Language Evolution in 50 Words

Every week the British Interactive Group (BIG) (a skill sharing network for science communicators) have a competition among their members on the mailing list to explain a phenomenon in 50 words. This is known as the “Friday Phenomenon” and the person who does the best job at being both informative and engaging with such a small word count inherits the job of deciding what the next “phenomenon” will be. A couple of weeks ago I had the honour of being that person and the question I asked people to answer in 50 words (rather predictably) was:  “How did structure evolve in human language?”

I thought you’d enjoy reading the entries and remember, these people are professional science communicators, not linguists!

Alexander Brown (You can read Alex’s blog here:

How did structure evolve in human language?

Because there are no records, it is hard to say how human language formed.

It was doubtless linked to the evolution of the brain.

Structure gives context to words, increasing the amount of information they carry. This was an improvement on less meaningful assemblies.

Mark Lewney:

Language must encode 4D reality.

“[Elk herd], [sunrise direction], [half day away]” is fine for the present.

To change the future, nouns must verb.

“[Ug and Og] CHASE [biggest antlers] then [Thag and Derek] REPLACE [Ug and Og] then [everyone] CHUCKS [spears] at [biggest antlers]”

Blank slates can’t tell stories.

Dave Anseel:

Communicating the difference between run towards and run away is a evolutionary advantage…. especially if the object is a lion. Those who don’t understand fairly rapidly leave the gene pool.

Plus as group sizes increase communicating “what his Autie Uga did to our cousin Ogg” leads to grammar, or frustration.

Sam Steventon:

Lexical/sexual selection (sexical selection?) Structure in language has evolved to increase the success of obtaining mates. Conspicuous lexical traits – such as pronounced punctuation, increased vocabulary, or striking sentences increase the attractiveness of humans. This can be seen in the apparent mating success of musicians, comedians and moody writers.

Lewis Pike:

Language ideally supports precise, quick and clear communication. Playful and comprehensible too. Playful language uses ambiguity not precision. Meeting strangers and learning to understand them is important. Seduction is often slow and important. White lies aren’t clear but socially important. Dynamic tensions between needs these needs keeps languages evolving.

I decided that Sam won because of the invention of the process of “sexical selection”.

Information on how to join the BIG mailing list can be found  here:

9 thoughts on “Language Evolution in 50 Words”

  1. I’m being really, really grumpy here, but isn’t it a bit problematic that a skill-sharing network of science communicators are practising how to say something uninformed-but-plausible-sounding-and-entertaining about academic topics every week? Especially since, going by the current state of the field, the winner here was the least right.

    A large problem with science communication (particularly in the press ) isn’t that it uses too many words, but that concepts and findings are communicated very inaccurately in this pursuit of brevity and accessibility.

    I’m off to paint some nurseries black and scowl at some kittens now.

  2. As the people who attempt to answer these each week are very rarely experts in the field, they never usually get published in the public domain. If they were going to be, I’m sure their authors would put more work into researching the topic beforehand. As it is, it’s all meant as a fun exercise behind closed doors. I only published these because I thought it might spark some conversation among the experts as to how they might answer such a big question with such a small word count. I think there’s a lot to be said for brevity and accessibility when communicating with the public because not everyone is going to have the desire or time to read a long article. With a subject with such a small amount of evidence and consensus, and with only 50 words, no one was going to be right, but it did instigate discussion, thought and a lot of fun. I know they aren’t the only aims of public engagement but they’re certainly a major part of it.

  3. Fair enough, everyone likes games. I suppose I tend to think of public engagement as a distinct component of science communication at large; with public engagement, making something fun or entertaining seems to really take priority over the content. If the task is communicating a particular concept or finding (again, particularly concerning the press) then the content really needs to take priority.

    Accessibility doesn’t necessarily entail excessive brevity (indeed, brevity can often make explanations very dense and inaccessible). I’m inclined to think that if length limitations come at the cost of accurate content at a conceptual level, they aren’t worth abiding. I would also object to the idea that a small amount of evidence is relevant for how the science should be communicated, particularly because the claims that scientists actually make are on the basis of what (small or otherwise) evidence there is. If there is debate about it, that needs to be accurately communicated too. Science communicators aren’t expected to be right about the true underlying state of the world, but they are expected to be right about the claims scientists make and on what basis they’re being made.

    There’s going to be a sweet spot between the opposing forces of engaging the unengaged and communicating findings accurately. But it seems to me that a lot of the problems currently being brought up by the likes of Ben Goldacre about the likes of the Daily Mail are the result of placing more importance on the former. Public science communication seems to be a pretty young area of expertise (despite how bloody important it has always been), so I guess the art will be refined with time.

  4. I think that with public engagement fun and entertainment is a priority – and that makes sense. You’re trying to reach out to an audience and the above methods are a way of doing that. Public engagement that is part of an outreach scheme or science communication should always come from content – otherwise, why does it exist? If you don’t have the content where has your public engagement come from? And why? With the press however, like you say, the focus should be on content – but that’s a different set of objectives and a slightly different medium too.

    And with brevity? I don’t Hannah is championing it here as the preferred form of communication, but it can be a way to get people thinking about things differently. Essays are going to be ignored on a chat group.

    I also believe science communication has come along way, but perhaps the emphasis on engagement before communicating findings is that communicating findings to the unengaged isn’t usually very effective.

    And opposing forces? I hope not!

    N.B. I forgive you condemnation of my summary for your Vague Scientist link.

  5. That it’s a different set of objectives is exactly what I was trying to express, but perhaps I didn’t do that very well. I see the value in both, but I think there’s a fairly robust case for a lack of accuracy in the pursuit of making things exciting and interesting and accessible. That they’re opposing forces doesn’t mean it’s all doomed, I don’t think. I’m just saying that accurate concepts spark discussion as much as poorly-communicated 50-word concepts, and surely the former is the spark we should be aiming for.

    That said, it’s easy for me to sit and whine about these issues related to science communication, but I’ll be damned if I can summarise the evolution of language structure in 50 words.

  6. If you don’t make your public engagement fun and entertaining you can have all the accurate content that you like, but nobody will read it! It’s taken me years and years to let go of the need for a lot of content when you’re engaging with a topic. Generally you are not trying to get your audience to learn or remember a fact – or you may have something like 3 simple learning goals. You’re aiming on the whole to spark an interest, a curiosity, which lets the member of the public find out more later, or at least makes them feel empowered, or that what you are talking about is acceptable and accessible to them.

  7. One of the formats that’s very interesting in sci com is the wordless show. I’ve never seen one, sadly, but the concept is engaging people with a scientific phenomenon with not 50 but NO words and still getting across a learning aim via a process of surpise and discovery. Of course this is unlikely to work for all areas of science. Demonstrating PCR in a show, for example, might be tricky (though I’m happy to be proved wrong!), but the principle is that the public can find out about scientific principles without any verbal explanation at all. (Where does that fit in with your linguistic evolution, Hannah?) I think what’s key here is diversity of approach suitable for the audience, format, and intended outcomes. All content explanation is surely infinite (to the limits of our understanding anyway) so we draw a line somewhere regardless of the kind of communication we are doing. Where that line is best drawn for maximum impact might be higher up than the level we might wish to go to because of our own interests or biases.

    How about you do Bright Club next, Hannah? Got to be some artistic licence in there somewhere I should think.

  8. I have done Bright Club! In Newcastle in June. Bloody terrifying. Though interestingly I misrepresented the great vowel shift very slightly in order to make a joke involving swearwords. However, I got the general premise across, and as no one was going to take in the details of my diagrams in an 8-minute comedy set, I figured that if they were interested in citing the intricacies of it, they would go and type it into google. The outcome I wanted wasn’t for people to be experts of historical linguistics at the end but to make people laugh and to generate interest (and also to change public perceptions about what it is linguists actually do all day). I feel I managed this and had all sorts of interested people asking me questions afterwards from things ranging from dialects to cognitive biases and scientific approaches to linguistics – so I think it was successful despite one slight inaccuracy – which I did correct myself on when speaking to people afterwards because it was making me feel a little bit anxious. As for communicating anything linguistics without words – you’re always going to have difficulty because you’re trying to explain words without words. It’s making my head hurt even thinking about it.

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