Thom Scott-PhillipsDec 13, 2014
Speaking Our Minds
Why Human Communication is Different, and How Language Evolved to Make it Special
Palgrave Macmillan 2014
I hope I'm not being species-centric when I say that the emergence of human language is a big deal. John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary rate it as one of the "major transitions in evolution", placing it in exalted company alongside the evolution of multicellularity, sociality, sexual reproduction, and various other preoccupations of ours. But the nature of the transition is hotly disputed: is there a sudden shift involving the emergence of complex syntax, or is the process more gradual and socially driven? In his entertaining and approachable volume Speaking Our Minds (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Thom Scott-Phillips argues for a different approach. On his view, there is a categorical difference between human language and its precursors, but the critical ingredient is ostensive-inferential communication - that is, the ability to express and recognize intentions - and this underlies the expressive power of language. His view calls for a reappraisal of the role of pragmatics in linguistics, from being a communicatively useful add-on to being much nearer the heart of the enterprise. In this interview, we discuss the motivations and implications of this idea, for both evolutionary and more traditional approaches to linguistics, and we look at how comparative studies of other species - not only great apes, but even bacteria - might tell us something useful about the nature of human communication.