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The Prehistory of Language$
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Rudolf Botha and Chris Knight

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199545872

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199545872.001.0001

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Language: symbolization and beyond *

Language: symbolization and beyond *

Chapter:
(p.201) 11 Language: symbolization and beyond*
Source:
The Prehistory of Language
Author(s):

Eric Reuland

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199545872.003.0011

This chapter argues that it is ‘too simplistic’ to view language as primarily a symbolic system used for communication. This view leads to an interpretation of the archeological record that is ‘too naïve’. Central to this argument is the assumption that natural language is a computational system by which linguistic form and semantic interpretation are mapped systematically onto each other. The mapping is based on an inventory of lexical items and a combinatory system that includes the process known as ‘recursion’ which, roughly, has the capacity to form infinitely long sentences by embedding phrases within phrases. The introduction of this process altered the nature of linguistic signs, severing the direct connection between form and interpretation. This gave rise to desymbolization, which is the ‘most characteristic’ property of language. If this view is correct, evidence of symbolic activity by itself would not be a proper diagnostic of the presence of language.

Keywords:   language development, language capacity, communication, evolution, linguistic form, desymbolization

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