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Johansson, Sverker
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Johansson, S. (2020). Evolution of Language. Oxford Bibliographies: Evolutionary Biology
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Evolution of Language
2020 (English)In: Oxford Bibliographies: Evolutionary BiologyArticle, review/survey (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Why do humans have language at all and how did we become language users? These are central questions in language evolution, but no general consensus exists on the answers, nor even on what methods to use to find answers. This is a complex topic that requires input from many disciplines, including, but not limited to, linguistics, evolutionary biology, palaeoanthropology, neurobiology, archaeology, cognitive science, and primatology. Nobody is an expert in all these areas, and experts in one area sometimes overlook needed input from other areas. Consensus does not even exist among linguists on what language is—opinions range from the physical speech acts themselves to language as an abstract social communication system to language as computational machinery in the individual and to language as an innate species-defining, genetically encoded capacity of humans. These different views of language imply very different evolutionary explanations. At the same time, all of these perspectives have some validity; the speech acts do occur, language use does take place in a social context, the individual language user does somehow produce and parse sentences, and human babies are born with a predisposition for language learning that ape babies lack. The disagreements are mainly a matter of emphasis, namely which aspects are regarded as of primary interest, requiring explanation. The preeminent linguist of the early 20th century, Ferdinand de Saussure, focused on the first two perspectives with his distinction between parole (speech acts) and langue (the social system). The preeminent linguist of the late 20th century, Noam Chomsky, focuses instead on the latter two, especially the computational machinery, and he regards the first two as not worthy of a linguist’s attention. But neither focus is adequate on its own; a viable theory of language evolution must be able to explain all aspects of language, notably both the evolution of the language capacity that resides in each human brain and the evolution of the human social context in which language is used. No generally accepted theory exists today. Instead of a single accepted theory, the field of language evolution is awash with a multitude of different models, scenarios, and hypotheses about how things might have happened. To make matters worse, there is something of a paradigm split in the study of language origins. The split is largely along the line between Saussure and Chomsky mentioned above. To put it simply, those researchers who use the label “biolinguistics” try to explain the origin of Chomsky’s computational machinery (see Biolinguistics) whereas most work on language evolution is concerned with explaining the origins of Saussure’s langue, language as a social system; the latter is here called “mainstream evolutionary linguistics.” Language evolution is not, however, about the origin of individual languages (English, Chinese, etc.). Sometimes “language evolution” is used to refer to diachronic language change in recent times, as studied by historical linguists, and an evolutionary perspective can indeed be fruitful in this area. But this article does not cover that kind of language evolution, except peripherally in Cultural Evolution.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Oxford: Oxford Bibliographies, 2020
Keywords
language evolution
National Category
General Language Studies and Linguistics
Research subject
No Research Profile
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:du-26395 (URN)10.1093/OBO/9780199941728-0079 (DOI)
Available from: 2017-10-12 Created: 2017-10-12 Last updated: 2020-05-04Bibliographically approved
Johansson, S. (2020). Pointer evolution points to the gradual evolution of hierarchical complexity. In: Ravignani et al (Ed.), The Evolution of Language. Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on the Evolution of Language (EvoLang 13): . Paper presented at Evolang XIII (pp. 189-196). Evolang organizing committee
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Pointer evolution points to the gradual evolution of hierarchical complexity
2020 (English)In: The Evolution of Language. Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on the Evolution of Language (EvoLang 13) / [ed] Ravignani et al, Evolang organizing committee , 2020, p. 189-196Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Chomsky (e.g. 2010) and others regard unlimited Merge as the defining feature of language, that cannot evolve gradually. The neural implementation of Merge is not well understood (Rizzi 2012, Zaccarella et al 2017), but must involve something functionally equivalent to pointers in working memory. Every Merge requires two pointers, and full syntactic trees may require dozens. Other syntactic paradigms also need pointers.

Humans do hierarchies in general better than chimpanzees. Any hierarchical thinking requires nested pointers in working memory, but they are neurologically expensive and degrade with depth (Crawford et al. 2016). Humans have larger working-memory capacity than chimpanzees, which has been proposed as key to human cognitive evolution (Read 2008, Coolidge & Wynn, 2005). Gradual evolutionary growth of pointer capacity will allow gradually increasing syntactic complexity, without saltations in the underlying computational machinery. Both depth degradation and pointer capacity naturally limit Merge even in modern humans, consistent with corpus data (e.g. Karlsson 2010).

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Evolang organizing committee, 2020
Series
Proceedings of the International Conference on the Evolution of Language, ISSN 2666-917X
Keywords
language evolution, working memory, pointers
National Category
General Language Studies and Linguistics
Research subject
Intercultural Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:du-32578 (URN)
Conference
Evolang XIII
Available from: 2020-04-28 Created: 2020-04-28 Last updated: 2020-04-29Bibliographically approved
Johansson, S. (2019). Gradually evolving limited Merge. In: : . Paper presented at Ways to Protolanguage 5.
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Gradually evolving limited Merge
2019 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation only (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Chomsky (e.g. 2010) and others regard unlimited Merge as the defining feature of language, that cannot evolve gradually. The neural implementation of Merge is not well understood (Rizzi 2012, Zaccarella et al 2017), but must involve something functionally equivalent to pointers in working memory. Every Merge requires two pointers, and full syntactic trees may require dozens. Other syntactic paradigms also need pointers.

Humans do hierarchies in general better than chimpanzees. Any hierarchical thinking requires nested pointers in working memory, but they are neurologically expensive and degrade with depth (Crawford et al. 2016). Humans have larger working-memory capacity than chimpanzees, which has been proposed as key to human cognitive evolution (Read 2008, Coolidge & Wynn, 2005). Gradual evolutionary growth of pointer capacity will allow gradually increasing syntactic complexity, without saltations in the underlying computational machinery. Both depth degradation and pointer capacity naturally limit Merge even in modern humans, consistent with corpus data (e.g. Karlsson 2010).

Chomsky, Noam. (2010). Some simple evo devo theses: how true might they be for language? In Richard K Larson, Viviane Déprez, & Hiroko Yamakido (Eds.), The Evolution of Human Language. Biolinguistic Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coolidge, Frederick L & Wynn, Thomas (2005) Working memory, its executive functions, and the emergence of modern thinking. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 15:5-26.

Crawford, Eric & Gingerich, Matthew & Eliasmith, Chris (2016) Biologically plausible, human-scale knowledge representation. Cognitive Science 40:782-821.

Karlsson, Fred (2010) Syntactic recursion and iteration. In Harry van der Hulst, ed., Recursion and Human Language. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter,

Read, Dwight W (2008) Working memory: A cognitive limit to non-human primate recursive thinking prior to hominid evolution. Evolutionary Psychology 6:676-714.

Rizzi, Luigi (2012) Core linguistic computations: How are they expressed in the mind/brain? Journal of Neurolinguistics 25:489-499.

Zaccarella et al (2017) Building by syntax: the neural basis of minimal linguistic structures. Cerebral Cortex 27:411-421.

Keywords
language evolution, merge, minimalism, working memory
National Category
General Language Studies and Linguistics
Research subject
Intercultural Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:du-32575 (URN)
Conference
Ways to Protolanguage 5
Available from: 2020-04-28 Created: 2020-04-28 Last updated: 2020-04-30
Johansson, S. (2019). Patterns of preposition use across World Englishes. In: : . Paper presented at ESEA Conference, Singapore.
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Patterns of preposition use across World Englishes
2019 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation only (Refereed)
Keywords
corpus linguistics, world englishes, prepositions
National Category
Specific Languages
Research subject
Intercultural Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:du-32577 (URN)
Conference
ESEA Conference, Singapore
Available from: 2020-04-28 Created: 2020-04-28 Last updated: 2020-05-04Bibliographically approved
Johansson, S. (2019). På spaning efter språkets ursprung. Stockholm: Natur och kultur
Open this publication in new window or tab >>På spaning efter språkets ursprung
2019 (Swedish)Book (Other (popular science, discussion, etc.))
Abstract [sv]

Hur blev människan med språk? Var, när och varför bör­jade vi tala? Det är en av historiens stora gåtor. Än är vi långt ifrån en lösning, men med hjälp av så olika vetenska­per som arkeologi, neurologi, lingvistik och biologi kan vi numera dra några slutsatser, avfärda vissa äldre hypoteser och uppställa nya frågor.

Med entusiasm och sakkunskap lotsar Sverker Johansson läsaren genom en djungel av ledtrådar och teorier. Sök­andet efter språkets ursprung börjar många miljoner år tillbaka i tiden, då dagens apor och människor gick skilda evolutionära vägar. Det slutar vid den punkt dit det går att härleda förlagorna till de språk som talas i dag, det vill säga för omkring fem tusen år sedan. Däremellan får vi stifta bekantskap med Homo erectus och neandertalare, med Darwin och Chomsky, med delfiner och näktergalar, med syntax och interjektioner.

Men hela tiden tycks spåren leda tillbaka den omväl­vande period för omkring en och en halv miljon år sedan, då våra förfäder i Afrika ställdes inför nya situationer och alltmer började skilja sig från övriga djur och där språket av allt att döma tycks ha spelat en nyckelroll.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Stockholm: Natur och kultur, 2019. p. 396
Keywords
language evolution, språkets evolution
National Category
General Language Studies and Linguistics
Research subject
Intercultural Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:du-32573 (URN)978-91-27-14865-9 (ISBN)
Available from: 2020-04-28 Created: 2020-04-28 Last updated: 2020-04-28Bibliographically approved
Johansson, S. (2019). Separating chicken and eggs with ostensive-inferential communication. In: : . Paper presented at Ways to Protolanguage 5.
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Separating chicken and eggs with ostensive-inferential communication
2019 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation only (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

“Who did the first speaker talk with?” is a classic chicken-and-egg argument against the Darwinian evolution of language, still occasionally heard as an argument for non-communicative language origins. Various language-origins scenarios solve the problem in different ways. But I will argue that ancestral ostensive-inferential communication provides a general solution, insensitive to scenario details.

Apes use communicative gestures intentionally and likely ostensively (Moore 2016; pace Scott-Phillips 2015), and interpret each other’s gestures accordingly. Such proto-ostensive-inferential abilities in proto-humans will handle new expressive abilities in “speakers” without requiring simultaneous changes in “listeners”, thus relaxing chicken-and-egg constraints on language evolution.

Dendrophilia (Fitch 2014), if evolved for non-linguistic hierarchic-processing purposes, may similarly help bootstrapping the final step from proto-language to modern language.

Chicken-and-egg is a problem for language evolution only if communication is a coding-decoding process. Ostensive-inferential communication can handle substantial mismatches between speakers and hearers, separating chicken from eggs.

 

Fitch, W Tecumseh (2014) Toward a computational framework for cognitive biology: unifying approaches from cognitive neuroscience and comparative cognition. Phys Life Reviews 11:329-364

Moore, Richard (2016) Meaning and ostension in great ape gestural communication. Animal Cognition 19:223-231.

Scott-Phillips, T C (2015) Meaning in animal and human communication. Animal Cognition 18:801-805.

 

National Category
General Language Studies and Linguistics
Research subject
Intercultural Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:du-32576 (URN)
Conference
Ways to Protolanguage 5
Available from: 2020-04-28 Created: 2020-04-28 Last updated: 2020-05-04Bibliographically approved
Johansson, S. & Lindberg, Y. (2019). Wikipedia as a virtual learning site and a multilingual languaging site. In: Bagga-Gupta, S., Messina Dahlberg, G. & Lindberg, Y. (Ed.), Virtual Sites as Learning Spaces: Critical Issues on Languaging Research in Changing Eduscapes (pp. 181-203). Palgrave Macmillan
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Wikipedia as a virtual learning site and a multilingual languaging site
2019 (English)In: Virtual Sites as Learning Spaces: Critical Issues on Languaging Research in Changing Eduscapes / [ed] Bagga-Gupta, S., Messina Dahlberg, G. & Lindberg, Y., Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, p. 181-203Chapter in book (Refereed)
Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Palgrave Macmillan, 2019
Keywords
Wikipedia
National Category
Learning
Research subject
Intercultural Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:du-32574 (URN)978-3-030-26928-9 (ISBN)978-3-030-26929-6 (ISBN)
Available from: 2020-04-28 Created: 2020-04-28 Last updated: 2020-04-28Bibliographically approved
Johansson, S. (2018). Clues to language evolution from a massive dataset with typology, phonology and vocabulary from many languages. In: Cuskley, et al. (Ed.), Evolution of Language. Proceedings of Evolang XII: . Paper presented at Evolang XII. Singapore: Nicolaus Copernicus University
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Clues to language evolution from a massive dataset with typology, phonology and vocabulary from many languages
2018 (English)In: Evolution of Language. Proceedings of Evolang XII / [ed] Cuskley, et al., Singapore: Nicolaus Copernicus University , 2018Conference paper, Poster (with or without abstract) (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

1. Introduction

A major component in the evolution of language is the evolution of the human language capacity, whatever biological endowments humans have that make us language-ready. But the language capacity is not well understood and is difficult to study directly. Clues may come from biases displayed by humans in language acquisition and language change. Even weak underlying biases can lead to strong patterns in the resulting languages (Smith, 2011). Biases can be studied at the individual level in learning experiments (e.g. Culbertson, 2012, Tamariz et al., of natural languages (e.g. Dediu & Ladd, 2007). Biases can be seen either in the synchronic patterns of language features today, or in the diachronic patterns of transition probabilities between features as languages culturally evolve (e.g. Dunn et al, 2011).

Patterns that reveal biases may be found in any aspect of language, e.g. syntax, morphology, phonology, or lexicon, and may be subtle enough to be discernible only in large samples of languages. This work is an exploratory study across the widest possible set of languages, combining typological, phonological, lexical and phylogenetic data on a significant fraction of the languages of the world, with the goal of mapping any biases that may be present. Both synchronic and diachronic patterns are studied, with the emphasis on the latter.

2. Data set

The following data sources are used:

•Phylogeny and geography: Ethnologue (Simons & Fennig 2017); ~7,500 languages.

• Phonological inventories: PHOIBLE (Moran & McCloy & Wright 2014); ~1,800 languages.

• Typology: WALS (Dryer & Haspelmath 2013); ~2,500 languages.

• Lexicon (Swadesh lists): Rosetta Project Digital Language Archive (2009); ~1,300 languages.

All four types of data are available for ~300 languages. At least three types are available for ~1,600 languages from 132 different stocks. In order to keep the data set as homogeneous as possible, each type of data has been imported from a single source only. Languages are identified between data sources by their ISO codes. 3. Methods

The language phylogeny from Ethnologue is taken as given in the analysis. For the synchronic analysis, the phylogeny is taken into account in the character statistics by down-weighting multiple “hits” in the same family, in order to control for phylogenetic bias and lineage-specific patterns. Geographic data is also available to control for areal effects. Cross-correlations between different types of characters are analysed for possible patterns. For the diachronic analysis, the phylogeny together with modern-day character data are used to infer both ancestral character states up the language tree for phonological and typological characters, and transitional probabilities between states (including the probability of characters appearing and disappearing), in a bootstrapping process. 4. Some preliminary results

Well-known typological patterns are reproduced. But correlations between features are observed that go beyond those normally discussed in typology, or those observed by Dunn et al (2011). Interestingly, there are also some modest cross-correlations between grammatical features and phonemes. For example, the presence of aspirated consonants and nasal vowels correlates with certain word- order features, even after controlling for phylogeny. In the diachronic analysis, there are hints of patterns beyond the obvious one that transition probabilities into common features are larger, but much work remains to be done in the interpretation of these patterns.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Singapore: Nicolaus Copernicus University, 2018
Keywords
typology, phonology, comparative linguistics
National Category
General Language Studies and Linguistics
Research subject
Intercultural Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:du-32571 (URN)978-83-231-3991-1 (ISBN)
Conference
Evolang XII
Available from: 2020-04-28 Created: 2020-04-28 Last updated: 2020-04-29Bibliographically approved
Johansson, S. (2018). Midwives and the birth of language. In: : . Paper presented at Evolang 12 workshop.
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Midwives and the birth of language
2018 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation only (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Midwives and the birth of language

Sverker Johansson

Dalarna University

Sweden

 

Language is a paradox in signal evolution theory. Cheap signals can evolve only between beings who trust each other, or who have totally aligned interests. But totally aligned interests is a utopia, and our knuckle-walking relatives generally do not trust each other? How and when did human trust evolve? This will set a baseline for language evolution – except that trust does not fossilize any more than language does.

What fossil and archeological proxies for trust can be found? Trust is a social matter, but even proxies for sociality are not trivial to identify (Johansson 2014). Probably the best proxy for human trust was identified by Hrdy (2011), in proposing cooperative breeding as a key innovation in human evolution. Ape mothers are paranoid about their babies, for good reason, and will not let anybody assist them. But in all human cultures, family and friends will routinely cooperate and help a mother with her children, and experienced women will serve as midwives in labor. This makes a huge difference for human fertility, our reproductive rate “in the wild” is roughly double that of other apes. This provides the Darwinian payoff needed to overcome the threshold of mutual mistrust, and paves the way for cheap linguistic communication.

Midwife assistance in labor may facilitate language evolution also in another way, as it eases obstetric constraints on brain size.

I will review here the fossil and archeological evidence indicating the presence among our ancestors of the modern human pattern of cooperative breeding and labor assistance. The conclusion is that the first midwife most likely was a Homo erectus… and maybe some millennia later a young erectus first cried “mama”, when left in the care of an auntie.

 

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer (2011) Mothers and Others. The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Johansson, Sverker (2014) How can a social theory of language evolution be grounded in evidence? In Lewis, Jerome, Daniel Dor & Chris Knight (eds.) Social Origins of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keywords
language evolution, alloparenting, obstetrics
National Category
General Language Studies and Linguistics
Research subject
Intercultural Studies
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:du-32572 (URN)
Conference
Evolang 12 workshop
Available from: 2020-04-28 Created: 2020-04-28 Last updated: 2020-05-04Bibliographically approved
Johansson, S. (2017). All you need is love... or what?. In: : . Paper presented at Ways to Protolanguage 5, Barcelona, Spain, 26 - 28 September 2017.
Open this publication in new window or tab >>All you need is love... or what?
2017 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation only (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

All you need is love… or what?

Language is essentially always present in groups of modern humans. Even in the exceptional groups that for some reason are formed without language, language will invariably emerge in short order. Examples of language emergence in recent times include deaf communities in e.g. Nicaragua and Israel. Such newly-formed languages converge within a few generations towards the same general form and features as mainstream human languages.

Language is essentially never present in groups of non-human primates. Even in the exceptional groups that are heavily exposed to language and explicitly trained in language use, progress in language acquisition is invariably modest at best. Language never emerges spontaneously in non-human groups.

What’s special with humans? It is sometimes argued that “all you need is merge” (e.g. Berwick 2007), that a small genetic change provided a language-ready brain and the rest is history. This saltational view of language evolution is wrong for many reasons (e.g. Tallerman 2014), but I would add here another one.

A language-ready brain is not an all-or-nothing affair, nor is it sufficient for language emergence. The results of language training in apes are modest, but not nil. Apes do learn to connect symbols with referents and use them communicatively. One may quibble about whether to call this “language”, and it is far from full human language, notably lacking in syntax. But it does show the presence of some language-relevant abilities in apes, and it is a functional communication tool at some protolinguistic level.

But if ape brains are protolanguage-ready, why doesn’t protolanguage emerge in the wild among apes, as it does among humans? Clearly, some extra-linguistic key factor is lacking. A language-ready brain is not all you need for language emergence. In a group of hypothetical creatures with a human language faculty (narrow sense) but otherwise ape-like in psychology and behavior, language would not emerge.

Human prosociality and shared intentionality are likely key ingredients in language emergence (e.g. Tomasello 2010), but are not the whole story. In this talk, I will explore the minimal extra-linguistic requirements for protolanguage emergence to get off the ground in protohumans.

 

References:

Berwick, R C (2011) All you Need is Merge: Biology, Computation, and Language from the Bottom-up.  In di Sciullo & Boeckx The Biolinguistic Enterprise OUP.

Tallerman M. (2014) No syntax saltation in language evolution. Language Sciences 46, 207-219.

Tomasello, M (2010) Origins of human communication. MIT Press.

National Category
General Language Studies and Linguistics
Research subject
No research profile
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:du-26394 (URN)
Conference
Ways to Protolanguage 5, Barcelona, Spain, 26 - 28 September 2017
Available from: 2017-10-11 Created: 2017-10-11 Last updated: 2018-01-13Bibliographically approved
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