Lecture by Jan Odijk on February 26th

During the next Origins of Language session, Jan Odijk will present The Conceptual Copy Theory for the Origin of Language.

Date & time: Feb 26th, 17:00 – 19:00

Venue: Kromme Nieuwegracht 80, Stijlkamer van Ravesteyn (room 1.06)


Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch 2002 [HCF 2002] propose that a recursive computational system (narrow syntax) and interfaces to other components form the core (and perhaps even only) component of the Narrow Language Faculty (FLN). In addition, they argue that the origin of language must have been recent and saltationist in nature. Pinker & Jackendoff 2005 [P&J 2005] however, argue that, “the language faculty, like other biological systems showing signs of complex adaptive design, is a system of co-adapted traits that evolved by natural selection” and they support their view by pointing out that there is much more to the language faculty that is highly specific to human language than just recursion and interfaces to other components.
I agree with [HCF 2002] on the saltationist nature of the origin of language, and with [P&J 2005] that there is more to language than just recursion and interfaces to other components. Thus arises the problem how to reconcile these apparently incompatible assumptions.

I propose Conceptual Copy Theory (CC-Theory) as a solution for this problem. It consists of three very tentative and speculative hypotheses that together account for the origin of the major aspects of natural language. The core hypothesis (which I will call the Conceptual Copy Hypothesis or CC-Hypothesis) states that a very small change in the genes of our ancestors had the effect that a second copy of the conceptual-intentional (C-I) component develops: this small change at the genotype level is argued to have dramatic consequences at the phenotype level: this new copy of the C-I component starts to function as the grammatical component and many properties of the grammatical component are derived from assuming this origin. The second hypothesis states that this new component makes a link with the already existing system to generate and interpret mouth-produced sounds, gestures and facial expressions in use in primates and our direct ancestor for emotive calls and social interaction. It thus accounts for the fact that the primary media for language are speech and gesturing. The third hypothesis claims that the recursive mechanism (Merge) is not part of FLN at all (though it is part of the broad language faculty (FLB)), but this will not be discussed in this presentation.

With the CC-theory, I need two small evolutionary changes to account for the origin of (the major aspects of) language, which is compatible with a saltationist character, and requires no gradual evolutionary process.

The CC-Theory is highly tentative and speculative. Though I will provide arguments to support the (CC-Theory) and make it a plausible theory that deserves further investigation, this can only constitute the start of a research program into these matters.