Cognitive Linguistics and the Evolution of Language

On Tuesday, July 21st, this year’s International Cognitive Linguistics Conference will host a theme session on “Cognitive Linguistics and the Evolution of Language” co-organized by three Replicated Typo authors: Michael Pleyer, James Winters, and myself. In addition, two Replicated Typo bloggers are co-authors on papers presented in the theme session.

The general idea of this session goes back to previous work by James and Michael, who promoted the idea of integrating Cognitive Linguistics and language evolution research in several conference talks as well as in a 2014 paper – published, quite fittingly, in a journal called “Theoria et Historia Scientiarum”, as the very idea of combining these frameworks requires some meta-theoretical reflection. As both cognitive and evolutionary linguistics are in themselves quite heterogeneous frameworks, the question emerges what we actually mean when we speak of “cognitive” or “evolutionary” linguistics, respectively.

I might come back to this meta-scientific discussion in a later post. For now, I will confine myself to giving a brief overview of the eight talks in our session. The full abstracts can be found here.

In the first talk, Vyv Evans (Bangor) proposes a two-step scenario of the evolution of language, informed by concepts from Cognitive Linguistics in general and Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar in particular:

The first stage, logically, had to be a symbolic reference in what I term a words-to-world direction, bootstrapping extant capacities that Autralopithecines, and later ancestral Homo shared with the great apes. But the emergence of a grammatical capacity is also associated with a shift towards a words-to-words direction symbolic reference: words and other grammatical constructions can symbolically refer to other symbolic units.

Roz Frank (Iowa) then outlines “The relevance of a ‘Complex Adaptive Systems’ approach to ‘language’” – note the scarequotes. She argues that “the CAS approach serves to replace older historical linguistic notions of languages as ‘organisms’ and as ‘species’”.

Sabine van der Ham, Hannah Little, Kerem Eryılmaz, and Bart de Boer (Brussels) then talk about two sets of experiments investigating the role of individual learning biases and cultural transmission in shaping language, in a talk entitled “Experimental Evidence on the Emergence of Phonological Structure”.

In the next talk, Seán Roberts and Stephen Levinson (Nijmegen) provide experimental evidence for the hypothesis that “On-line pressures from turn taking constrain the cultural evolution of word order”. Chris Sinha’s talk, entitled “Eco-Evo-Devo: Biocultural synergies in language evolution”, is more theoretical in nature, but no less interesting. Starting from the hypothesis that “many species construct “artefactual” niches, and language itself may be considered as a transcultural component of the species-specific human biocultural niche”, he argues that

Treating language as a biocultural niche yields a new perspective on both the human language capacity and on the evolution of this capacity. It also enables us to understand the significance of language as the symbolic ground of the special subclass of symbolic cognitive artefacts.

Arie Verhagen (Leiden) then discusses the question if public and private communication are “Stages in the Evolution of Language”.  He argues against Tomasello’s idea that ““joint” intentionality emerged first and evolved into what is essentially still its present state, which set the stage for the subsequent evolution of “collective” intentionality” and instead defends the view that

these two kinds of processes and capacities evolved ‘in tandem’: A gradual increase in the role of culture (learned patterns of behaviour) produced differences and thus competition between groups of (proto-)humans, which in turn provided selection pressures for an increased capability and motivation of individuals to engage in collaborative activities with others.

James Winters (Edinburgh) then provides experimental evidence that “Linguistic systems adapt to their contextual niche”, addressing two major questions with the help of an artificial-language communication game:

(i) To what extent does the situational context influence the encoding of features in the linguistic system? (ii) How does the effect of the situational context work its way into the structure of language?

His results “support the general hypothesis that language structure adapts to the situational contexts in which it is learned and used, with short-term strategies for conveying the intended meaning feeding back into long-term, system-wider changes.”

The final talk, entitled “Communicating events using bodily mimesis with and without vocalization” is co-authored by Jordan Zlatev, Sławomir Wacewicz, Przemysław Żywiczyński,  andJoost van de Weijer (Lund/Torun). They introduce an experiment on event communication and discuss to what extent the greater potential for iconic representation in bodily reenactment compared to in vocalization might lend support for a “bodily mimesis hypothesis of language origins”.

In the closing session of the workshop, this highly promising array of papers is discussed with one of the “founding fathers” of modern language evolution research, Jim Hurford (Edinburgh).

But that’s not all: Just one coffee break after the theme session, there will be a panel on “Language and Evolution” in the general session of the conference, featuring papers by Gareth Roberts & Maryia Fedzechkina; Jonas Nölle; Carmen Saldana, Simon Kirby & Kenny Smith; Yasamin Motamedi, Kenny Smith, Marieke Schouwstra & Simon Kirby; and Andrew Feeney.


“Speaking Our Minds” Book Club at the International Cognition and Culture Institute Website

Over at the website of the International Cognition and Culture Institute there’s a book club on Thom Scott-Phillips 2014 book “Speaking Our Minds: Why human communication is different, and how language evolved to make it special”   (Thom has written a guest post for Replicated Typo previewing the book, which you can find here).

As of now, there are 16 responses on the blog from various reseachers from different disciplines along with responses by Thom.

Researchers who have commented on various aspects of “Speaking Our Minds” include, for example,

  • the founders of Relevance Theory,
    • Dan Sperber (“Key Notions in the Study ofC ommunication”)
    •  Deirdre Wilson (“Natural language and the language of thought”)
  • primatologist
    • Katja Liebal (“A closer look at communication among our closest relatives”)
  • philosophers
    • Richard Moore (“Why do children but not apes acquire language?”)
    • and Liz Irvine (“Combinatoriality and codes”)
  • evolutionary linguists
    • Kenny Smith (“Communication, culture, and biology in the evolution of language”)
    • and Bart de Boer (“Enjoyable, but doesn’t solve the mystery))

And many others.

Well worth a a read, go check it out!


In Search of Dennett’s Free-Floating Rationales

I’ve decided to take a closer look at Dennett’s notion of free-floating rationale. It strikes me as being an unhelpful reification, but explaining just why that is has turned out to be a tricky matter. First I’ll look at a passage from a recent article, “The Evolution of Reasons” [1], and then go back three decades to a major exposition of the intentional stance as applied to animal behavior [2]. I’ll conclude with some hints about metaphysics.

On the whole I’m inclined to think of free-floating rationale as a poor solution to a deep problem. It’s not clear to me what a good solution would be, though I’ve got some suggestions as to how that might go.

Evolving Reasons

Dennett opens his inquiry by distinguishing between “a process narrative that explains the phenomenon without saying it is for anything” and an account that provides “a reason–a proper telic reason” (p. 50). The former is what he calls a how come? account and the latter is a what for? account. After reminding us of Aristotle’s somewhat similar four causes Dennett gets down to it: “Evolution by natural selection starts with how come and arrives at what for. We start with a lifeless world in which there are lots of causes but no reasons, no purposes at all.” (p. 50).

Those free-floating rationales are a particular kind of what for. He introduces the term on page 54:

So there were reasons before there were reason representers. The reasons tracked by evolution I have called “free-floating rationales” (1983, 1995, and elseswhere), a term that has apparently jangled the nerves of more than a few thinkers, who suspect I am conjuring up ghosts of some sort. Free-floating rationales are no more ghostly or problematic than numbers or centers of gravity. There were nine planets before people invented ways of articulating arithmetic, and asteroids had centers of gravity before there were physicists to dream up the idea and calculate with it. I am not relenting; instead, I am hoping here to calm their fears and convince them that we should all be happy to speak of the reasons uncovered by evolution before they were ever expressed or represented by human investigators or any other minds.

That is, just as there is no mystery about the relationship between numbers and planets, or between centers of gravity and asteroids, so there is no mystery about the relationship between free-floating rationales and X.

What sorts of things can we substitute for X? That’s what’s tricky. It turns out those things aren’t physically connected objects. Those things are patterns of interaction among physically connected objects.

Before taking a look at those patterns (in the next section), let’s consider another passage from this article (p. 54):

Natural selection is thus an automatic reason finder that “discovers,” “endorses,” and “focuses” reasons over many generations. The scare quotes are to remind us that natural selection doesn’t have a mind, doesn’t itself have reasons, but is nevertheless competent to perform this “task” of design refinement. This is competence without comprehension.

That’s where Dennett is going, “competence without comprehension” – a recent mantra of his.

It is characteristic of Dennett’s intentional stance that it authorizes the use of intentional language, such as “discovers,” “endorses,” and “focuses”. That’s what it’s for, to allow the use of such language in situations where it comes naturally and easily. What’s not clear to me is whether or not one is supposed to treat it as a heuristic device that leads to non-intentional accounts. Clearly intentional talk about “selfish” genes is to be cashed out in non-intentional talk, and that would seem to be the case with natural selection in general.

But it is one thing to talk about cashing out intentional talk in a more suitable explanatory lingo. It’s something else to actually do so. Dennett’s been talking about free-floating rationales for decades, but hasn’t yet, so far as I know, proposed a way of getting rid of that bit of intentional talk. Continue reading


On the Direction of 19th Century Poetic Style, Underwood and Sellers 2015

Another working paper (title above). Download at:

Abstract, contents, and introduction below:

Abstract: Underwood and Sellers have discovered that over the course of roughly a century (1820-1919) Anglo-American poetry has undergone a consistent change in style in a direction favored by editors and reviewers of elite journals. This directional shift aligns with the one Matthew Jockers found in Angophone novels during roughly the same period (from the beginning of the 19th century to its end). I argue that this change is characteristic of a cultural evolutionary process and sketch a way to simulate such a process as an interaction between a population of texts and a population of writers where texts and writers. I suggest that such directionality is a sign of autonomy in the aesthetic system, that it is not completely coupled to and subsumed by surrounding historical events.


0. Introduction: Looking at Cultural Evolution whether You Like It or Not 2
1. Cosmic Background Radiation, an Aesthetic Realm, and the Direction of 19thC Poetic Diction 8
2. Beyond Whig History to Evolutionary Thinking 14
3. Could Heart of Darkness have been published in 1813? – a digression 19
4. Beyond narrative we have simulation 22

0. Introduction: Looking at Cultural Evolution whether You Like It or Not

I was of course thrilled to read How Quickly Do Literary Standards Change? (Underwood and Sellers 2015). Why? Because they provide preliminary evidence that 19th century Anglophone poetic culture has a direction. Just what that direction, and how to characterize it, that’s something else. But there does appear to be a direction. And just why is that exciting? Because Matthew Jockers made the same discovery about the 19th century Anglophone novel. To be sure, that’s not what he claimed – I’ve had to reinterpret his work (see my working paper, On the Direction of Cultural Evolution: Lessons from the 19th Century Anglophone Novel) – but that’s what he has in fact done.

So we’ve got two investigations making the same observation: there is a long-term direction 19th century literary culture. But not the same, as Jockers looked at novels and Underwood and Sellers looked at poetry. Moreover their observational methods are quite different. Jockers uncovered direction by looking for similarity between texts where similarity judgments are based on a variety of stylistic measures and on topic analysis. Underwood and Smalls bumped into directionality by looking for differences between the general run of literary texts and texts selected for review by elite publications. Jockers’ work, almost by design, uncovered continuity between successive cohorts of texts, but simply ignored elite culture. Underwood and Smalls had no explicit interest in local continuity but, by looking at elite choice, uncovered a possible factor in directional cultural change: the “pressure” of elite preference on the system as a whole. Continue reading

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 20.27.51

Rice, collectivism and cultural history

Today I published a short commentary on a recent paper which found correlations between rice growing and collectivism (Talhelm et al., 2014).  We’ve written about collectivism before (and here).  However, while this may sound like a spurious correlation, there’s more to it:  The theory is that communities which engage in more intensive practices, and therefore require help and collaboration of others, are biased towards a collectivist attitude (as opposed to an individualist attitude).  Rice growing is more intensive than wheat growing, and requires more extensive irrigation, both of which may require collaboration from neighbours.

The really interesting thing about Talhelm et al.’s study is that they look at data within a single country – ChinaThey also find correlations at the county level: Neighbouring counties which differ in the proportion of rice grown (the so-called rice-wheat border) differ in a range of sociological measures of individualism.

Still, the study did not directly control for possible shared history – either of farming practices or social attitudes.  I was recently a reviewer for another commentary on the paper, and decided to look a little deeper.

Continue reading


denDennett’s Astonishing Hypothesis: We’re Symbionts! – Apes with infected brains

It’s hard to know the proper attitude to take toward this idea. Daniel Dennett, after all, is a brilliant and much honored thinker. But I can’t take the idea seriously. He’s running on fumes. The noises he makes are those of engine failure, not forward motion.

At around 53:00 into this video (“Cultural Evolution and the Architecture of Human Minds”) he tells us that human culture is the “second great endosymbiotic revolution” in the history of life on earth, and, he assures us, he means the “literally.” The first endosymbiotic revolution, of course, was the emergence of eukaryotic cells from the pairwise incorporation of one prokaryote within another. The couple then operated as a single organism and of course reproduced as such.

At 53:13 he informs us:

In other words we are apes with infected brains. Our brains have been invaded by evolving symbionts which have then rearranged our brains, harnessing them to do work that no other brain can do. How did these brilliant invaders do this? Do they reason themselves? No, they’re stupid, they’re clueless. But they have talents the permit them to redesign human brains and turn them into human minds. […] Cultural evolution evolved virtual machines which can then be installed on the chaotic hardware of all those neurons.

Dennett is, of course, talking about memes. Apes and memes hooked up and we’re the result.

In the case of the eukaryotic revolution the prokaryots that merged had evolved independently and prior to the merging. Did the memes evolve independently and prior to hooking up with us? If so, do we know where and how this happened? Did they come from meme wells in East Africa? Dennett doesn’t get around to explaining that in this lecture as he’d run out of time. But I’m not holding my breath until he coughs up an account.

But I’m wondering if he’s yet figured out how many memes can dance on the head of a pin.

More seriously, how is it that he’s unable to see how silly this is? What is his system of thought like that such thoughts are acceptable? Continue reading


Underwood and Sellers 2015: Beyond narrative we have simulation

It is one thing to use computers to crunch data. It’s something else to use computers to simulate a phenomenon. Simulation is common in many disciplines, including physics, sociology, biology, engineering, and computer graphics (CGI special effects generally involve simulation of the underlying physical phenomena). Could we simulate large-scale literary processes?

In principal, of course. Why not? In practice, not yet. To be sure, I’ve seen the possibility mentioned here and there, and I’ve seen an example or two. But it’s not something many are thinking about, much less doing.

Nonetheless, as I was thinking about How Quickly Do Literary Standards Change? (Underwood and Sellers 2015) I found myself thinking about simulation. The object of such a simulation would be to demonstrate the principle result of that work, as illustrated in this figure:

19C Direction

Each dot, regardless of color or shape, represents the position of a volume of poetry in a one-dimensional abstraction over 3200 dimensional space – though that’s not how Underwood and Sellers explain it (for further remarks see “Drifting in Space” in my post, Underwood and Sellers 2015: Cosmic Background Radiation, an Aesthetic Realm, and the Direction of 19thC Poetic Diction). The trend line indicates that poetry is shifting in that space along a uniform direction over the course of the 19th century. Thus there seems to be a large-scale direction to that literary system. Could we create a simulation that achieves that result through ‘local’ means, without building a telos into the system?

The only way to find out would be to construct such a system. I’m not in a position to do that, but I can offer some remarks about how we might go about doing it.

* * * * *

I note that this post began as something I figured I could knock out in two or three afternoons. We’ve got a bunch of texts, a bunch of people, and the people choose to read texts, cycle after cycle after cycle. How complicated could it be to make a sketch of that? Pretty complicated.

What follows is no more than a sketch. There’s a bunch of places where I could say more and more places where things need to be said, but I don’t know how to say them. Still, if I can get this far in the course of a week or so, others can certainly take it further. It’s by no means a proof of concept, but it’s enough to convince me that at some time in the future we will be running simulations of large scale literary processes.

I don’t know whether or not I would create such a simulation given a budget and appropriate collaborators. But I’m inclined to think that, if not now, then within the next ten years we’re going to have to attempt something like this, if for no other reason than to see whether or not it can tell us anything at all. The fact is, at some point, simulation is the only way we’re going to get a feel for the dynamics of literary process.

* * * * *

It’s a long way through this post, almost 5000 words. I begin with a quick look at an overall approach to simulating a literary system. Then I add some details, starting with stand-ins (simulations of) texts and people. Next we have processes involving those objects. That’s the basic simulation, but it’s not the end of my post. I have some discussion of things we might do with this system followed with suggestions about extending it. I conclude with a short discussion of the E-word. Continue reading


ICPhS Phonetic Evolution Meeting. Proceedings and Registration closing.

At this year’s International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in Glasgow, there is a special interest satellite meeting on the evolution of phonetic capabilities. I posted a list about the program here:…015-in-glasgow/10675.html

This is just an update to let people know that:

A) The proceedings booklet is now available online here:

B) The deadline for registration to the meeting is 24th June.

Registration is £10, and can be completed through the ICPhS registration page under “Registration only with no accommodation”.

If you would like to register only for this meeting, without registering for the main ICPhS conference, you can do so by emailing

More info can be found here:

For any other queries, contact


Cultural Evolution and Oral Tradition: ‘Information transfer’ at the micro scale

It’s clear that one problem I have with Dennett’s memetics is this his conception face-to-face mechanisms of cultural evolution – like the transfer of information from one computer to another – seems rather thin, unrealistically so. I tend to think that meaning is something arrived at through negotiation whereas Dennett writes as though one-shot one-way ‘information transfer’ is sufficient to the process.

I want to present some passages from David Rubin, Memory in Oral Tradition: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes (Oxford UP 1995) that I think merit close consideration. These are passages about oral epic and so are relevant to thinking about folktales, myth and such, stories that are held in memory and delivered to an audience without benefit of written prompt. One thing we need to keep in mind is that, in oral culture, the notion of faithful repetition is not the same as it is in literate culture. In the literate world repetition means word-for-word. In oral cultures it does not. A faithful recounting of a story is one where the same characters are involved in the same (major) incidents in (pretty much) the same order. Word-for-word recounting is not required; in fact, such a notion is all but meaningless. With no written (or otherwise recorded) verification, how do you tell?

This passages illustrates that nicely (pp. 137-138):

Avdo Medjedovic was the best singer recorded by Lord and Parry. An example of his learning a new song provides insights into what it is that the poetic-language learner must learn about his genre (Lord, 1960; Lord & Bynum, 1974). A singer sang a song of 2,294 lines that Avdo Medjedovic had never heard before. When the song was finished, Avdo Medjedovic was asked if he could sing the same song. He did, only now the song was 6,313 lines long. The basic story line remained the same, but, to use Lord’s description, “the song lengthened, the ornamentation and richness accumulated, and the human touches of character, touches that distinguish Avdo Medjedovic from other singers, imparted a depth of feeling that had been missing” (p. 78). Avdo Medjedovic’s song retold the same story in his own words, much as subjects in a psychology experiment would retell a story from a genre with which they were familiar, but Avdo Medjedovic’s own words were poetic language and his story was a song of high artistic quality. Although the particular words changed, the words added were all traditional; and so the stability of the tradition, if not the stability of the words of a particular telling of a story, was ensured.

Several aspects of this feat are of interest. First, the song was composed without preparation and sung at great speed. There was no time for preparation before the 6,313 lines were sung, and once the song began, the rhythm allowed little time for Avdo Medjedovic to stop and collect his thoughts. Such a feat implies a well-organized memory and the equivalent of an efficient set of rules for production. Second, the song expanded yet remained traditional in style, demonstrating that more than a particular song was being recalled. Rather, rules or parts drawn from other songs were being used. Third, although Avdo Medjedovic was creative by any standards, he was not trying to create a novel song; he believed that he was telling a true story just the way he had heard it, though perhaps a little better. To do otherwise would be to distort history.

So, an expert listens to a story than runs to 2,294 lines and then immediately repeats it back, but embellished to 6,313. Would he be able to do the same thing the next day or ten days or a year later? Probably. Continue reading


Where I’m at on cultural evolution, some quick remarks

I don’t know.

Some notes to myself.

1. Cultural Analogs to Genes and Phenotypes

I’ve spent a fair amount of time off and on over the last two decades hacking away at identifying cultural analogues to biological genes and phenotypes. In the past few years that effort has taken the form of an examination of Dan Dennett. I more or less like the current conceptual configuration, where I’ve got Cultural Beings as an analog to phenotypes and coordinators as analogs to genes. As far as I can tell – and I AM biased, of course, it’s the best such scheme going.

And it just lays there. So what? I don’t see that it allows me to explain anything that can’t otherwise be explained. Nor does it have obvious empirical consequences that one could test in obvious ways. It seems to me mostly a formal exercise at this point. In that it is not different from any version of memetics nor from Sperber’s cultural attractor theory. These are all formal exercises with little explanatory value that I can see.

That’s got to change. But how? I note that dealing with words as evolutionary objects seems somewhat different from treating literary works (or musical works and performances, works of visual art, etc.) as evolutionary objects.

Issues: Design, Human Communication

2. Cultural Direction

Perhaps the most interesting work I’ve done in the past year as been my work on Matt Jockers’ Macroanalysis and, just recently, on Underwood and Sellers’ paper on 19th century poetry. In the case of Jockers’ work on the novel, he’d done a study of influence which I’ve reconceptualized as a demonstration that the literary system as a direction. In the case of Underwood and Sellers, they’ve found themselves looking at directionality, but they hadn’t been looking for it. Their problem was to ward of the conceptual ‘threat’ of Whig historicism; they want to see if they can accept the directionality but not commit themselves to Whiggishness, and I’ve spent some time arguing that they need not worry.

What excites me is that two independent studies have come up with what looks like demonstrations of historical direction. I take this as an indication of the causal structure of the underlying historical process, which encompasses thousands upon thousands of people interaction with and through thousands of texts over the course of a century. What shows up in the texts can be thought of as a manifestation of Geist and so these studies are about the apparent direction of Geist. Continue reading

Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween