What is the role of emotion in language evolution? 

What is the role of emotion in language evolution?

An interdisciplinary workshop, hosted by the Berlin School of Mind and Brain

Organizer: Richard Moore, Berlin School of Mind and Brain

Time and date: 10 June 2016, starting 10.00

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Campus Nord/North

  • Morning session: Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Luisenstraße 56, 10117 Berlin, Room 144 (ground floor)
  • Afternoon session: Bernstein Center for Computational Neurosciences, Philippstraße 13, Haus 6, 10115 Berlin, Lecture Hall

Confirmed speakers:

  • Cathy Crockford, Primatology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig
  • Julia Fischer, German Primate Centre, Göttingen
  • Katja Liebal, Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin
  • Andrea Scarantino, Philosophy, Georgia State University


10.00–10.15 Introduction (Richard Moore)
10.15–11.30 Katja Liebal
11.30–11.45 Coffee
11.45–13.00 Cathy Crockford
13.00–14.30 Lunch
14.30–15.45 Andrea Scarantino
15.45–16.00 Coffee
16.00–17.15 Julia Fischer
17.15–18.00 Open discussion

How to register:

There are a limited number of available spaces for participation in this workshop.
If you would like to attend, please send and e-mail with

- Your name
- Your affiliation
- A current CV

to mb-assistance@hu-berlin.de, including “Language and Emotion workshop” in the subject line.


Cathy Crockford, Primatology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig
Chimpanzee signalling to snakes takes into account others’ needs: is this other-regarding communication partly facilitated by an emotional mechanism?
In stark contrast to human speech, animal signallers are thought to possess little capacity to take others’ knowledge into account when signalling (receiver-knowledge hypothesis). Indeed, an anticipated key driver of the evolution of language is the capacity to recognise that ignorant others need informing. We tested this capacity in two field experiments in wild chimpanzees using an alarm context. After seeing a snake model, signallers produced more vocal and non-vocal behaviour when receivers were least likely to know about the snake. These results, across two modalities - visual and auditory - were best explained by the receiver-knowledge hypothesis rather than three alternative tested hypotheses. We conclude, a non-human animal the chimpanzee, specifically uses signals to inform when others most need the information. For the evolution of language, these results strongly suggest that the capacity to integrate intentional communication with the recognition of others’ knowledge arose before sophisticated semantics or syntax. Overall, the behavior of signalers is hard to explain if only motivated by their own perspective but rather suggests a motivation to respond to another’s perspective and another’s needs. This suggests that chimpanzee signals to snakes can be both other-regarding and cooperative, communicative capacities thought to be strictly human. Could emotion be driving this other-regarding perspective? I will posit an emotion-based neuro-hormonal mechanism that may facilitate the evolution of other-regarding communication.

Julia Fischer, German Primate Research Centre, Göttingen
Emotion Expression and Perception as a Scaffold but Not an Explanation for Language Evolution

Based on a review of the neural mechanisms supporting the expression of emotion, and the processing of such expressions in nonhuman primates, I will argue that the current evidence is compatible with the idea that processing emotional patterns may have paved the way for the processing of speech patterns. Alternative scenarios are also possible, however, such as selection for general pattern recognition and categorization. In conclusion, the answer to the question of the role of emotion in language evolution may be „none“. Nevertheless, it is clear that in humans, emotion expression and speech (or sign language) are closely intertwined, and there are marked interactions in the processing of verbal and emotional information.

Katja Liebal, Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin
Origins of Human Language – Lessons Learned from Comparative Research

Theories of language evolution often draw on comparative evidence of the communicative abilities of our closest relatives, the nonhuman primates (Slocombe et al., 2011). In contrast to vocalizations and gestures, however, facial expressions have received comparably little attention as potential origins of human language. I briefly introduce some facial theories of language evolution and then focus on two challenges of comparative research on facial expressions. First, humans often assign specific emotions to facial expressions, not only of humans, but also facial expressions of other primates. This can be problematic, because similarities in the form of facial expressions across species do not necessarily mean that they also serve the same function (Waller & Dunbar, 2005). As a consequence, it is often difficult to identify the communicative function of facial expressions in nonhuman primates. I present two methods – the facial action coding scheme and eye-tracking – which try to tackle this problem and are used to systematically study the production and perception of facial expressions in nonhuman primates. Second, facial expressions are often studied in isolation, while ignoring the fact that they are an inherent component of most vocalizations and are also frequently combined with manual gestures and body postures. Since there is some evidence that human emotional bodily, gestural and facial displays are compositional in structure, and that these signals with more ancient roots may have constituted a precursor to compositionality in language (Cavicchio & Sandler 2015), I present some preliminary results of a study investigating whether multimodal expressions of chimpanzees, a species closely related to humans, are indeed structured compositionally in a way that simple actions of different parts of the body contribute to the interpretation of the more complex signal.

Andrea Scarantino, Georgia State University
The Role of Emotional Expressions in the Evolution of Communication

It is common knowledge that emotional expressions are rich communicative devices. We can learn much from the tears of a grieving friend, the smiles of an affable stranger, or the slamming of a door by a disgruntled lover. What has been missing so far is a systematic analysis of what can be communicated by emotional expressions of different kinds, and of the analogies and disanalogies between non-linguistic communication and its linguistic counterpart. This paper introduces a general theory of the communicative moves the expression of emotions makes available. This theory builds upon both general evolutionary principles and Austin and Searle’s taxonomy of speech acts. This may seem surprising, because not every emotional expression is an act of speech. Yet, I will argue that there are important and so far largely unexplored similarities between the communicative dimensions of emotional expressions and speech acts. These similarities shed new light on the evolution of language.  

This page last updated on: 17 June 2016