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The evolution of linguistic complexity

Total Cost €


EC-Contrib. €






Project "ELC" data sheet

The following table provides information about the project.


Organization address
postcode: EH8 9YL

contact info
title: n.a.
name: n.a.
surname: n.a.
function: n.a.
email: n.a.
telephone: n.a.
fax: n.a.

 Coordinator Country United Kingdom [UK]
 Total cost 1˙985˙570 €
 EC max contribution 1˙985˙570 € (100%)
 Programme 1. H2020-EU.1.1. (EXCELLENT SCIENCE - European Research Council (ERC))
 Code Call ERC-2015-CoG
 Funding Scheme ERC-COG
 Starting year 2016
 Duration (year-month-day) from 2016-09-01   to  2021-08-31


Take a look of project's partnership.

# participants  country  role  EC contrib. [€] 
1    THE UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH UK (EDINBURGH) coordinator 1˙985˙570.00


 Project objective

Human language is unique among the communication systems of the natural world, providing our species with an incredibly flexible and powerful open-ended system of communication. This expressive power is underpinned by linguistic structure: we construct complex meaning-bearing utterances according to a set of rules and regularities which are conventionalised among speakers of a language. In my previous work I have shown that these fundamental structural features of language can be explained as a consequence of cultural evolution: structure evolves gradually as language is passed down through generations via learning and shaped by its repeated use for communication, in a process known as iterated learning.

However, existing modelling and experimental treatments of iterated learning are limited in that they focus on the evolution of simple languages which permit expression of a relatively small and fixed set of concepts. Real human languages are enormously complex, both in the expressive power they afford and the rich and complex set of structural devices they provide for conveying meaning. In this project I seek to address this major outstanding question in evolutionary linguistics: why is language complex? I will tackle this daunting question by exploring two subsidiary questions: when and how does linguistic complexity facilitate acquisition, and how do expressive power and linguistic complexity evolve as a result of language transmission and use? Answering these questions will require an ambitious programme of modelling and experimental work, covering acquisition in individual adults and children, language use in interaction, and language evolution in populations. I seek to substantially advance our understanding of the cultural evolution of language by exploring how learning, expressive pressures on language use, and social complexity drive the evolution of linguistic complexity.


year authors and title journal last update
List of publications.
2019 C. Cuskley, S. Frank, K. Smith
From wugged to wug: Reverse generalisation of stems from novel past tense verbs
published pages: , ISSN: , DOI:
Proceedings of the 41st Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 2020-01-28
2019 Carmen Saldana, Joël Fagot, Simon Kirby, Kenny Smith, Nicolas Claidière
High-fidelity copying is not necessarily the key to cumulative cultural evolution: a study in monkeys and children
published pages: 20190729, ISSN: 0962-8452, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2019.0729
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 286/1904 2020-01-28
2019 T. Johnson, J. Culbertson, H. Rabagliati, K. Smith
Assessing Integrative Complexity as a Measure of Morphological Learning
published pages: , ISSN: , DOI:
Proceedings of the 41st Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 2020-01-28
2019 s. Wagner, K. Smith, J. Culbertson
Acquiring Agglutinating and Fusional Languages Can Be Similarly Difficult: Evidence from an Adaptive Tracking Study
published pages: , ISSN: , DOI:
Proceedings of the 41st Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 2020-01-28
2019 S. Frank, K. Smith
Language stability and change in age-dependent networks
published pages: , ISSN: , DOI:
Proceedings of the 41st Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 2020-01-28
2019 Olga Fehér, Nikolaus Ritt, Kenny Smith
Asymmetric accommodation during interaction leads to the regularisation of linguistic variants
published pages: 104036, ISSN: 0749-596X, DOI: 10.1016/j.jml.2019.104036
Journal of Memory and Language 109 2020-01-28
2018 J. Culbertson, H. Jarvinen, F. Haggarty, K. Smith
Do children privilege phonological cues in noun class learning?
published pages: , ISSN: , DOI:
Proceedings of the 40th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society 2020-01-28
2018 S. Frank and K. Smith
A model of linguistic accommodation leading to language simplification
published pages: , ISSN: , DOI:
Proceedings of the 40th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 2020-01-28
2018 Robert X.D. Hawkins, Michael Franke, Kenny Smith, Noah D. Goodman
Emerging abstractions: Lexical conventions are shaped by communicative context
published pages: 463-468, ISSN: , DOI:
Proceedings of the 40th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 2020-01-28
2018 Benjamin Wilson, Michelle Spierings, Andrea Ravignani, Jutta L. Mueller, Toben H. Mintz, Frank Wijnen, Anne van der Kant, Kenny Smith, Arnaud Rey
Non-adjacent Dependency Learning in Humans and Other Animals
published pages: , ISSN: 1756-8757, DOI: 10.1111/tops.12381
Topics in Cognitive Science 2020-01-28
2018 Mark Atkinson, Gregory J Mills, Kenny Smith
Social Group Effects on the Emergence of Communicative Conventions and Language Complexity
published pages: 1-18, ISSN: 2058-458X, DOI: 10.1093/jole/lzy010
Journal of Language Evolution 4/1 2020-01-28
2018 Kenny Smith
How Culture and Biology Interact to Shape Language and the Language Faculty
published pages: , ISSN: 1756-8757, DOI: 10.1111/tops.12377
Topics in Cognitive Science 2020-01-28
2019 J Culbertson, H Jarvinen, F Haggarty, K Smith
Children’s sensitivity to phonological and semantic cues during noun class learning: evidence for a phonological bias
published pages: , ISSN: 0097-8507, DOI:
Language 2020-01-28
2018 Kenny Smith
The cognitive prerequisites for language: insights from iterated learning
published pages: 154-160, ISSN: 2352-1546, DOI: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2018.05.003
Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 21 2020-01-28

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