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Auteur: Jeffrey WATUMULL

Co-Auteur(s): Marc D. Hauser, Robert C. Berwick

Comparative evolutionary approaches to I-Language/E-language: On theory and methods

Abstract/Résumé: Let competence be defined as I-language: a procedure internal to the mind/brain that generates sets of linguistic expressions. These expressions are put to use in performance, externalized as E-language: the vocalized/signed forms of linguistic expressions, which serve as the input to language acquisition—the process whereby expressions of E-language are internalized by children in their development of linguistic competence. If a critical mass of children internalize E-language expressions in a manner so as to attain I-languages different from those of the previous generation, then E-language changes. This process of diachronic change can be described as a form of cultural evolution. This framing of the problem provides a clear case of biocultural coevolution: biological systems (I-languages) generate and constrain the form of culturally evolvable systems (E-languages) that feedback into the biological mechanisms that enable their acquisition. Ultimately it is the biology that determines the space of possible/impossible cultural forms: the set of possible E-languages is generated by the set of possible I-languages. A fundamental problem with comparative research on the evolution of language is its limited focus on E-language and so the performance mechanisms that are in play. A case in point illustrating several comparable studies is an experiment with baboons (Rey et al. 2012). The goal of this study was to test whether baboons can recognize a syntactically-relevant pattern by means of simple associative learning mechanisms. Evidence supporting this position would both undermine the proclaimed uniqueness of this capacity in humans, and also show center-embedding computation can be reduced to domain-general mechanisms.  Unfortunately neither the methods nor the theoretical perspective offered have anything to do with comparable work on human linguistic competence. If comparative work of this kind is to provide significant understanding of language evolution more generally, including especially the distinction between I- and E-language, it will need to follow at least four criteria that we explore in greater detail: (1) Define the procedures and properties of the faculty of language in the narrow sense (Hauser et al. 2002); (2) Design experiments that can test for the procedures and properties of the narrow language faculty; (3) Distinguish linguistic/nonlinguistic competence/performance and I-language/E-language; (4) Discover evidence of evolutionary continuity/discontinuity in the procedures and properties of linguistic competence.