Language Origins and Evolution
- Chomsky, N. (1972) Language and Mind. San Diego:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.   Preface to Expanded Edition;
Linguistic Contributions to the Study of Mind: Future.
In course packet. Also available
Wednesday 13 September.
Presented by Bobby Ray.
Pinker, S. & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13 (4): 707-784. Available
Friday 15 September.
Presented by Luke.
- Kirby, S. (2000) Syntax without Natural Selection: How compositionality emerges from vocabulary in a population of learners. In C. Knight, editor, The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social Function and the Origins of Linguistic Form, pages 303--323. Cambridge University Press.
Monday 18 September.
Presented by John.
Assessment #1 Question
Describe and contrast the three approaches taken by Chomsky, Pinker/Bloom,
in the papers you read. Is it possible to account for the structure of
language independent of the biological evolution of human beings?
Suggestions for Further Research
- The origin of language is probably the most disputed issue in all of science, and has reappeared in many guises since the time of the
Ancient Greeks and
. In 1866 The French Academy of Sciences famously refused to accept
any papers on the topic. The subject remained more less dormant until about
15 years ago, when a flurry of scholarship in the area revived the field.
Much of this work, like the Kirby paper we read,
has involved experiment modeling,
but there are also some fairly radical theoretical approaches. Investigate
one of the following:
- "Radical Anthropologist"
has developed a novel Marxist/feminist
approach to the issue. One possibility would be to consider
Knight's approach in light of the language-and-gender material we
will read later in the course.
- A very recent book
postulates music as an important part of communication among early humans.
Read the book and present the author's arguments in light of the
other readings we've done on this topic.
- Like Chomsky, some biologists have cast doubt on the possibility of
understanding language in terms of natural selection. Read
this famous essay by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, and
discuss how the "spandrels" idea might relate to the language evolution issue. You may wish
to consider the title of this oft-cited (but impossible to
obtain!) presentation by Gould, to get a sense of his views on language.
- There has been some tentative scholarship in combining methods from
linguistics and population genetics to build a better picture of human
origins and migrations. One example is reported
here. Investigate a few examples of this sort
of collaboration, including the criticisms surrounding it.
- If you enjoyed the Simon Kirby article and like to write computer
programs, you might consider a research
paper based on replicating and extending his results. To do this, you should download a copy of his Prolog program from here. This program runs
Sicstus Prolog, a commercial implementation of the Prolog language.
You may be able to get a free evaluation copy of
Sicstus Prolog. If not, please let me know immediately, so we can
look into purchasing a copy.