Rethinking the language bottleneck: Why don't animals learn to communicate?

While most work on the evolution of language has been centered on the evolution of syntax, my focus in this paper is instead on more basic features that separate human communication from the systems of communication used by other animals. In particular, I argue that human language is the only existing system of learned arbitrary reference. While innate communication systems are, by definition, directly transmitted genetically, the transmission of a learned learned systems must be indirect. Learners must acquire the system by being exposed its the use in the community. Although it is reasonable that a learner has access to the utterances that are produced, it is less clear how accessible the meaning is that the utterance is intended to convey. This particularly problematic if the system of communication is symbolic -- where form and meaning are linked in a purely conventional way. Given this, I propose that the ability to transmit a learned symbolic system of communication from one generation to the next represents a key milestone in the evolution of language.
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