Colloquium talk at CUNY Graduate Center

March 23rd Colloquium at CUNY Graduate Center

Title: Selection dynamics as grammar-enabling neural computation: evidence from phonological alternations, social accommodation, and leaky prosody

 Abstract:  Spoken language, although often characterized as structured configurations of discrete linguistic units, has a continuous substrate in the brain and in the speech signal. Formal linguistic theories and the language descriptions on which they are built often fruitfully abstract away from these continuous dimensions. However, there are also linguistic phenomena which fall outside of the scope of purely discrete theories, indicating that a complete account requires integrating discrete and continuous aspects of linguistic cognition. In this talk, I’ll argue that the discrete appearance of linguistic units follows from non-linear dynamics of the neural substrate. In this vein, I’ll illustrate the concept of selection dynamics. Using Dynamic Field Theory (DFT) (e.g., Schöner & Spencer, 2016) as a framework, I’ll illustrate how discrete behavior, i.e., selecting one category over another, can emerge from a continuous neural field representing a phonologically relevant dimension. I’ll then show that a specific implementation of selection dynamics in DFT can derive both categorical alternations–the bread and butter of discrete formal theories of phonology–as well as phenomena that require integration of continuous dimensions, including socially-mediated phonetic convergence/divergence (joint work with Irene Yi and Claire Bowern) and leaky prosody (Tang & Shaw, 2021; Shaw & Tang, 2023).


Schöner, G., & Spencer, J. P. (2016). Dynamic thinking: A primer on dynamic field theory: Oxford University Press.

Tang, K., & Shaw, J. A. (2021). Prosody leaks into the memories of words. Cognition, 210, 104601.

Shaw, J. A., & Tang, K. (2023). A dynamic neural field model of leaky prosody: proof of concept.