Linguistic animals: understanding language through a comparative approach

Filippi, P. (2014). Linguistic animals: understanding language through a comparative approach. In E. A. Cartmill, S. Roberts, H. Lyn, & H. Crnish (Eds.), The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 10th International Conference (pp. 74-81). doi:10.1142/9789814603638_0082.
With the aim to clarify the definition of humans as “linguistic animals”, in the present paper I functionally distinguish three types of language competences: i) language as a general biological tool for communication, ii) “perceptual syntax”, iii) propositional language. Following this terminological distinction, I review pivotal findings on animals' communication systems, which constitute useful evidence for the investigation of the nature of three core components of humans' faculty of language: semantics, syntax, and theory of mind. In fact, despite the capacity to process and share utterances with an open-ended structure is uniquely human, some isolated components of our linguistic competence are in common with nonhuman animals. Therefore, as I argue in the present paper, the investigation of animals' communicative competence provide crucial insights into the range of cognitive constraints underlying humans' ability of language, enabling at the same time the analysis of its phylogenetic path as well as of the selective pressures that have led to its emergence.
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