New Essays on the Origin of Language

New Essays on the Origin of Language

New Essays on the Origin of Language

New Essays on the Origin of Language

Synopsis

The contributions to this volume reflect the state of the art in the renewed discussion on the origin of language. Some of the most important specialists in the field - life scientists and linguists - primarily examine two aspects of the question: the origin of the language faculty and the evolution of the first language. At stake is the relation between nature and culture and between universality and historical particularity as well as cognition, communication, and the very essence of language.

Excerpt

Jürgen Trabant

1. The origin of language at the Berlin Academy

1.1.

The question of the origin of language was one of the eighteenth century's major philosophical problems. And it is once again, at the turn of this century, one of the most controversial scientific topics thanks to the confluence of linguistics, psychology, biology, and paleoanthropology. Since the New York Academy conference of 1975 (Harnad et al. 1976), numerous books on this subject have been published. The renewed interest is noteworthy because linguistics officially forbade the discussion of language origin in 1866 when the Société de linguistique de Paris struck consideration of both universal language and language origin from its agenda. Linguistics was considered a historical science that should not speculate about language's prehistoric beginnings or its post-historic end. Instead it was supposed to dedicate itself exclusively to the historically documented middle and to faits positifs. Since then, linguistics has largely adhered to the Paris Society's ban. Right up to our times, hardly any prominent linguist has written about language origin, with the characteristic exception of Hugo Schuchardt, who did so in 1919–21 at the Berlin Academy, the institution that has served as the discussion's traditional forum.

But the verdict of linguistics did not, of course, affect the life sciences, which, from Charles Darwin onwards, have dramatically increased our knowledge about the natural history of humans and consequently about the natural aspects of language. Today, evolutionary biological and paleoanthropological insights and a more precise understanding of the genetic make-up of man and of the functioning of the brain combine with a linguistics which is no longer exclusively historically oriented. The question of language origin is back on the agenda of the language sciences because quite a few sciences have turned out to be language sciences which previously were not and because linguistics – at least an influential part of it – has itself become a natural science. The linguistic profession's prohibition against the origin problem is obsolete. The new linguistics integrates insights from the other . . .

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