The origins and evolution of human language

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It could have a rudimentary 'me Tarzan, you Jane' character and still be a lot better than single-word utterances. In fact, we do find such 'protolanguage' in two-year-old children, in the beginning efforts of adults learning a foreign language, and in so-called 'pidgins', the systems cobbled together by adult speakers of disparate languages when they need to communicate with each other for trade or other sorts of cooperation.

This has led some researchers to propose that the system of 'protolanguage' is still present in modern human brains, hidden under the modern system except when the latter is impaired or not yet developed. A final change or series of changes would add to 'protolanguage' a richer structure, encompassing such grammatical devices as plural markers, tense markers, relative clauses, and complement clauses "Joe thinks that the earth is flat". Again, some hypothesize that this could have been a purely cultural development, and some think it required genetic changes in the brains of speakers.

The jury is still out. When did this all happen? Again, it's very hard to tell. We do know that something important happened in the human line between , and 50, years ago: This is when we start to find cultural artifacts such as art and ritual objects, evidence of what we would call civilization.

Introduction: The evolution of language - Oxford Handbooks

What changed in the species at that point? Did they just get smarter even if their brains didn't suddenly get larger? Did they develop language all of a sudden? Did they become smarter because of the intellectual advantages that language affords such as the ability to maintain an oral history over generations? If this is when they developed language, were they changing from no language to modern language, or perhaps from 'protolanguage' to modern language? And if the latter, when did 'protolanguage' emerge? Did our cousins the Neanderthals speak a protolanguage?

At the moment, we don't know. One tantalizing source of evidence has emerged recently. A mutation in a gene called FOXP2 has been shown to lead to deficits in language as well as in control of the face and mouth. This gene is a slightly altered version of a gene found in apes, and it seems to have achieved its present form between , and , years ago. It is very tempting therefore to call FOXP2 a 'language gene', but nearly everyone regards this as oversimplified.

Are individuals afflicted with this mutation really languageimpaired or do they just have trouble speaking? On top of that, despite great advances in neuroscience, we currently know very little about how genes determine the growth and structure of brains or how the structure of the brain determines the ability to use language. Nevertheless, if we are ever going to learn more about how the human language ability evolved, the most promising evidence will probably come from the human genome, which preserves so much of our species' history.

The challenge for the future will be to decode it. Christiansen, Morton H. Language Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press. Hauser, Marc; Noam Chomsky; and W. Tecumseh Fitch. The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science Approaches to the Evolution of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Jackendoff, Ray. Some possible stages in the evolution of the language capacity.

These qualities make language an extraordinary communication system found exclusively in humans. But the system can be dissected into components, or traits necessary for language. And these emerged at different times in our evolutionary past. Traits shared with other apes likely existed millions of years ago in our common ancestor. First, is a fine-control over our vocal tracts.

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Other apes are likely born with a more limited repertoire of vocalizations. The difference comes down to how our brains are wired: Humans have direct connections between the neurons controlling our voice box and the motor cortex, the region of our brain responsible for voluntary movements. Brain scans show these connections are lacking in other primates. Next is our tendency to communicate for the sake of communicating. The last difference is hierarchical syntax.

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Phrases and sentences have nested structure and these provide meaning beyond the simple sequence of words. So hypotheses for language origins must explain at least these three traits: precise vocal learning and control, overtly social communication and hierarchical syntax. Now for the fun part: How did these components emerge, and eventually converge, to constitute language?


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There are several prevailing views, which differ in terms of the evolutionary pressures favoring language adaptations, the order these adaptations arose and the nature of protolanguage along the way. Although it deals with the full-fledged modern lects , it certainly can contribute to the understanding of the evolutionary development of language resources, by adopting the notion of dynamic uniformitarianism , as discussed in Hurford, p.

Anyway, I agree with Sean that there is a need for this kind of clarifying, terminological work. In: Pina, M. A Multidisciplinary Approach. New York: Springer, — Hauser, M. The mystery of language evolution. Frontiers in Psychology 5 , DOI: Hurford, J. Yes, these distinctions are necessary, and linguists make them routinely.

Thank you for this quick reply.

The origins and evolution of human language

Linguistics is one from many disciplines engaged in the study of language origins and evolution. Having primary linguistic background myself, I personally doubt that it will ever become the leading discipline in this area. Talking about language resources allows us to refer generally to the replicative nature of linguistic structure, leaving aside the particular morphosyntactic features of modern lects.

So, whenever we talk about the high-level design features of linguistic structure duality of pattering, combinatoriality, compositionality etc. The distinction between phylogeny and glossogeny was originally made by Tecumseh W. Fitch in the context of cultural evolution another broad area of research, including a linguistic part.

In discussions with peer linguists, I very often feel that there is a kind of reluctance to talk about language in such a broad terms. It has even motivated me to translate into Polish a paper by J. Linguistics from an evolutionary point of view. In: R. Kempson, T. Fernando i N. Asher, ed. Volume Philosophy of Linguistics. Amsterdam: Elsevier BV, — DOI: Because evolution is a dynamic process of change. But this is not evolution — evolving systems generate variation, pass this variation to others, and filter out some of these variants based on some criteria.

This practice will only lead to confusion. Yes, it is an interesting and non-obvious question.

But this problem comes in all sorts of guises, e. This is an issue I think about a lot!

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And still more needs to be done — a paper on this would be very interesting. In fact, we cite him directly and talk about both concepts. From section 3. In this view, linguistic constructions are the units on which selection applies. These constructions vary in form and function, and are in competition given limited time resources, a pressure for efficient communication and the potential for roughly the same meaning to be expressed in many ways.

These factors set the scene for Darwinian cultural evolution. In the case of pitch, linguistic elements which require careful control of pitch should be less likely to be replicated in dry climates. They may use different methodologies, but are really asking the same kind of questions. But the definition of language evolution is a constantly recurring issue. The evolution of language conference also has a tension between studies on the origin of language and studies on language change.

The work of Simon Kirby and colleagues on the emergence of compositionally by cultural evolution iterated learning experiments demonstrates that that kind of structure does not require a direct biological explanation. That is, work on cultural evolution can bridge the gap between language origins and global patterns. But I have one more alternative meaning of language evolution: the study of the necessary ingredients for and constraints on the emergence of complex communication systems.

Perhaps we should be clear about how we define protolanguage, as well as language evolution.