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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

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On the Different Origins of Symbols and Grammar

On the Different Origins of Symbols and Grammar

(p.94) 6 On the Different Origins of Symbols and Grammar
Language Evolution

Michael Tomasello

Oxford University Press

This chapter emphasises the role of psychology in language evolution, but claims that it was the separate evolution of capacities for using symbols and grammar (that is, syntactic structure) that distinguishes human communication from the communication of other primates. It suggests that there was no specific biological adaptation for linguistic communication. Rather, there was an adaptation for a broader kind of complex social cognition that enabled human culture and, as a special case of that, human symbolic communication. A crucial part of this adaptation was an evolved ability to recognise other individuals as intentional agents whose attention and behaviour could be shared and manipulated. The capacity for grammar subsequently developed, and became refined through processes of grammaticalisation occurring across generations — but with no additional biological adaptations. In support of this perspective, psychological data from the study of language development in young children and from comparisons with the linguistic, social, and mental capacities of nonhuman primates are presented. More generally, this chapter sees the origin and emergence of language as merely one part in the much larger process of the evolution of human culture.

Keywords:   symbols, grammar, language, language evolution, psychology, biological adaptation, social cognition, grammaticalisation, nonhuman primates, culture

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