Inaugural lecture: Professor Kenny Smith
Professor Kenny Smith, Personal Chair of Evolutionary Linguistics, will deliver his Inaugural Lecture
Title: How Humans Got Language
Abstract: Human language is incredibly powerful. Language allows us to talk about the past and the future, the actual and the possible, the real and the imaginary; the technologies and social systems which have allowed our species to spread across the planet spring from our ability to pool our intellects via language. Understanding how language evolved is therefore key to understanding the evolution of our species, but studying the evolution of language is unusually difficult: language itself is ephemeral, and the anatomical and neural changes required to support language are hard to discern in the archaeological record. Given these challenges, how can we figure out how language evolved?
In this lecture I’ll explain how our group in the Centre for Language Evolution have pioneered the use of experimental and computational methods to bridge this evidential gap: we study how artificial linguistic systems evolve, by asking human participants to learn and use miniature languages, and by simulating populations of evolving language learners. Using these techniques we have shown that fundamental structural properties of human language arise from processes that we can study in the lab and observe in the present-day. Languages evolve as they are passed from person to person; people make small changes and innovations when they learn a language and use it to communicate with other people, and those modifications accumulate over time in populations, ultimately yielding elegant and powerfully expressive linguistic systems. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the capacities required to set this process in train are shared with our non-linguistic relatives, and we can even use the same techniques to evolve language-like systems in non-human species. This suggests that the evolutionary changes which placed humans on the road to language might have been fairly modest: understanding the evolution of this uniquely human trait reveals how similar to our non- linguistic relatives we really are.