PP-2012-13: Language in Nature: on the evolutionary roots of a cultural phenomenon

PP-2012-13: Zuidema, Willem (2012) Language in Nature: on the evolutionary roots of a cultural phenomenon. [Report]

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It is no overstatement to say that, from an evolutionary point of view, language is the most striking aspect of the human phenotype and cries out for an evolutionary explanation. What could an evolutionary explanation for language look like? It's worthwhile to step back a bit and first consider some of the sources of information that could constrain the scenarios we might want to propose. The relevant evidence for evaluating evolutionary scenarios -- consisting of particular starting and end points, and a mechanism that drives the steps in between -- comes from many different fields. The end point, in our case, is the human capacity for language, and the obvious field to provide data is linguistics (although this field can offer less clear answers than we would perhaps wish). The starting point is the set of abilities of the last common ancestor that humans share with chimpanzees, our closest relatives. Our best guesses on these abilities come from a comparison of the abilities of other living great apes, i.e., from behavioural biology. The steps in between are largely unknown, but we find some hints in the fossil record. The mechanisms driving the evolution of language are also largely unknown, but evolutionary theory offers at least some constraints on the form of evolutionary scenarios. Finally, evidence on the abilities of more distantly related animals, such as songbirds, helps assessing the plausibility of these scenarios. In this chapter I will survey some of these sources of information to get an idea what form an evolutionary explanation for the human-specific, and possibly language-specific, linguistic abilities should take. But before we embark on a discussion of the anatomy and abilities of humans and other animals, we must first consider how we can apply the standard approach from evolutionary biology - the comparative method - to a culturally evolved system like language, and why we don't take one of the elaborate theories from linguistics as our starting point.

Item Type: Report
Report Nr: PP-2012-13
Series Name: Prepublication (PP) Series
Year: 2012
Uncontrolled Keywords: language evolution, cognition
Subjects: Language
Depositing User: Jelle Zuidema
Date Deposited: 12 Oct 2016 14:37
Last Modified: 12 Oct 2016 14:37
URI: https://eprints.illc.uva.nl/id/eprint/455

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