Fiona Kirton

Languages and Linguistics, University of Edinburgh

Tenure since 2016

Event Structure and Emerging Syntax

Fiona’s research concerns the emergence of structure and shared conventions in language. More specifically, she is interested in the emergence and evolution of mechanisms for marking semantic roles in an event, i.e. who is performing an action and who is being acted upon.

Recent work in this field has shown that when individuals communicate about events using communication systems that lack structural conventions, different event types elicit different word orders. This data provides important clues as to the communicative and cognitive factors that shape linguistic structure. Moreover, given that such variation is not observed in fully formed languages, the data also raise interesting questions about the emergence of shared conventions within a speech community.FionaKirton

This is an active and growing area of research, but thus far there is little consensus regarding the mechanisms underlying the data. Fiona’s goal in conducting this research is to develop a common explanatory framework that will make an important contribution to our understanding of the factors that shape linguistic structure and its evolution.


Fiona studied Physics and Astronomy MSci (Hons) at the University of Glasgow, graduating with First Class honours in 1997. During her time at Glasgow, Fiona was awarded the RSE Cormack Undergraduate Vacation Scholarship to investigate the use of neural networks in predicting solar activity. She was also awarded the class prize by the Department of Physics and Astronomy in her final year. Fiona then went on the earn an MSc from the University of Strathclyde in Business Information Technology Systems, after which she worked for a number of years in the IT industry, mainly as an application developer, before relocating to Barcelona in 2005 where she taught English as a foreign language. In 2007 Fiona embarked on a second undergraduate degree studying Modern Languages with Spanish and English BA (Hons) with the Open University. After graduating with First Class honours in 2013, Fiona studied for an MSc in the Evolution of Language and Cognition at the University of Edinburgh. She graduated with distinction in 2015 and earned a Highly Commended Dissertation Award for her work investigating the emergence of word order conventions using evolutionary game theory.