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Language as shaped by the brain

Christiansen, MH; Chater, N; (2008) Language as shaped by the brain. BEHAV BRAIN SCI , 31 (5) 489 - 509. 10.1017/S0140525X08004998. Green open access

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Abstract

It is widely assumed that human learning and the structure of human languages are intimately related. This relationship is frequently suggested to derive from a language-specific biological endowment, which encodes universal, but communicatively arbitrary, principles of language structure (a Universal Grammar or UG). How might such a UG have evolved? We argue that UG could not have arisen either by biological adaptation or non-adaptationist genetic processes, resulting in a logical problem of language evolution. Specifically, as the processes of language change are much more rapid than processes of genetic change, language constitutes a "moving target" both over time and across different human populations, and hence, cannot provide a stable environment to which language genes could have adapted. We conclude that a biologically determined UG is not evolutionarily viable. Instead, the original motivation for UG - the mesh between learners and languages - arises because language has been shaped to fit the human brain, rather than vice versa. Following Darwin, we view language itself as a complex and interdependent "organism," which evolves under selectional pressures from human learning and processing mechanisms. That is, languages themselves are shaped by severe selectional pressure from each generation of language users and learners. This suggests that apparently arbitrary aspects of linguistic structure may result from general learning and processing biases deriving from the structure of thought processes, perceptuo-motor factors, cognitive limitations, and pragmatics.

Type: Article
Title: Language as shaped by the brain
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X08004998
Publisher version: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X08004998
Language: English
Additional information: Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008
Keywords: biological adaptation, cultural evolution, grammaticalization, language acquisition, language evolution, linguistic change, natural selection, Universal Grammar, SYNTACTIC AMBIGUITY RESOLUTION, ARTIFICIAL LANGUAGE, WORD-ORDER, PROBABILISTIC CONSTRAINTS, LINGUISTIC EVOLUTION, PHONOLOGICAL MARKERS, DISTRIBUTIONAL CUES, UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR, NATURAL-SELECTION, DARWINS FINCHES
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences > Experimental Psychology
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/168484
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