LINGUIST List 28.702
Mon Feb 06 2017
Diss: Language Evolution as a Constraint on Conceptions of a Minimalist Language Faculty
Editor for this issue: Yue Chen <yuelinguistlist.org>
Andrew Feeney <andrew.feeney
Language Evolution as a Constraint on Conceptions of a Minimalist Language Faculty E-mail this message to a friend
Institution: Newcastle University
Program: School of English Literature, Language & Linguistics (SELLL)
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2014
Author: Andrew Feeney
Dissertation Title: Language Evolution as a Constraint on Conceptions of a Minimalist Language Faculty
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Language appears to be special. Well-rehearsed arguments that appeal to aspects of language acquisition, psycholinguistic processing and linguistic universals all suggest that language has certain properties that distinguish it from other domain general capacities. The most widely discussed theory of an innate, modular, domain specific language faculty is Chomskyan generative grammar (CGG) in its various guises. However, an examination of the history and development of CGG reveals a constant tension in the relationship of syntax, phonology and semantics that has endured up to, and fatally undermines, the latest manifestation of the theory: the Minimalist Program.
Evidence from language evolution can be deployed to arrive at a more coherent understanding of the nature of the human faculty for language. I suggest that all current theories can be classed on the basis of two binary distinctions: firstly, that between nativist and non-nativist accounts, and secondly between hypotheses that rely on a sudden explanation for the origins of language and those that rely on a gradual, incremental picture. All four consequent possibilities have serious flaws.
By scrutinising the extant cross-disciplinary data on the evolution of hominins it becomes clear that there were two significant periods of rapid evolutionary change, corresponding to stages of punctuated equilibrium. The first of these occurred approximately two million years ago with the speciation event of Homo, saw a doubling in the size, alongside some reorganisation, of hominin brains, and resulted in the first irrefutable evidence of cognitive behaviour that distinguishes the species from that of our last common ancestor with chimpanzees. The second period began seven to eight hundred thousand years ago, again involving reorganisation and growth of the brain with associated behavioural innovations, and gave rise to modern humans by at least two hundred thousand years ago.
I suggest that as a consequence of the first of these evolutionary breakthroughs, the species Homo erectus was endowed with a proto-‘language of thought’ (LoT), a development of the cognitive capacity evident in modern chimpanzees, accompanied by a gestural, and then vocal, symbolic protolanguage. The second breakthrough constituted a great leap involving the emergence of advanced theory of mind and a fully recursive, creative LoT. I propose that the theory outlined in the Representational Hypothesis (RH) clarifies an understanding of the nature of language as having evolved to represent externally this wholly internal, universal LoT, and it is the latter which is the sole locus of syntax and semantics. By clearly distinguishing between a phonological system for semiotic representation, and that which it represents, a syntactico-semantic LoT, the RH offers a fully logical and consistent understanding of the human faculty for language. Language may have the appearance of domain specific properties, but this is entirely derived from both the nature of that which it represents, and the natural constraints of symbolic representation.
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