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Academic Paper


Title: Scavenging, the stag hunt, and the evolution of language
Author: Brady Z Clark
Email: click here to access email
Institution: Northwestern University
Linguistic Field: Linguistic Theories
Abstract: This article evaluates Derek Bickerton's 2009 theory of language evolution. Bickerton argues that language was the result of a need to recruit individuals to help in the scavenging of carcasses of megafauna. The signals used for recruitment at the earliest stage of language evolution were iconic and could be used to refer to objects outside the sensory range of the receiver(s). Bickerton's scenario is an example of what is described in game theory as a stag hunt. We can, by recasting Bickerton's scenario as a stag hunt, identify criteria that any account of the transition to language must satisfy. There are several hurdles we would need to jump over to demonstrate that Bickerton's model is valid. First, not much is known about early hominin scavenging. While the available evidence is compatible with Bickerton's scenario, it is compatible with other scenarios as well. Second, Bickerton argues that, at the initial stage of language evolution, signals were grounded in salient aspects of the environment. The empirical support for natural salience as a determinant of the communication systems used at the earliest stages of language evolution is mixed at best; communication systems can arise spontaneously in the absence of natural salience. Third, maintaining communication systems is nontrivial because of the incentive to deceive.

CUP at LINGUIST

This article appears in Journal of Linguistics Vol. 47, Issue 2, which you can read on Cambridge's site or on LINGUIST .



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