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Detail of contribution

Auteur: Yvon KEROMNES

Some thoughts, and a few words, on language, cognition and evolution

Abstract/Résumé: In this talk, I argue, first, as has been proposed in Reboul (2007), that language and cognition are linked and bear on one another – up to a point, that is only inasmuch as words and sentences give us a handle on thoughts (Jackendoff 2012), but not so that language can influence THE WAY we think, nor so that our thoughts can be reduced to Plato’s ‘talking of the soul with itself’. Cognition is most definitely NOT a language, and remains for the most part unconscious (Lakoff & Johnson 1999). In that respect, the terms I-language or mentalese only confuse the issue. Secondly, I argue that a relative understanding of the question of language and cognition as adaptive faculties cannot be approached as a purely speculative exercise (Searle 2006), nor should natural languages be treated as epiphenomena (Chomsky 1987). The question cannot be approached other than through inderdisciplinarity. Empirical observations, as well as the confrontation of different perspectives, are essential. And finally, I argue that we should move away from the nature/nurture debate. As far as cognition is concerned, if one agrees that human cognition was made possible by an increase in brain size that started with early hominids, this cognition is then largely the result of morphological and developmental adaptation of our species on the one hand (widening of the pelvis in females and neoteny allowing together for a larger brain – more precisely for a better brain/body mass ratio) and cultural change on the other (fire and cooking meals allowing for more energy available for our voracious brains). These two factors, the first happening before the second, obviously, are inextricably linked. The same intrication applies to language as a whole, which cannot be neatly divided into a ‘purely cultural’ lexicon and a ‘biological syntax’ (contra Bickerton 2007): The lexicon stems from the acquired use of symbols for concepts (the capacity for doing so, apparently, already exists in our closest relatives among primates, cf. Savage-Rumbaugh et al 1993), and as it is based on categorization, it is partly biologically grounded. Syntax, understood as conceptualization, derives partly through grammaticalization from the lexicon, hence is also partly cultural. But it is language and cognition together, having coevolved in this biological cum cultural context, which have been retained (not caused!) by natural selection for our species as an essentially social adaptive advantage. References : Bickerton (2007), Language evolution: a brief guide for linguists, in: Lingua 117, pp. 510-526. Jackendoff, Ray (2012), A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning, OUP. Reboul, Anne (2007), Langage et cognition humaine, Presses Universitaires de Grenoble.