Michael Dunn, Professor of Language Evolution at Uppsala University is the guest speaker at this Schultink Lecture. Abstract and event details can be found below. This event is open to all.

Date: Wednesday 10th of January

Time: 14.00 - 15.00

Location: VU Main Building, room 15A33

Understanding language through language histories

Behind every attempt to explain the diversity of human language lies a question: What is it exactly that we are trying to explain? How can we characterise the nature of linguistic diversity? It seems inconceivable that the attested languages of the world exhaust the possibilities of linguistic diversity. To recycle SJ Gould's thought experiment of "replaying life's tape", if we replayed the tape of the evolution of languages how much of the repetition would look like the original? What developments in language are inevitable, and what are contingent?

In the study of linguistic diversity we have access to a number of small experiments – the de novo development of Nicaraguan Sign Language, transmission chain experiments with artificial mini-languages – and one big experiment, the “natural experiment” that has resulted in the linguistic diversity observable in the world today. In my research I concentrate on the latter, trying to understand the diversity of language typology not only by observing the diversity which exists, but also by inferring the processes that brought this diversity about. In this effort I am part of a small but growing group of linguists, biologists, and cognitive scientists using computational phylogenetic methods to investigate language diversity as an evolved phenomenon. I will present some recent results touching on the different evolutionary trajectories of different linguistic subsystems, and showing the cumulative effects of social and cognitive biases on language structure over thousands of years.

See also http://evoling.net/