A Co-evolved Continuum of Language, Culture and Cognition: Prospects of Interdisciplinary Research


  • Jonas Nölle Aarhus University




language evolution, linguistic relativity, cultural evolution, experimental semiotics, agent-based models, impact of ecology on language evolution


This paper deals with questions of language evolution and discusses the emergence of linguistic communication systems in the framework of a co-evolving continuum of language, culture and cognition. Different approaches have tried to unravel the mechanisms underlying language evolution and put emphasis on different aspects, for instance, biological vs. cultural mechanisms. While both are important, I will argue that at least a strong nativism should be refuted. After comparing both approaches, evidence from various lines of research (but especially agent-based models) will be reviewed to argue for the existence of cultural evolutionary processes. In these experiments linguistic structure emerges from scratch via self-organization and selection merely due to interaction and cultural transmission. At the same time, the diversity we can observe in growing cross-linguistic data suggests that many grammatical and conceptual categories that had been considered ‘universal’ do in fact vary. These findings, especially in the semantic domain of space have led to claims about the relation of language and general cognition and a revival of the linguistic relativity hypothesis, but it remains unclear in which directions language, culture and cognition interact. Here I argue that these problems can be approached in the presented framework from an evolutionary perspective. I propose how to address them empirically by combining agent-based models, experimental semiotics and insights from comparative linguistics. I further aim to stress the importance of the ecological environment in evolutionary models and give ex-amples of how it can be taken into account in future empirical work.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5755/j01.sal.0.25.8504

Author Biography

Jonas Nölle, Aarhus University

Center for Semiotics, Aarhus University