Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen
"Languages Evolve: Parallels and Interactions between Languages and Genes"
Language is a complex evolutionary system in its own, and understanding the processes governing language change and evolution, and the resulting patterns of linguistic diversity and universal tendencies require more and more advanced quantitative approaches and computationally sophisticated analysis and integration of large datasets. Evolutionary biology and genetics have been a source of inspiration in what concerns theories, concepts and methods leading, for example, to phylogenetic and phylogeographic approaches to reconstructing language history, but this rises very interesting questions concerning the nature, usefulness and limits of parallels between biological and linguistic evolutionary phenomena. Moreover, language and biology do not evolve in parallel but interact constantly, a co-evolution that plays an essential role in shaping both. The similarities and differences between biological and cultural evolution offer a fertile ground for cross-disciplinary collaborations not only in method transfer and development, but also in providing a better understanding of the fundamental properties of evolutionary systems in general.
Research interests: I am broadly interested in the interactions, parallels and co-evolution between biology and culture, especially language. I have a special interest in language origins and evolution (placed in its larger evolutionary context) and in the use of genetic data for inferences about the linguistic past. My current work tries to understand how biology creates constraints and affordances that bias the cultural evolution of languages, influencing the universal tendencies on one hand, and linguistic diversity on the other. In particular, does the anatomy of the speech organs affects the speech sounds that various languages use and, if so, can we find genetic factors that influence phonetic and phonological diversity?