Professor Simon Kirby is a computational linguist who holds the Chair of Language Evolution in the department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh.
Kirby and his colleagues investigate, among other things, how culture and biology interact in humans to give rise to language. He appeared on this blog before, when I included his paper “The Evolution of Language” (PDF) in an early collection of language links. Here’s a diagram from the paper:
The Language Evolution and Computation research unit, which Kirby co-founded, focuses on “understanding the origins and evolution of language and communication”. It has “pioneered the application of computational and mathematical modelling techniques to traditional issues in language acquisition, change and evolution”. Its website has an overview of this work, along with a selection of dissertations and an introduction to the intriguing “alien language” experiment.
Kirby’s public Inaugural Lecture took place in March but appeared on YouTube just recently. Titled The Language Organism: evolution, culture, and what it means to be human, it is a broad discussion with general appeal, and Kirby is a relaxed and genial speaker. (I don’t know whether the ambiguity in the phrase “the language organism” is deliberate; it’s apt in any case.) From his summary:
Our species can do something utterly unique in the natural world – a behaviour so transformative that it has reshaped the mechanisms of our own evolution. . . . Virtually all species communicate, but only humans have this trick called Language.
But where does this unique trait come from? How did it evolve? Why are we the only species that has it? The quest to answer these questions starts in the familiar world of biological evolution. . . . In recent years, work pioneered in Edinburgh has demonstrated that language itself is a new kind of evolutionary system – one we are only just beginning to understand.
In this talk, I will survey the progress made in making sense of this system and what it means for our understanding of language and of ourselves. Along the way we will see how we can study language evolution in the laboratory; what birds and foxes might tell us; and why culture might be changing the way we evolve.
Kirby notes that an unusual feature of language – other than its structure – is “the fact that any capacity for language that we have is a capacity for learning language”. Language and cognition evolved in intricate tandem, and the lack of direct fossil remains makes it especially difficult for researchers to reach firm conclusions about language’s early days and development. There is a good deal of extrapolation, conjecture, and lively debate.
As Christine Kenneally pithily put it in The First Word: “what makes it hard to discern how language evolved is a result of language having evolved”. I blogged briefly before about this book and Kenneally’s talk on its themes.
Language evolution, acquisition and learning have received much attention in modern linguistics, with different parties proposing or stressing this or that mechanism, template, synthesis or hypothesis. It is a field in flux, and not one I know much about except what I’ve read piecemeal in works that approach the problems from very different academic angles. (Feel free to recommend books, papers or lectures.)
Kirby’s talk is an enjoyable one that does a good job of presenting complex ideas about the evolution of language in accessible and interesting ways. There’s a short introduction to begin, and a Q&A session at the end.