Mufwene Colloquium

April 11
Social Sciences 122
University of Chicago
Language as Technology: Some questions that evolutionary linguistics should address

Over the past two decades, studies of the phylogenetic emergence of language have typically focused on grammatical characteristics, especially those that distinguish modern languages from animal communication. The relevant literature has thus left the reader with the impression that language is either exclusively or primarily mental; in the latter case, its physical features, phonetic or manual, would be epiphenomena that may be overlooked. I argue that language is natural collective technology that evolved primarily to facilitate efficient communication in populations whose social structures were becoming increasingly more complex. It emerged through hominines’ exaptation of their own anatomy, thanks to the same mind that was enabling the complex cultures they were producing. Linguistic constraints of various kinds are emergent properties that are largely consequences of the modalities used, a position that does not expect signed languages cum legitimate linguistic systems to replicate the general architecture of spoken languages in all respects. The rest of the paper speculates on how the architecture of spoken languages evolved, gradually, with some features presupposing prior emergence of others, whereas some others conjure up concurrent emergence. The facts suggest a complex non-unilinear evolutionary trajectory with many alternative options, consistent with emergent technologies in which considerations of optimality are absent.