Nijmegen Lectures 2011

9 January 2012 10:30 - 11 January 2012 17:00
Nijmegen Lectures
Coevolutionary Linguistics: Diversity, Culture, Mind and History
by Nicholas Evans
Australian National University

This year's lecturer Nicholas Evans is Professor of Linguistics in the College of Asia/Pacific, Australian National University. He has carried out wide-ranging fieldwork on languages of northern Australia and Papua New Guinea, and the driving interest of his work is the interplay between documenting endangered languages and the many scientific and humanistic questions they can help us answer. In addition to grammars of two Aboriginal languages, Kayardild and Bininj Gun-wok, dictionaries of Dalabon and Kayardild),  edited collections on a number of linguistic topics, and over 120 scientific papers, he recently published the widely-acclaimed crossover book Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us which sets out a broad program for the field's engagement with the world's dwindling linguistic diversity. He has also worked as a linguist, interpreter and anthropologist in two Native Title claims in northern Australia, and as a promotor of Aboriginal art by the Bentinck Island women’s artists.


Lecture 1: Exploring the Library of Babel: Linguistic diversity and the human sciences

As the field of linguistics moves into a new paradigm which places diversity at centre stage, the time is ripe to make explicit some fundamental assumptions about how it – like other human sciences interested in patterned sociocultural diversity – should define and tackle its central scientific questions. This is particularly important at a moment when a number of key axioms that have defined the field are being challenged or significantly modified – from the arbitrariness of the sign (Saussure), to the equal human endowment of all humans to learn all languages (Boas), to the tight functional integration of the system (Martinet), to the existence of a specialised cognitive module of ‘universal grammar’ in accounting for the central properties of language (Chomsky). The crucial shift, I will argue, is to move to a well-articulated coevolutionary account that shifts the general explanatory mechanisms from representation of structure to process, with a large number of interacting selectors working on different time scales – langue as social institution, individual knowledge of language as a developmental trajectory, to real-time adjustment of production. Taken together, these generate an extraordinary number of different stable engineering solutions because of the large number of factors coming into play. In this first lecture I will illustrate the broad outlines of an integrated coevolutionary approach, and the overall logic of how the various aspects of the linguistic enterprise – description and documentation, typologisation, formal representation, the study of social and functional variation, and explanation – should be integrated. Its key elements are: (a) a scrupulous and comprehensive exploration of the design space of human language (b) the comprehensive exploration of selectors of a wide range of types – articulatory/acoustic/perceptual, functional, cognitive, sociocultural, systemic, aesthetic – which between them should be able to account for the distribution of attested linguistic phenomena across the full design space, as well as the patterning of linguistic diversity on the global scale (why is diversity found where it is?) (c) a systematic exploration of the interactions between socioculturally-situated language history and language structure, on the one hand, and language structure and cognition on the other. As a case study, I will focus on the phenomenon of reciprocal constructions (corresponding to English each other / Dutch elkaar), whose incredible cross-linguistic variability makes it a particularly good illustration of how many engineering solutions languages can evolve to a complex communication problem.



Balthasar Bickel, University of Zurich Michael Cysouw

Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich

Asifa Majid, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen



Evans, Nicholas. 2009. Dying Words: Endangered languages and what they have to tell us. Malden & Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. Pp. 45-68. Evans, Nicholas & Steven Levinson. 2009a,b. The Myth of Language Universals. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, Target Article with Commentary, plus response (With diversity in mind: freeing the language sciences from Universal Grammar). Behavioral & Brain Sciences 32: 429-448, 472-492.

Evans, Nicholas. 2010. Complex events, propositional overlay and the special status of reciprocal clauses. In Sally Rice & John Newman (eds.), Empirical and experimental methods in cognitive/functional research. Stanford: CSLI. Pp. 1-40.


Lecture 2: The refraction of other minds: Language, culture and social cognition

Our ability to interact with others by building a shared and complex mental world through social cognition is increasingly recognised as a central driver of human evolution, and as the key capacity underpinning the evolution of culture, including language. It is social cognition which enables us to construct functioning societies sharing knowledge, values and goals, and to undertake collaborative action. It is also crucial to empathising and communicating with others, to enriching imprecise signs in context, to maintaining detailed, differentiated representations of the minds and feelings of those who share our social universe, to coordinating the exchanges of information that allow us to keep updating these representations, and to coopting others into action. Linguistically, the centrality of social cognition raises several questions. Can we develop an elaborated architecture of what speaker/hearers encode in representing social cognition? How far does this architecture vary across languages? How can we harness the vast variation of the world’s languages to achieve what Ortega y Gasset called an ‘audacious integration’ of human possibilities for linguistically-mediated social cognition? Does culture impact on these models, through mechanisms such as the placing of kinship information in central position, restrictions on the imputing of ‘opaque’/subject information to others, or the modulation of how speaker<>interlocutor relations and joint attention are managed during conversation? If the representation of social cognition is indeed found to differ significantly across languages, does this have experimentally testable consequences for the operation of social cognition more generally? The interrogation of social cognition in grammar to be given in this talk will focus on the widely differing manifestations it takes in a broad range of languages, as they can be discovered through the fields of language description and linguistic typology. But the results are relevant to a number of other fields, including social psychology, anthropology and evolutionary human biology, and to the more general tension that the human sciences face in balancing the particular and the integrative in accounts of culturally-patterned human variation.


Disa Sauter, University of Amsterdam

Jean-Christophe Verstraete, University of Leuven

Jordan Zlatev, Lund University



Evans, Nicholas. 2009. Dying Words: Endangered languages and what they have to tell us. Malden & Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. Pp. 69-80. Evans, Nicholas, Stephen Levinson, Alice Gaby and Asifa Majid. 2011. Introduction: reciprocals and semantic typology. In Evans, Gaby, Levinson & Majid (eds.) Reciprocals and Semantic Typology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Pp. 1-28. Evans, Nicholas Bininj Gun-wok: a pan-dialectal grammar of Mayali, Kunwinjku and Kune. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. Pp. 40-69.


Lecture 3: Language and deep time: 60,000 years of linguistic history in Sahul

For 99% of human history we have lived in small, face-to-face, multilingual societies of exclusively oral tradition, without the centralising effects of state-based societies. To understand the forces that have shaped both languages and brains for most of our human trajectory, then, requires close attention to speech communities that can give us direct insights into how languages function, change and interact in such settings. The erstwhile continent of Sahul – which united Australia and New Guinea until they were separated by rising seas 10,000 years ago – is the only continent to have been exclusively occupied by small-scale societies until historical times. Colonised by humans across much of its surface by around 60,000 years ago, yet maintaining a mosaic of small-scale societies throughout this time right up till colonial contact, Sahul is the epicentre of the world’s linguistic diversity. This status has now been given added significance by the discovery of high levels of genetic diversity in Sahulian populations, which appear to preserve significant levels of Neanderthal and Denisovan genetic material. It is therefore no coincidence that many linguistic phenomena that have proved deeply troubling for universalising paradigms have emerged from studies of languages in Sahul, representing as it does a long independent population within which linguistic structures have evolved free from contact with structures elsewhere in the world. In this lecture I will survey the importance of Sahul to our understanding of the slow-acting, deep-time historical processes that shape language structure, interweaving two themes through a number of case studies. The first theme shows how different linguistic methods can help us excavate back through the stratigraphy of deep language history, including the problem of calibrating linguistic and archaeological histories in a continent of hunter-gatherers, the emergence of the ‘subsection’ system as an elegantly-structured social-reckoning device across much of Northern Australia, and the implications of Sahulian linguistic diversity for timing the emergence of language in humans. The second theme concerns both the scientific opportunities and the extreme empirical fragility offered by the Sahulian situation as a distillation of the world’s threatened linguistic diversity. I will focus particularly on the distinctive sociocultural processes and the evolutionary pathways they drive in the small-scale societies of Sahul. These include the mobilisation of multilingual variance for social signalling, the installation of complex kin-based reasoning into core grammar, the influence of culturally-specific assumptions on semantic change, and the in importance of recognising the small-scale multilingual speech community as the sociolinguistic matrix within which particular types of structural development occur, particularly those that drive moves into underpopulated corners of the design space. I conclude the lecture, and the series, by sketching the scientific priorities that linguistics and related fields must embrace if they are to fully incorporate the lessons of diversity into their field at a historical crisis point in terms of accelerating language loss in the world’s most linguistically diverse regions.


Claire Bowern,Yale University

Fiona Jordan, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen

Peter Trudgill, University of Agder



Evans, Nicholas. 2009. Dying Words: Endangered languages and what they have to tell us. Malden & Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. Pp. 5-18. Evans, Nicholas. 2003b. Context, culture and structuration in the languages of Australia. Annual Review of Anthropology 32:13-40. Memmott, Paul, Nicholas Evans & Richard Robins. 2006. Understanding isolation and change in island human populations through a study of indigenous cultural patterns in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia 130.1:29-47.


Joe Blythe
Michael Dunn
Ad Foolen
Olga Krasnoukhova
Julia Udden


Radboud University Nijmegen, Aula, Comeniuslaan 2, Nijmegen
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Wundtlaan 1, Nijmegen




Nijmegen Lectures 2011




Nanjo.Bogdanowicz [at]

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