Historical, Darwinian, and current perspectives on the origin(s) of language

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Language has universally been felt to constitute the attribute that sets humans apart from other species. The quest to understand why and how the capacity to speak came to be has been central to our understanding of the nature of humankind. In this chapter, we focus on the speculations and explanations of the origin and evolution of language, highlighting attempts to answer this question from the ancient Greeks to the present day. A number of perspectives are presented, more or less in phase with the chronological development of the related ideas. Early thoughts on language origin in antiquity, the language deprivation experiments, and the Christian-era reflections on the origin of language constitute the first perspectives. Next, some pre-Darwinian accounts of the origin of language are explored, specifically Condillac’s and Monboddo’s views, as best reflecting the spirit of the Enlightenment, and Herder’s treatise on the subject. The historical context of the Société de Linguistique de Paris’s ban on this very topic is then examined, revealing the enduring misperception of its nature and causes. Charles Darwin’s views, seldom part of discussions on the origin of language, are also presented. We close the chapter with a brief overview of current questions and directions that characterize contemporary efforts at elucidating this fascinating problem.


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