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The evolutionary origins of syntax: Event cognition in nonhuman primates


Wilson, Vanessa A D; Zuberbühler, Klaus; Bickel, Balthasar (2022). The evolutionary origins of syntax: Event cognition in nonhuman primates. Science Advances, 8(25):abn8464.

Abstract

Languages tend to encode events from the perspective of agents, placing them first and in simpler forms than patients. This agent bias is mirrored by cognition: Agents are more quickly recognized than patients and generally attract more attention. This leads to the hypothesis that key aspects of language structure are fundamentally rooted in a cognition that decomposes events into agents, actions, and patients, privileging agents. Although this type of event representation is almost certainly universal across languages, it remains unclear whether the underlying cognition is uniquely human or more widespread in animals. Here, we review a range of evidence from primates and other animals, which suggests that agent-based event decomposition is phylogenetically older than humans. We propose a research program to test this hypothesis in great apes and human infants, with the goal to resolve one of the major questions in the evolution of language, the origins of syntax.

Abstract

Languages tend to encode events from the perspective of agents, placing them first and in simpler forms than patients. This agent bias is mirrored by cognition: Agents are more quickly recognized than patients and generally attract more attention. This leads to the hypothesis that key aspects of language structure are fundamentally rooted in a cognition that decomposes events into agents, actions, and patients, privileging agents. Although this type of event representation is almost certainly universal across languages, it remains unclear whether the underlying cognition is uniquely human or more widespread in animals. Here, we review a range of evidence from primates and other animals, which suggests that agent-based event decomposition is phylogenetically older than humans. We propose a research program to test this hypothesis in great apes and human infants, with the goal to resolve one of the major questions in the evolution of language, the origins of syntax.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, further contribution
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Department of Comparative Linguistics
Special Collections > NCCR Evolving Language
Special Collections > Centers of Competence > Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Language Evolution
Dewey Decimal Classification:490 Other languages
890 Other literatures
410 Linguistics
Uncontrolled Keywords:Multidisciplinary
Language:English
Date:2022
Deposited On:23 Jun 2022 13:31
Last Modified:23 Jun 2022 14:30
Publisher:American Association for the Advancement of Science
ISSN:2375-2548
OA Status:Green
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abn8464

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