The nature of language



This course will explore some key ideas in the recent study of the origins and
evolution of language. On the one hand, we will pay some attention to formal
and computational models of language evolution—although always keeping the
focus on the philosophical import of such models. On the other hand, we will
review some prominent contemporary ideas about signaling in animals and early

Course plan

This is a tentative list of readings, and of the lectures that will discuss them.

There will likely be changes in both, but this should give you a good idea of what to expect from the course.

Week 1: Course overview.
Weeks 2, 3 and 4: communication and cooperation

• We first introduce the sender-receiver framework
– Ideas in game and information theory to model cooperation and some of its constraints.
– Skyrms, Signals, chaps. 2 and 3

• We will then discuss the problem of cooperation in the face of deception and free-riding
– Skyrms, The Stag Hunt, chapters 1, 2 and 3.

• Finally, we wil look into how animal communication, and animal cognition in general, presents features we associate with language proper.
– Fitch, The evolution of language, chapter 4

Weeks 5, 6, 7 and 8: Primate and Early Human Communication
• Cheney and Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics
• Planer and Sterelny, From signal to symbol
• Tomasello, Origins of Human Communication
• Hrdy and Burkart, The emergence of emotionally modern humans
• We are going to explore two different, to an extent antagonistic, ideas:

1. Tomasello, Planer & Sterelny, Htrdy and Burkart: Language depends on a mutualistic and altruistic substrate, that exists only in humans and (to a much lesser extent) great apes – this presumably is facilitated by the presence of common interest.

2. Cheney and Seyfarth: at least some of the cognitive capabilities that will eventually be deployed in language use depend on imperfect common interest – the Machiavellian need to navigate dangerous and complicated social structures.

Weeks 9 and 10: Computational Models
• We revisit formal models of the evolution of language, with our newly gained understanding.
– Kirby et al., Compression and communication in the cultural evolution of linguistic structure
– Steels, Grounding symbols through evolutionary language games

Week 11: Conclusions


Seminar paper

4000 word seminar paper, on any of the topics discussed during the course. This paper must be written in English. 60% of the final grade

– A short abstract (~300 words) should be submitted before December 5, but feel free to ask me for guidance before that.
– Final date for the paper TBA, but around January 20.

On the readings

In each session, one or two students will prepare a question about the readings for that day. This question should be submitted to me by email the day before the session. They will pose their question during the seminar. 20% of the final grade

– You should think of this question as one you might pose in the context of an academic conference. A few resources:
– How to ask questions at conferences and colloquia
– Teaching philosophic question asking
– The intellectual achievement of creating questions

Participation in class

All other students are expected to ask questions and participate in the seminar. 20% of the final grade

– If a student finds class participation hard in any way, they should contact me in advance. We will look for alternatives together.

NB: Plagiarism can result (and has resulted in the past) in a failing grade for the course. I take this very seriously.


Cheney, Dorothy L., and Robert M. Seyfarth. 2007. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh. 2010. The Evolution of Language. Cambridge University Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer, and Judith M. Burkart. 2020. “The Emergence of Emotionally Modern Humans: Implications for Language and Learning.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 375 (1803): 20190499.

Kirby, Simon, Monica Tamariz, Hannah Cornish, and Kenny Smith. 2015. “Compression and Communication in the Cultural Evolution of Linguistic Structure.” Cognition 141 (August): 87–102.

Planer, Ronald, and Kim Sterelny. forthcoming. From Signal to Symbol. The MIT Press.

Skyrms, Brian. 2003. “The Stag Hunt and the Evolution of Social Structure,” 167.

———. 2010. Signals: Evolution, Learning & Information. New York: Oxford University Press.
Steels, Luc. 2002. “Grounding Symbols Through Evolutionary Language Games.” In Simulating the Evolution of Language, edited by Angelo Cangelosi and Domenico Parisi, 211–26. London: Springer.

Tomasello, M. 2008. Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.