PP-2009-49: Models of Language Evolution: Does the Math Add Up?

PP-2009-49: de Boer, Bart and Zuidema, Willem (2009) Models of Language Evolution: Does the Math Add Up? [Report]

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The last two decades have seen an explosion of interest in mathematical and computational models of language evolution. Formal modelling is seen by increasingly many in the field as an approach that ensures internal consistency of evolutionary scenarios. However, there has been little attention to the question of how well the many different models fit together. Are they consistent with and complementary to each other? Is there a series of models that really covers the evolutionary emergence of modern language from a prelinguistic, ancestral state? Are the assumptions that go into a particular model, if not (yet) supported by empirical findings, made plausible by results from other models? In this paper, we argue that these problems deserve much more attention than they currently receive. For sustaining the success of modelling approaches in language evolution research, it is crucial that models start living up to their promise: modellers must make explicit how their models fit in with other work in complete scenarios on the origins of language(s), and how their modelling results affect judgments of plausibility of one scenario against another. Moreover, they must do so based on careful consideration of other work, without overstating their results and misusing the prestige that comes with mathematical approaches. Our arguments are based on a particular view on the role of modelling in scientific research in general, and in "historical" research fields with a paucity of direct evidence in particular. In section 2, we will therefore start with some considerations about the methodology of modelling in our field. To ground the discussion, however, we will quickly move to concrete examples. In section 3 we will discuss the contributions and shortcomings of models of the evolution of speech. In section 4 we will then draw some general lessons from this case study, and sketch an agenda for future research in the language evolution modelling field at large.

Item Type: Report
Report Nr: PP-2009-49
Series Name: Prepublication (PP) Series
Year: 2009
Uncontrolled Keywords: Language Evolution; Modelling; Methodology
Depositing User: Jelle Zuidema
Date Deposited: 12 Oct 2016 14:37
Last Modified: 12 Oct 2016 14:37
URI: https://eprints.illc.uva.nl/id/eprint/378

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