The Origins of Language

Course time: 
Monday/Thursday 11:00 AM-12:50 PM
JSB 231

This course explores the origins of the human language faculty and the subsequent  evolution of individual human languages.  The human language faculty is multi-faceted, and its various components are of different antiquity, some being very ancient, such as the ability to form private proposition-like mental representations, and some having evolved rather recently, such as the detailed shape of the vocal tract.  In all such cases, the kind of evolution involved is biological evolution, mediated by differential selection of DNA.  Individual human languages have evolved from simple beginnings, perhaps through more than one stage, to the complexities we see in them today.  The mechanism involved in the evolution of individual languages is cultural evolution, mediated by observation, learning and participation in the life of a community.  In general, biological evolution is slow, while cultural evolution is fast.

The course  explores the evolution of all aspects of language structure, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics.  Each of these will be dealt with in a separate lecture.  Where relevant, data will be cited from non-human animal studies, from neuroscience and from genetics, as well as from the known history of individual languages.

The course necessarily assumes a particular view of language, selecting a model which makes sense in light of the fact (often neglected) that the shape of an evolved entity is determined by the manner of its evolution.  The course will also deal briefly with issues in evolutionary theory, including group selection, gradualism versus saltationism, gene-culture co-evolution, and the role of computer simulations.