An international research group, including of the Department of Artificial Intelligence of the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid's Facultad de Informatica, has concluded that collaboration and interaction are essential elements in the evolution of language. They also have shown that the most effective forms of communication can propagate in a community in a similar way to a virus.
The results of this research were published in the academic journal Cognitive Science.
This work provides evidence that supports a collaborative theory of the evolution of language, one in which language evolves out of the coordinated activity of communicators. It also offers evidence for an alternative to present theories that explain the evolution of language based upon the passing of language from one generation to another much as genes are passed from a parent to her offspring.
New experiment on communication
In this work, researchers from the University of Western Australia, the University of Glasgow and the UPM used a novel communication experiment, one that prohibited participants from using their existing language, to create a context in which human subjects could develop simple communication systems in a laboratory setting.
The participants were grouped in communities of eight people, or micro-societies, and participated in a graphical communication game similar to "Pictionary." The representations that subjects created and used to communicate evolved from simple iconic representations to more symbolic and abstract representations, like words in today's spoken languages.
The main result of this work is evidence that supports one of the alternative theories explaining the evolution of language, in which collaboration and interaction are critical. Also, it was shown that the most effective ways of communicating can spread through a community like a virus from person to person.
New light on an old debate
At present, very little is known regarding how spoken language evolved. This is largely due to the lack of evidence regarding how early humans communicated. Written language does give some clues regarding how language developed, but our earliest written texts date from thousands of years ago, while it is believed that humans have had linguistic capacities for more than a hundred thousand years.
Thus, despite a great deal of philosophical speculation regarding the evolution of spoken languages, very few facts exist to validate these accounts. This research sheds new light on this old debate.
Science Daily. 2011. "Interaction Is Critical for the Evolution of the Language". Science Daily. Posted: July 5, 2011. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110705071531.htm
Nicolas Fay, Simon Garrod, Leo Roberts, Nik Swoboda. The Interactive Evolution of Human Communication Systems. Cognitive Science, 2010; 34 (3): 351 DOI: 10.1111/j.1551-6709.2009.01090.x