The Evolution of Language

27 09 2007

Juan Uriagereka in Seed Magazine

Language is an innate faculty, rather than a learned behavior. This idea was the primary insight of the Chomskyan revolution that helped found the field of modern linguistics in the late 1950s, and its implications are both simple and profound. If innate, language must be genetic. It is hardwired within us from conception and evolved from structures and genes with analogues existing throughout the animal kingdom. In a sense, language is universal. Yet we humans are the only species with the ability for what may rightly be called language and, moreover, we have specific linguistic behaviors that seem to have appeared only within the past 200,000 years—an eye-blink of evolution.

Why are humans the only species to have suddenly hit upon the remarkable possibilities of language? If speech is a product of our DNA, then surely other species also have some of the same genes required for language because of our basic, shared biochemistry. One of our closest relatives should have developed something that is akin to language, or another species should have happened upon its attendant advantages through parallel evolution.

A quasi-paradox has persisted within the field of linguistics, because the sudden emergence of such a complex, limitless system in a single species is hard to rationalize in terms of standard evolution. Its rapid spread makes language seem more like a viral epidemic that swept through the human population rather than a trait inherited through the typical dynamics of evolution.

More here.

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3 responses

27 09 2007
navcity

The book “the loom of language” is excellent. Gives a wonderful historical analyis of the development of language.

28 09 2007
Fionntán

1944 publication?

Ee-gads man, that’s even before they knew about the double helix!

I’ll stick to Pinker and such people as an introduction thanks.

29 09 2007
Michael

The Loom of Language is a classic of historical linguistics. For evolutionary linguistics, you can stick to Pinker, etc.; or try Christine Kenneally’s cool book “The First Word.”

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