Evolutionary linguistics

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Evolutionary linguistics is the branch of linguistics that concerns itself with the evolution of language, i.e. the processes that led to the evolution of the human faculty of language. It is a multidisciplinary field involving neurolinguistics, cognitive science, anthropology and others.

Some of the core questions in evolutionary linguistics are stated on the website of the linguistics department of the University of California, Santa Barbara:[1]

Since spoken language does not leave any fossil record, the study of the origin and evolution of language is necessarily inferential on the basis of cross-disciplinary understanding of linguistics, neuroscience, paleoanthropology, molecular genetics, and animal cognition/communication. Of particular significance are those hominid behaviors that cannot take place without linguistic communication. A surprising issue that rises from this cross-disciplinary research is the nature of language.

  • In the continuum of the evolutionary development of human cognition and behavior adduced from the paleoanthropological records, when did hominid communication qualify as “language”?
  • Would the emergence of symbolic signals mark the beginning of language?
  • Was the appearance of the first symbolic signal among hominids the watershed event that led instantly to a cascade of new symbolic communicative signals within a few generations, or was the increase of symbolic signals a gradual process on an evolutionary time scale in accordance with the evolution of cognition?
  • Is there a “critical mass” of symbolic communicative signals that is necessary to trigger the development of grammar?
  • Did grammar emerge gradually on an evolutionary scale of time, contrary to the fast-paced emergence of grammar in pidginization and creolization?

There are many others, as will become apparent in this article.

References cited