Cultural Evolution of Language Lab

The Cultural Evolution of Language Lab is a research group and laboratory in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. It is directed by Gareth Roberts.

We conduct experimental research on the cultural evolution of language. Experiments we run often involve participants learning miniature artificial languages and using them to communicate with each other; in other experiments they may construct novel communication systems from scratch. This approach is often referred to as Experimental Semiotics. One of the focuses of our research at Penn, with its long and distinguished history of innovative research on language variation, is on the role of social factors in cultural evolution. But our research is not restricted to this; see below for current project areas.

Current project areas
Other current lab members
  • Madeleine McGrath (lab manager)
  • Mathias Volker (lab assistant)
  • Christina Cardenas (lab assistant)
  • Vanessa Nieto (lab assistant)
  • Maylat Kassa (programmer)
Frequently asked questions
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions; if you'd like to know more, please get in touch.

What is cultural evolution?
Cultural evolution is cultural change understood in evolutionary terms. By “culture” I mean socially transmitted behavior, as opposed to genetically transmitted behavior.* So language change is a kind of cultural evolution.

So why “cultural evolution of language” and not “language change ? 
Using the former term underlines that cultural change, including language change, can usefully be understood as an evolutionary process. A second reason for using the term is that the methods employed in this lab emerged to a great extent from methods developed to study the origins of language and linguistic structure and to study cultural change more broadly, so our use of the term emphasizes our relationship with that body of research and can be taken to imply, first, that language change may have something in common with other kinds of cultural change and, second, that understanding it might make a contribution to understanding how we as a species got from not having any language at all to having what we have today: somewhere in the region of 6,000 languages with complex grammars and vast vocabularies.

How can I get involved?
Come and study language evolution at Penn! If you're already a Penn graduate student, take my LING 670 course. You can contact me for more information on either topic at If you're already at Penn, or located nearby, we are open to new volunteers, so if you're interested, please do get in touch!

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