The Emergence of Evolutionary Thinking in Linguistics: Towards a New Conceptual Framework

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Philosophy Psychology & Language


Language evolution has traditionally been studied within the humanities; analogies with biological evolution have been few and far between and have generally been applicable to very specific linguistic phenomena. In the last fifteen years, however, the study of language evolution and change has been undergoing a significant shift. A number of studies have independently made similar proposals about the mechanisms of language evolution. They all share the use of explicit analogy between the elements and processes underlying linguistic and in biological evolution.

The modern synthesis of Darwin's natural selection and population genetics provides a unified framework to understand the evolution and diversification of life. The basis of the linguistic analogies is the following: Units of evolution (genes) are copied faithfully generation after generation, but copying is not perfect, and some variants will be copied more than others.

What the recent language evolution studies do not share is the way that linguistic elements and processes are matched with biological elements and processes; this has prevented effective dialogue between the different authors and has stagnated progress. This project will be asking questions about the precise implementation of evolutionary thinking in the target studies and its role in a wider context: What analogies are made between linguistic and biological evolution? What are the proposed units, processes and mechanisms involved in language evolution in the recent studies? What knowledge does a rigorous analysis of language dynamics contribute to cultural evolution and evolutionary epistemology?

We propose to construct a framework of rigorously defined evolutionary concepts where different models of language evolution can be analyzed, compared and contrasted. This conceptual framework will provide a common vocabulary that will make it easy to formulate new research questions and it will help identify areas where more research is needed; it will allow checking existing models for self-consistency; it will inform future computational and experimental research in language change and evolution; finally, it will facilitate dialogue, collaboration and further development of the theories.

The conceptual framework will be analyzed in the wider biological, anthropological and philosophical contexts of cultural evolution and evolutionary theory. This literature includes studies on the general mechanisms of evolution; on the evolution of social and cognitive prerequisites for culture and language; on the co-evolution of genes and culture; and on theories of cultural and of linguistic evolution, including memetics, the current most explicitly based on analogy between culture and biology, and its critics. We will investigate the implications of our framework for the relationships between language and culture, and between systems that can be explained by the same evolutionary processes.

The proposed research will impact the fields of language evolution, historical lingusitics and language variation and change, not least by redefining the boundaries between them. It will also situate the study of language dynamics within the context of cultural and evolutionary studies.


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Claidière N (2012) Effect of psychological bias separates cultural from biological evolution. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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Kirby S (2013) The Language Phenomenon

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Kirby S (2017) Culture and biology in the origins of linguistic structure. in Psychonomic bulletin & review

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Monica Tamariz (Author) (2010) The role of practice and literacy in the evolution of linguistic structure in 8th International Conference on the Evolution of Language

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Scott-Phillips TC (2010) Language evolution in the laboratory. in Trends in cognitive sciences

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Tamariz M (2016) The cultural evolution of language. in Current opinion in psychology

Description Language changes as it is passed from repeatedly learned and produced by individuals in a population. We have found that treating this process as an evolutionary system allows us to build bridges between linguistics and the growing field of cultural evolution. Key structural features of language arise from the process of cultural transmission so the techniques from the cultural evolution field can be used to help explain language structure. Equally, in depth investigation of how language structure evolves has allowed us to develop new theories about how cultural systems more generally might evolve. For example, it suggests some important parallels between linguistic and musical evolution.
Exploitation Route We hope that other researchers in the field of cultural evolution will start to look more seriously at language evolution as a field that can support and develop novel approaches to culture. For example, we believe that systematic structure emerges through a process of cumulative cultural evolution, but the direction of evolution is to greater simplicity rather than greater complexity, as cumulative culture is normally considered.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The research on cultural evolution of language has lead to a collaboration with artists to create two sound art installations (Sing the Gloaming, 2017; Singing Glass, 2018) and soon a 10 inch vinyl record (Sing the Gloaming EP, 2020). These works explore the cultural evolution of language through the lens of a group of phonaesthemes in English relating to light.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Creative Economy
Impact Types Cultural