Guide The Prehistory of Language (Oxford Studies in the Evolution of Language)

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  1. Introduction
  2. Professor Andreas Willi
  3. Prehistory of Language - Oxford Scholarship

The results to date regarding specific human-language related genes have generally confirmed this expectation, as emphasized in a recent, comprehensive review by Geschwind and Rakic p.

Setting the boundaries

The catalog of differences has grown to include the possible genomic underpinnings for neoteny MEF2A, Somel et al. Thus the possible avenues for explanation are expanding, an indication of positive paths forward e. Nonetheless, even in the best understood cases, the genotype-phenotype gap remains large. Konopka et al. Further, language is not like the examples of body plan segmentation or eye formation where functional and developmental processes are well understood in numerous species, both closely and distantly related.

There are simply no precise analogs or homologs of human language in other species.


The FOXP2 case exemplifies research strategies i , ii , and iv. FOXP2 is a transcription factor that up- or down-regulates DNA in many different tissue types brain, lung, gut lining at different times during development as well as throughout life. This broad functional effect makes evolutionary analysis difficult.

One of the two protein-coding changes along the lineage to modern humans is also associated with the order Carnivora. Since FOXP2 also targets the gut lining, this evolutionary step may have had little to do directly with language but instead with digestion modifications driven by forest-to-savannah habit and so dietary change Zhang et al.

Professor Andreas Willi

Moreover, its link to SLI is not clear-cut. Rice presents evidence that SLI might best be pictured as a disruption of a growth timing mechanism, implicating a different set of genetic components, some that are non-regulatory and involved in neuronal migration. The story is not yet complete; as Geschwind and Rakic note, comparison of human vs. Together, these observations underscore the fact that we lack a connect-the-dots account of any gene to language phenotype.

Furthermore, to the extent that our account of the language phenotype is diffuse some general system of cognition rather than a precisely delimited and narrow computational module , the genotype-phenotype mapping will be correspondingly more challenging to address. Given our currently impoverished understanding of such mappings for far less complicated phenotypes, in far simpler organisms, molecular biology has a long way to go before it can illuminate the evolution of language. Biological models of language evolution often start with a population of individuals communicating by means of their particular languages, broadly defined as mappings between forms and meanings.

A certain measure of fitness is introduced, which in turn differentially affects the transmission of the languages to the next generation of individuals. This evolutionary dynamic is believed to shed light on the emergence of human language and its associated properties. A notable result Nowak et al. The vast majority of modeling efforts, like those above, presuppose the existence of a language phenotype equipped with compositionality and discrete infinity.

This assumption is directly built into the mathematical models Nowak and Komarova, ; Kirby and Hurford, or enabled by human subjects in behavioral studies, who may impose linguistic structures upon the materials presented Kirby et al. But this presupposition regarding the language phenotype offers no insight into how it arose in the first place, nor does it illuminate the fundamental distinction between the emergence of the core biological competence and its adaptive or non-adaptive functions.

Lastly, the underlying assumptions of these models, including their commitment to an adaptationist program, are often made without empirical verification and in some cases, are contrary to known facts about languages. As noted in our section How to Study the Evolution of a Trait, it is essential for proposals of adaptive function to be tested against non-adaptive hypotheses. A leading proposal in evolutionary modeling is to identify language fitness with communicative success Nowak and Komarova, ; Baronchelli et al.

While our pre-linguistic past is not accessible for direct investigation, the uniformitarian principle of historical science does enable us to test these assumptions: If communication has played a significant role in the evolution of language, its force should be observable in the process of language transmission. The history of language change provides the only testable case for the predictions of this communication optimization thesis, and the evidence points in the opposite direction.

Language change generally proceeds mechanically irrespective of communicative purpose, a perspective held by traditional historical linguistics and strengthened by the quantitative study of ongoing language variation and change Labov, For instance, one of the most robustly attested linguistic changes is phonemic merger, whereby the distinction between two consonants or vowels is lost. Mergers, by definition, obliterate the distinction between words, which increases the ambiguity of communication; unsurprisingly, therefore, information theoretic accounts of phonemic change have been unsuccessful King, ; Surendran and Niyogi, Yet mergers can spread rapidly across dialect boundaries and are rarely, if ever, reversed Labov, Another major difficulty with the communication as adaptation thesis can be observed in the redundancy and reduction of linguistic information.

A communication-based approach to language use would predict a higher rate of deletion for the past participle than for past tense on grounds of communicative efficiency, yet the deletion rates do not differ in these contexts Guy, Under the adaptationist assumption in language evolution modeling, languages that facilitate more efficient communication are more successful in transmission to the next generation. But there is no evidence of a communicative advantage for typologically more common, and thus more successfully transmitted languages such as those with the Subject Verb Object order e.

Likewise, the cross-linguistic studies of language acquisition show a largely uniform developmental trajectory, with no evidence to suggest that some languages are easier to learn than others Slobin, While the differences between individuals' language learning abilities may have a genetic basis, there is currently no evidence to support a higher biological fitness for the more proficient learners, except in extreme cases of neurological impairment.

That communication is intimately related to language is too obvious to dismiss entirely, but its lack of theoretical constraint and repeated failures, long recognized in the empirical study of language, cast serious doubt on its utility in models of language evolution. The success of evolutionary population genetics lies in the mutually constraining connection between idealized models and empirically grounded work in the laboratory and in the wild. As noted in section How to Study the Evolution of a Trait, many tools and methodologies available to biological investigations cannot be applied to the study of language.

But conceptual confusion and detachment from the empirical research of language, as we have seen in the modeling work on language evolution, unsurprisingly provides scant insights into language origins or its subsequent evolution. Moving forward, modeling work must focus on the computations and representations of the core competence for language, recognize the distinction between these internal processes and their potential externalization in communication, and lay out models that can be empirically tested in our own and other species.

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  • Black Science - 002 (2013) (digital) (Son of Ultron-Empire) [CBR].
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This is a tall order, but a necessary one if the fruits of evolutionary modeling that have been reaped from studies of, for example, mating behavior and cooperation, can be obtained for the language phenotype. Answering evolutionary questions is of profound interest largely because of our deep-seated curiosity about the past, about how things were, and how they have become what they are.

Thanks in part to the revolution that Darwin sparked, including his ideas and methods, we now have many fine examples in which theoretical predictions about the origins and subsequent evolution of a phenotype have been described in great detail, including analyses of genomes, anatomy, and behavior. And yet some phenotypes remain poorly understood, and may remain so due to inadequate methods and impoverished evidence.

  • The Age of Napoleon (Greenwood Guides to Historic Events 1500-1900).
  • Dating the Origin of Language Using Phonemic Diversity.
  • Language Research Paper: Language and Prehistoric Visual Communications?
  • Attitudes, Behavior, and Social Context: The Role of Norms and Group Membership.

We conclude with a brief discussion of potential paths forward. Animal communication systems have thus far failed to demonstrate anything remotely like our systems of phonology, semantics, and syntax, and the capacity to process even artificially created stimuli is highly limited, often requiring Herculean training efforts. Should new methods reveal more richly structured systems of communication or more powerful, spontaneous abilities to process strongly generated stimuli, then comparative data would gain greater interest and relevance to evolutionary understanding.

For example, we can imagine that in the not so distant future, it will be possible to non-invasively obtain neural recordings from free-ranging animals, and thus, to provide a more fine grained and quantitative measure of spontaneous processing of different stimuli. This would solve the methodological desiderata of creating a technique that reveals a capacity in the absence of reinforced training.

With this tool, future work on artificial language processing might develop a set of stimuli that are generated from a recursive operation such as Merge a recursive operation that combines two objects, such as two lexical items, to construct a new object, such as a phrase, in a process that can be iterated indefinitely , expose animals to a subset of these, and then test them on a wide range of alternatives that extend beyond the initial set in ways that can reveal substantial generalization, and thus comprehension of the underlying generative operation.

As in all such studies, it would be necessary to show that simpler, finite mechanisms, cannot account for the patterns of generalization. With respect to paleontology, it is difficult to imagine how any kind of fossil evidence could shed light on the computations and representations of language: as noted, peripheral anatomy without soft tissue says little about either the output or the phonological representations, and endocasts say even less about potential computations and representations.

Nonetheless, it is not inconceivable that finer-grained analyses of endocasts from modern humans might be linked to more fine-grained neurobiological structures at the surface, and that these in turn might reveal details of the internal circuitry. For example, despite the relative simplicity of the honeybee's brain, we know nothing about how neurons encode the perception of the waggle dance, or how neurons generate motor sequences for dancing.

Prehistory of Language - Oxford Scholarship

For our own species, we know nothing about the neurobiology of our recursive procedures, and even for such seemingly simpler systems, such as phonology, our understanding is very poor Poeppel, Needless to say, this makes comparative work virtually impossible as the target circuitry for modern humans is unclear. As advances in neuroimaging and other cellular techniques improve, so too perhaps will understanding.

In terms of the archaeological record, we can certainly imagine the discovery of richer symbolic artifacts, perhaps even non-iconic strings of symbols, dating before the emergence of Homo sapiens. Such findings would push back the origins of symbolic capacities, and provide greater traction into questions of both origin and subsequent evolution. Should such discoveries from comparative animal behavior, paleontology, neurobiology, and archaeology be made, along with greater depth of understanding of gene-phenotype mapping, it would open the door to more relevant genomics and modeling.

These are all big IFs about the nature and possibility of future evidence. Until such evidence is brought forward, understanding of language evolution will remain one of the great mysteries of our species. The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Journal List Front Psychol v. Front Psychol. Published online May 7. Marc D. Berwick , 3 Ian Tattersall , 4 Michael J. Lewontin 8. Robert C. Michael J. Richard C.

Author information Article notes Copyright and License information Disclaimer. This article was submitted to Language Sciences, a section of the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Received Mar 3; Accepted Apr The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author s or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice.

No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms. This article has been cited by other articles in PMC. Abstract Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. Keywords: language evolution, computation, animal behavior, genetics, paleoarcheology, modelling.

How to study the evolution of a trait Understanding biological evolution requires distinguishing patterns and processes, dissecting potential contributions from both random and non-random mechanisms including genetic drift, migration, selection, developmental unfolding, and genetic constraints. The language phenotype In this paper, we are interested in biological as opposed to cultural evolution. Comparative animal behavior Talking birds and signing apes rank among the most fantastic claims in the literature on language evolution, but examination of the evidence shows fundamental differences between child language acquisition and nonhuman species' use of language and language-like systems.

Paleontology and archaeology Given the phenotypic characterization of language II , it is no surprise that direct prehistoric traces of language, spoken or signed, are lacking. Molecular biology The comparative method provides an important approach to identifying genetic mechanisms and evolutionary change, but runs into significant challenges in the case of language. Modeling Biological models of language evolution often start with a population of individuals communicating by means of their particular languages, broadly defined as mappings between forms and meanings.

Conclusion Answering evolutionary questions is of profound interest largely because of our deep-seated curiosity about the past, about how things were, and how they have become what they are.

Table 1 Some prospects for future empirical work on language evolution. Though even primate articulation is, in many respects, different from human articulation, there are prospects for defining a form of phonology, both visual and acoustic, in terms that are familiar to phoneticians, and then modeling how this system may have changed based on inferences of changes in vocal tract morphology and control over hand articulation. New methods must therefore be explored, especially ones that can tap into captive settings where details of the stimuli and environment are readily controlled.

Since many of the species that have been explored in this context e. Alternative methods, such as habituation-discrimination, have the virtue of spontaneity, but are limited by the need for large sample sizes, and typically, new test subjects for each test. If alternative methods can be found, such as the possibility of neural recordings in free-moving animals, sampling something akin to mismatch negativity, progress is likely.

Such progress will, however, require evidence of spontaneous generalization far beyond the input, varying both the nature of the stimuli, moving toward something approximating discrete infinity. However, there may come a day when subtle aspects of skull structure inform some aspect of brain function, and perhaps this might illuminate changes in capacity; we say this with caution, however, given that current work in neuroimaging reveals intricate circuitry, far below the surface structures of the brain. Similarly, perhaps more detailed study of the structure of the hyoid bone, together with jaw morphology, will speak to the possible phonological spaces that are possible, and this will inform potential changes in speech production.

However, archaeologists continue to unearth novel evidence, including especially from the Neanderthals. This leaves open the possibility of finding more ancient evidence of symbolic activity, perhaps less iconic forms, and perhaps with ordered structures. This state of affairs is bound to improve, especially given the rapid progress in deriving complete genomes of even extinct species, and of creating transgenics. This will open the door, especially with model organisms, of knocking in or out genes from other species with known capacities; though the ethical issues for nonhuman primates will remain, it is tempting to think about what would happen if genes known to impact human language function could be inserted into a developing ape brain.