Language evolution and universals

Two ambitious papers just published offer broad contrasting views on the biological and cultural bases of human languages:

Nicholas Evans, N. , & Stephen Levinson (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,  32(5), 429-492. (With commentaries and response) available here,

and W. Tecumseh Fitch 2009) Prolegomena to a Future Science of Biolinguistics. Biolinguistics, Vol 3, No 4 (2009) available here

Read more for the the abstracts


Evans, N. & Levinson, S. C. (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(5), 429-492  (With commentaries and response)

Abstract: Talk of linguistic universals has given cognitive scientists the impression that languages are all built to a common pattern. In fact, there are vanishingly few universals of language in the direct sense that all languages exhibit them. Instead, diversity can be found at almost every level of linguistic organization. This fundamentally changes the object of enquiry from a cognitive science perspective. The article summarizes decades of cross-linguistic work by typologists and descriptive linguists, showing just how few and unprofound the universal characteristics of language are, once we honestly confront the diversity offered to us by the world's 6-8000 languages. After surveying the various uses of ‘universal', we illustrate the ways languages vary radically in sound, meaning, and syntactic organization, then examine in more detail the core grammatical machinery of recursion, constituency, and grammatical relations. While there are significant recurrent patterns in organization, these are better explained as stable engineering solutions satisfying multiple design constraints, reflecting both cultural-historical factors and the constraints of human cognition. Linguistic diversity then becomes the crucial datum for cognitive science: we are the only species with a communication system which is fundamentally variable at all levels. Recognising the true extent of structural diversity in human language opens up exciting new research directions for cognitive scientists, offering thousands of different natural experiments given by different languages, with new opportunities for dialogue with biological paradigms concerned with change and diversity, and confronting us with the extraordinary plasticity of the highest human skills.

W. Tecumseh Fitch (2009) Prolegomena to a Future Science of Biolinguistics Biolinguistics, Vol 3, No 4 (2009)

Abstract: This essay reviews some of the problems that face biolinguistics if it is to someday succeed in understanding human language from a biological and evolutionary viewpoint. Although numerous sociological problems impede progress at present, these are ultimately soluble. The greater challenges include delineating the computational mechanisms that underlie different aspects of language competence, as implemented in the brain, and understanding the epigenetic processes by which they arise. The ultimate challenge will be to develop a theory of meaning incorporating non-linguistic conceptual representations, as they exist in the mind of a dog or chimpanzee, which requires extensions of information theory incorporating context dependence and relevance. Each of these problems is daunting alone; together they make understanding the biology of language one of the most challenging sets of problems in modern science.

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