James R. Hurford

The Origins of Grammar

(Language in the Light of Evolution, Vol. 2)

University Press 2012

New Books in HistoryNew Books in LanguageNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network December 21, 2012 Chris Cummins

Building upon The Origins of Meaning (see previous interview), James R. Hurford‘s The Origins of Grammar (Language in the Light of Evolution, Vol. 2)...

Building upon The Origins of Meaning (see previous interview), James R. Hurford‘s The Origins of Grammar (Language in the Light of Evolution, Vol. 2) (Oxford University Press, 2012) second volume sets out to explain how the unique complexity of human syntax might have evolved. In doing so, it addresses the long-running argument between (to generalise) linguists and non-linguists as to how big a deal this is: linguists tend to claim that the relevant capacities are unique to humans, while researchers in other disciplines argue for parallels with other animal behaviours. James Hurford sides with the linguists here, but not without giving careful consideration to the status of birdsong, whalesong, and similar systems.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the evolutionary process (so far), interest is growing in accounts of human syntax that are incidentally much more gradualist in nature and which invite potential explanation in evolutionary terms. Moreover, the idea of quantitative limits on human processing are being appealed to, in conflict with the tradition view of ‘infinite’ generative capacity. In the second part of the book, Hurford charts a course through this field in order to characterise the ‘target’ of the evolutionary story.

Finally, he turns to the process itself, positing a role for the ‘symbolic niche’ in the rapid co-evolution of culture and individual capacities throughout the span of humans’ existence, and considering how grammaticalisation might be responsible for the earliest, as well as the most recent, innovations in human language.

In this interview, we touch on many of these topics, and try to situate this work within the history of linguistics. We consider the implications of new trends in linguistic theory and research practice, and look at how evolutionary claims might be validated – or at least shown to be plausible, in the face of residual scepticism. And we discuss whether and when genome research will inform linguistic analysis.

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