Gareth Roberts

Assistant Professor

PhD, University of Edinburgh

Office Location: 
3401 Walnut St., 317C, 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. My past research has focused primarily on three areas: dialect dynamics, the emergence of combinatorial structure, and fundamental properties of communicative interaction. My most recently published work concerns the role of social factors in the retention of redundancy and the spread of linguistic variants between groups. Current projects include work on the emergence of focus systems (with Jon Stevens, The Ohio State University), the organization of vowel spaces (with Robin Clark), the consequences of language and dialect contact (with Heather Neifert and Duna Gylfadottir), and on basic properties of 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 Social and Cultural Evolution Working Group at Penn. 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. and Fedzechkina, M. (2018) Social biases modulate the loss of redundant forms in the cultural evolution of language. Cognition 171C: 194-201.
  • Sneller, B. and Roberts, G. (2018) Why some behaviors spread while others don't: A laboratory simulation of dialect contact. Cognition 170C: 298-311.
  • Robers, G. (2017) The linguist's Drosophila: Experiments in language change. Linguistics Vanguard 3(1): 20160086.
  • 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.
  • 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