Gareth Roberts

Assistant Professor

PhD, University of Edinburgh

Office Location: 
611 Williams Hall, 255 South 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104
Research Interests: 

Language evolution, language change, language variation, cultural evolution, experimental semiotics, social interaction

Specific Research Areas:

I mainly conduct experimental research on language change. This typically involves having groups of participants playing games in which they communicate using artificial languages or construct novel communication systems jointly.

Research Synopsis:

My background is in the evolution of language, but I am particularly interested in applying innovative experimental methods developed in that field to understanding change and variation in modern language. In past research, for example, I have used these methods to investigate new-dialect formation and the emergence of combinatorial structure in novel languages. Recently completed or current projects focus on the influence of social bias (and other aspects of population structure) on trends towards efficiency in language change (with Masha Fedzechkina, University of Arizona), on the role of sociolinguistic factors in the spread of linguistic variants (with Betsy Sneller), on the organization of vowel spaces (with Robin Clark), on focus and redundancy in communication (with Jon Stevens, The Ohio State University), on language shift (with Heather Neifert), on the emergence and spread of slang and euphemisms (with Taylor Jones), on language contact (with Duna Gylfadottir), and on basic properties of communicative signaling (with Greg Mills, University of Groningen). Not all my research involves novel languages. In a project with Bruno Galantucci (Yeshiva University) on sensitivity to incoherence in conversation, participants communicated freely in English, and I have conducted research with Christine Caldwell (University of Stirling)on the cultural evolution of non-linguistic behavior. I am also the founder and organizer of the Penn Social and Cultural Evolution Working Group. As this suggests, I am very open indeed to working with non-linguists and making connections with research on non-linguistic phenomena.

Selected Publications: 

A full list of publications is available here.

  • Roberts, G., Lewandowski, J., and Galantucci, B. (2015) How communication changes when we cannot mime the world: Experimental evidence for the effect of iconicity on combinatoriality. Cognition 141: 52–66.
  • Galantucci, B. and Roberts, G. (2014) Do we notice when communication goes awry? An investigation of people’s sensitivity to coherence in spontaneous conversation. PLoS ONE 9(7): e103182.
  • Roberts, G. (2013) Perspectives on language as a source of social markers. Language and Linguistics Compass 7(12): 619–632.
  • Roberts, G. and Galantucci, B. (2012) The emergence of duality of patterning: Insights from the laboratory. Language and Cognition 4(4): 297–318.
  • Matthews, C., Roberts, G., and Caldwell, C. (2012) Opportunity to assimilate and pressure to discriminate can generate cultural divergence in the laboratory. Evolution and Human Behavior 33(6): 759–770.
  • Galantucci, B., Garrod, S. and Roberts, G. (2012) Experimental Semiotics. Language and Linguistics Compass 6(8): 477–493.
  • Roberts, G. (2010) An experimental study of social selection and frequency of interaction in linguistic diversity. Interaction Studies 11(1): 138–59.
Courses Taught: 
LING 170: Experimental Methods for Linguists
LING 217: Origins and Evolution of Language
LING 517: Evolutionary Linguistics
LING 670: Topics in the Cultural Evolution of Language