Monday, July 16, 2012

Origin of Language session at ICL 19

Origin of Language & Human Cognition
ICL 19 - Geneva, July 22-27, 2013
Call for papers: due Sept 1, 2012

This parallel session will be structured around five major issues that arise in the domain of the evolution of language. Abstracts are solicited which address one or more of the following issues:

1. The relevance of the distinction between I-language and E-languages for the question of language evolution. Chomsky introduced a major distinction between I-language (the inner, psychological, knowledge of grammar) and E-languages (the public languages, such as English, French, Italian, Japanese, etc.). E-languages are public by contrast with I-language, which is private. This may mean that there are not one, but two evolutionary stories to be told, one relevant to the evolution of I-language and one relevant to the evolution of E-languages. Additionally, the evolutionary processes involved might be different, e.g., one could be biological while the other one could be cultural. However, the distinction between I-language and E-languages has been largely ignored in the literature on language evolution.

2. The specificity of language(s) as compared to other animal communication systems. Hockett is famous (and widely quoted in most works on language evolution) for having proposed (see Hockett 1960) a list of thirteen essential features of language that supposedly sets it apart from other animal communication systems. However, it has been claimed (see Fitch 2009) that, though the set as a whole is specific to human language, each feature can be found in some animal communication system or other. A major question, given that the whole set seems specific to human language, is whether it is complete and what implications the fact that each feature could be shared with other species has for the field of language evolution.

3. Evolution of language: biological or cultural. When Pinker and Bloom revived the field of language evolution in 1990, their approach was firmly biological. However, nowadays, "social" accounts, emphasizing cultural rather than biological evolution, seem prominent. An important question is whether such social scenarios can entirely do away with biological approaches, given that they seem to rest on notions such as "cooperation", usually understood as "altruistic" in the biological sense (i.e., benefiting to the addressee, but detrimental to the agent). How exactly biological and cultural evolutions interact in such social accounts is a major question.

4. Cognitive vs. social scenarios. While cultural evolution views are squarely social, they nevertheless tend to sneak in some cognition: for instance, Dunbar's defense of his social account, based on the prevalence of gossip in pub conversations, seems to ignore the fact that gossip is contentful and hence necessitates fairly important cognitive (e.g., conceptual) abilities. On the other hand, biological evolution views could be either social (in line with the so-called Machivellian hypothesis on cognition) or cognitive. Disentangling cognitive from social issues, or at least articulating them precisely seems fairly urgent.

5. Biolinguistics. Biolinguistics is a lively field (as shown by the existence of a dedicated ejournal), concerned with the biological underpinnings of language, from brain circuits to evolution, thus covering all fields of linguistics (phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics) and looking further towards psycho- and neurolinguistics. It is also concerned with the development of language and with its neuro-developmental as well as neuropsychological deficits.

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