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Northwestern University Office for Research

Northwestern University

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Creating New Knowledge
Creating New Knowledge

The Wordovators Project

A large and rich lexicon is a hallmark of intelligence and adaptability of human beings. Words enable people to share complex information, including ideas about the remote past (such as dinosaurs), abstract ideas (such as freedom), and emotions and social judgments (lol, fantabulous).

Words are also a vehicle for collective inquiry. By naming things we do not fully understand (such as dark matter), we can collaborate in learning more about them. The shared lexicon of a linguistic community may be the ultimate public good, supporting cooperation and collective intelligence at a scale that is unparalleled in other spaces.

The lexicon is dynamic. Some words become obsolete, but new words are continually created, and some of these become generally adopted. Drawing on analogies between biodiversity and lexical diversity, the Wordovators project has the goal of discovering the fundamental mechanisms that support the complexity of the lexicon in human languages. It combines mathematical modeling with large-scale experiments in the form of computer word games.

Hosted on the web, the games will recruit players from all over the world. Single-player games will explore cognitive factors in the creation and processing of novel words. Multiplayer games using a futuristic space-exploration scenario will investigate interaction of cognitive and social factors in the development of shared vocabularies.

The leader of the Wordovators project is Janet Pierrehumbert, linguistics, who brings to the research her long-standing interests in statistical learning and language dynamics. The project is a close collaboration between Northwestern and the University of Canterbury's New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behavior (NZILBB), which was founded and is directed by Northwestern alumna Jen Hay (PhD linguistics, 2000). The John Templeton Foundation has provided generous funding for this project.

This article originally appeared in the Office for Research 2012 Annual Report.

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