Syntax as an emergent characteristic of the evolution of semantic complexity

Minds and Machines 9 (3):309-346 (1999)
It is commonly argued that the rules of language, as distinct from its semantic features, are the characteristics which most clearly distinguish language from the communication systems of other species. A number of linguists (e.g., Chomsky 1972, 1980; Pinker 1994) have suggested that the universal features of grammar (UG) are unique human adaptations showing no evolutionary continuities with any other species. However, recent summaries of the substantive features of UG are quite remarkable in the very general nature of the features proposed. While the syntax of any given language can be quite complex, the specific rules vary so much between languages that the truly universal (i.e. innate) aspects of grammar are not complex at all. In fact, these features most closely resemble a set of general descriptions of our richly complex semantic cognition, and not a list of specific rules. General principles of the evolutionary process suggest that syntax is more properly understood as an emergent characteristic of the explosion of semantic complexity that occurred during hominid evolution. It is argued that grammatical rules used in given languages are likely to be simply conventionalized, invented features of language, and not the result of an innate, grammar-specific module. The grammatical and syntactic regularities that are found across languages occur simply because all languages attempt to communicate the same sorts of semantic information.
Keywords language  grammar  syntax  semantics  evolution  emergence  brain size
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DOI 10.1023/A:1008360020568
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