Words came first: adaptations for word‐learning

Robbins Burling

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

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

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Words came first: adaptations for word‐learning

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This article explains the evolution of capacity for learning a language in the human species. Several essential cognitive capacities had to be developed before language could even begin. First, language rests on a rich conceptual system. One must be able to perceive patterns in the objects and events around in order to learn a word or to use. One must learn arbitrary associations between vocalizations or gestures and concepts to understand or to use even isolated words. A typical word in any human language that is used today is a conventional three-way association between a meaning, a distinctive sound sequence and a characteristic set of syntactic roles. The ability to make arbitrary associations between meanings and either sound or gestures is not quite limited to human beings. When coached by humans, dogs can learn to respond to several hand signals or spoken commands, and apes can do much better than dogs, but no animal can learn words with the voracious ease of human beings. Language must have begun with the ability to associate gestures or vocalizations with concepts, and to use these vocalizations or gestures as a means of sharing our concepts with others. The brains have evolved over the years to store a huge number of words.

Keywords: cognitive capacities; human language; vocalizations; gestures; concepts

Article.  4915 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution

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