Departmental Colloquium: Prof. W. Tecumseh Fitch (University of Vienna): The Biology and Evolution of Language: A Comparative Approach
The Biology and Evolution of Language: A Comparative Approach
W Tecumseh Fitch, Dept of Cognitive Biology, Faculty of Life Science, University of Vienna
Human language rests upon an evolved biological foundation, some components of which are unique to our species. The precise nature of the mechanisms underlying language remains debated, as does the degree to which they are or are not shared with other animals. I outline a strongly comparative approach to this problem: even though language, as a whole, is unique to humans, many components of language are nonetheless shared with animals. I illustrate this approach with two case studies on speech and syntax. In speech, recent data indicate that a long-standing focus on the speech periphery, and particularly the descended human larynx, has deflected attention away from more fundamental changes in the neural pathways involved in speech control. A broad range of species, including monkeys, deer, songbirds, and seals, provide comparisons that are relevant to this conclusion. For syntax, recent data examining pattern perception in both auditory and visual domains suggest that some aspects of linguistic syntax rest on a cognitive basis that also applies to other human cognitive domains including music and visual pattern perception. Specifically, the strong human propensity to attribute complex, hierarchically-embedded structures to visual or auditory inputs appears to be biologically unusual or perhaps unique to our species. I conclude that the broad comparative approach favored by cognitive biologists has much to teach us about the biology and evolution of language, and that future progress will require investigation of a much broader set of species than has typified past work.
Fitch, W. Tecumseh (2010). The Evolution of Language (Cambridge University Press)
Fitch, W. Tecumseh, Huber, Ludwig, and Bugnyar, Thomas (2010). "Social Cognition and the Evolution of Language: Constructing Cognitive Phylogenies," Neuron 65, 795-814
Fitch, W. Tecumseh, and Friederici, Angela D. (2012). "Artificial Grammar Learning Meets Formal Language Theory: An Overview," Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B 367: 1935-1955