Evolution of Language

Language co-evolved with the rule of law

Let me begin with a self-evident point, perhaps too often taken for granted. When academics participate in conferences and debates, we find ourselves operating under the rule of law. Protocols exist. We must keep to agreed time limits, disclose our sources, accept criticism and renounce any temptation to use threats, material inducements or force. There is status competition, certainly. But status is determined on an intellectual basis by peer evaluation alone; we compete to demonstrate relevance (Sperber and Wilson 1995 [1986]; Dessalles 1998) in one anothers’ eyes.

Download short (2006) version of Language co-evolved with the rule of law [PDF 188KB].

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International conferences on the evolution of language

The Sixth International Conference on the Evolution of Language (Evolang6) was held in Rome on 12-15 April 2006. The conference took place at the Centro Congressi (Conference Centre) of the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, via Salaria 113.

link to the Conference website.

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The Human Revolution (Symposium on the Evolution of Language)

Let me begin with a self-evident point, perhaps too often taken for granted. When academics participate in conferences and debates, we find ourselves operating under the rule of law. Protocols exist. We must disclose our sources, expose ourselves to criticism and renounce any temptation to use threats, material inducements or force. There is status competition, certainly. But the status of our output is determined on an intellectual basis by peer evaluation alone; we compete to demonstrate relevance in others’ eyes… Download The Human Revolution (Symposium on the Evolution of Language) in PDF format [348KB]

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Language and Revolutionary Consciousness

CHRIS KNIGHT

From the outset, ‘spirit’ is cursed with the ‘burden’ of matter, which appears in this case in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of language. Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness, as it exists for other men, and thus as it really exists for myself as well. Language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other men.

(Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels 1845-6/1963: 85-6)

7.1 Chomsky’s Model

Replying to his many critics, Chomsky (1979: 57) once accused them of not understanding science. To do science, Chomsky explained, ‘you must abstract some object of study, you must eliminate those factors which are not pertinent…’ The linguist — according to Chomsky — cannot study humans articulating their thoughts under concrete social conditions. Instead, you must replace reality with an abstract model. To deny this is to reject science altogether. More on Language and Revolutionary Consciousness

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The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social function and the origins of linguistic form

Chris Knight, James R. Hurford and Michael Studdert-Kennedy (eds), 2000. The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social function and the origins of linguistic form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Click to download Editor’s Introduction: Language: A Darwinian Adaptation? [PDF 76KB]

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Play as Precursor of Phonology and Syntax

CHRIS KNIGHT

From The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: social function and the origins of linguistic form, eds Chris Knight, Michael Studdert-Kennedy & James R Hurford. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. ISBN 0 521 78696 7. 2000

The theme of language as play suggests inquiries into non-cognitive uses of language such as that found in riddles, jingles, or tongue twisters — and beyond this into the poetic and ritual function of language, as well as into parallels between language and ritual, language and music, and language and dance. It also provides an explanation for the obvious fact that so much in language is non-optimal for purposes of communicating cognitive information. Morris Halle (1975: 528)

Primate vocalisations are irrepressible, context-bound indices of emotional states, in some cases conveying additional information about the sender’s condition, status and/or local environment. Speech has a quite different function: it permits communication of information concerning a shared, conceptual environment — a world of intangibles independent of currently perceptible reality.

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Sex and Language as Pretend-Play

CHRIS KNIGHT

Lie and alternative, inherent in language pose problems to any society whose structure is founded on language, which is to say all human societies. I have therefore argued that if there are to be words at all it is necessary to establish The Word, and that The Word is established by the invariance of liturgy

Rappaport 1979: 210—11

Language can be studied independently, or as an aspect of human sociality. Theoretical linguistics could not exist as a discipline were it not for the relative autonomy of language as a system. Ultimately, however, this system functions within a wider domain of signals which include cosmetics, dress, art, ritual and much else whose study takes us beyond linguistics.

A Darwinian theory of the origins of language must therefore address two issues. Firstly, it must explain the relative autonomy of language. Secondly, it must elucidate the evolutionary relationship between speech and a wider biological, social and symbolic domain of signals and displays. More on Sex and Language as Pretend-Play

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Ritual/speech coevolution: a solution to the problem of deception

Chris Knight

From Approaches to the Evolution of Language, ed James R Hurford, Michael Studdert-Kennedy & Chris Knight.
1998. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, ISBN 0 521 63964 6. 1998

1 Introduction: the Darwinian paradigm

Darwinism is setting a new research agenda across the related fields of palaeoanthropology, evolutionary psychology and theoretical linguistics (Dunbar 1993; Hurford 1989, 1992; Pinker & Bloom 1990; Steele & Shennan 1996). It is now widely accepted that no other theoretical framework has equivalent potential to solve the major outstanding problems in human origins research. Rival paradigms from the human and social sciences — Freudian, Piagetian, Chomskyan, Lévi-Straussian — cannot explain evolved human mentality because they already assume this as a basic premise. Tried and tested as a methodology applicable to the social behaviour of all living organisms (Dawkins 1976; Hamilton 1964; Trivers 1985), Darwinism makes no such assumptions, thereby avoiding circularity.

Modern Darwinism seeks to harmonize research into human life with the rest of scientific knowledge. This project depends, however, on accounting for the emergence of symbolic culture, including speech, a system of communication unparalleled elsewhere in biology. While Darwinians confidently expect an explanation (Pinker & Bloom 1990), it has to be admitted that, to date, no compelling account has been advanced.

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