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Language Evolution$
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Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780199244843

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199244843.001.0001

The Language Mosaic and its Evolution

(p.38) 3 The Language Mosaic and its Evolution
Language Evolution

James R. Hurford

Oxford University Press

This chapter suggests that humans have evolved a unique mental capacity for acquiring language, but rejects the notion that cultural transmission (learning) plays a role in language evolution. The evolution of language must be understood as a combination of both biological pre-adaptations — that is, biological changes that may not be adaptive by themselves — and learning-based linguistic adaptations over generations. Several possible biological steps probably occurred prior to the emergence of language: pre-adaptations for the production of speech sounds (phonetics), for organising the sounds into complex sequences (syntax), for forming basic and complex concepts and doing mental calculations with them (semantics), for complex social interaction (pragmatics), and for an elementary ability to link sounds to concepts (symbolic capacity). Once humans were language-ready with these pre-adaptations in place, language systems would have grown increasingly complex due to the process of transmitting language across generations through the narrow filter of children's learning mechanisms. The processes of cultural transmission is exemplified by reference to research on grammaticalisation. Additional work within the computational modelling of language evolution provides further illumination of the possible consequences of cultural transmission.

Keywords:   language, language evolution, cultural transmission, biological pre-adaptations, phonetics, syntax, semantics, grammaticalisation, symbolic capacity

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