The Nature of Language
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.
For each session a text will have been proposed, to be read beforehand. The session will consist in seminar-style discussion of this piece, led by the instructor and in which ample participation of the students is expected (see the section on evaluation.)
If the situation demands it, these discussion could be moved to an online videoconference platform.
Insofar as the topic allows it (most clearly in our sessions on primate and early human communication) we will consider the extent to which gender roles influenced the evolution of language.
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.
- Week 1: Course overview.
- Weeks 2, 3 and 4: The Cognitive Biology of Language
- Skyrms (2010)
- Fitch (2010)
- Searcy and Nowicki (2005)
- Weeks 5, 6 and 7: Primate and Early Human Communication
- Cheney and Seyfarth (2008)
- Tomasello (2008)
- Planer and Sterelny (forthcoming)
- Weeks 8, 9 and 10: Computational Models
- Kirby et al. (2015)
- Readings from Cangelosi and Parisi (2012)
- Week 11: Conclusions
- 4000 word seminar paper, on any of the topics discussed during the course. This paper must be written in English. 60% of the final grade
- In each session, one or two students will prepare a question about the readings for that day. This question should be submitted to me by email the day before the session. They will pose their question during the seminar. 20% of the final grade
- Participation in class. All other students are expected to ask questions and participate in the seminar. 20% of the final grade
If a student finds class participation hard in any way, they should contact me in advance. We will look for alternatives together.
NB: Plagiarism can result (and has resulted in the past) in a failing grade for the course. I take this very seriously.
Cangelosi, Angelo, and Domenico Parisi. 2012. Simulating the Evolution of Language. Springer Science & Business Media.
Cheney, Dorothy L., and Robert M. Seyfarth. 2008. Baboon Metaphysics. University of Chicago Press.
Fitch, W. Tecumseh. 2010. The Evolution of Language. Cambridge University Press.
Kirby, Simon, Monica Tamariz, Hannah Cornish, and Kenny Smith. 2015. “Compression and Communication in the Cultural Evolution of Linguistic Structure.” Cognition 141 (August): 87–102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2015.03.016.
Planer, Ronald, and Kim Sterelny. forthcoming. From Signal to Symbol. The MIT Press.
Searcy, William A., and Stephen Nowicki. 2005. The Evolution of Animal Communication Reliability and Deception in Signaling Games. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Skyrms, Brian. 2010. Signals: Evolution, Learning & Information. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tomasello, M. 2008. Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.