Focus Group 2015/2016

Biological, Cultural and Social Origins of Language


The origins and evolution of language remain one of the most challenging unsolved puzzles in science, partly because a solution requires many different perspectives and disciplines and partly because language is extraordinarily complex, the most remarkable activity achieved by the human brain. The Wiko Focus Group is tackling this topic from several different angles, trying to answer the following questions:

  1. Biological: What kind of information-processing building blocks does the brain need to recruit for language? How does the recruitment process work and unfold in language development? What are the neurobiological and genetic bases for the building blocks and the recruitment process? What is the possible role of epigenetics in language evolution?
  2. Social: What are the ecological conditions that justify the utility of human language? How do communicative needs push concept formation, increased expressive power and dialog complexity? What is the role of language in the emergence of cooperation and social institutions and, vice versa, how does the emergence of social institutions foster the growth and propagation of language?
  3. Cultural: How can we explain the cultural evolution of specific conceptual and linguistic structures, such as phrase structure, case grammar, a tense aspect system, determiners, clause structure, agreement systems etc.? What grammatical frameworks are most compatible with an evolutionary view of language as a complex adaptive system? What are the strategies through which speakers introduce innovation? Why do languages diversify and what mechanisms allow a language to become shared?

The group will use various methodologies to explore these questions:

  1. philosophical discussions to establish better conceptual foundations;
  2. cognitive psychology experiments to better understand how children acquire language, including gestural symbols;
  3. detailed empirical linguistic analyses of human language phenomena based on corpora;
  4. mathematical models of evolution and modelling of language evolution using computer simulations and robotic experiments.

Luc Steels

Conveners


2015/2016

Luc Steels

ICREA Research Professor of Computer Science

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Members


2015/2016

Dorit Bar-On

Professor of Philosophy

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2015/2016

Holger Diessel

Professor of English Linguistics

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2015/2016

Peter Gärdenfors

Professor of Cognitive Science

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