Evolutionary linguistics

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Evolutionary linguistics is the scientific study of the origins and development of language. The main challenge in this research is the lack of empirical data: spoken language leaves practically no traces. This led to an abandonment of the field for more than a century.[1] Since the late 1980s, the field has been revived in the wake of progress made in the related fields of psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, evolutionary anthropology and cognitive science.



August Schleicher (1821–1868) and his Stammbaumtheorie are often quoted as the starting point of evolutionary linguistics. Inspired by the natural sciences, especially biology, Schleicher was the first to compare languages to evolving species.[2] He introduced the representation of language families as an evolutionary tree in articles published in 1853. Joseph Jastrow published a gestural theory of the evolution of language in the seventh volume of Science, 1886.[3]

The Stammbaumtheorie proved to be very productive for comparative linguistics, but didn't solve the major problem of evolutionary linguistics: the lack of fossil records. The question of the origin of language was abandoned as unsolvable. Famously, the Société Linguistique de Paris in 1866 refused to admit any further papers on the subject.

The field has re-appeared in 1988 in the Linguistic Bibliography, as a subfield of psycholinguistics. In 1990, Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom published their paper "Natural Language & Natural Selection" which strongly argued for an adaptationist approach to language origins. Their paper is often credited with reviving the interest in evolutionary linguistics. This development was further strengthened by the establishment (in 1996) of a series of conferences on the Evolution of Language (now known as "Evolang"), promoting a scientific, multidisciplinary approach to the issue, and interest from major academic publishers (e.g., the Studies in the Evolution of Language series has been appearing with Oxford University Press since 2001) and scientific journals.

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