Language as an evolutionary system

Henry Brighton, K Smith, S Kirby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry argued that human language signified the eighth major transition in evolution: human language marked a new form of information transmission from one generation to another [Maynard Smith J, Szathmáry E. The major transitions in evolution. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press; 1995]. According to this view language codes cultural information and as such forms the basis for the evolution of complexity in human culture. In this article we develop the theory that language also codes information in another sense: languages code information on their own structure. As a result, languages themselves provide information that influences their own survival. To understand the consequences of this theory we discuss recent computational models of linguistic evolution. Linguistic evolution is the process by which languages themselves evolve. This article draws together this recent work on linguistic evolution and highlights the significance of this process in understanding the evolution of linguistic complexity. Our conclusions are that: (1) the process of linguistic transmission constitutes the basis for an evolutionary system, and (2), that this evolutionary system is only superficially comparable to the process of biological evolution.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)177-226
Number of pages49
JournalPhysics of Life Reviews
Volume2
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2005

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