Maggie Tallerman

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

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

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics



This article discusses the emergence of protolanguage. Several researchers suggest that early hominin communication involved some form of pre-language, or protolanguage. Protolanguage is seen as simpler than full language, with a proto-lexicon. Protolanguage may have utilized vocal, gestural, and mimed components. A compositional or lexical protolanguage consists of single protowords, initially uttered separately and slowly, and subsequently joined in short, fairly random sequences. It has no hierarchical structure, no syntactic combinatorial principles, and only a loose pragmatic relationship between protowords. Protolanguage exhibits several properties. One of the properties is that the ordering of elements is relatively random. No hierarchical syntactic structure constrains surface order, and different word orders have no link to information structure. Ancestral protolanguage putatively contained various purely semantically based principle that map into linear adjacency without using anything syntactic. Ancestral protolanguage putatively lacked a mechanism for assembling words into structural units. The protolanguage lacks a distinction between lexical elements primarily verbs, nouns, adjectives and functional elements such as grammatical items, including determiners, auxiliaries, and sub-words. Modern protolanguages lack grammatical markers, while in full languages, functional and lexical elements occur in roughly equal proportions in utterances. The transition to language involved the gradual accretion of other word classes via the same processes of grammaticalization that occur in all recorded languages.

Keywords: protolanguage; protowords; grammatical markers; grammaticalization; lexical elements

Article.  4856 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution

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