seminar series “Darwin’s Tongues – Evolution of Language”: "Extra-linguistic factors nudge language evolution (but language is not passive and fights back!)" - Dan Dediu

  • Date: Nov 20, 2015
  • Time: 11:00 AM - 12:00 PM (Local Time Germany)
  • Speaker: Dan Dediu from the MPI for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, Netherlands
  • Location: MPI Plön
  • Room: Lecture hall
  • Host: Miriam Liedvogel and Miriam Linnenbrink
Abstract :

Language does not evolve in an isolated manner, in its own purely cultural realm where the only factors that influence it are language internal. In fact, a series of extra-linguistic factors including latitude, altitude, humidity and deafness arguably have an impact on the way language evolves (diachronically) and on the patterns of linguistic diversity (synchronically). Therefore, I will argue that such small biases "nudge" the process of language evolution through its repeated use and transmission, playing a part in explaining the observed trajectories of language change and patterns of diversity.

Here, I will focus in particular on the potential effects that the anatomy and physiology of the vocal tract might have on speech production. More precisely, I will argue that not only are there vast amounts of inter-individual variation in the vocal tract (VT) which might affect speech production at the individual level, but that this variation is patterned across populations resulting in systematic cross-linguistic variation in phonetics and, ultimately, phonology. I will summarize the ongoing Genetic biases in language and speech (G[ɜ]bils) project, where we explore in multiple directions and across multiple disciplines the patterns of VT variation and its effects on cross-linguistic phonetic and phonological variation. As examples, I will highlight the work done on modeling the shape of the hard palate using Bézier curves for agent-based computer models of language evolution, the bio-mechanical exploration of the influence of the presence of an alveolar ridge on the production of click sounds, and the exploratory investigation of inter-population patterns and the genetic bases of normal inter-individual VT variation.

However, it must be stressed that while extra-linguistic factors might "nudge" language change and evolution, language is not passive but might fight back by changing the selection pressures to which our genomes must respond. This is a much more general evolutionary phenomenon covered by gene-culture co-evolution and (cultural) niche construction theories, and I will focus here on the case of the sign languages (and in particular the so-called emergent ones) as a powerful illustration that language can indeed be a powerful factor in changing the (biological) adaptive landscape.

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