The Origins of Complex Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth

The Origins of Complex Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth

The Origins of Complex Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth

The Origins of Complex Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth


This book proposes a new theory of the origins of human language ability and presents an original account of the early evolution of language. It explains why humans are the only language-using animals, challenges the assumption that language is a consequence of intelligence, and offers a new perspective on human uniqueness. The author draws on evidence from archaeology, linguistics, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology. Making no assumptions about the reader's prior knowledge he first provides an introductory but critical survey of all sources of evidence for language evolution. He then considers what language itself reveals about its own and human origins and evolution. He shows that certain central aspects of language do not, unexpectedly, reflect what they are used for, are maladapted for their function. He considers why this should be, and argues that these odd aspects of language reveal important clues about its evolutionary origin. The Origins of Complex Language fulfils the promise of its title. In doing so it turns upside down conventional theories about the relation between cognition and expression, truth and reference, and the co-evolution of mind and body. Original in conception, brilliantly executed, stylishly written, this book will attract a wide range of readers interested in the evolution and origins of language.


Until the early 1990s, my work in linguistics centred mainly on the theory of inflectional morphology. This is a somewhat esoteric area within what, to many outsiders, seems a rather esoteric discipline. It may seem a far cry from there to the origin of language -- a topic which is the reverse of esoteric, in that every thinking person has surely at one time or another speculated about how humans acquired a characteristic that differentiates us so spectacularly from all other animals. Yet there is a link between my research in these two areas.

Spoken language involves a partnership between sound and meaning. In most people's eyes, however, it is not an equal partnership. Meaning is the senior partner, we tend to feel, in that spoken words exist in order to express meanings. Yet my work on inflectional morphology led me to wonder whether, in some real sense, things may be the other way round: meanings exist in order to provide something for spoken words to express. Stated so baldly and crudely, this idea sounds bizarre, even ludicrous. Yet the more I thought about it and explored its implications, the more it seemed to me that this idea leads us to a satisfying picture of how and why humans have acquired the kind of language that we have. This book is the outcome of that exploration.

A second impetus for my work on language evolution dates from further back: my undergraduate training in philosophy. It often seemed to me then that philosophical discussion of language could profit from a more serious effort to disentangle those aspects of language that are somehow essential (and therefore of interest to the philosopher) from those that are accidental or parochial (and therefore presumably do not deserve philosophical attention). Serious thought about language evolution requires that one consider alternative directions in which language might conceivably have evolved. Thinking about such alternatives led me to the startling conclusion that even so apparently fundamental a distinction as that between sentences and noun phrases is not essential but accidental. This, in turn, rekindled my undergraduate unease about many philosophers' linguistic assumptions. The overlap which thus developed between my recent linguistic concerns and my earlier philosophical ones has helped to make the writing of this book particularly satisfying.

The book would not have been written without help from many quarters. Colleagues in the Cognitive Science Discussion Group at the University of Canterbury allowed me to air ideas on various occasions over several years, and I am . . .

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