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Evolutionary linguistics

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Title: Evolutionary linguistics  
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Evolutionary linguistics

Evolutionary linguistics is the scientific study of the psychosocial development and cultural evolution of individual languages as well as the origins and development of human language itself.[1] The main challenge in this research is the lack of empirical data: spoken language leaves practically no traces. This led to an abandonment of the field for more than a century. Since the late 1980s, the field has been revived in the wake of progress made in the related fields of psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, evolutionary anthropology, evolutionary psychology, universal grammar,and cognitive science.


Inspired by the natural sciences, especially by biology, August Schleicher (1821–1868) became the first to compare changing languages to evolving species.[2] He introduced the representation of language families as an evolutionary tree (Stammbaumtheorie) in articles published in 1853.[3] Stammbaumtheorie proved very productive for comparative linguistics, but did not solve the major problem of studying the origin of language: the lack of fossil records. Some scholars abandoned the question of the origin of language as unsolvable. Famously, the Société Linguistique de Paris in 1866 refused to admit any further papers on the subject.

Joseph Jastrow published a gestural theory of the evolution of language in the seventh volume of Science, 1886.[4]

The field re-appeared in 1988 in the Linguistic Bibliography as a subfield of psycholinguistics. In 1990, Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom published their paper "Natural Language and Natural Selection"[5] which strongly argued for an adaptationist approach to language origins. Development strengthened further with the establishment (in 1996) of a series of conferences on the Evolution of Language (subsequently known as "Evolang"), promoting a scientific, multi-disciplinary approach to the issue, and interest from major academic publishers (e.g., the Studies in the Evolution of Language series has appeared with Oxford University Press since 2001)[6] and from scientific journals.

Recent developments

Evolutionary linguistics as a field is rapidly emerging as a result of developments in neighboring disciplines. To what extent language's features are determined by genes, a hotly debated dichotomy in linguistics, has had new light shed upon it by the discovery of the FOXP2 gene.[7][8] An English family with a severe, heritable language dysfunction was found to have a defective copy of this gene.[9][10] Mutations of the corresponding gene in mice (FOXP2 is fairly well conserved; modern humans share the same allele as Neanderthals)[11][12] cause reductions in size and vocalization rate. If both copies are damaged, the Purkinje layer (a part of the cerebellum that contains better-connected neurons than any other) develops abnormally, runting is more common, and pups die within weeks due to inadequate lung development.[13] Additionally, higher presence of FOXP2 in songbirds is correlated to song changes, with downregulation causing incomplete and inaccurate song imitation in zebra finches. In general, evidence suggests that the protein is vital to neuroplasticity. There is little support, however, for the idea that FOXP2 is 'the grammar gene' or that it had much to do with the relatively recent emergence of syntactical speech.[14]

Another controversial dichotomy is the question of whether human language is solely human or on a continuum with (admittedly far removed) animal communication systems. Studies in ethology have forced researchers to reassess many claims of uniquely human abilities for language and speech. For instance, Tecumseh Fitch has argued that the descended larynx is not unique to humans. Similarly, once held uniquely human traits such as formant perception, combinatorial phonology and compositional semantics are now thought to be shared with at least some nonhuman animal species. Conversely, Derek Bickerton and others argue that the advent of abstract words provided a mental basis for analyzing higher-order relations, and that any communication system that remotely resembles human language utterly relies on cognitive architecture that co-evolved alongside language.

As it leaves no fossils, language's form and even its presence are extremely hard or impossible to deduce from physical evidence. Computational modeling is now widely accepted as an approach to assure the internal consistency of language-evolution scenarios. Approximately one-third of all papers presented at the 2010 Evolution of Language conference[15] rely at least in part on computer simulations.


One original researcher in the field is complex adaptive system that emerges through adaptive interactions between agents and continues to evolve in order to remain adapted to the needs and capabilities of the agents. This research has been implemented in fluid construction grammar (FCG), a formalism for construction grammars that has been specially designed for the origins and evolution of language. The approach of computational modeling and the use of robotic agents grounded in real life is claimed to be theory independent. It enables the researcher to find out exactly what cognitive capacities are needed for certain language phenomena to emerge. It also focuses the researcher in formulating hypotheses in a precise and exact manner, whereas theoretical models often stay very vague.

Some linguists, such as John McWhorter, have analyzed the evolution and construction of basic communication methods such as Pidginization and Creolization.[16]

"Nativist" models of "Universal Grammar" are informed by linguistic universals such as the existence of pronouns and demonstratives, and the similarities in each language's process of nominalization (the process of verbs becoming nouns) as well as the reverse, the process of turning nouns into verbs.[17] This is a purely descriptive approach to what we mean by "natural language" without attempting to address its emergence.

Finally there are those archaeologists and evolutionary anthropologists – among them Ian Watts,[18] Camilla Power[19] and Chris Knight (co-founder with James Hurford of the EVOLANG series of conferences) — who argue that 'the origin of language' is probably an insoluble problem. In agreement with Amotz Zahavi,[20] Knight argues that language — being a realm of patent fictions — is a theoretical impossibility in a Darwinian world, where signals must be intrinsically reliable. If we are going to explain language's evolution, according to this view, we must tackle it as part of a wider one — the evolutionary emergence of symbolic culture as such.[21]

EVOLANG Conference

The Evolution of Language International Conferences[22] have been held biennially since 1996.

See also


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  2. ^ Taub, Liba. Evolutionary Ideas and "Empirical" Methods: The Analogy Between Language and Species in the Works of Lyell and Schleicher. British Journal for the History of Science 26, pages 171–193 (1993)
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Further reading

External links

  • Agent-Based Models of Language Evolution
  • ARTI Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory
  • Computerized comparative linguistics
  • Fluid Construction Grammar
  • Language Evolution and Computation Bibliography
  • Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit, University of Edinburgh
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