Why (evolutionary) linguistics?
University of Edinburgh
Linguists study the structure of human languages. Evolutionary linguists see this structure as the result of individuals' cognitive biases unfolding over social interactions. We are interested in how these genetically specified cognitive biases evolve biologically, how the properties of languages evolve culturally and how these two evolutionary dynamics interact. Evolutionary linguistics, straddling biological and cultural processes, can thus help us understand who we humans are: Proximally, as social individuals, we are the product of the niche we ourselves create: culture, including language. Ultimately, as a species, we are the product of co-evolutionary interactions between language (a very important part of the environment where our genes have evolved) and our genes (which have evolved to make the most of that environment by making us extraordinary learners and users of languages). Within this framework, this talk will focus on experimental evidence of the cultural-evolutionary processes that explain linguistic structure. I will conclude by arguing that a full explanation of the properties of languages must take into account cultural processes like transmission and communicative interaction.