Darwinian Sociolinguistics: Narratives as tools for investigating cultural transmission biases

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


The extent to which humans rely on social learning is exceptional; it is central to our understanding of how culture evolves. Research into cultural transmission has shown that transmission itself is often biased: not all forms of information are transmitted or received equally. For example, we are more likely to remember information that pertains to social and survival domains (content), and more likely to retain information depending on the transmitter (context). Although there is evidence to support such strategies, there has been very little empirical study regarding how these biases concurrently act on transmission. Additionally, language itself might be a source of bias. In order to address these gaps, this thesis exploits the potential of narrative and storytelling to embody multiple social transmission biases. Storytelling also allows language to take a causal role in transmission. The introductory chapters summarise how the related fields of cultural evolution and sociolinguistics approach content and contextual information. Experiment 1 demonstrates a novel proxy for eliciting prestige bias, motivated by the need for a widely shared mechanism of establishing prestige information. Using sociolinguistic methods, we find that accents index differential prestige. The second experiment offers a fresh perspective on the oral transmission chain paradigm, bringing together locally calibrated linguistic indicators of prestige and various manipulated content biases. This study provides an ecologically valid experimental design with the potential for cross-cultural deployment. The third study is an innovative application of the Family Problem Picture Task, previously developed by sociolinguists to elicit vernacular speech. Participants individually order pictures to create narratives; then we explore the ways in which group dynamics can influence changes in narrative, and thus, biases in story content. The fourth study uses conversational data elicited by the Family Problem Picture Task to highlight the utility of the paradigm to investigate group dynamics and dominance. Together the four studies demonstrate the utility of drawing upon parallels that exist between sociolinguistics and cultural evolution, bridging the disciplines of linguistics and anthropology.
Date of Award23 Jun 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SponsorsMax Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
SupervisorFiona M Jordan (Supervisor) & Mhairi A Gibson (Supervisor)


  • cultural transmission
  • Cultural evolution
  • social transmission biases
  • sociolinguistics
  • accent
  • prestige
  • storytelling
  • narratives

Cite this