Research Topic

Languages as Adaptive Systems

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One of the most puzzling features of human language and its use lies in its diversity of forms, the fact that every language undergoes changes over time, and that every child learns one or more languages in a short span of time. From one alleged human speech form (or perhaps a cluster thereof) spoken some ...

One of the most puzzling features of human language and its use lies in its diversity of forms, the fact that every language undergoes changes over time, and that every child learns one or more languages in a short span of time. From one alleged human speech form (or perhaps a cluster thereof) spoken some 100,000 years ago, we have today at least 7,000 different languages spoken. These languages are spoken in different ecologies determined by speakers’ interactions within and across communities. These ecologies are crucial for language acquisition and change because they provide the language learner with the input on which she will base her learning hypotheses. Since every learner in a community adapts to her particular ecology, partially determined by her social network, not all learners converge to the same adaptive systems, hence the birth of change.

As we know well from the study of classical languages such as Greek, Sanskrit, and Latin, all languages change over time, so that they can be unrecognizable over the centuries. It is therefore not surprising that one fundamental question in the language sciences is: how and why do languages change over time? Are there any significant constraints? This Research Topic focuses on one approach that has attempted to answer these questions drawing its inspiration from evolutionary theory. The fundamental idea is that languages could be, to some extent, treated as evolving systems that adapt to different contexts, or ecologies. We are not talking about physical environments here, but rather sociolinguistic, cultural, and linguistic ones. But what are these contexts like? How, if at all, do these contexts constrain change? How does the human mind adapt to these contexts? For example, highly multilingual contexts may push different languages towards different types of admixture and congruence of structure; while prolonged and radical isolation might promote diversification towards highly marked features, to name just a few.

Looking at language and languages as adaptive systems taps right into the heart of what matters for the advancement of the language sciences: multilingual development, diachronic change, contact language formation, linguistic diversity, and variation. All these are products of the human mind. By focusing on these linguistic aspects, we therefore open a window into better understanding the human mind.


Keywords: linguistic ecology, language evolution, language creation, multilingualism, hybridisation


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