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Biological Foundations and Origin of Syntax$
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Derek Bickerton and Eörs Szathmáry

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780262013567

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: August 2013

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262013567.001.0001

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Possible Precursors of Syntactic Components in Other Species

Possible Precursors of Syntactic Components in Other Species

(p.160) (p.161) 8 Possible Precursors of Syntactic Components in Other Species
Biological Foundations and Origin of Syntax

Hilliard Austin T.

White Stephanie A.

The MIT Press

As a uniquely human phenotype, language appears to be a wholesale innovation whose evolutionary and neurobiological basis may be studied only using noninvasive techniques. Alternatively, the molecular, cellular and synaptic basis of vocal learning, a primary subcomponent of language, may be investigated in other species using a comparative approach. Syntax provides compositionality and combines a finite number of meaningful units to produce an infinite variety of sequences with larger meanings. This ability for limitless recombination seems to be exclusive to humans, but animals possess less sophisticated rule systems for recombining units and recognizing sequences of communication signals, or other stimuli. This chapter examines possible precursors of syntactic components in other species, including songbirds, parrots, hummingbirds, bats, marine mammals such as whales, and elephants. In discussing the biological origins and evolution of language, it looks at birdsong and its similarities with speech, along with the role of mirror neurons and the transcription factor known as FOXP2 in language development.

Keywords:   language, syntax, vocal learning, songbirds, birdsong, speech, evolution, mirror neurons, transcription factor, syntactic components

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