The first words ever spoken

Synthese 201 (5):1-17 (2023)
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Abstract

I argue that ontologies of words should engage with the emergence of lexical communication in the deep history of our line. It may seem that the evolutionary origins of words are orthogonal to the analytical project of establishing the defining features of wordhood, and that an adequate ontology of words requires nothing more than an observation of the properties of modern languages. I suggest instead that models of the initial stages of language evolution can offer valuable insights into the matter. There is consensus that lexical communication was an early achievement in the phylogeny of our language capacities, and that words became available to our ancestors before the maturation of other components of the grammar. At the beginning of their evolutionary trajectory, words are thus likely to have been significantly different from the vocabulary items of contemporary languages. Careful appreciation of such differences could be instrumental to a complete theory of the hallmarks of wordhood.

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Luca Gasparri
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

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