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Language Evolution$
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Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780199244843

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199244843.001.0001

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Grammatical Assimilation

Grammatical Assimilation

(p.295) 16 Grammatical Assimilation
Language Evolution

Ted Briscoe

Oxford University Press

This chapter focuses on the possible emergence of biological adaptations for grammar. It argues that we may be able to understand how language-specific learning biases could have arisen in our evolutionary history by exploring how learning itself may impact on the ability to procreate. The assumption is that aspects of language, which were previously learned, would gradually become genetically encoded through ‘genetic assimilation’ — that is, through genetic adaptations for language selected to increase reproductive fitness. Based on a discussion of computational models of language acquisition, the chapter suggests that innate language-specific constraints are required in order to account for the full complexity of grammatical acquisition. Given this characterisation of our current language ability, the chapter argues that the only plausible way such innate constraints could have evolved in humans is through genetic assimilation. On this account, language started out relying on general-purpose learning mechanisms, but through biological adaptations learning gradually became language-specific. As support, a series of computational simulations in which grammatical assimilation emerges in populations of language-learning agents are reviewed.

Keywords:   language, grammatical assimilation, biological adaptations, grammar, learning, genetic assimilation, language acquisition, computational simulations

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