results about the generative capacity of animal utterances. Nevertheless, there are observable constraints about the surface structure of non-human utterances.  For example, birdsong has been analyzed as being of finite state capacity. In this talk, we will  analyze the utterances of non-human primates from a formal language perspective. In particular, we will suggest that northern muriquis,  also known as woolly spider monkeys, generate utterances that are  non-context-free: in fact, beyond mildly context-sensitive in nature.


Joint work with Didier Demolin, GIPSA Lab, Grenoble, France.