The nature of the language faculty and its implications for evolution of language (Reply to Fitch, Hauser, & Chomsky)

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Abstract:

In a continuation of the conversation with Fitch, Chomsky, and Hauser on the evolution of language, we examine their defense of the claim that the uniquely human, language-specific part of the language faculty (the “narrow language faculty”) consists only of recursion, and that this part cannot be considered an adaptation to communication. We argue that their characterization of the narrow language faculty is problematic for many reasons, including its dichotomization of cognitive capacities into those that are utterly unique and those that are identical to nonlinguistic or nonhuman capacities, omitting capacities that may have been substantially modified during human evolution. We also question their dichotomy of the current utility versus original function of a trait, which omits traits that are adaptations for current use, and their dichotomy of humans and animals, which conflates similarity due to common function and similarity due to inheritance from a recent common ancestor. We show that recursion, though absent from other animals’ communications systems, is found in visual cognition, hence cannot be the sole evolutionary development that granted language to humans. Finally, we note that despite Fitch et al.’s denial, their view of language evolution is tied to Chomsky’s conception of language itself, which identifies combinatorial productivity with a core of “narrow syntax.” An alternative conception, in which combinatoriality is spread across words and constructions, has both empirical advantages and greater evolutionary plausibility.

Last updated on 11/30/2011