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Capita Selecta I: Language Evolution


Admission Requirements

Bachelor diploma


Language is a major characteristic that makes humans unique as a species. How did we get from the chirps, howls and calls of monkeys and apes to the complex and sophisticated signal of human speech? What is the origin of this unique form of communication? This is a question that has fascinated researchers since long ago. Yet, we do not have a clear picture of how language arose and what it is exactly that gives humans the ability to use it. Until relatively recently it was hard to approach questions on language evolution without resorting to speculation because there is not much obvious tangible evidence to be found in this area. Researchers therefore had to come up with creative methods to tackle questions on the origins of language.

In this research seminar we will take an interdisciplinary journey through the field of language evolution and explore the many creative ways evidence can be gathered to study the origins of this unique human trait. We will look at widely varying theories and review methods and results from research in genetics, computer simulations, field work data on emerging sign languages, laboratory experiments and comparisons with other cultural systems like music. Language can be seen as a complex adaptive dynamical system that evolves and constantly adapts to the humans that are learning and using it. What kind of mechanisms support this process of cultural evolution? How can we study it in a quantitative way? How does all this new data fit with original theories on the origins of language?

We will explore current literature and experiment with computational and in-class simulations of language evolution processes. This course will help create an understanding of the breadth of the field of language evolution and the creative and interdisciplinary approach needed to investigate its questions.

Course Objectives

After successful completion of this course, the learner will be able to:

  • Identify and list the many creative ways evidence can be gathered to study the origins of language

  • Describe different theories that have been proposed

  • Design and implement a computer model to study aspects of language evolution

  • Evaluate and draw conclusions from computer modeling work

  • Evaluate and judge laboratory experiments that study aspects of language evolution

  • Observe, analyze and report on the experimental live emergence of an artificial language

  • Summarize how mechanisms of cultural evolution shape language

  • Generate ideas for future studies and creative use of data in the field of Language Evolution

Time Table

The dates are included in the Media Technology calendar

Mode of Instruction

Lectures, self study

Assessment Method

25% Final paper
35% Exam
25% Homework assignments
15% Participation in class


Reading List

Hurford, J. (2014) The Origins of Language: A Slim Guide. Oxford University Press.

Corballis, M. C. (2012). How language evolved from manual gestures. Gesture, 12(2), 200-226.

Fitch, W. T. (2013). Musical protolanguage: Darwin’s theory of language evolution revisited. Birdsong, speech, and language: Exploring the evolution of mind and brain, 489-504.

Computer models
de Boer, B. (2000). Self organization in vowel systems. Journal of Phonetics, 28(4), 441– 465.

de Boer, Bart (2006) Computer modeling as a tool for understanding language evolution, In: Gontier, N., Van Bendegem, J. P., and Aerts, D., Evolutionary Epistemology, Language and Culture – A nonadaptationist systems theoretical approach. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 381–406

Kirby, S. (1999). Syntax out of learning: the cultural evolution of structured communication in a population of induction algorithms. In Floreano, D., Nicoud, J.-D., and Mondada, F., ECAL99, pp. 694-703.

Social coordination
Galantucci, B. (2005). An experimental study of the emergence of human communication systems. Cognitive Science, 29(5): 737-767

Scott-Phillips, T. C., Kirby, S., and Ritchie, G. R. S. (2009) Signalling signalhood and the emergence of communication. Cognition, 113(2): 226-233

Theisen, C. A., Oberlander, J., & Kirby, S. (2010). Systematicity and arbitrariness in novel communication systems. Interaction Studies, 11(1), 14-32.

Iterated Learning
Kirby, S., Cornish, H., & Smith, K. (2008). Cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory: an experimental approach to the origins of structure in human language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 105, 10681-10686

Smith, K., & Wonnacott, E. (2010). Eliminating unpredictable variation through iterated learning. Cognition, 116, 444-449

Mesoudi, A., Whiten, A., & Dunbar, R. (2006). A bias for social information in human cultural transmission. British Journal of Psychology, 97(3), 405-423.

Emerging sign languages
Senghas, A., Kita, S., & Özyürek, A. (2004). Children creating core properties of language: Evidence from an emerging sign language in nicaragua. Science, 305, 1779- 1782

Sandler, W., Meir, I., Padden, C. & Aronoff, M. (2005). The Emergence of Grammar in a New Sign Language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(7): 2661-2665.

Imai, M., & Kita, S. (2014). The sound symbolism bootstrapping hypothesis for language acquisition and language evolution. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 369(1651), 20130298.


Via program coordinator Media Technology: Nanda Milbreta:, 071-527 6994

Signing up for classes and exams in uSis

You have to sign up for classes and examinations (including re-exams) in uSis. Check this link to find the information and activity codes.
How to sign up for classes and exams

Contact Information

Nanda Milbreta:

Important Links

curriculum link

course webpage