The University of Zurich has just created a Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Language Evolution. Although there is already a Center for Language Evolution in Edinburgh, I have to say there aren’t so many around in Europe (although there is one center by our friends in Japan), so when we heard that there was going to be an inaugural event we immediately booked our tickets. For those who are not into Language Evolution, the center in Edinburgh is mostly focused in language complexity through iterated learning experiments, and the Evolinguistics group in Japan has a stronger biological focus, with special attention to birdsong research. The field is young enough that people can speak about Evolutionary Linguistics and refer to the cultural transmission or the biological faculty of language sense, so we were very keen on seeing on what this center would focus.
Looking at the keynotes, it’s actually a mixed bag: Susan Goldin-Meadow, Tecumseh Fitch, Morgen Christiansen and, unsurprisingly, Simon Kirby, leader of the Edinburgh center. They provided an equilibrated weight to all of the sides of the Language Evolution field: sign language studies, animal cognition and cultural evolution (and a lecture about Danish). In a certain sense, it was a nice reflection on the current state of the center, which is still deciding which avenue of research will take (if any): primatologists, but also other animal researchers shared conference with more linguistic-y talks about the interaction of language with iconicity or emotions. In a certain way, this was in detriment of the more biological aspect of the field, the proper (Faculty of) Language Evolution. However, it was still nice to be there surrounded by behavioral experiments, some of them really cool.