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Title: How Language Began: A Peircean Approach to Language Evolution

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Julia Heine.

There will be a tea and coffee reception from 4pm.

Abstract: In this talk I will discuss on-going work on the semeiotic origins of human language, based on archaeological evidence on Homo erectus culture, especially the ergology of this hominin species. I will argue that the core of human language is the productive, cultural generation of symbols. While all animals use signs – mainly indexes and icons – humans, due to their larger brains – are the most effective generators of symbols. The number and complexity of human symbols entails the “universal grammar” and “speculative grammars” of the 13th century Modistae and the 19th/20th century work of C.S. Peirce, including important logical principles, e.g. Peirce’s “reduction theorem” which predicts that no predicate in any language can have more than three basic arguments (i.e. more than a valency of 3 – without combining additional predicates). The focus will be on the archaeological record, however, and the strong evidence that erectus’s brain was modern in most essential respects, as shown by their symbolization in tool construction, their ocean travels, and their settlement patterns. One thesis of this work is that no special “language organ” is or was required for language to emerge and that, as Everett (2012, 2017, and 2018) argue, language is a cultural-cognitive tool that is not directly genetic, but an invented cultural tool, underwritten by the human brain’s general cognitive power.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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