The nature of language

Basic Information

Course 2015/2016
Manolo Martínez
Department of Philosophy
Universitat de Barcelona
Module 4. Language and Mind


Thu. 10-13
Room 218, Facultat de Lletres, Edifici B, UAB


This course will explore some key ideas in the recent study of the origins and evolution of language. On the one hand, we will pay some attention to formal and computational models of language evolution – although always keeping the focus on the philosophical import of such models. On the other hand, we will review some prominent contemporary ideas about signaling in animals and early humans.


This is a tentative list of readings, and of the lectures that will discuss them. There will likely be changes in both, but this should give you a good idea of what to expect from the course.

ˆ Week 1: Course overview.

ˆ Weeks 2, 3 and 4: Primate and Early Human Communication

– Cheney and Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics

– Tomasello, Origins of Human Communication

– Sterelny, The Evolved Apprentice

ˆ Weeks 5, 6 and 7: The Sender-Receiver Framework – Lewis, Convention

– Skyrms, Signals

– Searcy and Nowicki, The Evolution of Aninal Communication

ˆ Weeks 8, 9 and 10: Computational Models

– Kirkby, Learning, Bottlenecks and the Evolution of Recursive Syntax

– Griths, Kalish, Language Evolution by Iterated Learning with Bayesian


ˆ Week 11: Conclusions

Throughout the course, we will also have a research blog.


ˆIn each session, every student will prepare a question about the readings for that day. This question should be submitted to me by email the day before the class. I will decide which ones of these questions should be posed during the class. 20% of the final grade.

Blog: 10% of the grade for posting of topics of relevance to the class (a min of 2): doubts arising from the readings, evolution-of-language making the news, etc. and 10% for comments on those posts (a min of 4). Please note: not meeting the minima will mean 0 points for blog participation. Total: 20% of the final grade.

15-20 page seminar paper. This paper must be written in English. 60% of the final grade.ˆ I will take informally into account participation in class. An engaged student can expect their grade to go up in a borderline case. A disengaged one can expect the opposite.

NB: Engaging in plagiarism can result in a failing grade for the course.


Intended Learning Outcomes:

CB6 - The course will pay attention to several aspects of the study of language that are often neglected in philosophy courses, yet are quickly gaining prominence in research: On the one hand, we will pay some attention to formal and computational models of language evolution. On the other hand, we will review some prominent contemporary ideas about signaling in animals and early humans.


CB9 - Each student will need to prepare a question about the readings for that day, and every student will formulate their question at least once. They will also participate in the academic blog for the class, where they will have to engage in discussion with their fellow students.


CG2. One of the requirements of the course is a 15-20 page seminar paper, in which students will have the opportunity to present the results of their research.


CG3. The course will feature prominently discussion of real cases of emergence of communication (baboons and other primates primarily). There will also be extended discussion of imaginary, simplified computational models.


CG4. The course will stress individual work, although participation in class will be taken informally into account.


CG5. i CE1-CE7 The course materials will provide examples of some of the best recent theorizing in the philosophical study of the emergence and evolution of language, and students will be held to high standards of academic competence.