The Evolutionary Origins of Syntax

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences

About the seminar

One of the main challenges we face in explaining the evolution of human language is providing an account of the origins syntax. In this talk, I outline a model of the evolution of basic syntax in our line. Towards this end, I draw upon work on both monkey and ape communication, as well as great-ape language learning experiments. I argue that, taken together, this evidence enables us to effect a surprising reduction in the explanatory burden we face: great apes are, or very nearly are, syntax-ready. Thus, the core of the challenge is to explain why syntax was created in our line, and why it persisted as a stable design feature of human languages once it was created. I will suggest that a key driver of the evolution of syntax was communication about social behaviour.  

About the speaker

Dr Planner received his Ph.D in Philosophy, along with a Certificate in Cognitive Science, from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, in 2015. His dissertation examined the role of informational concepts in molecular, developmental, and evolutionary biology. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Philosophy at the ANU.

This talk is presented as part of the 2019 Biological Anthropology Research seminar series.