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Paperback | $22.00 Short | £15.95 | ISBN: 9780262513395 | 504 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 54 illus.| August 2009

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Essential Info

The Computational Nature of Language Learning and Evolution


The nature of the interplay between language learning and the evolution of a language over generational time is subtle. We can observe the learning of language by children and marvel at the phenomenon of language acquisition; the evolution of a language, however, is not so directly experienced. Language learning by children is robust and reliable, but it cannot be perfect or languages would never change—and English, for example, would not have evolved from the language of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. In this book Partha Niyogi introduces a framework for analyzing the precise nature of the relationship between learning by the individual and evolution of the population.

Learning is the mechanism by which language is transferred from old speakers to new. Niyogi shows that the evolution of language over time will depend upon the learning procedure—that different learning algorithms may have different evolutionary consequences. He finds that the dynamics of language evolution are typically nonlinear, with bifurcations that can be seen as the natural explanatory construct for the dramatic patterns of change observed in historical linguistics. Niyogi investigates the roles of natural selection, communicative efficiency, and learning in the origin and evolution of language—in particular, whether natural selection is necessary for the emergence of shared languages.

Over the years, historical linguists have postulated several accounts of documented language change. Additionally, biologists have postulated accounts of the evolution of communication systems in the animal world. This book creates a mathematical and computational framework within which to embed those accounts, offering a research tool to aid analysis in an area in which data is often sparse and speculation often plentiful.

Current Studies in Linguistics 43

About the Author

Partha Niyogi was a Professor of Computer Science and Statistics at the University of Chicago.


"A thoughtful and original analysis of important problems in the history, evolution, and acquisition of language."
Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Language Instinct, Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate

"Partha Niyogi introduces new perspectives on the link between language acquisition and language change across generations. He theorizes with a mathematician's rigor, generalizes across biological, political, and cultural distinctions, and offers intriguing simulations."
David W. Lightfoot, Professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University, and Assistant Director, National Science Foundation

"A study of the relationship between language learning by individuals and the evolution of language gives rise to a host of issues, all of them controversial. Niyogi has first provided a lucid discussion of many of these issues and then suggested a very interesting formal and computational model, based primarily on a distribution over the grammars of a population of learners. Linguists and computational linguists of different persuasions will find this book very rewarding."
Aravind K. Joshi, Henry Salvatori Professor of Computer and Cognitive Science, University of Pennsylvania

"Biological evolution can only be understood by thinking in terms of populations. This book helps us to think in terms of linguistic populations. The vast array of examples and models offers a wealth of tools for understanding the dynamics of the subtle interplay between language evolution and language learning."
Karl Sigmund, Faculty for Mathematics, University of Vienna