March 2nd: Cedric Boeckx


In defense of more gradualism in language evolution

Cedric Boeckx, ICREA/Universitat de Barcelona

Tuesday, Mar 2 2021, 11:00-12:00 GMT
Zoom Details: [Please Request]

In this talk I’d like to tackle a series of questions that, despite appearances, are related (or so I will argue). The first one revolves around the vexed question of language evolution vs language change. In discussions of this issue, the contrast between ‘evolution of the language faculty’ and ‘change from one language system to another’ is often enriched by the addition of a third situation (‘language emergence’): The change from a very simple system into a system that is “characteristically linguistic”. But how good is our characterisation of “characteristically linguistic” (or, for that matter, our characterisation of “a very simple system”)?

The second question I’ll tackle pertains to the deep history of (human) language. Typically, when this issue is raised, only two options are considered: either some key language trait is found to be shared with other hominins, or else it is said to be exclusive to our species (‘species-specific’). But what does “species-specific” mean now that we have robust evidence that the sapiens lineage separated from other hominins roughly 700k years ago, leaving perhaps as many as 500k years between then and the earliest fossils displaying a near-complete suite of what is often called “modern” traits? How about exploring a third possibility, one that takes the history of our species to have been far more interesting after the split from other hominins?

The third question has to do with the notion of self-domestication, which, thanks to the work of Okanoya, Thomas and Kirby, has been shown to have interesting explanatory implications for the evolution of specific properties of our linguistic system. Here I’ll be asking: how well do we understand the notion of (self-) domestication?; and how do we address the important challenges raised in recent years. For instance, how robust is the “domestication syndrome” and our understanding of it?