7 - Evolution, communication and the proper function of language  pp. 140-169

Evolution, communication and the proper function of language

By Gloria Origgi and Dan Sperber

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Language is both a biological and a cultural phenomenon. Our aim here is to discuss, in an evolutionary perspective, the articulation of these two aspects of language. For this, we draw on the general conceptual framework developed by Ruth Millikan (1984), while at the same time dissociating ourselves from her view of language.

Biological and cultural evolutionary processes

The phrase ‘evolution of language’ refers to two related but quite distinct processes: the biological evolution of a language faculty, and the historical-cultural evolution of languages. The historical-cultural evolution of languages itself requires the repetition across populations and over generations of the individual process of language acquisition. Individuals who have acquired the language of their community can engage in verbal communication. Through a myriad of acts of communication, they achieve a variety of effects, intended or unintended. The aggregation of these effects explains both the biological evolution of the language faculty and the historical-cultural evolution of languages.

The biological evolution of a language faculty and the historical-cultural evolution of languages are related in interesting ways. If we assume, with Chomsky, that human languages require, to be acquired, a language faculty, it follows that the biological emergence of this faculty is a precondition for the cultural emergence of any human language. On the other hand, if we think, without Chomsky this time, of the language faculty as a biological adaptation, then presumably its function – at least its proximate function on the successful performance of which other functions depend – is to make language acquisition possible.