Robert Berwick (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Why Only Us: Language and Evolution
We are born crying, but those cries signal the first stirring of language. Within a year or so, infants master the sound system of their language; a few years after that, they are engaging in conversations. This remarkable, species-specific ability to acquire any human language—“the language faculty”—raises important biological questions about language, including how it has evolved. In this talk we will review current evidence and attempt to answer some of these questions. In particular, we will draw on current advances in linguistic theory, the comparative analysis of songbirds and nonhuman primates, and recent neurophysiological evidence, to develop a much narrower definition of a core “phenotype” for human language syntax. Armed with this more precise phenotype, we will attempt to answer what this trait is, computationally, who has this novel trait - only us, not nonhuman primates or other animals,; when it might have arisen; how it might have evolved and be implemented in the brain; and why it’s there at all.