NWO Cognition  Workshop

The evolution of meaning in a game-theoretical setting
Cognitive constraints and experimental architecture

On the origins of linguistic meaning

Jeroen Wiedenhof

  date and time      Thursday, 4 September 2003, 3:15 pm
  place     KNAW Trippenhuis, Rembrandtzaal
  Kloveniersburgwal 29,   1011 JV  Amsterdam

Language is an organism coevolving with the human brain. Gerald Edelman (1987) has described the Darwinian development and organization in neuronal structures. As Luc Steels' (1999) robots reveal, a simple architectural breakthrough can lead to elaborate sensori-motor complexity. In the evolution of language, the essential cognitive step is the birth of syntax. Its simplicity is due to its physical context, for the origins of linguistic meaning are strictly referential. Syntax, in other words, is the construction of meaning, and meaning is the linguistic construction of reality. As Dekker, Van Rooy & Veltman (2003) observe, it is "not clear [...] which part of a communicated content depends on conventional meaning and which part evolves from practical reasoning". This coexistence of meaning and interpretation underpins the mutualism between language and the brain. The use of language requires the speaking mind to find suitable referents for each meaning. At the same time, the need to look for external referents is removed by the power of linguistic conceptualization, effectively diminishing our capacity for direct observation (Kortlandt 1985). The impact of linguistic behavior on human societies suggests that the benefits of language are matched by the constraints which it imposes on its speakers.


Dekker, Van Rooy & Veltman (2003)     Paul Dekker, Robert van Rooy, and Frank Veltman, "The evolution of meaning in a game-theoretical setting: Cognitive constraints and experimental architecture". NWO Cognition Programme integrated research project proposal.
Edelman (1987)     Gerald M. Edelman, Neural Darwinism: The theory of neuronal group selection. New York: Basic Books.
Grace (1987)     George W. Grace, The linguistic construction of reality. London: Croom Helm.
Kortlandt (1985)     Frederik Kortlandt, "A parasitological view of non-constructible sets". Ursula Pieper and Gerhard Stickel, eds., Studia linguistica diachronica et synchronica: Werner Winter, sexagenario anno MCMLXXXIII gratis animis ab eius collegis, amicis discipulisque oblata. Berlin: Mouton, pp. 477-483.
Steels (1999)     Luc Steels, The talking heads experiment, Volume I: Words and meanings. Antwerpen: VUB Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Wiedenhof (1996)     Jeroen Wiedenhof, "Nexus and the birth of syntax". Acta linguistica Hafniensia, Volume 28, pp. 139-150.

last modified: 27 August 2003

evolutionary linguistics