Pragmatics of Language Evolution

Lecturer: Johann-Mattis List, MPI-SHH / University of Jena
Room: 1.402
The fact that “all languages evolve, as long as they exist” (Schleicher 1863: 18f) has been long known to linguists and does not surprise us anymore. The reasons why all language change constantly, however, is still not fully understood. What we know, however, is that language usage must be at the core of language evolution. It is the dynamics among speakers, who want to be understood and understand what others say, while at the same time trying to be efficient, convincing, or poetic when communicating with others. If the dynamics of language use are indeed one of the driving forces of language evolution, it is evident that the phenomena of language change need to be studied from the perspective of pragmatics. In times of constantly increasing amounts of digital language data, in various forms, ranging from wordlists via results of laboratory experiments to large historical corpora, it is clear that every attempt to understand the specific dynamics of language evolution must be carried out in an empirical framework. In the course, I will try to give a rather broad (but nevertheless eclectic) introduction into topics in historical linguistics in which pragmatics play a crucial role for the study of language change and its driving forces. In this context, we will look into empirical aspects of research on language evolution, experimental studies on sound change, and the pragmatics of language contact. In addition, we will also learn how pragmatic theories can be tested with help of agent-based models of language change, and how we can study pragmatic phenomena themselves from an evolutionary perspective by investigating how speech acts (in the primary sense of Austin 1955/1962) and poetic traditions evolve.


  • Austin, J. L. (1955[1962]): How to do things with words. The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University (1955). Clarendon Press: Oxford.
  • Schleicher, A. (1863): Die Darwinsche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft. Offenes Sendschreiben an Herrn Dr. Ernst Haeckel. Hermann Böhlau: Weimar.

Course material

Mon Aug 5th

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Tue Aug 6th

Wed Aug 7th

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    Empirical Research on Language Evolution

Thu Aug 8th

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    Experimental Studies on Sound Change

Fri Aug 9th

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    Pragmatics of Language Contact

Mon Aug 12th

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    Agent-Based Modeling of Language Change

Tue Aug 13th

Wed Aug 14th

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    Evolution of Speech Acts

Thu Aug 15th

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    The evolution of poetry

Fri Aug 16th

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