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Rethinking the language sciences


Levinson,  Stephen C.
Language and Cognition Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Categories across Language and Cognition, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Levinson, S. C. (2009). Rethinking the language sciences. Talk presented at the Symposium on 'Why aren't the social sciences Darwinian?'. Cambridge, UK. 2009-05-15.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0013-4221-4
The language sciences are currently non-Darwinian for a range of historical reasons, but the most important is that theory has been dominated by the paradigm inherited from the birth of the Cognitive Sciences in the 1950s. In that paradigm, language is viewed as largely invariant algebraic system running on an innate symbol manipulation machine, whose origin is (more or less) an evolutionary freak. This paradigm ignores a key property of human language: it is the only known animal communication system that varies in form and meaning across social groups. Meanwhile empirical work on the languages of the world has accumulated to a point where a paradigm change is clearly necessary. The recent work points to linguistic diversity at every level, with family resemblances largely accounted for by common cultural descent. Exceptionless universals of language now seem vanishingly rare. If cultural evolution accounts for language diversity, what accounts for the common core and the universal use of language across the species? I'll argue that humans are endowed with an 'interaction engine', a shared foundation for communicative interaction which bootstraps infants into the local language tradition, and which no doubt has deep phylogenetic roots.