Human Language in the Broader Biological Context

Friday, February 15, 2013
Room 304 (Hynes Convention Center)
Stephen Anderson , Yale University, New Haven, CT
Human language is unique in the biological world, grounded in a species-specific faculty – a cognitive “organ” – that enables every human (absent serious pathology) to acquire and use a distinctive system for producing and understanding an unbounded range of potentially novel utterance.  While such a system is most commonly based on an auditory/acoustic implementation, the same basic faculty also supports its deployment, with equivalent organization and expressive capacity, in the visual/manual modality. Furthermore, no other animal displays a comparable ability, either naturally or in the laboratory after extensive training.  These facts call for an understanding of the aspects of human biology that support such a Language faculty, and the intention of the present symposium is to outline some of the understanding of these issues that linguists and others have developed.

This introductory presentation provides a brief survey of the character of animal communication systems, contrasting their basic characteristics with the very different properties that distinguish human language.  I review evidence that communication in other species is in general deeply rooted in the biological organization of the animal, which suggests that we ought to expect to find the same to be true of our most important communication system, human language.  I then summarize the bases for considering the human faculty for Language as the product of evolution through natural selection, arguing that language meets the conditions for such an account in displaying variation that is heritable and selectable.

These remarks provide a context for the other presentations in the symposium, which will address more specific aspects of the biological basis of the human Language faculty.