Time: Thursday, November 24th, 18.00 - 20.00 (6pm - 8 pm)

Place: C397

The lecture is part of the "Language Evolution" course.


Theories of linguistic evolution require an account of environmental change to which speech and language emerged as an adaptive response. It has been argued that increases in group size and social complexity played a role in the evolution of a social brain. Here I propose that these factors also facilitated the evolution of language through the influence they exerted on social monitoring and regulation. An initial event, increases in group size, facilitated the transition from heterospecific vigilance as a defense against predators to conspecific eavesdropping as a means of dealing with competitors. This was coupled with the emergence of a simple system of verbal reference that could be used to regulate group behavior and ostracize individuals who violated group norms. A second event, population dispersal, increased distribution of a broader range of eavesdropped material, ratcheting up linguistic complexity. Individuals who kept their eyes and ears open acquired information that compounded their importance since privileged information could be shared with selected others by way of gossip. Late linguistic developments were the emergence of housing and domestic privacy, which intensified connections between prying eyes and wagging tongues.

Relevant reference: Locke, J. L. (2010). Eavesdropping: An intimate history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.