The Nature of Language
- 2022-09-28 - 2022-12-21
- Wednesdays, 11:00 - 14:00
- Philosophy Faculty (UB), Room 401
This course will explore some key ideas in the recent study of the origins and evolution of language. On the one hand, we will pay some attention to formal and computational models of language evolution – although always keeping the focus on the philosophical import of such models. On the other hand, we will review some prominent contemporary ideas about signaling in animals and early humans.
For each session a text will be proposed, to be read beforehand. The session will consist in seminar-style discussion of this piece, led by the instructor and
in which ample participation of the students is expected (see the section on evaluation.)
If the situation demands it, these discussions could be moved to an online videoconference platform.
Insofar as the topic allows it (most clearly in our sessions on primate and early human communication) we will consider the extent to which gender roles influenced the evolution of language.
This is a tentative list of readings, and of the lectures that will discuss them.
There will likely be changes in both, but this should give you a good idea of what to expect from the course.
• Week 1: Course overview.
2.1 Weeks 2, 3 and 4: communication and cooperation
• We first introduce the sender-receiver framework
– Ideas in game and information theory to model cooperation and some
of its constraints.
– Skyrms, Signals, chaps. 2 and 3
• We will then discuss the problem of cooperation in the face of deception
– Skyrms, The Stag Hunt, chapters 1, 2 and 3.
• Finally, we wil look into how animal communication, and animal cognition
in general, presents features we associate with language proper.
– Fitch, The evolution of language, chapter 4
2.2 Weeks 5, 6 and 7: Primate and Early Human Communication
• Cheney and Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics
• Tomasello, Origins of Human Communication
• Planer and Sterelny, From signal to symbol
• We are going to explore two different, to an extent antagonistic, ideas:
1. Tomasello and Planer & Sterelny: Language depends on a mutualistic
and altruistic substrate, that exists only in humans and (to a
much lesser extent) great apes – this presumably is facilitated by the
presence of common interest.
2. Cheney and Seyfarth: at least some of the cognitive capabilities that
will eventually be deployed in language use depend on imperfect common
interest – the Machiavellian need to navigate dangerous and
complicated social structures.
2.3 Weeks 8, 9 and 10: Computational Models
• We revisit formal models of the evolution of language, with our newlygained
• Kirby et al., Compression and communication in the cultural evolution of
• Readings from Cangelosi et al., Simulating the evolution of language
• Week 11: Conclusions
• 4000 word seminar paper, on any of the topics discussed during the course.
This paper must be written in English. 60% of the final grade
– A short abstract (~300 words) should be submitted before December
5, but feel free to ask me for guidance before that.
– Final date for the paper TBA, but around January 20.
• In each session, one or two students will prepare a question about the readings
for that day. This question should be submitted to me by email the
day before the session. They will pose their question during the seminar.
20% of the final grade
– You should think of this question as one you might pose in the context
of an academic conference. A few resources:
– How to ask questions at conferences and colloquia
– Teaching philosophic question asking
– The intellectual achievement of creating questions
• Participation in class. All other students are expected to ask questions
and participate in the seminar. 20% of the final grade
– If a student finds class participation hard in any way, they should
contact me in advance. We will look for alternatives together.
NB: Plagiarism can result (and has resulted in the past) in a failing grade for
the course. I take this very seriously.
Cangelosi, Angelo, and Domenico Parisi. 2012. Simulating the Evolution of Language. Springer Science & Business Media.
Cheney, Dorothy L., and Robert M. Seyfarth. 2007. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Fitch, W. Tecumseh. 2010. The Evolution of Language. Cambridge University Press.
Kirby, Simon, Monica Tamariz, Hannah Cornish, and Kenny Smith. 2015. “Compression and Communication in the Cultural Evolution of Linguistic Structure.” Cognition 141 (August): 87–102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2015.03.016.
Planer, Ronald, and Kim Sterelny. forthcoming. From Signal to Symbol. The MIT Press.
Skyrms, Brian. 2003. “The Stag Hunt and the Evolution of Social Structure,”
———. 2010. Signals: Evolution, Learning & Information. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tomasello, M. 2008. Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.