Thursday, 23 December 2010

Evolutionary Linguistics 101

Biologists are interested in the origins of life, geologists are interested in the formation of rocks, but few linguists are interested in the origins of langauge, as Friedrick Newmeyer once pointed out.  But this is a problem to be rectified... and if I have my way, every linguistics major program will have a required 'origins' component.  I'll write the texbook myself, I will!

But until that can happen (and someone will probably beat me to it), for the budding evolutionary linguist, here are the seminal works to lay a foundation for getting a grasp of the discipline.  This is the best I can do to spread the evo-lingo love:

Pinker, S., and Bloom, P., 1990. Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13, 707-784.

This paper is commonly cited as starting the snowballing of interest in language evolution.  It was very important for the discipline to be seen as a legitimate line of study as well as for language to be viewed as a complex biological adaptation that had to have evolved.

Hauser, M. D., Chomsky, N., and Fitch, W. T., 2002. The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science 298, 1569-1579.

Probably the most widely read paper on evolutionary linguistics because of both the prominence of the authors and the unlikeliness of their co-authoring together.  The paper rocks up with an authoritative air, but kicks off a lot of argument and discussion, namely the resulting papers published by Pinker and Jackendoff in Cognition in 1995.  It was answered by HCF, and another reply by Pinker and Jackendoff was also published, all in Cognition between 2005 and 2007.

Jackendoff, R., 2002. Foundations of Language.

Ray Jackendoff outlines most clearly and for perhaps the first time, a reasonable complete picture of the way in which language likely arose. 

Christiansen, M., and Kirby, S.,2003. The Evolution of Language.
This book is an edited collection of essays from the leading evolutionary linguists in the field, speaking about a wide range of topics in the discipline from mirror neurons to the archaeological record to computerised simulations.

Johansson, S., 2005. Origins of Language: constraints on hypotheses.

Constraints are so important for focussing a new and excitable dsicipline like language evolution, and Sverker Johansson's book is a wonderful introduction to the discipline.

Bickerton, D., 2007b. Language evolution: a brief guide for linguists. Lingua 117, 510-526.

Derek Bickerton has been a major name in evolutionary linguistics for ages.  This paper outlines the discipline and provides a real focus on the questions it should be addressing.

Kenneally, C., 2008.  The First Word: The search for the origins of language.

Because the actual discipline of evolutionary linguistics is just as fascinating as the subject it studies, this is possibly my faovurite book on evolutionary lingusitics.

Botha, R., and Knight, C., 2009 (eds.). The Prehistory of Language.
Botha, R., and Knight, C., 2009 (eds.). The Cradle of Language.

These two books are collections of essays that, like Christiansen and Kirby's 2003 book, show a wide range of topics from a wide range of experts in the field giving is a good look at the state of the discipline.

If you manage to read all of these, email me and I will create a badge for you that says 'expert language origins master' or something :)

And if you ever need more, the Langauge Evolution and Computation Bibliography is an excellent source:

1 comment:

  1. I've only read some of the texts, so I'm afraid I'm not entitled to your special badge. What a shame!

    Anyway, I've read enough about the subject to realize that there's a lot of circularity and pointless discussions about the topic of language origins. The great mistake, in my opinion, is the confusion between 'origins of language' and 'origins of grammar'. I have the impression that most of what has been written and discussed about the topic is a waste of time, an intellectual effort that leads nowhere. It's the kind of thing American theoretical linguists are so used to, especially since Chomsky emerged as their guru.


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