Monday, May 22, 2017

Darwin's theory of musical protolanguage

Musical protolanguage: Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited by W. Tecumseh Fish in Language Log 2009
"Darwin also adopted an empirical, data-driven approach to the problem at hand. In particular, Darwin exploited a wide comparative database, exploiting not just his knowledge of nonhuman primate behaviour, but also insights from many other vertebrates. Finally, and most characteristically, he resisted any special pleading about human evolution. He intended his model of human evolution to fit within, and remain consistent with, a broader theory of evolution that applies to beetles, flowers and birds. Unlike Wallace, who remained a human exceptionalist to his death (Wallace, 1905), Darwin aimed to uncover general principles, like sexual selection and shifts of function, to provide explanations of unusual or unique human traits. While gradualistic, his model does not assume any simple continuity of function between nonhuman primate calls and language, and he clearly recognized the uniqueness of language in our species. In many ways, then, Darwin’s model of language evolution finds a natural place in the landscape of contemporary debate concerning language evolution, and it is surprising that his model has received relatively little detailed consideration in the modern literature (for exceptions see Donald, 1991; Fitch, 2006).
In this essay, I aim to redress this neglect by considering Darwin’s model of language evolution in detail. After discussing Darwin’s main points and arguments, I will briefly review additional data supporting Darwin’s model that has appeared since his death. I will also discuss the issue of meaning, about which Darwin had too little to say, but which can be resolved by the addition of a hypothesis due to (Jespersen, 1922). My conclusion is that, suitably modified in the light of contemporary understanding, Darwin’s model of language evolution, based on a “protolanguage” more musical than linguistic, provides one of the most convincing frameworks available for understanding language evolution. The timing of my writing, on the 150th anniversary of the Origin, and the 200th of Darwin’s birth, is also appropriate for a revival of interest in Darwin’s compelling and well-supported hypothesis."

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