seminar series “Darwin’s Tongues – Evolution of Language”: "The origins and evolution of syntactic language" - Maggie Tallerman

  • Date: Nov 13, 2015
  • Time: 11:00 AM - 12:00 PM (Local Time Germany)
  • Speaker: Maggie Tallerman from the Newcastle University, UK
  • Location: MPI Plön
  • Room: Lecture hall
  • Host: Miriam Liedvogel and Miriam Linnenbrink

How did complex language evolve and what did protolanguage look like? Possible stages in the evolution of syntax and probable red herrings.

We cannot know which, if any, of our hominin ancestors first had any form of language; in fact, all that we can only be certain of is that language evolution has occurred in Homo sapiens. Earlier species may or may not have had (some form of) language, but the available evidence is scant and is fraught with difficulties of interpretation. At one end of the timescale, comparative biology unambiguously indicates that our last common ancestor with the panins (chimpanzees/bonobos), which lived around 7 million years ago, did not have even a ‘primitive’ language. At the other end, it is relatively uncontroversial that by the time our ancestors started their spread from Africa within the past 100,000 years, full language was established. So what can we know – and what can we not know – about how and when the evolution of language occurred during that immense timeframe?

Here, I review what might and might not count as evidence for the evolution of the language faculty, first briefly overviewing a) fossil evidence in earlier hominins and b) archaeological evidence for possible advances in cognition that could be relevant to language. The fossil evidence may provide clues to the evolution of speech, but tells us little about the language faculty itself, since the relevant soft-tissue brain structures do not fossilize. The emergence of speech may be indicative of some kind of linguistic capacity, but speech is not synonymous with language. And though material artefacts made by hominins exist from up to 3 million years ago, the archaeological record cannot indicate when language emerged in our ancestors, or in what form. Putative indications of ‘symbolism’ in the record are not necessarily helpful, since these have little connection with the symbolic nature of the linguistic sign.

We therefore turn to reverse engineering for clues to language evolution. This entails looking at language structure and development today, and examining how new languages emerge, to see what can be inferred about earlier states. I argue that complex language evolved gradually, exhibiting earlier stages in the form of PROTOLANGUAGE – forms of pre-language that had no syntax. We examine differing views of protolanguage in the evolutionary linguistics literature,including the Chomsky & Berwick claim that protolanguage did not exist at all,but rather that language (i.e. the faculty of language in the narrow sense)appeared suddenly and recently in its full form as the result of a ‘minor mutation’ causing a re-wiring of the brain. I argue that this saltationist view isunsupported, and instead outline a biologically plausible gradualist scenario for the evolution of language, drawing on the work of Jackendoff, Progovac, Hurfordand other scholars.

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