Self‐organization and language evolution

Bart de Boer

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Self‐organization and language evolution

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  • Linguistics
  • Language Evolution
  • Sociolinguistics


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This article focuses on the two different levels that are used to define language. One of the levels is the individual level, where detailed individual behavior is studied and the other is the population level, where individual behavior is averaged and abstracted, and more general trends and processes are studied. Both these levels are intertwined and interdependent and such interaction between the levels can lead to a phenomenon called self-organization. Self-organization is the spontaneous emergence of order in a system that must be spontaneous. The interaction between self-organization and biological evolution is fundamental to understanding the evolution of language. Biological evolution determines the dynamics and the boundary conditions of the self-organizing process. Self-organization causes the language to converge on a limited number of states, the properties of which then determine the fitness of the language-using agents. Biological evolution then selects adaptations that help cope with the properties of the states resulting from self-organization. There are two perspectives on self-organization in language. First is the perspective of an individual's linguistic knowledge, in which linguistic items such as words or speech sounds can be considered as the microscopic level and the complete linguistic system can be considered as the macroscopic level. The second perspective is that of language in a population of speakers, where individual language users constitute the microscopic level, and the whole language community constitutes the macroscopic level.

Keywords: individual level; population level; self-organization; linguistic system; language community; biological evolution

Article.  3595 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution ; Sociolinguistics

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