seminar series “Darwin’s Tongues – Evolution of Language”: "The Biology and Evolution of Language: A Comparative Approach" - Tecumseh Fitch

  • Date: Oct 22, 2015
  • Time: 11:00 - 12:00
  • Speaker: Tecumseh Fitch from the University of Vienna, Austria
  • Location: MPI Plön
  • Room: Lecture hall
  • Host: Miriam Liedvogel and Miriam Linnenbrink

Human language rests upon an evolved biological foundation, some components of which are unique to our species. The precise nature of the mechanisms underlying language remains debated, as does the degree to which they are or are not shared with other animals. I outline a strongly comparative approach to this problem: even though language, as a whole, is unique to humans, many components of language are nonetheless shared with other animals. 

I illustrate this comparative approach with case studies on speech and syntax. In speech, recent data indicate that a long-standing focus on the speech periphery, and particularly the descended human larynx, has deflected attention away from more fundamental changes in the neural pathways involved in speech control. A broad range of species, including monkeys, deer, songbirds, and seals, provide comparisons that are relevant to this conclusion. For syntax, recent data examining pattern perception in both auditory and visual domains suggest that some aspects of linguistic syntax rest on a cognitive basis that also applies to other human cognitive domains including music and visual pattern perception. Specifically, the strong human propensity to attribute complex, hierarchically-embedded structures to visual or auditory inputs appears to be biologically unusual or perhaps unique to our species. I conclude that the broad comparative approach favored by cognitive biologists has much to teach us about the biology and evolution of language, and that future progress will require investigation of a much broader set of species than has typified past work. I end with a brief discussion of three different models of "protolanguage" in this context, including Darwin's hypothesis of a "musical protolanguage", and illustrate how molecular data, particularly including fossil DNA, offer the potential to resolve debates about the order in which particular components of language were acquired during phylogeny. 

References: Fitch, W. Tecumseh (2010). The Evolution of Language (Cambridge University Press)

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