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The Evolution of Language from an Ecological Perspective


The Evolution of Language from an Ecological Perspective

The subject matter of the phylogenetic emergence of language in mankind preoccupied many philosophers and philologists from Antiquity to the mid-19th century, when La Société de linguistique de Paris imposed a ban on it in 1866. The ban has been ignored since the late 20th century. Speculations and publications have increased substantially, leading also to the emergence of what some now call evolutionary linguistics as a research area. This course is designed to review some of the literature critically, in order to determine, from a historiographical perspective, what questions have been central to the subject matter of the phylogenetic emergence of language or have recurred the most, and to what extent the answers to these are better informed today. The class will adopt a multidisiplinary exaptationist-ecological approach, focusing on non-linguistic and linguistic prerequisites to the emergence of particular aspects of the architecture of language at various phases of hominine evolution. We will examine how our hominine ancestors coopted means available to them to develop adequate communicative technologies (aka languages). Questions and issues we will address include the following: What is the probable time of the emergence of modern language(s)? Should we speak of the emergence of language or of languages, in the plural? What does the choice of the singular or plural delimitation of language entail for accounts of the emergence of typological diversity? How do debates on the emergence of language(s) bear on the nature and significance of Universal Grammar (aka the “language organ” or “biological endowment for language”)? Is there any real conflict between arguing that languages are cultural artifacts and supporting the position that humans are biologically endowed to develop or learn them? Is language evolution separate from cultural evolution? Does cultural evolution preclude biological endowment of any kind? What factors explain the fact that human populations are primarily speaking rather than signing, whereas the evidence in animal communication suggests that intentionality is associated more with gestures than with vocalizations? Assuming that languages are (hybrid) communicative technology, are there any reasons for expecting the architectures of signed and spoken languages to be identical? Should one fear that assuming differences in the architectures of signed and spoken languages suggests differences in evolutionary stages? To what extent does modality as an ecological factor bear on the architecture of signed and spoken languages? How does the topic of linguistic complexity fit in all this? What is linguistic complexity in the first place? How did it arise? What is the most adequate or productive way to discuss it? How is it related to modularity and what evolutionary advantages has linguistic communication gained from being modular? Did I say “modularity”? What does it mean? Is there any (sound) justification for looking into incipient pidgins, the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language and the like, communication with “linguistic apes,” and even animal communication as windows into (stages of) the phylogenetic emergence of language? What counts as evidence for various interpretations of the emergence of language(s) conceived of either as gradual or as saltatory? To what extent is the evolutionary linguistics still speculative? The above questions, which are far from exhausting the subject matter, are intertwined and often hard to extricate from one another. This course is an introduction to the complexity and challenging nature of the subject matter of evolutionary linguistics. Though we may not be able answer most of questions conclusively, we will endeavor to understand what they entail and what kind of evidence is needed to address them adequately. Students will be encouraged to read various alternative publications on the subject matter, which should generate informed and productive exchanges of perspectives.

Course Status: Closed

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Four-week Session


10:30 am-12:20 pm
10:30 am-12:20 pm



Some familiarity with linguistics or subjects related to the architecture of language, or familiarity with biological or cultural evolution.