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Language: Linguistics · Semiotics · Speech

Evolutionary linguistics is the scientific study of the origins and development of language. The main problem in this research is the lack of empirical data: spoken language leaves no traces behind. This led to an abandonment of the field for many decades. Recently, however, the field is reviving due to the development of new technologies.


August Schleicher (1821-1868) and his ‘Stammbaumtheorie’ are often quoted as the starting point of evolutionary linguistics. Inspired by the natural sciences, especially biology, Schleicher was the first to compare languages to evolving species. He introduced the representation of language families as an evolutionary tree in articles published in 1853.

The Stammbaumtheorie proved to be very productive for comparative linguistics, but didn’t solve the major problem of evolutionary linguistics: the lack of fossil records. The field was quickly abandoned, but recent developments in technology have enabled researchers to implement and test evolutionary language models.

Study methods

One of these researchers is Professor Dr. Luc Steels, head of the research units of Sony CSL in Paris and the AI Lab at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). He and his team are investigating ways in which artificial agents self-organize languages with natural-like properties and how meaning can co-evolve with language. Their research is based on the hypothesis that language is a complex adaptive system that emerges through adaptive interactions between agents and continues to evolve in order to remain adapted to the needs and capabilities of the agents. This ongoing research has cumulated over the past ten years and has been implemented in Fluid Construction Grammar (FCG), a formalism for construction grammars that has been specially designed for the origins and evolution of language.

Use in technology

The approach of computational modeling and the use of robotic agents grounded in real life is theory independent. It enables the researcher to find out exactly what cognitive capacities are needed for certain language phenomena to emerge. It also forces the researcher to formulate his hypotheses in a precise and exact manner, whereas theoretic models often stay very vague. The precision and theory independence of these kinds of experiments make them of great value for the scientific debate.

Using evidence in existing languages

Some linguists have taken the approach of using similarities in existing languages. This includes the universal existence of pronouns and demonstratives, and the similarities in each languages process of nominalization (The process of verbs becoming nouns) as well as the reverse, the process of turning verbs into nouns[1]. Some linguists, such as John McWhorter, have analyzed the evolution and construction of basic communication methods such as Pidginization and Creolization.[2]


  1. (2005) Deutscher, Guy. The Unfolding of Language, Owl Books.
  2. (2002) McWhorter, John. The Power of Babel: The Natural History of Language, Random House Group.

External links

he:אבולוציה של השפה

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