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From animal communication to human language. A comment to the papers of Jacques Vauclair and Tecumseh Fitch . Wolfgang Wildgen Contribution to the Conference: Nature, Culture and Language: Learning from Animals? Essen, December 5, 2005. The common base line of the two authors.

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From animal communication to human language. A comment to the papers of Jacques Vauclair and Tecumseh Fitch

Wolfgang Wildgen

Contribution to the Conference: Nature, Culture and Language: Learning from Animals?

Essen, December 5, 2005

the common base line of the two authors
The common base line of the two authors
  • They are both firmly based on a Darwinian ground.
  • Both refer to new results in brain imaging (with human and apes) and molecular genetics (more pronounced in Fitch when he discusses FoxP2).
  • The major concern is: a comparative behavioral analysis of humans, apes, mammals, birds, insects.
differences between the two contributions from a linguistic perspective
Differences between the two contributions (from a linguistic perspective)
  • Vauclair rather advocates the hypothesis of a gestural origin of language. He more specifically points to the intentional use of gestures.
  • Fitch enumerates five phylogenetic paths to language. He remains rather skeptical about the gestural hypothesis and favors:
    • The hypothesis of a prosodic protolanguage,
    • A dual stage synthetic theory.
selection scenarios
Selection scenarios
  • Vauclair distinguishes two kinds of reinforcement:
    • Mands > realization to the benefit of the speaker,
    • Tacts > agreement, sympathy, surprise, laughter.
  • The latter is more important in the case of language, the first dominates in other primates.
  • Fitch distinguishes: natural selection, sexual selection and kín-selection. He argues in favor of the last as a selection factor for language because low-cost and honest signals are made possible by “less conflict of interest” in kin-communication.
what seems to be rather neglected from the perspective of a linguist
What seems to be rather neglected (from the perspective of a linguist)
  • The evolution of man since the australopithecines; mainly the capacities of homo erectus, homo neander-thaliensis, and homo sapiens (cf. however the evolution of speech control in Fitch 2000).
  • The cultures of primates are discussed, but the cultural evolution documented by stone industries (since 2 my BP), “art” since 700.000 BP and Paleolithic cave paintings seem to be rather irrelevant (or nonconclusive) for the understanding of language origin.
  • Only a few linguistic aspects are discussed: protolanguage (by Fitch), functions of language (injunctive, exclamatory, informative) and speech acts (mands versus tacts) by Vauclair and analytic versus synthetic sentence understanding, functions of formants (in Fitch)
suggestions for vauclair from a linguist s view point
Suggestions for Vauclair (from a linguist’s view point)
  • Vauclair’s position hand language could consider artifacts and art as hand-made semiotic objects and thus as intermediary between gesture and language.
  • The crucial question: When did phonic language take over? must be answered. Was it before a protolanguage with a large vocabulary and a simple syntax were developed or after that date?
  • The fact that language-like gestured systems depend heavily on the cultural availability of spoken languages should be considered.
suggestions for fitch from a linguist s view point
Suggestions for Fitch (from a linguist’s view point)
  • Fitch’s favored scenarios could lead to an anthropology of music and a research into holistic patterns in modern languages. The basic question is: How similar/different are the semiotic systems : music versus (spoken) language.
  • The complexity measure based on the Chomsky hierarchy which does only concern the signal-structure (its syntax) must be replaced by a complexity measure of semantic schemata (e.g. one based on dynamic systems theory)
  • The possibility that phonetic self-organization is responsible for signal complexity in syntax must be further discussed.
remarks on the specification of the goal grammar of human languages
Remarks on the specification of the goal: grammar of human languages
  • Current linguistic theories are rather based on a longstanding tradition of normative grammar and the analysis of written language (grammaticality and competence in Chomsky’s terms).
  • They have a historical bias towards logical (analytic) descriptions and lack dynamic or self-organization models.
  • As a consequence they may define a mistaken goal of evolutionary explanation, insofar as the intrinsic relation to holistic action patterns (frame analysis goes into this direction) or to multi-channel cognition (visual imagination, musical structure) are misrepresented in the standard models.
first sketch of an evolutionary grammar as a possible goal
First sketch of an evolutionary grammar as a possible goal
  • A system of rules and even one with basic categories, modules and principles is not able to map the inherent (and not just parasitic) developmental, historical and evolutionary processes.
  • The grammatical tradition of normative grammars, school grammars, competence grammars falls short of these demands.
  • In a more radical move one may even reject the algebraic, logical models and rather use formalisms stemming from dynamic system theory, as the have a genuine dynamic dimension.
A protolanguage must categorize events and actions (by proto-verbs) and must discriminate stable entities (by proto-nouns). The question arises, if temporal, dynamic, quantitative, qualitative relations between them can be mastered and to what degree.
  • Two basic delimitations of a protolanguage (already discussed by Bickerton) are:
    • phrase structure (X-bar)-structures)
    • government (case-frames).
  • In my opinion there are intrinsic complexity barriers which have blocked the elaboration of a protolanguage for a long (evolutionary) time-span, which separates the proto-species of Homo erectus and the species of Homo sapiens.
representation of actions and events
Representation of actions and events
  • The action-concept GRASP involves two stable entities: Kanzi (his hand) and the object.
  • Every point on the lines in Fig. 2 correspond to the perception/ control of a stable entity.
  • The bifurcation and its environment (the singularity) correspond to the dynamic event/the relation
  • The whole schema could ft the sentence: Kanzi took the banana
  • Dynamic schema of GRASP.

the banana

Kanzi took the banana




The GRASP-schema can be elaborated in two basic directions:

  • A simpler schema with one entity involved in the event,
  • More complex schemata with three of four entities involved.
  • A hierarchy of ontological levels, which enable a multiple interpretation of the schemata (cf. Wildgen, 1994 for details).
basic questions of comparative biolinguistics
Basic questions of comparative biolinguistics
  • Are the levels of grammatical analysis and the functional distinctions in grammar adequate for a comparative biolinguistics?
  • How can the semantics and pragmatics of language (context, situation, usage) be defined in a biolinguistic perspective?
  • What were the selection parameters on language and where do we find their modern correlates in linguistic behavior?
  • The two papers give a excellent overview and critical discussion of some of the major fields of a theory of language evolution. The differences between the authors point to major not yet resolved controversial issues.
  • Other interdisciplinary fields more concerned with human cultures and languages and their results should added.
  • The proper goal : to understand human language from an evolutionary perspective, should not just start from standard proposals in linguistics (mostly using Chomsky’s authority).
  • This goal: human grammar must be redefined based on insights in the debate on language origin, such that other aspects of human language are put to the frontline and systematically assessed using the data of living languages (i.e. linguistic methodology must be adapted).
further references
Further references
  • Papers on my homepage:
  • My monograph:
  • The Evolution of Human Language. Scenarios, Principles and Cultural Dynamics, Benjamins, Amsterdam , 2004