Theory and evidence in language evolution research
PLM2012 Thematic session
Organisers: Przemysław Żywiczyński (Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń); Sławomir Wacewicz (Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń); Luke McCrohon (University of Tokyo)
Invited speaker: Prof. Jim Hurford (University of Edinburgh)
The problem of the emergence of the uniquely human ability to acquire language was traditionally perceived to be as intriguing as it was elusive, leading to reflections that were interesting but conjectural. Even thirty years ago it was fair for linguists to claim that the phylogeny of language was irrelevant to linguistic research, constituting a proprietary area of mythological, religious or philosophical reflection (e.g. Fisiak 1985). The rapid advances that the research area of language evolution (Evolution of Language or EoL, for short) has seen recently testify to a profound change in that perception. These changes result from many breakthroughs, some in disciplines such as primatology or genetics, some in linguistics itself, reflecting its closer alliances with neighbouring fields. While gesturology, pidginisation and creolisation, computational models, and language acquisition have so far been the main sources of evidence, the EoL studies have recently been complemented e.g. by statistical analyses over bodies of linguistic data (e.g. Atkinson 2011, Dunn et al. 2011).
The evolution of language can be approached from at least two major perspectives:
- of evolutionary changes leading to the development of the biological potential for language, or
- of mechanisms of the cultural evolution of the communicative code.
However, such efforts remain grounded in a higher-order theoretical discussion touching upon the foundations of modern linguistic theory, e.g. concerning the status of language universals or the notion of the “faculty of language” (cf. the debate between Chomsky, Hauser, Fitch, and Pinker and Jackendoff).
The aims of the session can be summarised as follows:
- to assess the present range of available evidence and to discuss the status of the new sources of evidence
- to assess the role of theoretical syntheses and holistic scenarios of language emergence and evolution
- to identify the ways in which linguistic methodologies can be made relevant to answering the ‘origins’ type questions,
- to identify the limitations of linguistic methodologies alone and thus directions of interdisciplinary collaboration
- to bridge the gap between conceptions of evidence in biology and linguistics
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