Evolution of the language organism

June 10, 2011

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.

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On the mysterious emergence of language

March 24, 2010

Ironically, what makes it hard to discern how language evolved is a result of language having evolved (Christine Kenneally, The First Word)

In a short piece I wrote in January about a “talking” harbour seal, I mentioned Christine Kenneally’s book The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. More recently I watched a talk Kenneally gave, hence this reprise.

Her book delves into several of my pet interests: linguistics, natural history, psychology, evolution, animal behaviour and communication, and cognitive science. It’s an accessible and up-to-date work of popular evolutionary linguistics, exploring what language is and how it arose. It discusses what is known and accepted about these matters, and it assesses points of uncertainty and dispute.

Something very strange about evolutionary linguistics is that the subject was effectively off limits for so long. In 1866 the Société de Linguistique de Paris rejected all material concerning the origin of language; six years later the London Philological Society followed suit. This scholastic self-censorship helped make language evolution a discredited subject for decades, and it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that it began to gradually regain academic credibility.

In an author’s note to The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad wrote: “Man may smile and smile but he is not an investigating animal. He loves the obvious. He shrinks from explanation.” There is something to this observation. I’m reminded of the widespread aversion to studying consciousness when behaviourism dominated mainstream psychology, and the related reluctance to accept the phenomenon of neuroplasticity (and its significance to learning).

In late 2007 Christine Kenneally gave a talk about the origins of language and the development of its scientific study, as part of the Authors@Google programme. Her presentation covers much the same material as her book, though obviously in a more condensed and sketchy form, and with questions and answers from the audience:

Kenneally’s website has more information, including related articles and links and several reviews of The First Word. Erika Hoff’s review (PDF, 22 kB) for the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology is an especially interesting read; it includes what seems to be a fair assessment of the book’s shortcomings, which are easily outweighed by its merits.

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