James R. Hurford
The Origins of Meaning
(Language in Light of Evolution, Vol. 1)
University Press 2007
Evolutionary approaches to linguistics have notoriously had a rather chequered history, being associated with vague and unfalsifiable claims about the motivations for the origins of language. It seems as though the subject has only recently come in from the cold, and yet there are already rich traditions of research in several distinct fields that offer relevant insights: insights that are crucial if we consider Dobzhansky’s maxim, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, also to apply to human language.
In his two-volume (so far) work, James Hurford brings together many of these disparate strands of research and endeavours to answer the question of how humans, uniquely among extant species, came to have such elaborative, productive, referential language. His work is at once vast and authoritative, stimulating and original, and highly accessible. It serves both to introduce new ideas and to draw out potential connections between familiar ones. It’s critical without being dismissive, and seems to succeed in its goal of being genuinely interdisciplinary.
This first interview revisits the 2007 book, The Origins of Meaning (Oxford University Press, 2007), which sets out some ideas as to how both meaning (as a relatively ‘private’ matter) and communication (a ‘public’ one) came to be elaborated in humans. We discuss how meaning can be characterised in a way that is evolutionarily friendly, and the kinds of neural processes that might underlie the shape of propositional thought. We look at the relation that might be argued between visual attention and (pre-)linguistic semantics. And we turn to studies of monkey alarm calls, and ask whether the origins of referential meaning are already exhibited by our distant primate cousins.