Chapter

Breaking down false barriers to understanding

Luc Steels

in The Social Origins of Language

Published in print June 2014 | ISBN: 9780199665327
Published online August 2014 | e-ISBN: 9780191779725 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199665327.003.0024

Series: Oxford Studies in the Evolution of Language

Breaking down false barriers to understanding

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This chapter argues that there are four dichotomies underlying contemporary linguistics which are getting in the way of developing adequate theories of language evolution, namely the distinction between competence and performance, synchrony and diachrony, origins of language vs. origins of languages, and competence vs. processing. When we break down these dichotomies we can apply the general theory of selection on a cultural level to explain the many features of human languages. Illustrating this approach, this chapter argues that languages culturally evolve to maximize communicative success and minimize cognitive effort, giving support to a selectionist theory of language evolution. Two concrete examples are given: one, showing that explicit marking of semantic function avoids semantic ambiguity and hence makes the language more effective. Another example shows that case marking is known to erode in the historical development of many languages, but the erosion is not random but constrained by communicative and cognitive requirements.

Keywords: language variation; selectionism; uniformitarianism; grammaticalization; language processing; selectionism; origins of parts of speech; evolution of case marking systems; agent-based models

Chapter.  5063 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Sociolinguistics ; Psycholinguistics

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