Past events

Anthropology & Language Seminar: Smith
Thursday 03 December 2015, 05:00pm - 06:30pm
Hits : 2051
by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

RAI Anthropology and Language Seminars


The cultural evolution of linguistic structure

Dr Kenny Smith, University of Edinburgh

Thursday 3 December at 5.00 pm

No other species has a communication system which provides the expressive power of human language: at least at a first approximation, anything you can think, you can express in language. The expressive power of language comes from its structure: language provides a generative system for combining and recombining meaningless speech sounds into meaningful words, and further combining and recombining words into complex sentences which convey complex meanings. How have humans ended up with this unique and powerful system of communication?

One explanation for the presence of structure in human language appeals to natural selection: structure in language represents a biological adaptation to a uniquely socially-interdependent human ecology. In this talk I'll present a second explanation, reviewing some of the evidence (from computational and experimental models of cultural transmission) which shows that structure in language can be explained as a consequence of cumulative cultural evolution: linguistic structure develops gradually as a consequence of language learning and language use. Given that this work seems to predict that structure should arise from cultural transmission under fairly general conditions, I'll also briefly review some recent studies on cultural evolution of structure in non-humans. Based on these various sources of evidence, I conclude that we have structured language because we are social, but rather than language being a biological adaptation to this social ecology, it is primarily a cultural adaptation arising from our propensity to learn socially.

This event is free, but tickets must be booked. To book tickets please go to

Location 3