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Auteur: Sławomir WACEWICZ

Co-Auteur(s): Przemysław Żywiczyński

Language Evolution: Why Hockett's Design Features Are A Non-Starter

Abstract/Résumé: The set of design features, proposed and developed by Charles Hockett in the 1950s and 1960s (e.g. 1958, 1977 [1960]), soon emerged as the default means of characterising animal communication systems and contrasting them with human language. More than a tool for classifying communicative systems, it became a reference point in more general considerations regarding the nature of human language, and has since dominated linguistic courses and textbooks. Meanwhile, the development of cognitive science in the second half of the twentieth century converged with the growing interest in evolutionism, science to yield an unprecedented upsurge of publications dealing with the evolutionary origins of language. The point of view adopted in these texts was markedly different from the one inherent in Hockett’s system. In this paper, we argue that the general theoretical perspective of Hockett is largely incompatible with that of modern language evolution research, and hence, that his classificatory system, while useful for some descriptive purposes, is of very limited use as a theoretical framework for evolutionary linguistics. We see this incompatibility as related to the ontology of language, i.e. deriving from Hockett’s interest in language as a product rather than a suite of sensorimotor, cognitive and social abilities that enable the use but also acquisition of language by biological creatures (the faculty of language, cf. e.g. Hauser et al. 2002). We point to two criticisms: the focus on the means at the expense of content and the focus on the code itself rather than the cognitive abilities of its users; finally, we illustrate the problem by addressing one specific feature, namely displacement.