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All you need is love... or what?
Dalarna University, Not School affiliated.
2017 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation only (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

All you need is love… or what?

Language is essentially always present in groups of modern humans. Even in the exceptional groups that for some reason are formed without language, language will invariably emerge in short order. Examples of language emergence in recent times include deaf communities in e.g. Nicaragua and Israel. Such newly-formed languages converge within a few generations towards the same general form and features as mainstream human languages.

Language is essentially never present in groups of non-human primates. Even in the exceptional groups that are heavily exposed to language and explicitly trained in language use, progress in language acquisition is invariably modest at best. Language never emerges spontaneously in non-human groups.

What’s special with humans? It is sometimes argued that “all you need is merge” (e.g. Berwick 2007), that a small genetic change provided a language-ready brain and the rest is history. This saltational view of language evolution is wrong for many reasons (e.g. Tallerman 2014), but I would add here another one.

A language-ready brain is not an all-or-nothing affair, nor is it sufficient for language emergence. The results of language training in apes are modest, but not nil. Apes do learn to connect symbols with referents and use them communicatively. One may quibble about whether to call this “language”, and it is far from full human language, notably lacking in syntax. But it does show the presence of some language-relevant abilities in apes, and it is a functional communication tool at some protolinguistic level.

But if ape brains are protolanguage-ready, why doesn’t protolanguage emerge in the wild among apes, as it does among humans? Clearly, some extra-linguistic key factor is lacking. A language-ready brain is not all you need for language emergence. In a group of hypothetical creatures with a human language faculty (narrow sense) but otherwise ape-like in psychology and behavior, language would not emerge.

Human prosociality and shared intentionality are likely key ingredients in language emergence (e.g. Tomasello 2010), but are not the whole story. In this talk, I will explore the minimal extra-linguistic requirements for protolanguage emergence to get off the ground in protohumans.

 

References:

Berwick, R C (2011) All you Need is Merge: Biology, Computation, and Language from the Bottom-up.  In di Sciullo & Boeckx The Biolinguistic Enterprise OUP.

Tallerman M. (2014) No syntax saltation in language evolution. Language Sciences 46, 207-219.

Tomasello, M (2010) Origins of human communication. MIT Press.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2017.
National Category
General Language Studies and Linguistics
Research subject
Intercultural Studies
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:du-26394OAI: oai:DiVA.org:du-26394DiVA: diva2:1148619
Conference
Ways to Protolanguage 5, Barcelona, Spain, 26 - 28 September 2017
Available from: 2017-10-11 Created: 2017-10-11 Last updated: 2017-10-13Bibliographically approved

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Johansson, Sverker

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CiteExportLink to record
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