From Social Interaction to Symbols and Grammar: A Unified Model of Language Evolution and Language Change


Studies of (pre-historical) language evolution and (historical) language change typically resort to different kinds of explanations: the original evolution of language in the human species is usually accounted for by explanations grounded in the sciences, particularly in biology, whereas changes in language that can be observed on a historical timescale are generally described by methods developed in the humanities. Our research aims to overcome this divide. We have outlined an account that is unique in its bringing together of the phenomena described by (science-oriented) evolutionary linguistics and (humanities-based) historical linguistics under a single uniform process: we have shown that linguistic changes on various levels and timescales are ultimately grounded in the same socio-cognitive mechanisms of ostensive-inferential interaction.

In the current project, we will fully develop this unified account of language evolution and language change and advance it through the preparation of a jointly-authored book. After contextualising our approach to the emergence of complex language, we will develop the pillars of our account: the assumption of uniformity between processes of historical and evolutionary linguistic change, and a cognitive, usage-based approach to language description in which general capacities such as the recognition of common ground and the memorisation of experience can lead to systematic changes in linguistic structure. We will then apply this analytical framework to three distinct problems: the emergence of symbols, the emergence of grammar, and the continuing dynamic nature of language.

The project is intended to provide opportunities for a deep cross-fertilisation of ideas across the two academic institutions involved, viz. the University of Zurich's URPP Language and Space and the University of Stirling's Behaviour and Evolution Research Group.

Principal investigators

Stefan Höfler
Andrew D. M. Smith (University of Stirling)


Smith, Andrew D M; Höfler, Stefan (2017). From metaphor to symbols and grammar: The cumulative cultural evolution of language. In: Power, Camilla; Finnegan, Morna; Callan, Hilary. Human origins: Contributions from social anthropology. Oxford: Berghahn Books Ltd., 153-179.

Smith, Andrew D M; Höfler, Stefan (2014). The pivotal role of metaphor in the evolution of human language. In: Díaz-Vera, Javier E. Metaphor and Metonomy across Time and Cultures: Perspectives on the Sociohistorical Linguistics of Figurative Language. Amsterdam: De Gruyter, 123-140.

Smith, Andrew D M; Höfler, Stefan (2014). The cognitive underpinnings of metaphor as the driving force of language evolution. In: Cartmill, Erica A; Roberts, Séan; Lyn, Heidi; Cornish, Hannah. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on the Evolution of Language. Hacksensack, NJ: World Scientific, 517-518.

Höfler, Stefan; Smith, A D M (2009). The pre-linguistic basis of grammaticalisation: a unified approach to metaphor and reanalysis. Studies in Language, 33(4):886-909.

Höfler, Stefan. Modelling the Role of Pragmatic Plasticity in the Evolution of Linguistic Communication. 2009, The University of Edinburgh, College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Höfler, Stefan; Smith, Andrew D M (2008). Reanalysis vs metaphor: what grammaticalisation CAN tell us about language evolution. In: Smith, A D M; Smith, K; Ferrer i Cancho, R. The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on the Evolution of Language. Hacksensack, NJ: World Scientific, 163-170.