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Abstract. All human societies have languages capable of expressing the richness of human thought. To what extent is this achievement an historical accomplishment, similar to mathematics or science, and to what extent does it rely on our evolved cognitive capacities? I study these questions by looking at language creation in different communities, including Nicaraguan Sign Language (a new language only 50 years old), homesign systems, and laboratory-created communication systems. I will present results on how a new language comes to have recursion and quantifiers like “some” and “all." In both cases, I find evidence for rapid emergence of linguistic structure within a few generations. One possible explanation for these findings is that features that emerge early are those that reflect underlying shared semantic structures that are universal (or nearly) in languages. In contrast, the features that emerge later (e.g., grammatical morphology) may be those that vary across languages and require convergence and iterated learning.
This talk will be given in American Sign Language (ASL) and interpreted into English. If anyone would like to attend the talk and have it interpreted in Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT), please send an email to F.Roelofsen@uva.nl in advance and we will do our best to arrange an NGT interpreter.