Research on Models of Language Evolution (LE) has seen rapid and fundamental developments in the last few years, where both the mathematical sophistication of the models and the types of data considered have grown enormously. The goal of this research program is to create a framework at the Faculty of Humanities where the various researchers that work on LE and LE modeling can interact and share their knowledge on relevant evidence (ranging from phonetics and linguistic typology to behavioral biology) as well as knowledge on relevant computational and mathematical techniques (ranging from evolutionary game theory to advanced statistics).
In the research program three recent “innovation impulse” projects come together: Bart de Boer’s vidi project “Modeling the evolution of speech”, Robert van Rooij's vidi project “The Economics of Language. Language Use and the Evolution of Linguistic Convention” and Jelle Zuidema’s veni project “Discovering grammar: statistical models of sequence learning in humans, animals and machines”. Although the focus will be on formal modelling, we will, through public seminars and workshops, reach out also to researchers that work on language evolution using other methodologies.
Some of the main research questions are:
1 What is the relevance of anatomical evolution for the ability to produce distinctive speech sounds?
2 How did the ability for learning of combinatorial speech evolve? Human speech is combinatorial and humans, unlike apes, can use it productively and recognize whether nonsense words are possible in their language.
3 Is the evolution of combinatorial hierarchical structure in bird song a case of parallel evolution? Bird song is an interesting (and underexplored) parallel to speech, as there are many more intermediate stages of complexity in bird song than in ape vocalizations and human speech.
4 Can we apply the methodology from evolutionary game theory to answer why-questions about language universals in pragmatics, semantics, phonology and syntax?