Coevolutionary Approaches to the Science of Language

  • Nicholas EvansEmail author


Since the famous exchange of letters between Darwin and Schleicher, the parallels between evolutionary processes in the biological and linguistic spheres have been evident. In this paper, I present a coevolutionary approach to language evolution, both in the early phase during which hominins evolved language and in subsequent phases during which humans evolved many thousands of languages whose vastly differing structures serve as a basic resource for understanding the operation of evolutionary processes on languages and cultures. The key elements in this coevolutionary approach are (a) the adoption of a gradualist approach to initial language evolution and (b) the recognition of a large number of selectors (systemic, modality, demographic, usage patterns, biogenetic, epidemiological, sociocultural) which are unevenly distributed across speaker populations and which may nudge emerging languages structures into quite different parts of the design space. Not only does the coevolutionary approach presented here bring the methods of studying linguistic evolution closer to those used in biology, it places the phenomenon of diversity and variability—diversity at the level of differences between languages, and variability between how individuals use them—into the same central role that these occupy in evolutionary biology.



The ideas here were presented at the 22nd Evolutionary Biology Meeting at Marseilles in September 2018, and I thank Pierre Pontarotti for his kind invitation to attend this most stimulating conference, as well as to the audience members for their questions. I would also like to thank Damián Blasi, Lindell Bromham, Bill Croft, Dan Dediu, Mark Ellison, Russell Gray, Steve Levinson, Ron Planer and Kim Sterelny for discussions bearing on the contents of this paper, Aung Si for drawing Fig. 10.1, Susan Ford for assistance with editing and the Australian Research Council for support of the work reported on here, in particular through grants FL130100111 ‘The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity’ and CE140100041 ‘Dynamics of Language’.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL)School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia, and the Pacific, Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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