In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Evolution of Language

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • History of the Field
  • Computational and Experimental Approaches
  • Conferences

Evolutionary Biology Evolution of Language
Sverker Johansson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0079


Why do humans have language at all and how did we become language users? These are central questions in language evolution, but no general consensus exists on the answers, nor even on what methods to use to find answers. This is a complex topic that requires input from many disciplines, including, but not limited to, linguistics, evolutionary biology, palaeoanthropology, neurobiology, archaeology, cognitive science, and primatology. Nobody is an expert in all these areas, and experts in one area sometimes overlook needed input from other areas. Consensus does not even exist among linguists on what language is—opinions range from the physical speech acts themselves to language as an abstract social communication system to language as computational machinery in the individual and to language as an innate species-defining, genetically encoded capacity of humans. These different views of language imply very different evolutionary explanations. At the same time, all of these perspectives have some validity; the speech acts do occur, language use does take place in a social context, the individual language user does somehow produce and parse sentences, and human babies are born with a predisposition for language learning that ape babies lack. The disagreements are mainly a matter of emphasis, namely which aspects are regarded as of primary interest, requiring explanation. The preeminent linguist of the early 20th century, Ferdinand de Saussure, focused on the first two perspectives with his distinction between parole (speech acts) and langue (the social system). The preeminent linguist of the late 20th century, Noam Chomsky, focuses instead on the latter two, especially the computational machinery, and he regards the first two as not worthy of a linguist’s attention. But neither focus is adequate on its own; a viable theory of language evolution must be able to explain all aspects of language, notably both the evolution of the language capacity that resides in each human brain and the evolution of the human social context in which language is used. No generally accepted theory exists today. Instead of a single accepted theory, the field of language evolution is awash with a multitude of different models, scenarios, and hypotheses about how things might have happened. To make matters worse, something of a paradigm split exists in the study of language origins. The split is largely along the line between Saussure and Chomsky mentioned above. To put it simply, those researchers who use the label “biolinguistics” try to explain the origin of Chomsky’s computational machinery (see Biolinguistics) whereas most work on language evolution is concerned with explaining the origins of Saussure’s langue, language as a social system; the latter is here called “mainstream evolutionary linguistics.” Language evolution is not, however, about the origin of individual languages (English, Chinese, etc.). Sometimes “language evolution” is used to refer to diachronic language change in recent times, as studied by historical linguists, and an evolutionary perspective can indeed be fruitful in this area. But this article does not cover that kind of language evolution, except peripherally in Cultural Evolution.

General Overviews

A number of overviews of the field of language evolution, both popular and scholarly, are available. Most volumes have a specific perspective, or present a specific model, since as yet little general consensus exists in the field. An attempt has been made to sort the books so that those focused on presenting their own model are listed under Hypotheses and Models of Language Origins, and those mainly giving a broader overview are listed under Edited Volumes, Overviews by Individual Authors, Criticism of Evolutionary Linguistics, Textbooks, and Methodological Works. However, this is certainly not a black or white distinction.

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