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Last modified: 04/02/2020

Evolution - Research, NCCR Evolving Language, National Centre of Competence in Research

Language is what sets humans apart from all other species. Despite much effort, however, its evolutionary origins have remained obscure. At the same time, the role of language is currently undergoing radical changes, with cultural, psychological and evolutionary ramifications barely understood. New digital channels, ubiquitous online knowledge bases and continued advancement of artificial intelligence are reshaping our communicative environment and modifying the way we learn and use language. An in-depth exploration of the origins and future of language is urgently needed, propelling language science to the forefront of societal and economic challenges.

The NCCR Evolving Language explores the evolutionary origins and future development of linguistic communication with an unprecedented transdisciplinary research programme. We conceptualise language as a system of components with distinct evolutionary trajectories and adopt a large-scale comparative framework to study these trajectories in nature and function along three thematic axes. These three lines of research are complemented by Transversal Task Forces (TTFs). TTFs will stimulate interdisciplinary collaboration by sharing methods, databases, technologies, and equipment and by fostering NCCR-wide discussions on conceptual and ethical issues.

Theme 1: Dynamic Structures of Language How and why have the structures of language and their temporal dynamics evolved? How will these structures interact with new technologies and means of communication?

Theme 1 of the NCCR aims at developing a dynamic understanding of linguistic structures in two specific ways: First, it seeks to model linguistic structure in biologically plausible terms. Second, it aims at capturing the inter-generational dynamics of linguistic structures, i.e., their ontogeny and diachrony. For the first phase of Evolving Language, three projects will address core aspects of language structure.

Theme 2: Biological Substrates of Language What are the biological mechanisms that make language possible? Can and should we intervene on language functions with neurotechnology?

Theme 2 tackles language as a product of the brain, an exceedingly complex information processing system implemented in a biological tissue. Language has evolved in parallel with a rapid growth of two brain regions, the prefrontal cortex and posterior temporal areas, in particular in the left cerebral hemisphere. The overarching question of Theme 2 prolongs this basic evolutionary observation by asking what cognitive operations and neural principles might have accompanied the development and specific interactions of these brain regions, affording both the capacity to produce and process streams of meaningful complex sounds, and the quasi infinite combinatorial possibilities of language.

Theme 3: Social Cognition of Language What are the social cognitive mechanisms that underlie linguistic communication, both phylogenetically and ontogenetically? How did these mechanisms evolve and how will they change with artificial communicators?

Theme 3 investigates language as the product of social interaction between individuals. First, it seeks to identify the evolutionary drivers that pushed early hominids to transition from primate-like signalling to human-like linguistic communication. Second, it aims at exploring the future of language, notably the impact of machine language on natural languages and their developments. Machines are increasingly replacing social functions in both language acquisition and processing, but the impact of these developments on human linguistic behaviour is largely unknown.