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Evolution of Language Workshop

Fri 6th December 2013, Macquarie University, Sydney


In 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris banned debate on the subject of language evolution, perhaps due to the appearance of speculative theories on the origins of spoken language. Several of these were recounted by the historian Max Müller (1861):

The Bow-wow (aka Cuckoo) theory proposed that early words were imitations of the cries of beasts and birds, whereas the Poop-pooh theory maintained that first words were emotional interjects triggered by pleasure or pain, and the Yo-he-ho theory suggested that language developed to synchronize muscular effort by alternating sounds such as heave with sounds such as ho.

Despite the initial attractiveness of such theories, they have been largely discredited, and replaced by two alternative approaches to the origins of language. One is the Continuity (gradualist) approach. On this view, the emergence of language in the species can be explained by invoking the same kind of adaptive (descent with modification) mechanisms that have shaped other traits. Language is a rich computational system that coordinates the rapid and effortless alignment of a speaker’s world knowledge with that of a hearer’s, using the linguistic subsystems of phonology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. The interleaving of these components in acts of communication is so complex that advocates of the continuity approach find it difficult to imagine how language could simply appear from nothing in its final form.

The alternative Discontinuity (saltationist) approach has reached the opposite conclusion. On this view, the fact that modern humans have language, whereas our remote ancestors did not, was due to a single, chance genetic micromutation. The discontinuity approach contends that language must have appeared in its “near perfect” form because language is a uniquely human cognitive trait that invokes recursive data structures (discrete infinity) and, logically, there is no way for there to be a gradual transition from a mind/brain that is only capable of computing finite operations, to one that is capable of generating an unbounded number of novel linguistic expressions.

This workshop is devoted to an in-depth discussion of the origins of language. Among the questions that will be discussed are the following:

  • What is language?
  • What aspects of language are unique to humans?
  • What can language acquisition tell us about language evolution?
  • How is language represented in the brain?
  • What function, if any, does language serve?
  • Were there proto-languages?
  • Did language evolve gradually or was its evolution a ‘sudden emergent event’?
  • Is there a gestural origin to language?
  • What is the relationship between logic and language?


The conference will be held in Room 1.200 (Lecture Theatre) at the Australian Hearing Hub at Macquarie University, Sydney NSW, Australia.

Macquarie University Campus Map (may take a while to load)


  • Professor Bob Berwick, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Professor Kim Sterelny, Australian National University
  • Emeritus Professor Brian Byrne, University of New England
  • Associate Professor Drew Khlentzos, University of New England
  • Dr Richard Menary, Macquarie University

Downloads (pdf): speaker Biographies and Abstracts and the full meeting Program



Robin Blumfield
Tel: +612 9850 4127

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