Talk on Language Evolution

Join us for an enriching talk What use is half a sentence? Grammar caught in the act of natural/sexual selection” by our very own Prof. Ljiljana Progovac. On Nov. 8th, Friday, at 2pm in 10202 Maccabees (5057 Woodward) to be followed by a reception!

AbstractThis lecture focuses on the evolution of grammar, advocating a gradual emergence of hierarchical structure and transitivity, as subject not only to cultural innovation, but also to natural/sexual selection forces. I present a precise linguistic reconstruction of the initial, proto-grammar stage, characterized as an intransitive, flat, two-slot mold, unable to distinguish subjects from objects. Even this crude grammar offers clear and substantial communicative benefits over no grammar at all, as well as reveals, through its limits, reasons and rationale for evolving more complex grammars. The particular uses to which this proto-grammar can be put even today (e.g. insult:  cry-baby; naming: rattle-snake; proverbial wisdoms: Monkey see, monkey do; Like father, like son) reveals why this cultural invention (of coining binary combinations) would have been highly adaptive at the dawn of language. With the goal to shed concrete light on how biological evolution may have begun to shape the genetic make-up that supports human language, a specific sexual selection scenario will be considered. By identifying insult (verbal aggression) as relevant for early language evolution, this proposal also cross-fertilizes with the recent proposals regarding human self-domestication.  


BioLjiljana Progovac is Professor of Linguistics at Wayne State University, specializing in syntax, Slavic syntax, and the evolution of syntax. These interests are reflected in the four books that she has authored: Positive and Negative Polarity (CUP, 1994); A Syntax of Serbian (Slavica, 2005); Evolutionary Syntax (OUP, 2015); and A Critical Introduction to Language Evolution (Springer Expert Briefs, 2019). She has published twenty-four journal articles, as well as numerous chapters, and has given several invited/plenary presentations including last year's lectures in Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto); in Crete, Greece; Poznań, Poland; Harvard; and MIT. 



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Talk on Language Evolution 10/29/2019
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