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Before Babel: The Evolutionary Roots of Human Language

Filippi, P. (2015). Before Babel: The Evolutionary Roots of Human Language. In E. Velmezova, K. Kull, & S. J. Cowley (Eds.), Biosemiotic Perspectives on Language and Linguistics (pp. 191-204). Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-20663-9_10.
The aim of the present work is to identify the evolutionary origins of the ability to speak and understand a natural language. I will adopt Botha’s “Windows Approach” (Language and Communication, 2006, 26, pp. 129–143) in order to justify the following two assumptions, which concern the evolutionary continuity between human language and animals’ communication systems: (a) despite the uniqueness of human language in sharing and conveying utterances with an open-ended structure, some isolated components of our linguistic competence are shared with non- human primates, grounding a line of evolutionary continuity; (b) the very first “linguistic” utterances were holistic, that is, whole bunches of sounds able to convey information despite their lack of modern syntax. I will address such suppositions through the comparative analysis of three constitutive features of human language: syntax, the semantic value of utterances, and the ability to attribute mental states to conspecifics, i.e. the theory of mind.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


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