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Language evolution: Constraints and opportunities from modern genetics

Dediu, D., & Christiansen, M. H. (2016). Language evolution: Constraints and opportunities from modern genetics. Topics in Cognitive Science, 8, 361-370. doi:10.1111/tops.12195.
Our understanding of language, its origins and subsequent evolution (including language change) is shaped not only by data and theories from the language sciences, but also fundamentally by the biological sciences. Recent developments in genetics and evolutionary theory offer both very strong constraints on what scenarios of language evolution are possible and probable but also offer exciting opportunities for understanding otherwise puzzling phenomena. Due to the intrinsic breathtaking rate of advancement in these fields, the complexity, subtlety and sometimes apparent non-intuitiveness of the phenomena discovered, some of these recent developments have either being completely missed by language scientists, or misperceived and misrepresented. In this short paper, we offer an update on some of these findings and theoretical developments through a selection of illustrative examples and discussions that cast new light on current debates in the language sciences. The main message of our paper is that life is much more complex and nuanced than anybody could have predicted even a few decades ago, and that we need to be flexible in our theorizing instead of embracing a priori dogmas and trying to patch paradigms that are no longer satisfactory.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


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