From Protolanguage to Language

Derek Bickerton

in The Speciation of Modern Homo Sapiens

Published by British Academy

Published in print January 2004 | ISBN: 9780197263112
Published online February 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191734885 | DOI:

Series: Proceedings of the British Academy

From Protolanguage to Language

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  • Prehistoric Archaeology


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This chapter discusses the singularity of human language. Although evolution is normally conceived of as a gradual process, it can produce an appearance of catastrophism where functions change or where gradual changes in two or more components impinge on one another. The fossil and archaeological records argue strongly for some such development in the case of human language. The discussion argues that language as people know it requires the conjunction of three things: an event structure derived from reciprocal altruism; the capacity to use unstructured symbolic units (protolanguage); and sufficient ‘spare’ neurones to maintain the coherence of internally generated messages in brains designed by evolution to attend primarily to the environment. These developments co-occurred only in the human species, accounting for the uniqueness of human language.

Keywords: human language; catastrophism; reciprocal altruism; protolanguage; spare neurons; human evolution

Chapter.  7070 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Prehistoric Archaeology

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