PhD Student

Last application date
Dec 02, 2022 00:00
LW06 - Department of Linguistics
Limited duration
Master’s degree in formal theoretical or computational linguistics or artificial intelligence
Occupancy rate
Vacancy type
Research staff

Job description

  • The PhD position is offered within the context of the ERC-funded project CAUSALITY. The goal of the project is to investigate causes of language change and conservativity using formal theoretical modeling, artificial agent simulations, and empirical data from historical treebanks of three West Germanic languages: Dutch, English, and Low German. In addition to the theoretical objectives, the project aims at significantly enlarging an existing small treebank of historical Dutch (please see a more detailed project description below).

    At least 90% of your assignment will be spent on academic research in preparation of a doctoral dissertation
  • Your research area will cover historical changes in subject encoding (overt (pro)nominal arguments, verbal affixes) from the perspective of formal semantics and pragmatics and quantitative corpus-based modeling
  • In addition to theoretical research, the position involves an active participation in constructing a historical treebank of Dutch.


Universally, human language changes over time. One fundamental assumption about language change is that it originates at the level of an individual as a shift in frequencies with which a particular variant of linguistic expression is chosen over another. Conceiving of language change as the loss of an equilibrium in a system of stochastically used grammatical options, a change presupposes an emerging disturbing factor or a cause. A change can then be viewed as an adaptation process whereby in a linguistic environment affected by a disturbing factor a hitherto marginal grammatical option begins to create a certain communicative advantage and grows in frequency. We might then in principle expect a fast transition to the new variant in the speech of an individual, given the general learning abilities of humans. However, another fundamental property of language change is that it proceeds gradually over generations. Therefore, there must be powerful conservative factors at play pushing against the communicative advantage presented by the new variant. It has been suggested that the contrast between the speed of learning projected based on an individual's cognitive abilities and the attested pace of language change may be due to the social aspect of language, whereby the communicative advantage of an innovation is balanced off by the necessity of group synchronization. Since many social coordination tasks can be completed within individual's lifetime, the question stands open which properties of language are responsible for a relatively slow group coordination when it comes to grammatical shifts. This project aims at understanding, via game-theoretic and reinforcement learning modeling, the interplay between the causes of language change and conservatism. The models will be evaluated against the empirical material from three West Germanic languages, which includes creating a treebank of historical Dutch.

The core team of CAUSALITY will include, in addition to the PhD position and the PI, two postdoctoral researchers. The project will be embedded in the large and thriving historical linguistics research group DiaLing at Ghent University (

Job profile

  • You hold a Master’s degree in formal theoretical or computational linguistics or artificial intelligence with a strong interest in natural language change.
  • You have an active knowledge of basic statistical concepts and would like to learn more.
  • Fluency in oral and written English is expected.
  • We offer you a scholarship contract of indefinite duration with a maximum term of 4 years.
  • Your contract will start on 15/02/2023.
  • Your remuneration will be determined by salary scale WM1. For more information about our salary scales:
  • Bespoke training for the successful candidate will be available through the Doctoral School’s curriculum ( Every PhD student at Ghent University can compose a training curriculum of a selection of specialist and transferrable skills courses as required. Specifically, there is the possibility to follow courses on statistical treatment of natural language data at Ghent University and within the Flanders’ Training Network for Methodology and Statistics (FLAMES), as well as the possibility to acquire the necessary background in formal semantics and pragmatics.
  • All Ghent University staff members enjoy a number of benefits, such as a wide range of training and education opportunities, 36 days of holiday leave (on an annual basis for a full-time job) supplemented by annual fixed bridge days, a bicycle allowance and eco vouchers. For a complete overview of all the staff benefits (in Dutch):
  • Full funding support for participation in international conferences, thematic workshops, and trainings.

How to apply

  • Please send the following documents as pdf’s to Prof. Alexandra Simonenko at by 2/12/2022:

  • Motivation letter (max. 2 pages)
  • Diploma. If you have a foreign diploma in a language other than our national languages (Dutch, French or German) or English, please add a translation in one of the mentioned languages.
  • An overview of the relevant coursework (max. 1 page).
  • 2 reference letters: please arrange to be sent directly to prof. Alexandra Simonenko at

As Ghent University maintains an equal opportunities and diversity policy, everyone is encouraged to apply for this position.

For more information about this vacancy, please contact Prof. Alexandra Simonenko (