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Language Origins: an Animal Communication Perspective

By Simon Townsend

Appears in collection : Secret missives: a journey in natural communication

Human language is arguably the most complex communication system currently known, however, the origins of language remain surprisingly elusive. In this lecture, I will revisit this conundrum and illustrate how studying animal communication can provide a much-needed window into the evolutionary roots of language. I will specifically focus on what comparative data exists for syntax in animal vocal systems (i.e. the ability to combine meaningful vocalizations together into larger meaningful structures). Data from primates and birds suggests that this core property of language is not unique to humans but exists, in more simple forms, in animals. I will discuss the evolutionary implications of these findings for reconstructing the emergence of syntax and language more generally.

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