How do languages evolve?

Professor Simon Kirby

Language sets humankind apart from other species. Even our closest primate relatives haven't developed the same ability to acquire & use language. Why are humans the only species with language and how did language evolve?

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Humans are an extraordinary successful species. But is our success due to our ability to share knowledge and information with each other? Is language the key to our evolutionary success?

Simon Kirby is a Professor of Language Evolution at the University of Edinburgh and the Founder of the Centre for Language Evolution there, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying language emergence & evolution.

Simon has pioneered a new approach to understanding cultural evolution of behaviours such as language called Iterated Learning. He uses techniques as diverse as mathematical modelling, computational simulation, and psychological experiments to understand how language evolves and how complex interactions between individual learning, cultural transmission and biological evolution in human populations have led to language evolution even to the present day.

In his Garden Talk, Simon will explain why humans are the only species to evolve language and some of the theories about when and how this ability to acquire and use language occurred in human history. He will also share insights from observing the birth and development new sign languages and how this matching his experiments of creating languages in a lab to answer the question: how do languages evolve?

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50 minutes


Evolution of Language

About the Fellow

Professor Simon Kirby

Simon Kirby is Professor of Language Evolution at the University of Edinburgh and an elected Fellow of the British Academy, Royal Society of Edinburgh, and Cognitive Science Society.

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Evolution of Language Collection

How do languages evolve?  From the origins of language to bilingualism, this series journeys into the mysteries of this uniquely human trait and the power it has to change our world.

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