Language Evolution

How and why did language evolve?

Just as Darwin showed that species are not fundamentally immutable, it is now known that languages continue to evolve over time, adapting to societies and their environments. In recent years a wide range of disciplines have contributed new ideas towards understanding the evolution of language. We are uniquely poised to build on these new initiatives to develop a general theory of language evolution. 

Language evolution operates over many levels and time-spans: from evolution of language as a communicative system, which took place over tens or hundreds of millennia, to evolution of specific languages across generations and within speech communities. Our research aims to link the cognitive capacity of individuals and how they process language to the use of language as a public and social product in a specific cultural and ecological context. This will therefore integrate our understanding with how language works at the level of the individual to the level of the community or nation.

The Centre’s study of language evolution at all these levels will be grounded in rich empirical data of the world’s diverse languages and cultures. We will identify and quantify the important mechanisms in evolution and link them to the “design space” of language and of symbolic systems more generally. This framework will enable the program to chart the evolution of language and cultural inheritance: to explain how human minds and cultures became increasingly shaped by the flow of information, and in turn shape the further evolution of symbolic systems.

The overall aim is to explore how and why language evolved and continues to evolve, and how the emergence of language interacts with the distinctive features of hominin social life and cognition. At the microlevel we will focus on recent time-scales, and analyse language change within a social context, to address questions of whether and how minority communities participate in surrounding language changes in progress; and whether and how new language varieties are created from the bringing together of speakers of different varieties. Our understanding at the micro-level will then feed into the macrolevel explorations of change over large time scales to uncover the processes that have shaped and continue to shape our modern day linguistic and cultural diversity.

Finally, our insights into the processes that shape the development of language will be integrated into the design of more effective and efficient language technologies for the developing fields of robotics and other autonomous devices. This program will thus not only transform research fields, it will also provide understanding required for language technologies that can adapt with their users, leading to new industries for Australia, and will support policy development for enriching our multicultural society.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University

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