521-Class 4

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Language Evolution: Fundamental Questions[edit]

Readings: Deacon (2003); Tomasello (2003)

Study Questions[edit]

Deacon (2003)

  • What is the paradox that Deacon thinks lies in the question of language origin/evolution?
  • What are the four theoretical paradigms proposed by researchers to explain the basis of human language? What are the merits of thinking of language in each of these different ways?
  • Deacon mentioned that a language-like signal would exhibit a combinatorial form and the correlations between individual signals and the objects that form the context should not exhibit a simple one-to-one mapping. What does he mean? Does animal communication exhibit this feature?
  • What is a "hopeful monster" theory? What makes Chomsky's theory a hopeful monster theory, according to Deacon?
  • What is Deacon's story of language evolution? What is his view about a simpler language existing at some point?

Tomasello (2003)

  • What is “joint attention”? How is it related to pointing? Does Tomasello view joint attention as important for understanding evolution of language? (Hint: yes). Why
  • What is joint attention and what is the connection between it and word-learning? (Recall the experiments I talked about in which dogs could follow human points while wolves and chimps could not).
  • What are some motivations for positing a Universal Grammar
  • What is transitive reasoning?
  • According to Tomasello, how do young children begin to learn grammatical and abstract constructions? (Hint: it may include the following: pattern-matching, applying an innately-understood abstract rule, imitation, rote memorization, using relational analogies, exploiting a genetic predisposition to grammar, categorization) 

  • How does Tomasello’s example of “My boyfriend, who plays the piano, is in a band” (p. 103) inform thinking about the evolution of grammar? How does it relate to cultural evolution and iterated learning?

(optional) Christiansen & Kirby (2003)

  • What are some reasons for why studying language evolution is difficult and why does it require an interdisciplinary approach?
  • According to Christiansen & Kirby, what are the 3 different timescales on which one can study language evolution?
  • What are some of the cognitive pre-adaptations that likely occurred in hominids prior to language?
  • What are some arguments in support of a biological adaptation for grammar?
  • What are some arguments in support of grammar being a product of cultural 
  • What are some arguments in support of the gestural vs vocal theory of language origin?
  • Should we expect to find a “language gene”? Why or why not?
  • How can studying artificial grammars help us understand language evolution?