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For all these reasons, UG represents an ideal reference framework to construct a shared conceptual space in which to interpret data and elaborate hypotheses from different disciplines. UG is more than a conceptual model; it is a genuine interpretative paradigm in the sense used by Kuhn The minimalist turn within this generative paradigm Chomsky fortifies the idea of UG as a shared conceptual space.

Instead, biolinguistics 2. In allowing minimalism to launch a new phase within biolinguistics, there is the distinction between faculty of language in the broad sense FLB and in the narrow sense FLN; Hauser et al. The idea of considering language as the broad FLB and not as FLN is a way to explain language functioning through more complex cognitive architectures than those postulated by classic biolinguistics. Furthermore, many cognitive devices characterizing FLB are also present in nonhuman animals; the focus on FLB allows development of a continuistic view of language.

In light of these considerations, it seems possible to argue that early Chomsky concerns are outdated regarding the relationship between UG and evolutionary theory Chomsky ; Berwick and Chomsky Therefore, the minimalist turn has allowed to again address the taboo question of language origins. So far, so good. Biolinguistics seems to be an interpretative paradigm able to include in a unitary perspective different theoretical models. Moreover, it offers a shared conceptual space useful in dealing with heterogeneous data that, as we have argued, might represent a risk for the multidisciplinary research on language evolution.

Biolinguistics presents several aspects that need to be analyzed. In our opinion, when it comes to the origins of language, the reference to a refined and well-established model of language represents both the strength and weakness of such paradigm. More specifically, the problematic issue is represented by uniqueness —an issue in the Chomskyan perspective that is linked to Cartesian tradition see for a discussion Ferretti and Adornetti There is no harm in emphasizing traits that differentiate human language from other forms of communication, nor in considering language as the peculiar trait of humans.

But what is true for humans must also be true for other animals. As pointed out by Pinker , the elephant has a type of nose that distinguishes it from all other animals, and the bat uses a distinctive perceptual system to relate to the environment. In such cases, the concept of uniqueness is not a problematic issue because it is consistent with Darwinian continuism and gradualism. There are two possible moves to curtail such a Cartesian drift in the research on language uniqueness. The first is to appeal to the idea that FLB includes some traits shared with other species.

The second move against the Cartesian notion of uniqueness is showing that language emerged outside Homo sapiens. Consistent with that, some authors suggest that language arose in Homo heidelbergensis Dediu and Levinson or in Homo ergaster—erectus Corballis ; McBride , while some others consider language even more ancient Shaw-Williams In such a framework, the hardest debate is focused on the linguistic abilities of Homo neanderthalensis. New data from different disciplines e. In fact, according to Dediu and Levinson , modern humans, Denisovan and Neanderthal share a common genetic line that can be considered the basis of language.

Two considerations are worthy: the first concerns considering the specificity of language in the more general framework of continuism; claiming that modern language is in continuity with more ancient forms of communication does not mean overlooking those specificities that characterize language as we know it today. Thus, continuity with other animals and other species of hominins applies only to those aspects of language that are not linked to FLN; that is, those aspects not specifically linguistic.

This is where the strength of biolinguistic paradigm also turns out to be its limitation. The reference to a model of language strongly linked to UG is the crux for authors more willing to revise the notion of uniqueness. Considering that syntax is the mechanism underlying the mapping between sound and meaning Jackendoff , FLN then paves the way for the issue of uniqueness.

From these considerations follows that the syntactic component rather than vocal or semantic-pragmatic ones is the distinctive trait of language when comparing it to animal communication. Distinguishing our way of communication from that of other animals is crucial to the issue of language origins.


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Not under discussion is the fact that the topic of emergence of syntax is a main problem in the agenda on the studies of language origins. Instead, the point at issue is whether the topic of language origins should coincide with the topic of the origin of syntax: in other words, should syntax be considered the distinctive trait that, in the early stages of language, ensured the transition from animal to human communication?

In the next section, we consider this point as the main limit of the well-established model of language promoted by biolinguistics 2. Assuming UG as the indisputable starting point of the argument, Pinker and Bloom disputed Chomsky in proving UG to be compatible with the theory of evolution. Their proposal was based on the following logical argument: the only successful account of the origin of complex biological structure is the theory of natural selection; language is a complex biological structure subsequently refuted by minimalism ; the origin of language must be explained by the theory of natural selection.

This argument led to a new stage in the study of the relationship between UG and evolutionary theory—namely, a compatibilist phase in which the theoretical structure of UG represents the a priori assumption that the empirical research is called to verify. The main goal underlying this compatibilist perspective is finding a model of the theory of evolution that better fits the model of language. Relevant to the present article is that this sort of compatibilism also affects the study of language origins. In fact, if the starting point of investigation is the model of language, the analysis of the origin of communication strongly depends on the conclusive outcome of the process.

We enter here into large and extremely interesting topics that we will have to put aside. Let us just summarize briefly what seems to be the current best guess about the unity and diversity of language and thought. In some completely unknown way, our ancestors developed human concepts. At some later stage, the internal language of thought was connected to the sensorimotor system, a complex task that can be solved in many different ways and at different times p.

Since language relies on syntax and since syntax depends on Merge , the evolutionary steps that have led to language should include not only an explanation of how Merge appeared but also a description of how the necessary tools i. Despite this, Berwick and Chomsky interpret the evolution of Merge in terms of a casual biological mutation and assume the emergence of concepts as a given without explaining it.

Human Evolution Research

In other words, this way of viewing language directs the evolutionary process. As we have suggested, biolinguistics can count on a refined and well-established model of language. Because of this, the biolinguistic paradigm can foster hypotheses and predictions in different areas of research that share a common idea on the nature of language.

That said, it is certainly true that interpretative paradigms are necessary to organize the large amount of heterogeneous data from different disciplines, but it is also true that choice of the paradigm strongly affects construction of a unitary model of language and its origins. What if the perspective is overturned? What if the theory of evolution and not the model of language is the starting point of the analysis? At the base of such change is the idea that language must meet the conformity constraint of the theory of evolution rather than the compatibilist one.

This idea paves the way to construction of a new interpretative model of language inspired by Darwin more than Descartes ; for this reason, it is not only plausible but also advisable when considering the question of the origin of linguistic capacity. Following these considerations, the next sections will consider a new paradigm that, unlike biolinguistics, assumes the principles of evolutionary theory as points of reference.

The idea is that the external layers of the sandwich, that is, the sensory and the motor are not so important after all, because what matters is the inner layer, the cognitive processes. Furthermore, according to this metaphor, the sensory and the motor are separate, they are just input and output systems, which do not affect what happens at the level of the cognitive processes. This way of understanding the relation between sensory-motor and cognitive processes has also influenced the view on language.

Considering the mind as a device that manipulates symbols, symbolic theories of meaning have assumed that linguistic meaning arises from the syntactic combination of mental symbols. This view is often conjoined with a modularist assumption that meaning is processed in an informationally encapsulated way such that these mental symbols are amodal, i. In the following sections we will suggest that these two aspects—grounding and the primacy of action—are important for the building of a model of language alternative to biolinguistics.


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Precisely, we will argue that: the action system has a crucial role in language evolution and that the acknowledgment of this allows to elaborate perspectives of language emergence in line with the conformity constraint Sect. Before going into details of these arguments, it is necessary to analyze how the embodied account has deeply influenced the way of thinking about language. Harnad Neuroimaging investigations have supported this view exploring several different domains. For example, in the domain of perception, it has been shown that perceptual brain regions that process object-related information are also activated by as words related to visual features e.

The domain of emotions and pain has also been explored with a variety of methods, including EEG Rak et al. As for actions, it is known that somatotopic areas in the motor and premotor cortex, which are active when subjects move specific body parts e. Starting from the assumption that people have bodies by means of which they explore the surrounding environment, the embodied theories of mind have argued that there is a relation of mutual inter-dependence between action and perception Berthoz Moreover, canonical neurons are also active when tool-related nouns are presented Cattaneo et al.

Furthermore, affordances seem to be involved in the construction of sentence meaning. This has been shown by Glenberg and Robertson in behavioural studies in which sentences containing affordance violations e.

Where Did Language Come From? (Theories)

Also, using the EEG method, it has been shown that the N component of the ERPs is sensitive to the modulation of object affordances as induced by the previous linguistic context Cosentino et al. Converging evidence from different disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, neurolinguistics, and neuropsychology, has informed the theorizing about the embodiment of mind, leading initially some scholars to suggest that a radical shift of paradigm was happening with respect to more traditional amodal-symbolic theories.

Currently, most researchers acknowledge that the correct approach lies probably in the between, but the debate is still completely open as to level of embodiment and involvement in different processing stages. The first, more obvious, way of endorsing the link between action and language from an evolutionary perspective is constituted by the well-represented strand of gestural theories of language evolution. Second, the idea of a strong connection between language and action is the starting assumption of some models of language evolution, which assume that the mechanisms originally evolved for action control might have been exploited for language, at both the grammatical and semantic level see Glenberg and Gallese In the following sections, we now turn to these different approaches.

The embodied models discussed in the previous section have important consequences for the question of language origins. In other words, embracing a model of knowledge as action permits development of a language model that meets the conformity constraint of the theory of evolution rather than the compatibilist one. Furthermore, adhesion to such a model setting aside the distinction between competence and execution typical of biolinguistics allows us to reconsider the fundamental role of the expressive dimension of communication for both the origin and functioning of language.


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Acknowledgment that the action system has a crucial role in language comprehension and production has provided new views on the involvement of such a system in language evolution, bolstering the gesture-first theory of human communication, according to which human language first originated as a gestural-based communicative system Arbib ; Arbib et al. The gesture-first theory has taken advantage of the interdisciplinary enterprise that characterizes language evolution research for a review, see Corballis a.

The first modern effort in this direction was that of anthropologist Hewes Nonetheless, since the s, gestural theory has become a very influential model to account for the origin of human communication. These neurons are defined as mirror because they allow a kind of mirroring between perception and action. Specifically, they discharge when the monkey performs an intentional act with its hands e.

The functional role of mirror neurons is relevant to the gestural origin of language. According to several authors e. In humans, this area is involved in general motor functions, such as the control of the complex hand movements Binkofski and Buccino , but it also plays a key role in some linguistic processes e.

This gesture-first account has been further corroborated by comparative data on monkey and ape communication that shows the existence of important differences between their vocal and gestural communicative signals. Although it is well known that nonhuman primates produce different acoustically vocal signals to communicate about different events or entities e. Moreover, neurophysiological investigations showed that nonhuman primates do not have the full neural equipment necessary for vocal control that would enable the production of novel sounds from the environment Ploog The voluntary modulation, exaggeration, or inhibition of their calls can be viewed as an internal emotional state, such as the production of human emotional vocalizations e.

Therefore, although the vocal mode of communication is often considered a precursor of speech Burling ; MacNeilage , animal vocal behavior alone does not seem to represent a starting point for the evolution of human communication. Contrary to vocalizations, which are mostly instinctive expressions of emotions, nonhuman primate especially apes make manual gestures i.

For example, apes can use gestures in different contexts to communicate different things Pollick and de Waal , such as modifying the behavior of a specific receiver Roberts et al. Furthermore, when producing gestures, apes appraise the attentional state of the recipient: visual gestures not accompanied by any sound are frequently used when the receiver is paying attention to the indicator Tomasello and Call , while auditory and tactile gestures are produced to attract the attention of an individual who is not looking at the signaler Tomasello et al.

From this view, ape gestures and human language share a very important property: intentionality for a discussion, see Roberts et al. Nevertheless, the gesture-first theory of language origin is not without criticism. If language first emerged as a gestural—manual system, why should language have assumed the vocal-auditory form dominant today? This question is very relevant when considering that sign language—the communicative system used by people who are deaf—is as expressive as spoken language Stokoe In this respect, Wacewicz and Zywiczynski maintained that "the persistence of the problem, together with new sources of empirical data … was a powerful motivation for language evolution researchers to look to the multimodal alternatives whereby, from the start, the evolutionary emergence of language involved an intimate connection and interplay between the vocal-auditory and motor-visual modalities e.

Some of the arguments supporting the multimodal scenario come from gesturology research, according to which both the organization of body movement and speech contribute to the process of languaging Kendon The idea is that gesture and speech comprise a single multimodal system with gesture not as an ornament or accompaniment to speech but rather part of it Goldin-Meadow ; McNeill Adhering to this view, Hostetter and Alibali highlighted that both gesture and speech rely on the same simulative processes.

As described in the previous section, simulations are neural enactments or reenactments of interactions with the world. According to Hostetter and Alibali , when a speaker engages in these reenactments, the same motor and perceptual cerebral areas are recruited that would be involved in physically performing or perceiving the scene.

Forming a simulation evokes a motor plan that can be expressed alongside speech and gesture. Thus, gestures are a natural byproduct of the cognitive processes that underlie speaking; it is not possible to consider the two separately because both are expressions of the same simulation Pouw and Hostetter The multimodal theory of language evolution, the idea that bodily-visual and vocal-auditory signals were fully integrated at least from the beginning of language e.

It has been shown that apes, especially chimpanzees, have a multimodal system of communication whereby the production of gestures is often associated with vocal signals and facial expressions Liebal et al. These latter neurofunctional findings point to the question of connections between the mouth and the hand that may have played a role in the evolution of language.

The mirror system again is relevant to explain these connections. Evidence attests that the monkey premotor cortex is involved in the production and perception of both oro-facial and forelimb actions: some neurons in F5 area activate when the monkey makes a movement to grasp an object with either the hand or mouth Rizzolatti et al. Many investigations have attested this link in humans between hand and mouth e.

For instance, Iverson and Thelen proposed that an association between the manual system and the vocal system is present from birth and paves the way for embodied language processing later in life.

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Based on the presence of a coupling between hand and mouth, Fogassi and Ferrari hypothesized that "the ventral premotor cortex, endowed with the control of both hand and mouth actions, could have played a pivotal role in associating gestures with vocalizations, thus producing new motor representations. It is important to highlight that both the gesture-first account and the multimodal perspective are compliant with the action-orient paradigm.

In fact, in both cases, the core idea is that language is grounded in bodily sensory-motor systems; it is not a coincidence that both perspectives assign a crucial explicative role for the rise of language to mirror neurons. The difference between the two accounts lies in the degree of importance conferred to the vocal mode of expression. According to the gesture-first account, during the early stages of language evolution, vocalizations were simply an accompaniment to gesticulation, which unfold the primary communicative function.

From the view of the multimodal perspective, vocalizations and gesticulation were functionally equivalent from the beginning, both being necessary for the whole communicative process. To conclude, the study of the evolution of the expressive modality from an action-oriented perspective offers an illuminating example of how collecting and synthesizing data from a broad range of disciplines has been possible when examining, in a scientific and systematic way, a subject that is crucial for understanding the origins of linguistic communication.

So far, we have discussed how the contribution of the action-oriented model of language has shifted the emphasis on the role of gesture in the origin of human communication. In this section, we will consider further crucial implications of assuming such action-oriented model. After considering the idea that action contributes to the making of the communicative expressive system, we now turn our attention to a different but strictly connected topic: the possible role of the embodied perspective in the explanation of the processes of language comprehension and production.

How do the embodied models raise the issue of the interpretative level of language?

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In this regard, a further aspect distinguishing the embodied models from the syntactic-centric models emerges. As is well known, models that are guided by UG focus on the sentence constituent structure. On the contrary, the embodied models are characterized by a focus on the relation between language and the external reality, specifically on how language might be grounded in the world in this respect, the reference to grasping as basic condition for the emergence of language is illustrative; see Rizzolatti and Arbib Namely, whereas the biolinguistic models of language addressed the interpretative processes with reference to the combinatorial aspect of relating sound and arbitrary referents, now the embodied models shift the focus to the issue of grounding.

Much of the mystery clearly depends on the priority assigned to the syntactic plan. The grounding problem demands a link between language and reality that the syntactic-centric theories—defining language with reference to abstract, amodal, and arbitrary symbols combined by syntactic rules—are not equipped to address. The incompatibility between syntax and grounding calls for an inversion of paradigm.

Can the action-oriented perspective, emphasizing the priority of grounding, embody such an inversion of paradigm? No language contains very many interjections, and, Crystal points out, "the clicks, intakes of breath, and other noises which are used in this way bear little relationship to the vowels and consonants found in phonology. According to this theory, language evolved from the grunts, groans, and snorts evoked by heavy physical labor. Though this notion may account for some of the rhythmic features of the language, it doesn't go very far in explaining where words come from.

Share Flipboard Email. Richard Nordquist is a freelance writer and former professor of English and Rhetoric who wrote college-level Grammar and Composition textbooks. It exits the body as a series of puffs and dissipates quickly into the atmosphere There are no verbs preserved in amber, no ossified nouns, and no prehistorical shrieks forever spread-eagled in the lava that took them by surprise. But does this mean that all questions about the origin of language are unanswerable? Not necessarily. Over the past 20 years, scholars from such diverse fields as genetics, anthropology, and cognitive science have been engaged, as Kenneally says, in "a cross-discipline, multidimensional treasure hunt" to find out how language began.

It is, she says, "the hardest problem in science today. In a future article, we'll consider more recent theories about the origins and development of language—what William James called "the most imperfect and expensive means yet discovered for communicating a thought. Friend Reviews. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

To ask other readers questions about The Origins of Meaning , please sign up. Be the first to ask a question about The Origins of Meaning. Lists with This Book. This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Community Reviews. Showing Rating details. Sort order. Mar 04, Katja rated it it was amazing Shelves: non-fiction , en , z-lib , linguistics. If you are interested in language evolution you cannot skip this book, the best you can do is to start with it.

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The amount of interdisciplinary information presented here is huge, the discussion is impressively cohesive and easy to follow. Although the book title has the word "meaning" in it, don't expect much linguistics, there is much more evidence from biology, ethology and psychology than from linguistics, and it is good so. If you are used to linguistic literature, it may be hard to recogni If you are interested in language evolution you cannot skip this book, the best you can do is to start with it.

If you are used to linguistic literature, it may be hard to recognize that too much is assumed to be given there. The truth is that, very likely, linguistics cannot afford to be as self-contained as it pretends to be. This comment relates more to the first part of the book which for me was a completely new perspective on the notion of meaning for the reason stated above.

The second part is about animal communication and there you will find the usual set of cooperation-altruism-fitness-selection-game theory stuff which is fortunately presented critically. The theories presented there, like inclusive fitness, sexual selection, the handicap principle, are all relevant but none decisively answers the question how come humans are so cooperative? I am very much looking forward to the second volume on the origins of grammar. Jun 27, Jose Maanmieli rated it it was amazing. If you are interested in the nature of language, this is the first book you should read.