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Detail of contribution

Auteur: Sverker JOHANSSON

I-language is not what evolved biologically, and E-language is not what evolved culturally

Abstract/Résumé: The distinction between I-language and E-language does not map onto a distinction between what might have evolved biologically versus culturally in language origins. What actually evolves in any process of biological evolution is not the adult state; it is the ontogeny that leads to that adult state. This means that adult I-language, the mentally represented linguistic knowledge of a native speaker, is not what evolved – instead it is the language-ready brain in the child. One part of this language-ready brain might be called the initial state of I-language, but there are many more biological differences between a language-ready human baby and a non-language-ready chimpanzee baby. Another complication is that the I/E-distinction does not map onto the boundary between the brain and the external world. Performance factors – working memory etc. – are not included in I-language, but are nevertheless part of our biologically evolved brain. In a minimalist perspective I-language apparently corresponds to core syntax only, being delimited by the C-I and SM interfaces (Chomsky 2010). The systems beyond the interfaces are not part of I-language, but are nevertheless a significant part of what makes the human brain language-ready. What evolved culturally is closer to Saussure’s langue than to Chomsky’s E-language. Cultural evolution has been studied extensively in simulation, with promising results in toy systems. An interesting question is whether culturally evolved aspects of language may feed back into I-language – the mentally represented language knowledge in an adult is not limited to UG. In summary, both biological and cultural evolution likely played vital roles in language origins. But the distinction between biologically and culturally evolving aspects of language does not even come close to mapping onto the distinction between E-language and I-language. Language evolution studies pay little attentione to E- vs. I-language, simply because the distinction is not useful. The distinction between cultural and biological evolution, however, is highly important, and does receive due attention (e.g. Johansson 2005). But it is not really meaningful to separate the biological and cultural evolution of language; the two evolutionary stories are inseparably intertwined and interacting. Chomsky, N. (2010). Some simple evo devo theses: how true might they be for language? In Larson, Déprez & Yamakido (Eds.), The Evolution of Human Language. Biolinguistic Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Johansson, S. (2005) Origins of Language – Constraints on Hypotheses. Amsterdam: Benjamins