Evolutionary Pragmatics Forum

This internet forum is organised by Bart Geurts (Nijmegen) and Richard Moore (Warwick), and takes place every last Friday of the month from 15:00 to 16:30 (CET) / 2pm to 3:30 pm (UK). If you would like to attend, contact us at evoprag@gmail.com

Upcoming talks

29 October 2021: Suzanne Aussems (Warwick)

Signals of the first humans

Languages were not fossilized until the earliest form of writing appeared around 5,500 years ago. But our human ancestors communicated long before that. The question I will address in this talk is the following: What were the earliest communicative acts, or signals, used by the first humans? Answering this question is a challenging task, because the first humans emerged around two million years ago. By looking at the pragmatic skills of human children and our closest evolutionary relatives, the great apes, we may attempt to fill in some of the blanks. In my approach, I will consider evidence from evolutionary anthropology, archaeology, developmental psychology, gesture studies, and primatology. By drawing evidence from these different fields of research I will make a case for the most likely candidates involved in the earliest form of human communication. I will consider body posture and movement, hand gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations.


26 November 2021: Roland Mühlenbernd (Berlin, Torun) & Andreas Baumann (Vienna)

Previous talks

24 September 2021: Paula Rubio-Fernandez (Oslo)

Reference systems: connecting language and social cognition

Language and social cognition come together in communication, but their relationship has been intensely contested. I hypothesize that reference systems connect language and social cognition and enable their co-development in ontogeny and co-evolution in diachrony through a positive feedback loop, whereby the development of one skill boosts the development of the other. Reference systems comprise closed-class words that encode non-representational information, which is accessed automatically and signals intersubjectivity (i.e. the speaker’s assumptions about whether the listener shares their attention or knowledge; e.g., demonstratives: ‘here’/ ‘there’; articles: ‘a’/ ‘the’, or pronouns: ‘I’/ ‘she’). To test the positive feedback loop hypothesis, I propose to investigating two developmental pathways in social cognition: that from joint attention to spatial perspective taking, and from discourse memory to common ground management. Crucially, these two developmental pathways should be investigated across three parallel timescales: in language acquisition, in language use and in language change.

28 May 2021: Antonio Benítez Burraco (Seville), Francesco Ferretti (Rome), Ljiljana Progovac (Detroit)

Human self-domestication and the evolution of pragmatics

In our talk we will argue that several key aspects of modern uses of languages (pragmatics) might have evolved gradually in our species under the effects of human self-domestication, in essence, the presence in humans of features commonly found in domesticates, most notably a reduced reactive aggression and an increased prosocial behavior. Our take-home message will be that the reduction in reactive aggression enabled us to fully exploit our cognitive and interactional potential as applied to linguistic exchanges, and ultimately, to evolve sophisticated turn-taking, as well as complex inferential abilities. This potentiation of pragmatic principles governing conversation would have co-evolved with the sophistication of language structure (with emerging grammars initially facilitating the transition from physical aggression to verbal aggression), with three key aspects (aggression, language structure, and language use) being involved in a complex feedback loop.

30 April 2021: David A. Leavens (Sussex)

Reference without symbols and joint attention without theory of mind

According to a large corpus of contemporary research into human cognitive development, human babies discern and manipulate the contents of other minds with pointing gestures. I will critically examine the empirical bases for these extraordinary claims and present an alternative account for the evolution and development of pointing and other referential activities in animals, including humans. It seems plausible that high rates of joint attention in our species are more a consequence of language-rich environments than indices of mental representation because joint attention is widespread in the animal kingdom, apparently in the complete absence of shared symbolic systems.

26 March 2021: Marieke Woensdregt (Nijmegen)

Using computational modelling to investigate the cultural evolutionary interactions between social cognition, social interaction, and language

Verbal theories have been put forward about how social cognition (particularly mindreading) and language may have (culturally) co-evolved, but such theories that pertain to past stages of (cultural) evolution are hard to test empirically. The same holds for evolutionary interactions between the cultural evolution of language and the interactive mechanisms that help make our conversations run smoothly, such as interactive (a.k.a. other-initiated) repair. I will present simulation results of agent-based models that demonstrate how we can use computational modelling to formalize and inform our theories regarding the cultural evolutionary interactions between (i) language and mindreading and (ii) language and interactive repair.

26 February 2021: Catherine Crockford, Cedric Girard-Buttoz, Cornelius Eichner, Alfred Anwander (Leipzig)

The concurrent ontogeny of chimpanzee white matter tracts with sequential vocal output and tool use

A striking feature of the human species is our large brain, enabling some complex skills that surpass those of other species, such as tool use, social cognition, and in particular, language. The question of how the neural networks supporting these skills evolved during phylogeny is still open, mainly due to a lack of studies directly comparing human and non-human primate brains and the related behavior. First results from a consortium, the Evolution of Brain Connectivity Project, show that in adult chimpanzees, vocal sequence flexibility exceeds that reported for old world monkeys, with implications for predictions for target regions of white-matter tracts across species. In chimpanzee ontogeny, we show that behaviors with potential for structured thought, such as call sequences and tool use, emerge after two years of age. These behavioral findings are in line with our preliminary tractography results, indicating the possible emergence of a dorsal connection to the inferior frontal lobe between 2 and 4 years of age. Similar to brain development in humans, the chimpanzee data of different age groups indicate a strengthening of the dorsal tract connecting the inferior frontal lobe with the temporal/parietal regions.


29 January 2021: Bart Geurts (Nijmegen)

Evolutionary pragmatics: from chimp-style communication to human discourse

One of the most distinctive features of social interaction in our species is that we use language to coordinate our future activities, and in many cases far ahead. Non-human primates don't do this, as a consequence of which their interactions remain comparatively simple and short-range. I argue that the evolution of communication for future coordination was enabled by two developments: an increase of responsiveness during the communicative exchange and the emergence of normative behaviours in the follow-up. Responsiveness was required to coordinate future interactions, but wasn't enough for coordinating interactions beyond the immediate future, which required normativity, to boot.

27 November 2020: Richard Moore (Warwick)

Pragmatics made simple

A central question for language evolution research is whether non-human great apes act with and attribute communicative intent. Since they seem to be relatively poor at pointing comprehension, it has often been claimed that they do not (Tomasello 2006, 2008; Scott-Phillips 2014, 2015), and that this is why humans alone acquire language. In this talk I revisit the question of great ape pointing. I argue that great apes are better at pointing comprehension than has often been supposed, and that pointing comprehension data are better explained by the hypothesis that great apes do understand communicative intent but are limited in their pragmatic interpretation abilities. I also present a theoretical model of pragmatic inference that does not presuppose language-like abilities, and which can be used to explain inferences about communicative intent made by non-human great apes and other species.

30 October 2020: Dorit Bar-On (Connecticut)

‘Pragmatics-first’ approaches to animal communication and the evolution of language

Recent discussions of animal communication and the evolution of language have advocated a ‘pragmatics-first’ approach to the subject. Seyfarth & Cheney (2017), for example, propose that “animal communication constitutes a rich pragmatic system” and that “the ubiquity of pragmatics, … suggest[s] that, as language evolved, semantics and syntax were built upon a foundation of sophisticated pragmatic inference”. I begin by distinguishing two different notions of pragmatics advocates of the ‘pragmatics-first’ approach have implicitly relied on (cf. Bar-On and Moore, 2018). On the first, Carnapian notion, pragmatic phenomena are those that involve context-dependent determination of the content or significance of an utterance or signal. On the second, Gricean notion, pragmatic phenomena involve reliance on speakers’ communicative intentions and their decipherment by their hearers. I use the distinction, first, to evaluate a recent formal linguistic analysis of monkey calls, due to Schlenker et al. (e.g. 2014, 2016a,b), which explains the derivation of call meanings through a form of pragmatic enrichment. And, second, I use the distinction to motivate the need for an ‘intermediary pragmatics’ that, I argue, applies only to a subset of animal communicative behaviors, and would allow us to reconceive the significance of animal communication for our understanding of the evolution of language.