Back to listing

CoEDL Seminar: Spatial cognition and language evolution, Stephen Levinson, 8 Mar

Australian National University, Evolution

Date: 17 February 2017

Title: Spatial cognition and language evolution

Speaker: Stephen Levinson, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen

When: Wednesday 8 March, 3.30pm-6.00pm

Venue: Weston Theatre, JG Crawford Building, ANU


In this talk I will argue that language evolution may have been closely tied to spatial cognition. We are natively poor navigators, compared to many animal species (although we make up for this with cultural prostheses, including language). This may have to do with the recruitment of the human hippocampus for things other than spatial navigation, namely memory and language. That cooption of spatial mechanisms may have left its mark deep on the conceptual structure of language, providing conceptual primitives differentially exploited in different languages – easily illustrated in the spatial domain. Reasons for that recycling of neuronal circuitry from space to language may have to do with the natural preoccupations in human communication with spatial and social concerns, both of which have a network structure coded in the hippocampus. Above all, gesture – a spatial modality ideal for indicating spatial concepts – seems to have anteceded spoken language in human communication, and may have been the Trojan horse facilitating the invasion of spatial circuitry by language. A crucial additional ingredient, explaining why other animals haven’t gone the same route, is the development of an interactional infrastructure for communication, which is exclusive to humans. A long-standing strand of linguistic thought, together with increasing evidence about the deep history of language (including its gestural origins), seems compatible with this story.

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