From Language Learning to Language Evolution

Simon Kirby and Morten H. Christiansen

in Language Evolution

Published in print July 2003 | ISBN: 9780199244843
Published online January 2010 | e-ISBN: 9780191715167 | DOI:

Series: Studies in the Evolution of Language

 From Language Learning to Language Evolution

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  • Historical and Diachronic Linguistics


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This chapter argues that the evolution of more complex sequential learning and processing abilities forms part of the foundation for the origin of language. It relates general properties of sequential learning to the structure of language and suggests that many language universals — that is, invariant subpatterns of language — may derive from underlying constraints on the way sequential structure is learned and processed, rather than from an innate biological adaptation for grammar. Evidence from computational simulations and psychological experiments involving the learning of simple artificial languages indicates that specific language universals can be explained by sequential learning constraints. This perspective further implies that languages themselves can be viewed as evolving systems, adapting to the innate constraints of the human learning and processing mechanisms. The chapter also argues that language evolution must be understood through processes that work on three different, but partially overlapping timescales: the individual timescale (through learning in development), the cultural timescale (through iterated learning across generations), and the biological timescale (through natural selection of the species).

Keywords: language; sequential learning; language universals; artificial languages; computational simulations; natural selection; iterated learning

Chapter.  8470 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Historical and Diachronic Linguistics

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