On Thursday, May 2, at 17.00, Anne Reboul (L2C2, CNRS, Lyons) will give a talk on "The
many problems of social accounts of the evolution of language".
Abstract: Since Pinker & Bloom´s paper in 1990, accounts of
the evolution of language have multiplied. Some of them take language to be
biological (to be a biological adaptation), but quite a few of them take it to
be cultural (to be a cultural adaptation). A few propose that language is not
an adaptation, but rather the exaptation of previous existing features that
adapted under various selection pressures, having nothing to do with
communication as such. Among those who see language as an adaptation, on either
a biological or a cultural scenario, the currently trendy approaches are in
terms of "social", though often fairly ill defined, notions such as cooperation or social cohesion.
Taking as my main examples, Dunbar's (1996, 2004)
biological theory and Tomasello's (1999, 2008, 2009) cultural theory, I will
argue that social accounts of language evolution are unable to account for the
central feature of language, i.e. its generativity or creativity. This is the
problem of content. It is directly linked to a second problem, which is that social
accounts of language ignore the distinction between I-language and E-language,
concentrating on E-language, which means that they basically are unable to
correctly address the central problem of language acquisition. Finally, even
supposing for the sake of argument that social accounts of language evolution
are viable, the emphasis on "cooperation", "sharing", etc.
seem misguided in at least two ways: first, they rest on a misunderstanding of
the Gricean notion of cooperation; second, the universality of implicit
communication (conversational implicatures and presuppositions), if anything,
argues for a manipulative rather than a cooperative view of human
The meeting place will be the Gabriel Oliver Room, -1 floor, Edifici Josep Carner, UB.