Home > Papers > From Ontogenesis to Phylogenesis: What Can Child Language Tell Us About Language Evolution

From Ontogenesis to Phylogenesis: What Can Child Language Tell Us About Language Evolution

Slobin, Dan
Biology and Knowledge, J Langer, S. T. Parker, C. Milbrath (2004)

Dan Slobin examines (and refutes) the hypothesis that child language serves as a good parallel to the evolution of language in proto-hominids. A very well written paper that makes frequent comparisons to the classical version of the recapitulationist argument.

Slobin makes reference to both research from the 1920’s (Jespersen) and more modern research showing that one- and two- word language in children already demonstrates complex productive morphology (both correct and in error due to overregularization–evidence of internalization of grammatical morphemes) qualitatively different from the simple language ascribed to chimps. He further demonstrates that bilingual children associated different morphological constructions with different languages, even at the one- and two- word stage.

His argument further builds on heterchronous development of traits such as physical and logicomathematical cognition in apes vs humans; humans develop such traits earlier and simultaneously, allowing interaction between the two types of cognition.

He goes on further to demonstrate that eg regularization displayed by children is not as a rule accepted into the evolution of a language, and claims that diachrony does not recapitulate ontogeny either.

He goes further to claim that children are not innovators in the development of creoles, and that instead they regularize and advance but offer no evidence of a ‘biogragram’ for language.

He stops short of complete refutation, and allows that for example deaf children do seem to create languages with meaningful symbol order and a morphological structure. But he still insists that language learners merely refine or automate properties already present in a language, even early pidgins. In summation he claims that language is generated in social interaction, not in the minds of individuals.

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