ELC Masterclass 23rd-24th May: “Language change as cultural evolution”

By Kenny | May 30, 2013

Prof. Nikolaus Ritt (Vienna), who is visiting us for 6 months, will give a masterclass on “Language change as cultural evolution”. These lectures are aimed at students on the Masters in the Evolution of Language and Cognition, but everyone is welcome to attend – places are limited by the size of the room though, so please let Kenny know if you’d like to participate, by email to kenny@ling.ed.ac.uk.

Thursday 23rd May, 2pm-3.30pm, DSB 1.17

Friday 24th May, 10am-11.30am, DSB 1.17

“Language Change as Cultural Evolution”

This course discusses (a) to what extent observable linguistic changes can be used as evidence in the attempt to understand the principles and the mechanisms that drive cultural evolution, and (b) to what extent theories of cultural evolution can help us to understand language change. Obviously, the two questions are two sides of the same epistemological coin.

We shall look at some fairly well attested developments from the history of English, involving phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic changes. In each case we shall ask how the change can be described in evolutionary terms, i.e. as a change in the frequency of competing variants in a population of linguistic competence constituents, i.e. instructions for producing and being able to deal with specific types of linguistic behaviour. Some of the questions involved in taking this approach will turn out to be both interesting and challenging. For instance, we will be concerned with the issue of identifying the involved constituents in a way that allows one to (a) attribute them to distinct types (each token of which can be considered as a good enough copy of all others), to (b) establish in what way the types can be said to compete with each other, and to (c) count how many of them there actually are at each stage in a linguistic change. On the other hand, we will also try to identify possible (types of) factors involved in the selection of some specific constituent variant over its competitors. We will try to make a distinction between universal factors grounded in human physiology (in the widest sense), historically contingent social factors such as the relative ‘prestige’ of linguistic behaviour variants or their role in establishing group identity, as well as the selective pressures which some constituents of linguistic systems may exert on the historical stability of others.

In all discussions of specific changes, we shall discuss how potential accounts in terms of cultural evolution compare to accounts based on established, non-evolutionary theories of linguistic change.