Edinburgh Lectures in Language Evolution

The Edinburgh Lectures in Language Evolution are an annual series of lectures surveying the state of the art in our understanding of the origins and evolution of language in our species. Each year, we welcome one or more distinguished visiting speakers to deliver lectures summarising their own work and where they think the future breakthroughs in our understanding will come from.


A colourful stylised graphic created by Glasgow artist Fran Caballero. Two human figures are looking up at three frames on a green wall. The first frame contains the text ELLE 2002. The second is a collage of music, a city skyline, a book, food and drink, and Bayes' Theorem, with a large brain in the middle. The third frame contains a grey head looking left.
Artwork by Fran Caballero

For the 2022 edition of the Edinburgh Lectures in Language Evolution, we virtually welcomed four visiting speakers to deliver talks on the first four Thursdays in June. The invited speakers were Ev Fedorenko (MIT), Tom Griffiths (Princeton), Tecumseh Fitch (Vienna), and Asifa Majid (Oxford).

Inspired by the format of 2021’s Birmingham Lectures, each event began with a virtual talk by one of the visiting speakers that showcased their research. The talk was followed by a panel discussion between all four speakers, after which the audience had an opportunity to join the conversation.

The final talk on June 23 had an in-person reception at the University of Edinburgh, presented in partnership with the UKRI CDT in Natural Language Processing.

The University of Edinburgh logo in dark blue, accompanied by the text "The University of Edinburgh UKRI Centre for Doctoral Training in Natural Language Processing"The logo of UK Research and Innovation

June 2nd: Ev Fedorenko, MIT, Department of Neuroscience

Headshot of Ev FedorenkoClick here to watch the talk recording on YouTube (human captioning coming soon!)

Ev Fedorenko is Associate Professor of Neuroscience at MIT. To study the human language system in adults and children, including those with developmental and acquired brain disorders and otherwise atypical brains, her research employs a range of methodologies including fMRI, intracranial recordings and stimulation, EEG, MEG, and computational modelling.

Talk details

The language system in the human mind and brain

The goal of my research program is to understand the representations and computations that enable us to share complex thoughts with one another via language, and their neural implementation. A decade ago, I developed a robust new approach to the study of language in the brain based on identifying language-responsive cortex functionally in individual participants. Using this functional-localization approach, I identified and characterized a set of frontal and temporal brain areas that i) support language comprehension and production (spoken and written); ii) are robustly separable from the lower-level perceptual (e.g., speech processing) and motor (e.g., articulation) brain areas; iii) are spatially and functionally similar across diverse languages (~50 languages from 12 language families); and iv) form a functionally integrated system with substantial redundancy across different components. In this talk, I will highlight a few discoveries from the last decade and argue that the primary goal of language is efficient information transfer rather than enabling complex thought, as has been argued in one prominent philosophical and linguistic tradition (e.g., Wittgenstein, 1921; Berwick & Chomsky, 2016). First, I will examine the relationship between language and other aspects of cognition. I will show that the language brain regions are highly selective for language over diverse non-linguistic processes while also showing a deep and intriguing link with a system that supports social cognition. And second, I will examine different properties of language and argue that language both has a) properties that make it not suitable for complex thought, and b) properties that make it well-suited for communication. Both of these lines of evidence support the communicative function of language, and suggest that the idea that language evolved to allow for more complexity in thought is unlikely.

June 9th: Tom Griffiths, Princeton, Computational Cognitive Science Lab

Headshot of Tom Griffiths

Click here to watch the talk recording on YouTube (human captioning coming soon!)

Tom Griffiths is Professor of Psychology and Computer Science at Princeton University. In his research, he is interested in developing mathematical models of higher level cognition, and understanding the formal principles that underlie our ability to solve the computational problems we face in everyday life.

Talk details

Overcoming inductive biases in cumulative cultural evolution

The accumulation of knowledge over successive generations is one of the ways that humans overcome their individual limitations — being able to achieve more than would otherwise be possible with a single brain or a single lifetime. However, we still don’t fully understand the factors that make this process of cumulative cultural evolution possible. Individual humans have inductive biases that help them learn from the limited data they experience. Theoretical and empirical studies of the cultural transmission of information have demonstrated that these inductive biases have a significant impact on the information being transmitted. So how can you build a system that accumulates knowledge out of these noisy and biased components? I will summarize recent work demonstrating the challenges that human inductive biases pose for cumulative cultural evolution and describe one situation in which it was possible to overcome those biases. Much of this work was done in collaboration with Bill Thompson (now a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley).

June 16th: Tecumseh Fitch, Vienna, Department of Cognitive Biology

Headshot of Tecumseh Fitch

Click here to watch the talk recording on YouTube (human captioning coming soon!)

Tecumseh Fitch is Professor of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna. His interests include bioacoustics and biolinguistics, specifically the evolution of speech, language and music. He performs experiments with species including humans, fish, birds, reptiles and mammals, and works in both the lab and the field.

Talk details

How to study language evolution: Beyond “evolutionarios”

The scientific study of language evolution has grown steadily more hypothesis driven over the last two decades. Comparative research on a broad range of species, neural research, computer modeling, and a better understanding of gene/culture coevolution are all playing increasingly prominent roles. However, I will argue that future progress will depend not just on more and better empirical research, but on theoretical progress at a meta-scientific level as well. First, a more thorough commitment to testing multiple hypotheses, as opposed to accumulating evidence for one favored “pet hypothesis,” is crucial. Only this method of multiple hypotheses can effectively discriminate among the many plausible hypotheses currently on offer. Second, it is crucial for researchers to recognize that human language evolution required the acquisition of multiple derived traits since our divergence from chimpanzees. Too often, researchers argue (or imply, by omission) that there is some single “magic bullet” that, once evolved, gave our species language in a single leap. This belief is inconsistent both with our knowledge of fossil hominins, and more general biological understanding of the evolution of complex traits. I will illustrate these points using comparative data concerning the evolution of speech and of syntax.

June 23rd: Asifa Majid, Oxford, Department of Psychology

Headshot of Asifa Majid

Click here to watch the talk recording on YouTube (human captioning coming soon!)

Asifa Majid is Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Oxford. Her research investigates the relationship between language, culture, and cognition by conducting studies with adults in different cultures and sub-cultures, and by tracing how concepts develop over a child’s lifetime in diverse cultural contexts. Her work combines laboratory and field experiments, as well as in-depth linguistic studies and ethnographically-informed description.

The in-person reception that took place after this final talk was sponsored by our partner, the UKRI CDT in NLP.

Talk details

Language and Cognition or languages and cognitions?

A hallmark of our species is the variation in communication codes we utilise. While cognitive science has historically emphasised theorising about Language with a capital L (language as a general human capacity) and Cognition with a capital C (the universal properties of the human mind), there is increasing recognition that we must account for the diversity of specific languages and their associated cognitions. This year, 2022, marks the beginning of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages according to the United Nations General Assembly. I would like to use this opportunity to reflect on and revisit what lesser-described languages have to offer us in understanding “The Cognitive Underpinnings of Language”, and what this means for future progress in the field.


In 2021, we welcomed Cedric Boeckx (Barcelona), Cecelia Heyes (Oxford), and Gareth Roberts (Philadelphia) for a series of online lectures.

The YouTube playlist for these lectures can be found here.


20th February 2017, 10am – 5pm, Informatics Forum, Edinburgh
FULLY BOOKED (but free space may be available on the day).

In addition to two lectures from our guest lecturer as part of this day-long event, there will also be presentations showcasing work from the world-leading Centre for Language Evolution, as well as plenty of opportunity for discussion and debate.


Our guest lecturer for 2017 is Professor Morten Christiansen. Morten is Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Cognitive Science Program at Cornell University, as well as Senior Scientist at the Haskins Labs, Professor of Child Language at the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University, and Professor in the Department of Language and Communication at the University of Southern Denmark. His research focuses on the interaction of biological and environmental constraints in the evolution, acquisition and processing of language. He employs a variety of methodologies, including computational modeling, corpus analyses, statistical learning, psycholinguistic experiments, and neuroimaging.

Programme of Events

10:00  Coffee (provided)

10:15  Morten Christiansen, Creating Language: From Milliseconds to Millennia

11:15  Coffee (provided)

11:30  Olga Fehér, Communication systems are shaped by interaction and transmission: insights from atypical birdsong and artificial languages

12:15  Marieke Schouwstra, The emergence of word order conventions in natural and artificial sign languages

13:00  Lunch (provided)

14:00  Richard Blythe, The curious parallels of biological and language evolution

14:45  Isabelle Dautriche, Learning homophones in context: the easy cases are favored in the lexicon of natural languages

15:30  Coffee (provided)

15:45  Morten Christiansen, Creating Language: Balancing Arbitrariness and Systematicity in Vocabulary Structure

17:00  Finish

Everyone is encouraged to attend for the full day if possible.