Language evolution

Some interesting experiments on language evolution are being undertaken in the University of Edinburgh’s Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit, and one thing they’ve found is that some aspects of language can develop in an afternoon.

They believe that language evolves culturally through being learned and used by people. They have demonstrated aspects of this process with computer simulations and with an experiment with real people. For the experiment they used pictures of alien fruit with names in a made up language which the participants were asked to memorise. They were then tested on what they could remember and their answers were used with the second group of participants, and so on.

The first participants found it very difficult to learn and remember the words, but with each subsequent ‘generation’ it became easier to learn them and they developed regularities in their structure, and eventually the participants were able to understand words they’d never seen before.

The researchers believe that many aspects of languages can arise through the evolutionary process of cultural transmission and do not need to be genetically encoded – the brain provides scaffolding for language but not necessarily all the specific details.

8 thoughts on “Language evolution

  1. This same thing happens all the time in computer programming. Programmers will mostly follow any implied stylistic rules in pre-existing code that they work on. (Many companies have guidelines, but they’re usually very general ones that leave a lot of room for variety in coming up with names.)

    So programmer #1 writes some new code, makes up some names for functions and variables, possibly invents some little rules along the way. After a while, programmer #1 leaves the company, department, or team, and programmer #2 takes over maintaining and extending that code. #2 picks up some of #1’s rules, keeps using them, possibly brings in some of their own, or has to make up some new ones to accomodate new functionality. Then programmer #3 takes over, mostly goes along with the existing rules, etc.

  2. Very interesting article. Maybe, among many other utilities, the study or we, can find a new and simplified method of learning and teaching a language.

  3. Very interesting.
    You know, I work now on translating a story from English to Ayvarith, and of course I encounter some words that I didn’t make up before so I note them down and create them from skratch.
    The thing is, and because Ayvarith is made up from roots in Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic, sometimes when I try to remember a Hebrew word I tend in fact to spell my own word for it that I made for Ayvarith, and not the Hebrew root.
    With the time, the rules that I made up myself for the vowels system for example for Ayvarith, such rules are beginning to change with the spoken aspects of the language. I noticed that when I started to record my own voice reading some verses in Ayvarith. The main vowels are of 4 types, but when I speak it, and in order to make it sound fluent, I tend to make up more than these 4 by combining some of them together.

  4. Is Deep Grammar the same as Universal Grammar/Noam Chomsky conversation?

    This topic of scaffolding is interesting and it made me think of how loan words (pronunciation and meaning) disperse and diverge over time and space. I imagine that some person or group (like a company or a rock band or a dictionary publisher or something) can plant the seeds of foreign words into a language, and then word will evolve in its own way, adapting to the pronunciation and grammar of the environment or “scaffolding”.

  5. The Dutch word “pinda” means peanut. The original word for this in Dutch is: “aardnoot” (earth-nut) but during the interbellum, Hong Kong Chinese immigrants came from the UK into Holland and started to sell roasted peanuts. They advertised this product bay shouting: “Peanut lekka, lekka”(the Dutch word for nice is “lekker”). The Dutch in those days were not as familiar with English as they are now and transformed the Chinese pronunciation of “peanut” as pinda. This became so popular that the original aardnoot is hardly used anymore….

  6. Yes, Deep Grammar is Chomsky’s theory (or that is the term I am familiar with) but I would hesitate to call it ‘Universal Grammar’.

    ‘I am sorry’ in English has been transformed into Irish as ‘Tá saraí orm’ thus adopting ‘sorry’ to Irish structure by making the adjective an noun and making it conform to such formulae as ‘Tá brón orm’ (I am sad). It is however very colloguial, regional and low register.

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