Work Package 5

Language evolution and diversity

The goal of this WP is to contribute to a better understanding of the biological underpinnings of linguistic universality as well as diversity, both at the population level (between species), at the linguistic level (between languages and dialects), and at the individual level (between speakers). The central strategy in this WP will be to explore both the universality and variability in the learning mechanisms and neurobiological infrastructure subserving language.

Diversity is one of the most extraordinary properties of human communication. WP 5 focusses on some of the factors determining between-language as well as individual variability. Languages are never static but always under the influence of both biological and cultural/historical processes of change. We address the question how this variation emerges and is maintained by fieldwork studies on the micro-level of indigenous communities. Indigenous communities most resemble the situation of prehistoric language diversification. How much internal variation do these show? Given wide-spread multilingualism, how are boundaries maintained?

FoxP2 gen
Structure of the FOXP2 protein

Much of language research has been oriented toward understanding the average speaker or listener, thus often ignoring the individual differences that exist in linguistic behavior. Recent advances in genomics and psycholinguistics point at the need to move away from the idea of language production and comprehension as uniform, invariable behavior, with variation discarded as ‘noise’. Rather we should investigate the factors that are responsible for the large-scale variation we find in language. Why are some speakers more linguistically gifted than others? How do listeners cope with all the variation present in the speech signal? This WP takes variation as its prime topic in order to uncover the cognitive, linguistic, and genetic factors underlying language diversity.

An animal model

We will explore these issues not only by study of the language faculty itself, but also by adding a comparative perspective provided by studies of song in songbirds. Studies of intra-specific vocal variation within and between populations in the songbird model and of their vocal learning and processing mechanisms provide a unique comparative model for addressing these fundamental questions, and will reveal to what extent the crucial mechanisms are specific to language or are shared between distinct vocal-learning species.

At present, concrete research projects within this WP include:

  • How does diversity - variation between languages and within languages -, emerge and how is it maintained: the Babel Problem
    Stephen Levinson, Pieter Muysken, Rojas Berscia
  • What are the cognitive, linguistic, and genetic factors responsible for the variation we find within- and between individuals in speech production and speech perception?
    Hans Rutger Bosker, Antje Meyer
  • What are the functions of zebra finch FoxP genes for the perception, discrimination and processing of vocalizations?
    Carel ten Cate, Simon Fisher

People involved


Pieter Muysken (RU)
Simon Fisher (MPI)

Principal Investigators

Carel ten Cate (LU)
Stephen Levinson (MPI)
Antje Meyer (MPI)

Post Docs

Hans Rutger Bosker (MPI)