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Linguistics Seminar Series - Ljiljana Progovac, Professor, Wayne State University: "Evolution of syntax: Genes and grammar caught in the act of sexual selection"

Event Type
Department of Linguistics
Oct 28, 2020   4:00 pm  
Ljiljana Progovac, Professor, Wayne State University (syntax, evolution of syntax)
Daniel Stelzer
Originating Calendar
School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics Calendar

This lecture focuses on the evolution of syntax, advocating a gradual emergence, subject not only to cultural innovation, but also to natural/sexual selection forces. In fact, the biggest challenge in language evolution studies has been finding the way to even begin addressing the question of how the genetic basis for language in humans came to be. Here I present a precise syntactic reconstruction of the initial, proto-grammar stage, which yields 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 (most notably insult: cry-baby; kill-joy; scatter-brain; Serbian: vrti-guz ‘spin-butt’ (fidget); muti-voda ‘muddy-water’ (trouble-maker); jebi-vetar ‘screw-wind’ (charlatan); podvi-rep ‘fold-tail’ (one who is crestfallen)) reveals why this cultural invention (of coining binary compositions) would have been highly adaptive at the dawn of language. By identifying insult (verbal aggression) as *one* of the players relevant for early language evolution, this proposal can meaningfully cross-fertilize with the recent proposals regarding human self-domestication (HSD), whose main ingredient is gradual reduction of physical aggression, invoking biological (sexual) selection against aggressive/reactive phenotypes. An important adaptive value of the emergence of early grammars would have been to replace physical reactive aggression with verbal aggression, thus accelerating the evolution of both SDH and language, the two engaging in a mutually reinforcing feedback loop. Indeed, this linguistic dimension added to SDH ensures that the selection did not just favor less aggressive (but mute) individuals, but precisely those who could channel their aggressive impulses into language.


Dealing with tangible and specific linguistic proxies of this kind, which approximate both the structure and the possible uses of proto-grammars, it is possible not only to link them directly to biological evolution, but also to test them in fMRI experiments, the results of which reveal some intriguing possibilities. But this approach is not just about finding a point of contact with genes and selection. It is also about demonstrating that the postulated proto-grammar in fact foreshadows and predetermines the very design of modern syntax, as well as limits, and provides a common denominator for, cross-linguistic variation in syntax, specifically in the expression of transitivity. This is where formal, typological, and evolutionary considerations come together, shedding light on each other’s unsolved puzzles.

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