chapter  2
16 Pages

Sketch of an evolutionary grammar based on comparative biolinguistics


In any interdisciplinary endeavour that aims to link the comparative ethology of animals with linguistics, a crucial question is which theory of language is to serve as a starting point. The challenge lies in adequately specifying the grammar of human languages in an evolutionary perspective. The contribution of linguistics to such interdisciplinary research has often been inadequate for two reasons. First of all, current linguistic theories are usually based on a longstanding tradition of normative grammar and an analysis of written language-hence the relevance of grammaticality and competence in Chomsky’s models. In everyday speech language use is more variable and more context-dependent and changes-in-progress are pervasive. If we compare humans to animals, the dominant informal behaviour of humans should be the starting point for comparisons and not highly formalized behaviours regulated by institutions like schools, academies, etc. Second, linguists have a historical bias towards logical (analytic) descriptions and lack dynamic or self-organizing models. Therefore classificatory devices and hierarchical knowledge trees like phrase structures are emphasized, while the underlying forces, goals, benefits, trends, and changes are neglected. As a consequence, the intrinsic relation of language to holistic action patterns or to multichannel cognition (visual imagination, musical structure) is misrepresented in the standard models. Evolutionary biologists should turn instead to cognitive linguistics (semantics) and to pragmatic and dynamic linguistics (cf. Wildgen, 1994). In an interdisciplinary cooperation between biologists, psychologists, and linguists, one must assume that new models will be necessary that are not just versions of current types of grammars. In the following sections I will sketch the features of a model suitable for cooperative research in evolutionary biology and linguistics.