Ljiljana Progovac (Wayne State) will be presenting at the Language Evolution, Acquisition, and Processing (LEAP) workshop Friday, 11:00am - 12:30pm in Cobb Room 107.
"What use is half a sentence? Grammar caught in the act of natural/sexual selection"
This lecture focuses on the evolution of grammar, advocating a gradual/incremental emergence of hierarchical structure and transitivity, as subject not only to cultural innovation, but also to natural/sexual selection forces. I present a precise syntactic reconstruction of the initial, proto-grammar stage, characterized as an intransitive, flat, absolutive-like, two-slot mold, unable to distinguish subjects from objects. Even this crude grammar offers clear and substantial communicative benefits over no grammar at all, as well as reveals, through its limits, reasons and rationale for evolving more complex grammars. The particular uses to which this proto-grammar can be put even today (e.g. insult: cry-baby, kill-joy; naming: rattle-snake; proverbial wisdoms: Monkey see, monkey do; First come, first serve(d)) reveals why this cultural invention (of coining binary compositions) would have been highly adaptive at the dawn of language. With the goal to shed concrete light on how biological evolution would have begun to shape the genetic make-up that supports human language, a specific sexual selection scenario will be considered. By identifying insult (verbal aggression) as relevant for early language evolution, this proposal directly engages the recent hypothesis of human self-domestication, whose main postulate is a gradual reduction in reactive physical aggression, yielding several testable hypotheses. This approach also identifies testable hypotheses in the arena of neuroimaging, from which some fMRI experimental results will be reported.