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Cross-cultural universals and communication structures

Levinson, S. C. (2013). Cross-cultural universals and communication structures. In M. A. Arbib (Ed.), Language, music, and the brain: A mysterious relationship (pp. 67-80). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Given the diversity of languages, it is unlikely that the human capacity for language resides in rich universal syntactic machinery. More likely, it resides centrally in the capacity for vocal learning combined with a distinctive ethology for communicative interaction, which together (no doubt with other capacities) make diverse languages learnable. This chapter focuses on face-to-face communication, which is characterized by the mapping of sounds and multimodal signals onto speech acts and which can be deeply recursively embedded in interaction structure, suggesting an interactive origin for complex syntax. These actions are recognized through Gricean intention recognition, which is a kind of “ mirroring” or simulation distinct from the classic mirror neuron system. The multimodality of conversational interaction makes evident the involvement of body, hand, and mouth, where the burden on these can be shifted, as in the use of speech and gesture, or hands and face in sign languages. Such shifts having taken place during the course of human evolution. All this suggests a slightly different approach to the mystery of music, whose origins should also be sought in joint action, albeit with a shift from turn-taking to simultaneous expression, and with an affective quality that may tap ancient sources residual in primate vocalization. The deep connection of language to music can best be seen in the only universal form of music, namely song.
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