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Cultural and Biological Bases of Language Evolution

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Simulations shed light on how languages evolve

Researchers have developed complex computer models that can simulate the evolution and development of language structures like syntax and phrases. This will help scientists better understand how language first developed.

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Language syntax refers to grouping words in a particular order to make grammatical sense; how it evolved is one of the unresolved puzzles in linguistics. Modern computer science has allowed researchers to model this evolution using networks of agents with different language 'strategies' or sets of rules. The EU-funded LANGEVO (Cultural and biological bases of language evolution) initiative has used such models to understand how syntax evolved in human language. LANGEVO researchers constructed computer simulations with populations of agents. Acting on their own (i.e. guided only by programmed strategies), these agents interact to produce, comprehend, learn and propagate certain aspects of language. The simulations showed that a communication system does not need to be given but can self-organise over time through the actions of each agent. Collectively, these then result in a shared grammar. Most importantly, LANGEVO has found that without syntax, sophisticated communication is almost impossible. This is because complexity increases exponentially when referring to more than one object without syntactical rules. Researchers compared a number of different syntax strategies and phrase structures within their models. In each of these cases, the language evolved to address the increased complexity using syntax. They also looked at how both simple and complex phrases evolved in these models. LANGEVO published several articles in peer-reviewed journals as well as two books: 'Design patterns in fluid construction grammar' and 'Experiments in cultural language evolution'. LANGEVO has provided an overall picture merging the cultural and cognitive factors that have played a role in the origins and evolution of language.


Languages, computer models, syntax, linguistics, LANGEVO

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