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Evolution of Language

Syllabus PSYCH/CogSt 4270/6270 Fall 2014

Uris 205 - Tuesdays, 1:25-4:00PM

Instructor: Dr. Morten H. Christiansen

Office: Uris 228
Office Hours: Tuesdays 12Noon1:15PM and by appointment

The study of the origin and evolution of language must necessarily be an interdisciplinary endeavor. Only by
amassing evidence from many different disciplines can theorizing about the language evolution be sufficiently
constrained to remove it from the realm of pure speculation and allow it to become an area of legitimate scientific
inquiry. Fueled by theoretical constraints derived from recent advances in the brain and cognitive sciences, the last
decade of the twentieth century saw a resurgence of scientific interest in the evolution of language.
This seminar will survey a cross-section of modern theories, methods, and research pertaining to the origin
and evolution of language. We will consider evidence from psychology, the cognitive neurosciences, theoretical
biology, comparative psychology, and computational modeling of evolutionary processes. Topics for discussion may
include: What does the fossil record tell us about language evolution? What can we learn from comparative
perspectives on neurobiology and behavior? Can apes really learn language? Did language come about through
natural selection? What were the potential preadaptations for language? What is the relationship between phylogeny
and ontogeny?

Purpose of Class: To provide a comprehensive introduction to questions, theories, and research on the origin and
evolution of language. At the end of this class, students are expected to be able to think critically about research and
theories related to language evolution.

Course Requirements
1. Complete ALL assigned readings and attend ALL classes.
2. Lead discussion on one or more occasions (the exact number will depend on number students registered for the
class). Joint presentations are acceptable.
3. Discussion leaders should only briefly summarize the reading(s). The leader should assume that everyone has
read the reading(s), and does not need to have it repeated in great detail. The discussion should focus on your
elaborations of the reading(s). This involves clarifying the reading(s) (guided in part by questions submitted by
other class members), critiquing the research, and including other material/viewpoints from additional articles.
4. Formulate three questions for the day's discussion leader. These must be submitted by email to the presenter
before 10:00AM on Mondays before class. A copy of the questions must also be emailed to the instructor
5. Participate in the discussions. Grades will in part be based on discussion participation. Sitting silently through
every class is NOT acceptable.
6. Write a final 15-page (4270) or 25-page (6270) double-spaced paper focusing on several of the topics discussed
in class. This paper will require some research, and must include additional articles not discussed in class. A
one-page synopsis outlining a proposed paper must be submitted to the instructor at the start of class November
11 and the full paper is due no later than December 12th at 4:30PM.

Grades will be based on class presentations, discussion participation, email questions, and the final paper.

Class presentation 20%

Discussion participation 25%
Email questions 25%
Final paper 30%
Academic Integrity
Each student in this course is expected to abide by the Cornell University Code of Academic Integrity. Any work
submitted by a student in this course for academic credit will be the students own work. For this course,
collaboration is allowed in the following instances: Leading discussions. Failure to adhere to the Code of Academic
Integrity will result in an F in the course.

Course Outline

* indicates extra readings for presenters and psych 6270 students

Week Dates Topics Readings

Week 1 8/26 Organizational Meeting
9/2 No Class
Week 2 9/9 On language and evolution Christiansen & Kirby (2009)
Sedivy (2014)
Week 3 9/16 What is special about language? (1) Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch (2002)
Pinker & Jackendoff (2009)
* Lieberman (2007)
Week 4 9/23 What is special about language? (2) Chomsky (2010)
Wheeler et al. (2011)
* Dediu & Christiansen (in press)
Week 5 9/30 Insights from birds and monkeys Abe & Watanabe (2011)
Seyfarth & Cheney (2014)
* Wilson et al. (2013)
Week 6 10/7 Origins of symbols and grammar Tomasello (2003)
Imai & Kita (2014)
* Sereno (2014)
10/14 Fall Break
Week 7 10/21 Gestural origin of language? Corballis (2010)
Dunbar (2003)
* Fay, Arbib & Garrod (2013)
Week 8 10/28 Brain evolution and language Schoenemann (2012)
Rilling (2014)
* Stout & Chaminade (2012)
Week 9 11/4 Computational models of language Jger et al. (2009)
evolution Smith (2014)
* Dale & Lupyan (2012)
Week Dates Topics Readings
Week 10 11/11 Cultural evolution of language Christiansen & Chater (2008)
1-page synopsis due Heine & Kuteva (2012)
* Lieven (2013)
Week 11 11/18 Multiple cues in language evolution Christiansen (2013)
Sandler (2012)
* Levinson & Holler (2014)
Week 12 11/25 Language universals? Evans & Levinson (2009)
Mller (2009)
* Dediu & Ladd (2007)
Week 13 12/2 Where next? Dediu et al. (2013)
12/12 Final paper due (before 4:30PM)

Note: Changes may be made to the readings and their order but this will be announced in class and on the course
web site. Chapter numbers refer to the chapters in the required textbook.

Abe, K., & Watanabe, D. (2011). Songbirds possess the spontaneous ability to discriminate syntactic rules. Nature
neuroscience, 14, 1067-1074.
Chomsky, N. (2010). Some simple evo devo theses: How true might they be for language? In R.K. Larson, V.
Dprez & H. Yamakido (Eds.), The evolution of human language (pp. 45-62). Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Christiansen, M.H. (2013). Language has evolved to depend on multiple-cue integration. In R. Botha & M. Everaert
(Eds.), The evolutionary emergence of language (pp. 42-61). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Christiansen, M.H. & Chater, N. (2008). Language as shaped by the brain. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 31, 489-
Christiansen, M.H. & Kirby, S. (2009). Language evolution. In L.R. Squire (Ed.), New encyclopedia of
neuroscience, Vol. 5 (pp. 321-327). Oxford, U.K.: Elsevier.
Corballis, M.C. (2010). The gestural origins of language. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 1, 2-7.
* Dale, R. & Lupyan. G. (2012). Understanding the origins of morphological diversity: The linguistic niche
hypothesis. Advances in Complex Systems, 15, 1150017-1-1150017-16.
* Dediu, D. & Christiansen, M.H. (in press). Language evolution: Constraints and opportunities from modern
genetics. Topics in Cognitive Science.
Dediu, D., Cysouw, M., Levinson, S.C., Baronchelli, A., Christiansen, M.H., Croft, W., Evans, N., Garrod, S., Gray,
R., Kandler, A. & Lieven, E. (2013). Cultural evolution of language. In P.J. Richerson & M.H. Christiansen
(Eds.), Cultural evolution: Society, technology, language and religion (pp. 303-332). Cambridge, MA: MIT
* Dediu, D. & Ladd, D.R. (2007). Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency of the adaptive haplogroups
of two brain size genes, ASPM and Microcephalin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104,
Dunbar, R.I.M. (2003). The origin and subsequent evolution of language. In M.H. Christiansen & S. Kirby (Eds.),
Language evolution (pp. 219-234). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Evans, N. & Levinson, S. (2009). The myth of language universals: language diversity and its importance for
cognitive science. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 32, 429-492.
* Fay, N., Arbib, M., & Garrod, S. (2013). How to bootstrap a human communication system. Cognitive Science,
37, 1356-1367.
Hauser, M.D., Chomsky, N. and Fitch, W.T. (2002). The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it
evolve? Science, 298, 1569-1579.
Heine, B. & Kuteva, T. (2012). Grammaticalization theory as a tool for reconstructing language evolution. In M.
Tallerman & K. Gibson (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution (pp. 512-522). Oxford, UK: Oxford
University Press.
Imai, M., & Kita, S. (2014). The sound symbolism bootstrapping hypothesis for language acquisition and language
evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369, 20130298.
Jger, H., Baronchelli, A., Briscoe, E., Christiansen, M.H., Griffiths, T., Jger, G., Kirby, S., Komarova, N.,
Richerson, P.J., Steels, L. & Triesch, J. (2009). What can mathematical, computational and robotic models tell
us about the origins of syntax? In D. Bickerton & E. Szathmry (Eds.), Biological foundations and origin of
syntax. Strngmann Forum Reports, Vol. 3 (pp. 385-410). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
* Levinson, S. C., & Holler, J. (2014). The origin of human multi-modal communication. Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369, 20130302.
Lieberman, P. (2007). The evolution of human speech: Its anatomical and neural bases. Current Anthropology 48,
* Lieven, E. (2013). Language acquisition as a cultural process. In P.J. Richerson & M.H. Christiansen (Eds.),
Cultural evolution: Society, technology, language and religion (pp. 267-283). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Mller, R.-A. (2009). Language universals in the brain: How linguistic are they? In M.H. Christiansen, C. Collins &
S. Edelman (Eds.), Language universals (pp. 224-252). New York: Oxford University Press.
Pinker, S. & Jackendoff, R. (2009). The components of language: Whats specific to language, and whats specific
to humans? In M.H. Christiansen, C. Collins & S. Edelman (Eds.), Language universals (pp. 126-151). New
York: Oxford University Press.
Rilling, J. K. (2014). Comparative primate neurobiology and the evolution of brain language systems. Current
opinion in neurobiology, 28, 10-14.
Sandler, W. (2012). Dedicated gestures and the emergence of sign language. Gesture, 12, 265-307.
Schoenemann, P.T. (2012). Evolution of brain and language. In M.A. Hofman & D. Falk (Eds.), Progress in brain
research, Vol. 195 (pp. 443-459). Amsterdam: The Netherlands.
Sedivy, J. (2014). Origins of human language. Chapter 2 of Language in mind: An introduction to psycholinguistics
(pp. 9-53). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.
* Sereno, M.I. (2014). Origin of symbol-using systems: speech, but not sign, without the semantic urge.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369: 20130303.
Seyfarth, R. M., & Cheney, D. L. (2014). The evolution of language from social cognition. Current opinion in
neurobiology, 28, 5-9.
Smith, A. D. (2014). Models of language evolution and change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science,
5, 281-293.
* Stout, D., & Chaminade, T. (2012). Stone tools, language and the brain in human evolution. Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367, 75-87.
Tomasello, M. (2003). On the different origins of symbols and grammar. In M.H. Christiansen & Kirby, S. (Eds.),
Language evolution (pp. 94-110). Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Wheeler, B., Searcy, W.A., Christiansen, M.H., Corballis, M.C., Fischer, J., Grter, C., Margoliash, D., Owren,
M.J., Price, T., Seyfarth, R. & Wild, M. (2011). Communication. In R. Menzel & J. Fischer (Eds.), Animal
thinking: Contemporary issues in comparative cognition. Strngmann Forum Reports (pp. 187-205).
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
* Wilson, B., Slater, H., Kikuchi, Y., Milne, A., Marslen-Wilson, W., Smith, K., & Petkov, C. (2013). Auditory
artificial grammar learning in macaque and marmoset monkeys. Journal of Neuroscience, 33, 18825-18835.