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Evolutionary linguistics is the scientific study of the origins and development of language. The main problem in this research is the lack of empirical data: spoken language leaves no traces behind. This led to an abandonment of the field for many decades. Recently, however, the field is reviving due to the development of new technologies.
History[edit | edit source]
August Schleicher (1821-1868) and his ‘Stammbaumtheorie’ are often quoted as the starting point of evolutionary linguistics. Inspired by the natural sciences, especially biology, Schleicher was the first to compare languages to evolving species. He introduced the representation of language families as an evolutionary tree in articles published in 1853.
The Stammbaumtheorie proved to be very productive for comparative linguistics, but didn’t solve the major problem of evolutionary linguistics: the lack of fossil records. The field was quickly abandoned, but recent developments in technology have enabled researchers to implement and test evolutionary language models.
Study methods[edit | edit source]
One of these researchers is Professor Dr. Luc Steels, head of the research units of Sony CSL in Paris and the AI Lab at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). He and his team are investigating ways in which artificial agents self-organize languages with natural-like properties and how meaning can co-evolve with language. Their research is based on the hypothesis that language is a 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 ongoing research has cumulated over the past ten years and 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.
Use in technology[edit | edit source]
The approach of computational modeling and the use of robotic agents grounded in real life is theory independent. It enables the researcher to find out exactly what cognitive capacities are needed for certain language phenomena to emerge. It also forces the researcher to formulate his hypotheses in a precise and exact manner, whereas theoretic models often stay very vague. The precision and theory independence of these kinds of experiments make them of great value for the scientific debate.
Using evidence in existing languages[edit | edit source]
Some linguists have taken the approach of using similarities in existing languages. This includes the universal existence of pronouns and demonstratives, and the similarities in each languages process of nominalization (The process of verbs becoming nouns) as well as the reverse, the process of turning verbs into nouns. Some linguists, such as John McWhorter, have analyzed the evolution and construction of basic communication methods such as Pidginization and Creolization.
References[edit | edit source]
- Cangelosi, A. and Harnad, S. (2001) The adaptive advantage of symbolic theft over sensorimotor toil: Grounding language in perceptual categories Evolution of Communication 4(1):pp. 117-142.
- Deacon, T. (1997) The symbolic species: the coevolution of language and the brain, Norton, New York.
- Hauser, M.D. (1996) The evolution of communication, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Daniel Dor and Jablonka Eva (2001). How language changed the genes. In Tabant J. Ward. S. (editors). Mouton de Gruyer: Berlin, pp 149-175.
- Dor D. and Jablonka E. (2001) From cultural selection to genetic selection: a framework for the evolution of language. Selection, 1-3, pp. 33-57.
- Hauser, M.D. Hauser, N. Chomsky and W.T. Fitch (2002) The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?, Science 298: pp. 1569–1579.
- Jackendoff, R. (2002) Foundations of language: brain, meaning, grammar, evolution Oxford University Press, New York
- Lieberman, P. (2003) Motor control, speech, and the evolution of language. In: M. Christiansen and S. Kirby, Editors, Language evolution: states of the art, Oxford University Press, New York.
- Nowak, M.A. and N.L. Komarova (2001) Towards an evolutionary theory of language, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 5 (7), pp. 288–295.
- Pinker, S. (1994) The language instinct, HarperCollins, New York.
- Pinker, S. and P. Bloom (1990) Natural language and natural selection Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13: pp. 707–784
- Steels, L. (2001) Grounding Symbols through Evolutionary Language Games. In: Cangelosi A. and Parisi D. (Eds.) Simulating the Evolution of Language Springer.
- Steklis, H.D. and Harnad, S (1976) From hand to mouth: Some critical stages in the evolution of language In: Harnad, S., Steklis, H. D. and Lancaster, J., (1976) (Eds) Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 280: 1-914.
- See also the UIUC Language Evolution and Computation Bibliography/Repository
- (2005) Deutscher, Guy. The Unfolding of Language, Owl Books.
- (2002) McWhorter, John. The Power of Babel: The Natural History of Language, Random House Group.
[edit | edit source]
- Fluid Construction Grammar
- Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit, University of Edinburgh
- Sony CSL Research
- Vrije Universiteit Brussel Research
- ARTI Artificial Intelligence Laboratory VUB
- ECAgents: The Project on Embodied and Communicating Agents
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