The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social Function and the Origins of Linguistic Form

The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social Function and the Origins of Linguistic Form

The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social Function and the Origins of Linguistic Form

The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social Function and the Origins of Linguistic Form

Synopsis

The Evolutionary Emergence of Language covers the origins and early evolution of language. Its main purpose is to synthesize current thinking on this topic, particularly from a standpoint in theoretical linguistics. It is suitable for students of human evolution, evolutionary psychology, linguistic anthropology and general linguistics. It is the outcome of a major international conference on the evolution of language and includes contributions from many of the best known figures in this field. Very few truly interdisciplinary volumes on this topic have previously been published.

Excerpt

'Selfish gene' Darwinism differs from earlier versions of evolutionary theory in its focus on one key question: Why cooperate? The faculty of speech which distinguishes Homo sapiens from other species is an aspect of human social competence. By inference, it evolved in the context of uniquely human strategies of social cooperation. In these chapters, therefore, Darwinism in its modern, socially aware form provides our theoretical point of departure.

Where, previously, attention has focused on speech as the biological competence of individuals, here our themes are social. To study communication is inevitably to study social structure, social conflict, social strategies, social intelligence. Communication, as Robbins Burling observes in the next chapter, 'does not begin when someone makes a sign, but when someone interprets another's behaviour as a sign'. Reminding us of this elementary principle, Burling spells out the logical corollary: where the evolution of language is concerned, it is comprehension, not production, which sets the pace. Even a purely instrumental action, after all, may be read by others as a signal. Where this has evolutionary significance, instrumental behaviour may then undergo modification in the service of novel, socially conferred, signalling functions. Chomsky's focus upon the innate creativity of the speaker has been enormously productive. But over evolutionary time, Burling points out, 'the only innovations in production that can be successful, and thus consolidated by natural selection, are those that conform to the already available receptive competence of conspecifics'. If Burling is correct, then that syntactical structure which so radically distinguishes speech from nonhuman primate signalling must have become progressively elicited and then consolidated by generations of comprehending listeners. First, conceptual complexity is 'read into' signalling by the attentive mind reader; subsequently, the signaller – given such encouragement – may succeed in externalising aspects of that complexity in the signal itself.

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