Symbol and Structure: A Comprehensive Framework for Language Evolution
This chapter discusses the odd fact that few linguists appear to be interested in language evolution. When approaching language from an evolutionary perspective, it is important to look at language not as a unitary phenomenon, but as the coming together of three things: modality, symbols, and structure. A largely cultural emergence of symbolic representation combined with a biological adaptation of brain circuitry capable of encoding syntactic structure were the two distinct evolutionary sources that gave rise to human language. Only later would a preference for the spoken modality have evolved, and then entirely contingent on the prior existence of the symbolic and structural components of language. From this perspective, the evolutionary dissociation of symbols and structure are reflected in ape language studies, where learning of symbolic relations approaches a near-human level of performance but where only a limited grasp of syntax has been demonstrated. This chapter concludes that a capacity for structural manipulations of symbols may be the key adaptation that gives humans, but no other species, language in all its intricate complexity.
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