The Evolution of Linguistic Structure and the History/Future of Linguistics

Session Date: 
Nov 19, 2022
Speakers: 

For the past 30 years, the frontiers of language science have been in the areas of neurolinguistics and genetics, both of which arose in conjunction with new technologies emerging in the 1990s. It is probably safe to say that these trends will continue apace as technology in these areas continues to advance, allowing for increasingly sophisticated and fine-grained analysis.

In this talk, I first look backwards in time, in a review of the provenance and history of linguistics as a field. The idea is to take stock of where we have come from in order to get a sense for where we might be headed. Much of what we do today in linguistics has its roots in what the Sanskrit grammarians did several millennia ago. However, their analysis of language was deeply rooted in the ritual culture and religious practices of the time: the primary and arguably sole aim of analyzing language was to preserve its efficacy in the performance of the ceremonial rites that it accompanied. Perhaps not coincidentally, the impetus for the study of language in the modern era again came from the “rediscovery” of Sanskrit by the European colonialists—along with its central role in Indian culture, and its unmistakable affinities with European languages.

Thus, from its inception, the study of language has been inextricably linked with cultural anthropology and the arts. It was only in the 20th century that linguistics was able to break free of its sister disciplines and establish itself as an autonomous field all its own.

After briefly reviewing this history, I suggest that at this point in its historical development, linguistics might benefit from rejoining forces with the sister disciplines it left behind, in the interest of tackling certain thorny problems in the evolution of language. The test case I cite is that of recursion, the ability to embed linguistic structures of similar types within each other. This has been touted as the sine qua non of language evolution (Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch 2002). What we propose here, following up on an old proposal by Staal (1979, 1980, 1984), and based on consistent, identifiable remnants of recursive structure in ritual practice and its accompanying arts, is that linguistic recursion could plausibly have been exapted from the elements of ritual culture from which linguistics arose in the first place.

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