The role of evolution in shaping the human language faculty

Stephen R. Anderson

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

The role of evolution in shaping the human language faculty

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  • Language Evolution



The field of linguistics is concerned with the scientific study of language and its structure. Human language provides an unbounded range of discrete and distinct messages. These messages are produced voluntarily under cortical control, and are not bound to the presence of particular stimuli. The mechanism behind the unboundedness of language is based on two facts, which include that two distinct discrete combinatorial systems interact to allow for an unlimited set of messages grounded in a manageable inventory of meaningful sounds. One subsystem combines members of a small set of individually meaningless sounds according to the phonological pattern of the language into meaningful words, which are in turn combined by a quite distinct subsystem, the language's syntax, into phrases, clauses, and sentences. The recursive, hierarchical nature of such combination is the basis for its open-ended expressive capacity. Certain behavior that is learned or culturally transmitted may be selectionally advantageous under the conditions in which the organism finds itself. Selection may then operate to favor individuals who are able to learn the advantageous behavior rapidly and efficiently. The learned behavior may itself alter the characteristics of the environment within which selection occurs favoring its acquisition even more. Computer simulations have suggested that structure sensitivity can plausibly be expected to arise in communication.

Keywords: human language; phonological pattern; language syntax; learned behavior; communication

Article.  4221 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution

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