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PLoS Biol. 2014 Aug 26;12(8):e1001934. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934. eCollection 2014 Aug.

How could language have evolved?

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Cognitive Neurobiology and Helmholtz Institute, Departments of Psychology and Biology, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands; Department of Zoology and Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York, United States of America.
Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America.
Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America.


The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma. In this essay, we ask why. Language's evolutionary analysis is complicated because it has no equivalent in any nonhuman species. There is also no consensus regarding the essential nature of the language "phenotype." According to the "Strong Minimalist Thesis," the key distinguishing feature of language (and what evolutionary theory must explain) is hierarchical syntactic structure. The faculty of language is likely to have emerged quite recently in evolutionary terms, some 70,000-100,000 years ago, and does not seem to have undergone modification since then, though individual languages do of course change over time, operating within this basic framework. The recent emergence of language and its stability are both consistent with the Strong Minimalist Thesis, which has at its core a single repeatable operation that takes exactly two syntactic elements a and b and assembles them to form the set {a, b}.

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