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Auteur: Koji FUJITA

A Merge-only Theory of Human Language Evolution: How Plausible Is It?

Abstract/Résumé: Current biolinguistic minimalism entertains the hypothesis that the elementary combinatorial operation of recursive Merge is the only uniquely human component of the language faculty, and that the emergence of language was made possible by this syntactic device connecting the pre-existing sensori-motor (S-M) and conceptual-intentional (C-I) systems (cf. Chomsky’s Strong Minimalist Thesis: Interfaces + Merge = Language). Despite its obvious methodological advantage of promoting comparative studies of language evolution, one can raise serious empirical objections to it on the ground that other components of language seem equally unique to it. For example, there is every reason to believe that the human lexicon is qualitatively different from the lexical resources of nonhuman animals. Likewise, there is no evidence that the human C-I system (HCI) is exactly the same as its nonhuman counterparts. I will claim nevertheless that the Merge-only theory is plausible enough by arguing that Merge gave rise to other uniquely human components of language. For example, if HCI was already there before the emergence of Merge, and Merge had to evolve so that syntax could be linked to HCI as it is now, then one would be hard pressed to explain how this could happen at all without falling a prey to the fallacy of teleology. My alternative account is that it was Merge that brought HCI into existence, by combining and recombining pre-human conceptual units into more and more complex conceptual structures. A similar explanation is readily applicable to the evolution of the human lexicon. I will argue that word formation is implemented by Merge, which in the end will entail that Universal Grammar has no lexicon in the usual sense. Merge constructed the necessary ingredients and put them all together into one integrated system which we call the human language faculty. The grand conclusion will be this: Merge was the creator of language (and human cognition, to a large extent). The remaining question is, of course, where Merge came from. I will argue that recursive Merge arose as a combination of a general cognitive capacity of recursion and a simpler, nonrecursive syntactic operation, the latter of which evolved from the motor control capacity for sequential object manipulation typically observed in human and animal tool use and tool making. I will discuss the nature of neural rewiring responsible for the emergence of Merge, too.