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LINGUIST List 16.3669

Fri Dec 23 2005

Diss: Cognitive Science: Zuidema: 'The Major Transit...'

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        1.    Willem Zuidema, The Major Transitions in the Evolution of Language

Message 1: The Major Transitions in the Evolution of Language
Date: 21-Dec-2005
From: Willem Zuidema <jzuidemascience.uva.nl>
Subject: The Major Transitions in the Evolution of Language

Institution: University of Edinburgh
Program: Theoretical and Applied Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2005

Author: Willem Zuidema

Dissertation Title: The Major Transitions in the Evolution of Language

Dissertation URL: http://staff.science.uva.nl/~jzuidema/thesis/zuidema05phdthesis-compact.pdf

Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science

Dissertation Director:
Nick Barton
James R Hurford
Simon M Kirby

Dissertation Abstract:

The origins of human language, with its extraordinarily complex
structure and multitude of functions, remains among the most
challenging problems for evolutionary biology and the cognitive
sciences. Although many will agree progress on this issue would have
important consequences for linguistic theory, many remain sceptical
about whether the topic is amenable to rigorous, scientific research
at all. Complementing recent developments toward better empirical
validation, this thesis explores how formal models from both
linguistics and evolutionary biology can help to constrain the many
theories and scenarios in this field.

I first review a number of foundational mathematical models from three
branches of evolutionary biology -- population genetics, evolutionary
game theory and social evolution theory -- and discuss the relation
between them. This discussion yields a list of ten requirements on
evolutionary scenarios for language, and highlights the assumptions
implicit in the various formalisms. I then look in more details at
one specific step-by-step scenario, proposed by Ray Jackendoff, and
consider the linguistic formalisms that could be used to characterise
the evolutionary transitions from one stage to the next. I conclude
from this review that the main challenges in evolutionary linguistics
are to explain how three major linguistic innovations -- combinatorial
phonology, compositional semantics and hierarchical phrase-structure
-- could have spread through a population where they are initially

In the second part of the thesis, I critically evaluate some existing
formal models of each of these major transitions and present
three novel alternatives. In an abstract model of the evolution of
speech sounds (viewed as trajectories through an acoustic space), I
show that combinatorial phonology is a solution for robustness against
noise and the only evolutionary stable strategy (ESS). In a model of
the evolution of simple lexicons in a noisy environment, I show that
the optimal lexicon uses a structured mapping from meanings to sounds,
providing a rudimentary compositional semantics. Lexicons with this
property are also ESS's. Finally, in a model of the evolution and
acquisition of context-free grammars, I evaluate the conditions under
which hierarchical phrase-structure will be favoured by natural
selection, or will be the outcome of a process of cultural evolution.

In the last chapter of the thesis, I discuss the implications of these
models for the debates in linguistics on innateness and learnability,
and on the nature of language universals. A mainly negative point to
make is that formal learnability results cannot be used as evidence
for an innate, language-specific specialisation for language. A
positive point is that with the evolutionary models of language, we
can begin to understand how universal properties and tendencies in
natural languages can result from the intricate interaction between
innate learning biases and a process of cultural evolution over many

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