Ontogeny and Phylogeny of Language
Charles Yang
January 2013

How did language evolve? A popular approach points to the similarities between the ontogeny and phylogeny of language. Young children’s language and nonhuman primates’ signing both appear formulaic with limited syntactic combinations, thereby suggesting a degree of continuity in their cognitive abilities. To evaluate the validity of this approach, as well as to develop a quan- titative benchmark to assess children’s language development, I propose a formal analysis that characterizes the statistical profile of grammatical rules. I show that very young children’s lan- guage is consistent with a productive grammar rather than memorization of specific word combinations from caregivers’ speech. Furthermore, I provide a statistically rigorous demonstration that the sign use of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee who was taught American Sign Language, does not show the expected productivity of a rule-based grammar. Implications for theories of language acquisition and evolution are discussed.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/001767
(please use that when you cite this article, unless you want to cite the full url: http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/001767)
Published in: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
keywords: computational linguistics | linguistics | primate cognition | psychology, syntax
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