Macquarie Linguistics workshop explores the origins of language

A unique workshop brought internationally leading linguists, philosophers and cognitive scientists to Macquarie University on Friday Dec. 6 to discuss a centuries-old question: Where did language come from?

Macquarie University Linguistics School
Study linguistics at Macquarie (Image credit: FJ Gaylor)

In a cross-faculty workshop, experts including Professor Bob Berwick, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Professor Kim Sterelny, (Australian National University), Emeritus Professor Brian Byrne, (University of New England), Associate Professor Drew Khlentzos, (University of New England) and Dr Richard Menary, (Macquarie University) shared their views.

“The Linguistic Society of Paris actually banned debate on the subject of language evolution in 1866,” says Distinguished Professor Stephen Crain, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders (CCD) and workshop organizer.

This was perhaps due to the appearance of speculative theories on the origins of spoken language. Several of these were recounted by the historian Max Müller:
  • The Bow-wow (aka Cuckoo) theory proposed that early words were imitations of the cries of beasts and birds.
  • The Poop-pooh theory maintained that first words were emotional interjections triggered by pleasure or pain.
  • The Yo-he-ho theory suggested that language developed to synchronize muscular effort by alternating sounds such as “heave” with sounds such as “ho.”
“In modern times, two more scientific approaches to the origins of language have gained prominence,” says Crain. “One is a gradualist approach, which explains the emergence of language using the same kinds of adaptive (Darwinian) mechanisms that are known to shape other traits.

“The second approach has reached the opposite conclusion—that language emerged in the species due to a single, chance genetic micromutation.”

The workshop was devoted to an in-depth discussion of these alternative approaches to the origins of language, including the following:
  • What is language?
  • What aspects of language are unique to humans?
  • How is language represented in the brain?
  • What function, if any, does language serve?
  • Did language evolve gradually or was its evolution a ‘sudden emergent event’?
  • Is there a gestural origin to language?
  • What is the relationship between logic and language?

    About Macquarie University’s Department of Linguistics

    The Department of Linguistics at Macquarie University is the largest of its kind in Australia, which includes substantial postgraduate programs, a full undergraduate program, more than 900 postgraduate coursework students, nearly 100 research students and four research centres of international standing.

    The strength of the department lies in its breadth of coverage of linguistics sub-disciplines, and it has particular strengths in the areas of systemic functional linguistics, speech and hearing and language teaching. It has long been recognized for its research and teaching in areas such as lexicography and corpus linguistics, in phonetics and phonology (especially as applied to computer-based research in speech technology and speech perception), and in communication disorders. The department has a strong interest in the description of modern English language, especially work in systemic-functional grammar, in discourse analysis and pragmatics and in Australian English.

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