Culture and biology in the origins of linguistic structure

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Language is systematically structured at all levels of description, arguably setting it apart from all other instances of communication in nature. In this article, I survey work over the last 20 years that emphasises the contributions of individual learning, cultural transmission, and biological evolution to explaining the structural design features of language. These 3 complex adaptive systems exist in a network of interactions: individual learning biases shape the dynamics of cultural evolution; universal features of linguistic structure arise from this cultural process and form the ultimate linguistic phenotype; the nature of this phenotype affects the fitness landscape for the biological evolution of the language faculty; and in turn this determines individuals’ learning bias. Using a combination of computational simulation, laboratory experiments, and comparison with real-world cases of language emergence, I show that linguistic structure emerges as a natural outcome of cultural evolution once certain minimal biological requirements are in place.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)118-137
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin & Review
Issue number1
Early online date24 Jan 2017
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017


  • language evolution
  • cultural evolution
  • computational modeling
  • iterated learning


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