Distributed Cognition and Language Origin


The mission of the research cluster is to develop projects that link the biological sciences with the humanities in examining the mystery of language. Taking a united approach to the language phenomenon, we expect to adopt three main perspectives. First, using evolutionary theory, we aim to clarify how language has contributed to human societies since prehistory up to modern times, becoming  in charge of the purely human social unfolding in the course of the whole species maturation. Second, we expect to use the theory of language development to explore the circumstances under which individuals learn and master language by developing the capacity in the early years and across the life span. Third, we can adopt a biosemiotic outlook to offer a systemic approach to biological cognitive abilities and communication. In moving towards our goals, we held the first meeting of interested parties in St Petersburg in October 2010 (http://inyaz.herzen.spb.ru/symposium.html).

Those interested in the origin of the human language capacity and language emergence are welcome to join the cluster!

Cluster coordinator: Nataliya Abieva (nabieva5@yandex.ru)


Two issues have always been crucial to linguistic studies – the emergence of language communication in human societies and the development of the language capacity over the human life-span. Both have been scrutinized since Biblical times as people have sought to discover why we become what we are. It has been long noticed that human specificity derives from verbal communicative skills that no other species are able to match. No one doubts that those skills have shaped our societies and provided a foundation for unprecedented cultural construction.

Historical records contain much evidence of interest in language nature and origin. The list of hypotheses proposing different explanations of language emergence is long: it is sufficient to mention the notorious mama and bow-wow, pooh-pooh and ding-dong theories. This period of speculation on the origins of language ended in the ban issued by the Linguistic Society of Paris (1866) on the papers dedicated to debating scenarios on language origin. As language does not leave a fossil record, proposals concerning its emergence have tended to use guesswork – until now. Remarkable recent progress in biology and the humanities has lead to more realistic scenarios. Further, it has brought out the extreme complexity of verbal communication. The latter definitely means that a plausible model of language evolution is bound to unite scholars across the fields of evolutionary biology, linguistics, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, evolutionary anthropology, sociology, biosemiotics and cognitive science. Humans show extraordinary capacities for socially multidimensional communicative intentions, reference and abstract thinking. These enable them to produce and interpret structured sequences that combine varied analogue and symbolic systems. It is ever more apparent that though language is the foundation-stone of human cultures –the most important means of information exchange –explanation must link biology and culture.

Despite the long history of language research and scores of proposed interpretations, we still lack a view of how language contributes to human cognition and communication. Traditionally language was regarded as cultural; yet, on this view, no definition satisfies the majority of linguists. In taking an biocognitive approach, we face the issue of connecting up the natural sciences and the humanities.  Evolution shows a stable tendency to dynamic complexity, and what humans are today depends on biological prehistory. DLG and biosemiotic views can help to resolve the biological-social dichotomy. While all living systems are dynamic systems humans show extreme complexity. Accordingly, there is a new consensus that no strict demarcation separates biological and social semiosis; the concept of culture must be revised to encompass behavioral patterns and repertoires that reveal both intraspecific and interspecies differences. This leads to emphasis on gene–culture coevolution  that opens up questions about the nature of languaging, languages and the language capacity.

Organizing principles

Four main principles are the basis for cooperative work:

1. Linguists overemphasize the contribution of language to human cognition and communication. Language is not an exceptional tool that wholly determines human specificity; its position in the semiotic web encompasses complex interrelations with other signs. Humans possess an ability to acquire a language which is, it seems, innate. Although humans are born without language, they are ready to learn not only their native tongue but foreign languages too.  So, we inherit a cognitive ability to appropriate signs/signals for external communication that need not necessarily be language-like. With training, we master many sign systems for professional purposes – Morse code, mathematical, physical and chemical formulas, gestural signs (e.g., for military purposes), etc. We adopt and adapt to a great variety of codes: we operate a range of sign systems – from traditional and culturally embedded ones to idiosyncratic systems that we create and use in expression that gives idiosyncrasies to our personality.

2. The distributed character of human communication permits highly developed cognitive abilities. Human mind is distributed: individuals are equally good at generating and receiving verbal and non-verbal messages on-line and off-line. Each capacity must have an evolutionary history that draws on precursor abilities found in other species. The idea of distributed and situated cognition suggests that language is only part of a distributed semiotic capacity. It is likely that humans acquired language late in evolutionary time: the semiotic capacity depends on more than language symbols. Human cultures draw on a semantic heritage that uses many varieties of signs, most of which are tangible. Their cognitive analysis offers up reliable facts. By admitting that language (symbols – in Peirce’s classification of signs) is an external form of information exchange and a late invention (i.e., is secondary), we give new weight to how analogue signs serve communication (primary sign systems for external communication). Then, having analyzed animal sign-systems (in both primates and lower species), we aim to clarify what signs humans create in the course of evolution. In this way, we aim to solve the biological vs social opposition. Deliberate ‘signing’ always results from meaning generation; it is the final stage of mental activity that gives the form of the sign information about the processes that generate a message that is encoded in a particular type of sign.

3. A biosemiotic approach offers a comprehensive trans- and inter-disciplinary view of semiosis. Although leaving few paleontological traces, the evolution of thinking preceded the emergence and evolution of language. If so, it seems reasonable to organize comparative communicative research on language and forms of information exchange that shared by biological species. This research can help establish evolutionary links between biology and culture.

4.  Examining the development of cognitive abilities in children can also shed light on the previous evolutionary processes. The way infants acquire and develop (as well as cases when they fail to) language skills can be highly informative about human internal mental capabilities.

Those interested in the origin of the human language capacity and language emergence are welcome to join our cluster!


Abieva N.A. (2008). The Role of Off-line Communication in Human Evolution. Biosemiotics, 1(3), 295-311.

Bouissac P. (1999). Semiotics as the Science of Memory //http://www.semioticon.com/people/articles/Tartu.htm

Deacon, T. (2006). The Evolution of Language Systems in the Human Brain. In: Evolution of Nervous Systems. Volume 5. The Evolution of Primate Nervous Systems. John Kaas (Editor-in-Chief).  Elsevier.   http://www.teleodynamics.com/wp-content/PDF/Evolutionlanguagesystems.pdf

Deacon, T. (2003) Multilevel selection in a complex adaptive system: the problem of language

origins. In B. Weber and D. Depew (eds.) Evolution and Learning: The Baldwin Effect

Reconsidered. Cambridge MA, MIT Press, pp. 81 – 106.

Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. James H. Silberman Books.

Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge.

Hauser, M. D., & Fitch, W. T.  What are the uniquely human components of the language faculty?  In M. H. Christiansen and S. Kirby (Eds.), Language evolution (pp. 158-181).  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Hoffmeyer, J.  The global semisphere. 1997. http://www.molbio.ku.dk/MolBioPages/abk/Personal

Hoffmeyer, J. Life and reference. 2001.  http://www.c3.lang.gov/~rocha/pattee/hoffmeyer – 2001

Hoffmeyer, J.  Origin of Species by natural translation. 2002.     http:www.moblio.ku.dk/MolBioPages/abk/PersonalPages/Jesper/translation

Hoffmeyer, J., & Emmeche C.  Code-duality and     the semiotiotics of nature. 1991. http://www.nbi.dk/~emmeche/coPubl/91.JHCE/codedual

Hurford, J. R.  Evolution of Language: Cognitive Preadaptations. 2003-1.   htpp://www.ling.ed.ac.uk/~jim/fitzdear.html

Hurford, J. R. The language mosaic and its evolution // In M.H. Christiansen and S. Kirby (Eds.), Language evolution  ( pp. 38-57). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003-2.

Hutchins, E. (2000). Distributed Cognition // IESBS Distributed Cognition // http://files.meetup.com/410989/DistributedCognition.pdf

Hutchins,E., Johnson, C. (2009). Modeling the Emergence of Language as an Embodied Collective Cognitive Activity.Topics in Cognitive Science, 1, pp. 523–546.

Hutchins, E. (2008). The role of cultural practices in the emergence of modern human intelligence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. B, v.363, 2011–2019

Johansson, S.  Hypotheses of language origins // Origins of language: constraints on hypotheses.  Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 2005.

Odling-Smee, F. J., Laland, K. N., & Feldman, M.W. (2003). Niche construction: The neglected

process in evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Premack, D. (2007). Human and animal cognition: Continuity and discontinuity. In: PNAS,   August 28, 200, v. 104, 35, 13861–13867.