Seminaire: Simon Kirby, "Why Language Has Structure...", 8 Dec. 2011, ENS Ulm, Paris

Thierry Hamon thierry.hamon at UNIV-PARIS13.FR
Wed Nov 30 14:49:23 UTC 2011

Date: Sat, 26 Nov 2011 17:45:11 +0100
From: Thierry Poibeau <thierry.poibeau at>
Message-Id: <C7E0DE2D-B8B1-48E6-8672-B76F7DA597B3 at>

Conférence organisée par le laboratoire LATTICE-CNRS
en collaboration avec les labex TransferS ( et

université d'Edimbourg

Titre : "Why Language Has Structure:
New evidence from studying cultural evolution in the lab, and what it
means for biological evolution"

Jeudi 8 Décembre 2011
Ecole Normale Supérieure
45 rue d'Ulm 75005 Paris
Salle des Actes (escalier A, 1er étage)

Simon Kirby

Simon Kirby is Professor of Language Evolution at the University of
Edinburgh and cofounder of the Language Evolution and Computation
Research Unit. He has pioneered the application of computational,
mathematical and experimental modelling techniques to traditional issues
in language acquisition, change and evolution. In particular, he has
developed an approach to cultural evolution called Iterated Learning
which treats language as a complex adaptive system operating on multiple
interacting time-scales. His view is that a complete understanding of
human nature requires an account of the complex interactions between
individual learning, cultural transmission and biological evolution in
human populations. In addition, he pairs his scientific research with
artistic output by collaborating with sculptors and musicians to create
interactive installations exploring issues of communication and cultural
evolution in a socially and informationally promiscuous world.


Where do the characteristic design features of human language come from?
In particular, how do we come to have a language that allows us to
express novel utterances and have them reliably be understood? One
answer is that this highly adaptive trait is simply an innately encoded
feature of our biological endowment, tuned by natural selection under
pressure for successful communication (e.g. Pinker & Bloom, 1990). In
recent years, however, an alternative view has been set out that
suggests language adapts not through a process of gradual biological
evolution, but rather as a result of cultural evolution as it is
transmitted in a population through repeated learning and use (e.g.,
Kirby, Dowman, & Griffiths, 2007). This process, known as iterated
learning, can be studied in the lab by creating artificial languages and
observing how they evolve as they are acquired and transmitted by
experimental participants (Kirby, Cornish, & Smith, 2008).

In this talk, I will show that productive linguistic structure only
emerges in these artificially evolving languages in certain specific
conditions. These shed light on where the familiar design features of
human language come from, and explain some emerging data from real
languages in unusual circumstances. I con- clude that language structure
is an emergent compromise between being compressible andexpressive,
driven by pressures from learning and communication respectively.

These results have important implications for our understanding of the
basic design features of human language (Hockett, 1960). I will argue
that many of these design features arise inevitably as a result of two
fundamental ones: semanticity and traditional transmission. The
cognitive support for these two features represent the crucial
biological pre-adaptations for language. At the end of the talk I will
give a tentative suggestion for how and why these evolved, setting the
stage for the inevitable emergence of structured language.

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