How Could Language Have Evolved?

Johan J. Bolhuis, Ian Tattersall, Noam Chomsky, Robert C. Berwick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

150 Scopus citations

Abstract

The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma. In this essay, we ask why. Language's evolutionary analysis is complicated because it has no equivalent in any nonhuman species. There is also no consensus regarding the essential nature of the language “phenotype.” According to the “Strong Minimalist Thesis,” the key distinguishing feature of language (and what evolutionary theory must explain) is hierarchical syntactic structure. The faculty of language is likely to have emerged quite recently in evolutionary terms, some 70,000–100,000 years ago, and does not seem to have undergone modification since then, though individual languages do of course change over time, operating within this basic framework. The recent emergence of language and its stability are both consistent with the Strong Minimalist Thesis, which has at its core a single repeatable operation that takes exactly two syntactic elements a and b and assembles them to form the set {a, b}.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1001934
JournalPLoS biology
Volume12
Issue number8
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 26 2014
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

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