Graduate School of Language Technology in Finland

Kieliteknologian valtakunnallinen tutkijakoulu - Språkteknologiska forskarskolan i Finland

Course on Language Evolution and Computation (1 - 2 cr)


Simon Kirby and Jim Hurford (University of Edinburgh)


Department of General Linguistics
Siltavuorenpenger 20 A


What is language, how it come to be the way it is, and why are we humans unique in our possession of it? These are some of the most fundamental questions in linguistics and cognitive science. They go to the heart of what it means to be human. Over the last couple of decades there has been a remarkable renaissance in the field of Language Evolution, which aims to answer these questions. Researchers from a huge range of backgrounds, from Archeology to Neuroscience, are actively seeking to understand where language came from.

One approach to answering these questions that has been particularly popular in recent years is computational modelling. Bringing together techniques from machine learning, evolutionary computation, and multi-agent modelling, this novel methodology allows us to probe different theories of language evolution to see if they really work. Computational simulations allow us to run experiments on artificial populations to try and recreate some features of language evolution in silico.

This course has a dual purpose. Firstly, it will provide a review of the core concepts and latest findings in language evolution research. Secondly, it will explore how we can begin to use computational simulations to understand these findings. Any student taking this course will go away not only with a critical understanding of modelling techniques but also the foundation upon which these simulations are grounded: the facts of the evolution of human language.


There are no specific prerequisites for this course - it is intended to be multi-disciplinary. There will be assigned reading throughout the week as well as practical demonstrations of some of the computational models discussed. Those with a background in programming may take the opportunity to carry out replications of some of the models, but there will be some simulation software that can be used by those with no programming experience.


The two strands of the course (Language Evolution and Computational Modelling) will run in parallel through the week (1 - 5 September 2003), taught by James Hurford and Simon Kirby respectively. There will be points of contact between the various lectures, and much opportunity to discuss issues raised. Each morning will be taken up by lectures and discussion, and the afternoon split between lectures and practicals/reading assignments.

Course material

Readings, slides, software etc., as well as essay questions for those who want to earn extra credits

Background articles

Participants are expected to download these articles and study them before the beginning of the course:

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