ANTH 252: Language Origins and Evolution

ANTH 252: Language Origins and Evolution


  • Chomsky, N. (1972) Language and Mind. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.   Preface to Expanded Edition; Linguistic Contributions to the Study of Mind: Future.   In course packet. Also available here.   Wednesday 13 September.     Presented by Bobby Ray.
  • Pinker, S. & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13 (4): 707-784. Available here.   Friday 15 September.   Presented by Luke.
  • Kirby, S. (2000) Syntax without Natural Selection: How compositionality emerges from vocabulary in a population of learners. In C. Knight, editor, The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social Function and the Origins of Linguistic Form, pages 303–323. Cambridge University Press. Available here.  Monday 18 September.   Presented by John.

Assessment #1 Question

Describe and contrast the three approaches taken by Chomsky, Pinker/Bloom, and Kirby in the papers you read. Is it possible to account for the structure of language independent of the biological evolution of human beings?

Suggestions for Further Research

  • The origin of language is probably the most disputed issue in all of science, and has reappeared in many guises since the time of the Ancient Greeks and the Bible . In 1866 The French Academy of Sciences famously refused to accept any papers on the topic. The subject remained more less dormant until about 15 years ago, when a flurry of scholarship in the area revived the field. Much of this work, like the Kirby paper we read, has involved experiment modeling, but there are also some fairly radical theoretical approaches. Investigate one of the following:
    • “Radical Anthropologist” Chris Knight has developed a novel Marxist/feminist approach to the issue. One possibility would be to consider Knight’s approach in light of the language-and-gender material we will read later in the course.
    • A very recent book postulates music as an important part of communication among early humans. Read the book and present the author’s arguments in light of the other readings we’ve done on this topic.
  • Like Chomsky, some biologists have cast doubt on the possibility of understanding language in terms of natural selection. Read this famous essay by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, and discuss how the “spandrels” idea might relate to the language evolution issue. You may wish to consider the title of this oft-cited (but impossible to obtain!) presentation by Gould, to get a sense of his views on language.
  • There has been some tentative scholarship in combining methods from linguistics and population genetics to build a better picture of human origins and migrations. One example is reported here. Investigate a few examples of this sort of collaboration, including the criticisms surrounding it.
  • If you enjoyed the Simon Kirby article and like to write computer programs, you might consider a research paper based on replicating and extending his results. To do this, you should download a copy of his Prolog program from here. This program runs under Sicstus Prolog, a commercial implementation of the Prolog language. You may be able to get a free evaluation copy of Sicstus Prolog. If not, please let me know immediately, so we can look into purchasing a copy.