University of Manchester
Contact linguistics and the evolution of the language faculty
Mittwoch, 04.03.2020, 09:30–10:30 Uhr
Ort: Audimax (VMP4)
Connections between language contact and language evolution have been discussed so far primarily in the context of the development of particular languages in their own language ecology settings (Mufwene 2001, 2013; Ansaldo 2009). In this presentation I address ‘language evolution’ as the emergence of the human capacity to use language. Views on language evolution in this sense have been split, broadly speaking, between two camps: The Chomskyan tradition of generative grammar regards the emergence of human language capacity as an instantaneous event, attributed to a singular genetic mutation that made syntax possible (Berwick & Chomsky 2015; Berwick et al. 2013). The alternative view, widely held among behavioural scientists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists (Dunbar 1996; Tomasello 1999, 2008; Burling 2005; Lieberman 2006; Fitch 2010) is that human language is the product of a gradual evolution from a form of primitive communication that exists at least in some rudimentary form in other animals, particularly primates.
Drawing on data from language contact, both synchronic and diachronic, I connect to the latter tradition. The hypothesis that I adopt is that the gradual evolution process of human language manifests itself in the layered structure of human communication functions (see Matras 2020). The more archaic or primitive layers accommodate functions that are more instinctive and analytical. These tend to be more susceptible to lapses in control over the selection and inhibition mechanism on which multilingual speakers rely to manage their choice of forms from the repertoire of linguistic structures, i.e. their choice among ‘languages’. They are therefore more prone to contact-induced change. The more analytical functions, by contrast, are processed differently and are subjected to stricter control for selection and inhibition.
The hypothesis thus stands for two statements: First, that at least some language contact phenomena (those that are not performative or deliberate, nor set to accommodate to cultural innovations by enhancing expressive devices) are triggered by cognitive pressures that relate to the processing of language, and are in that way conditioned by the evolutionary architecture of the human language faculty. And second, that the synchronic and diachronic manifestations of language contact can therefore help us shed light on that very architecture and its evolution.
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