Evolang Post #4

After this one, there’s two more posts to come on Evolang, where firstly I’ll sum up the remaining plenary speakers, and then sum up the more interesting speakers from the normal sessions. Apologies for the slow posting but ‘tis essay season and I’ve loads of work to do.

As far as Evolang goes I must confess that beer and tapas had diminished my note-taking skills at this point and so some of these sketches might be a little vague, but I’ll try to be as fair and accurate as I can be.

Simon Kirby presented a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of the work being carried out at the LEC in Edinburgh. I better restate my biases in the interests of disclosure. I am one of the vast crowd of ‘Edinburghians’ who made up the largest group at Evolang, but I hope this won’t distort my reporting of their or other people’s ideas.

The general thrust of the LEC research has been that the role of cultural transmission has been largely ignored by investigations into language evolution, and the shadow of Chomsky has made us compartmentalise and isolate the features and stages of language evolution. Kirby (and all the other Edinburghians he referenced) have consistently demonstrated that many of the so-called innate features of grammar can be explained by the repeated iterated application of small biases. He once again showed his Iterated Learning Model, which envisions the emergence of linguistic traits and a complex interactive process between biological evolution, ontogeny and cultural transmission. He referenced the work of Beqa, Cornish and Dediu, (amongst others) as practical experiments into the way small biases can manifest as large changes in language. I’ll be covering some of these in a later post.

The two pleanries who had the least impact upon me were Camilia José Cela Conde and Juan Uriagereka, who represented the two opposite ends of the language evolution spectrum. Cela Conde, an archaeologist, was certainly ballsy. He marched into the middle of a conference on language evolution and told us that we were basically wasting our time. He argued that both archaeological and genetic evidence is at present inconclusive, and we can’t make any meaningful conclusions about how language evolved. Obviously, I don’t really agree with him, but I felt there were two particular points he failed to address properly. Firstly he didn’t go into any of the behavioural evidence from fields like psychology, or comparative studies between species. Secondly some of his evidence was shaky. He offered quite a cartoony interpretation of the FOXP2 evidence, suggesting that the field were treating it as ‘the language gene’, which is far from accurate. Most evolutionary linguists I know are very cynical about what FOXP2 can tell us, and the rest of the genetic picture is yet to be explored. He seemed to be creating quite a straw man argument based on quite old evidence. Still, it was refreshing to have a negative voice.

I’m not going to cover Juan Uriagereka here, simply because I don’t have enough information to report it accurately. A more comprehensive version of the talk is here, at Babel’s Dawn.

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