16 - How Protolanguage Became Language  pp. 264-284

By Derek Bickerton

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The present chapter presents the evolution of language as a sequence of three stages. The first stage is the derivation of the basic structure of syntax from a social calculus set up to handle reciprocal altruism (Section 2). The second stage consists of the long delay hypothesised between the birth of protolanguage and the emergence of true language, the cause of this delay being the limited coherence of neural signals in prelinguistic brains (Section 3). The third is a stage of Baldwinian evolution commencing after the emergence of basic syntactic structure and possibly continuing at least until the human diaspora that began approximately ninety thousand years ago (Section 4). In Section 5, some possible objections to these proposals are considered.

Nothing will be said here about protolanguage, its emergence or the selective pressures that drove that emergence. It will simply be assumed along the lines of previous work (Bickerton 1990, 1995) that between two and three million years ago there developed a structureless protolanguage. Whether this protolanguage originally consisted of signs, (proto)words or a mixture of these is immaterial to the present discussion; it is not unreasonable to suppose, along with Burling (this volume), that at its inception, protolanguage was indeed mixed. For expository convenience it will be assumed in what follows that protolanguage was spoken, but nothing of significance turns on this. The protolanguage vocabulary doubtless increased over time, but its users, for reasons to be discussed, are presumed to have been unable to produce or comprehend utterances of more than four or five units, a limit that might not have been significantly exceeded even in the period immediately prior to the first appearance of true syntax.

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