Ontogeny and Language Evolution

AppEEL collaborators Andy Lock and Chris Sinha have been invited to organize a symposium on language ontogeny for Protolang 4. Speakers include Heidi Lyn, Ulf Liszkowski, Hélène Cochet, and Nathalie Gontier.

September 26th, 2015

Ontogeny and Language Evolution

Organized by AppEEL collaborators Andy Lock (Massey University, New Zealand) and Chris Sinha (Hunan University, China)


The motivation for this session is the growing recognition that ontogenetic development, as was proposed by many classical theorists of human development, was crucial for human evolution, including human symbolic evolution and the evolution of language. We will invite four participants with known expertise in this area to discuss ontogeny and language evolution, requiring them to orient their presentations to one or more fundamental questions.

Questions to be considered by the speakers:

  1. What, if anything, can child prelinguistic and language development tell us about language evolution?
  2. What, if anything, can the comparative developmental study of gestural communication and social interaction in extant non-human primates tell us about language evolution?
  3. What, if any, effect did the evolution of the human life course have upon cognition, symbol use and language?
  4. If ontogenetic development can be considered a niche, does it make sense to speak of niche-niche co-evolution as well as organism-niche co-evolution


Heidi Lyn (University of Southern Mississippi): The Ubiquity of Gestural Comprehension

It has been argued that the ability to comprehend gestures (most specifically pointing gestures) may be one of the revolutionary moments in the development of human language. This argument rests in large part on the findings that apes fail to comprehend human points (Moll and Tomasello, 2007) although many other species (such as dogs and dolphins) are perfectly capable of the task (e.g., Miklosi and Soproni, 2006; Pack and Herman, 2007). However, several studies have pointed to methodological differences as the largest driver of differential findings between apes and other animals in comprehension of declarative pointing (Mulcahy and Call, 2009; Lyn, 2010; Mulcahy and Hedge, 2012). In addition, a series of studies have suggested that exposure to humans is the most important variable in pointing comprehension abilities in apes (Lyn, et al., 2010a, 2010b). This is similar to recent findings in dogs and wolves, again supporting human interaction as the deciding variable in pointing comprehension (Udell et al., 2008, 2010, 2013). These findings beg the question – what is learned by exposure to humans? One suggestion is that it is ostensive cues that support gestural communication that are learned, however, preliminary data with apes support the idea that ostensive cues are basic - for example, simple extensions of an index finger without linguistic markers such as eye contact or gaze alteration do not result in gestural comprehension (Lyn et al., in prep). These linguistic actions serve functional purposes that seem to be the foundation for gestures to be communicative and may be much more widespread in the animal kingdom than has previously been assumed. I will suggest that rather than a misunderstanding of the communicative nature of a point, apes are failing to follow the linear and geometrical nature of the gesture. I will further argue that gestural communication, including point following, is likely a basic communicative interaction that is well within the capacities of many species, given the appropriate communicative environment and learning opportunities.

Ulf Liszkowski (Universität Hamburg): Limits, scopes, and origins of infant communication

Infants’ communication is limited in several ways compared to adults. They have little if no systematic semantics, and rarely if never represent affairs through symbolic or depictive vehicles. Yet, infants communicate extensively with deictic gestures and, like adults, are very flexible at inferring and transmitting meaning based on social-cognitive and cooperative expectations which scale up to ‘theory-of-mind’ skills previously attested to 4-year-olds. This new line of evidence, however, doesn’t lead to evolutionarily ancient traits of human communication, because new comparative results with chimpanzee reveal limits in their use of deictic communication, especially regarding social-cognitive and cooperative expectations. The ontogenetic origins of infants’ communicative skills are seen in social-interactional experiences in the first year of life, as supported by further new experiments and cross-cultural comparisons.

Hélène Cochet (Université de Toulouse II - Le Mirail): Hand preference for symbolic gestures and pointing gestures: Clues toward the understanding of language development

Language acquisition involves a continuity between non-verbal and verbal communication: human children engage themselves in episodes of joint attention with adults through facial expressions, gestures, and vocalizations before they are able to use language. This is one of the reasons for which hand preference for communicative gestures has been regarded as a good predictor of hemispheric specialization for language, contrary to hand preference for manipulative actions (e.g., Meguerditchian et al., 2011). But the diversity of the human gestural repertoire may influence the relationship between hand preference for gestures and language, which has led us to take account of different types of gestures. Here I will present several studies focusing on the production of pointing gestures and symbolic gestures in young children and adults. We assessed hand preference for these different gestures and measured some morphological features (hand shapes, body posture). Our results suggest that communicative functions associated with gestures (e.g., imperative vs. declarative pointing) is a key factor in language development and in the emergence of hemispheric specialization for language. Our research may also have important implications for theories of language evolution, especially as several researchers have reported the existence of a right-sided asymmetry for communicative gestures in nonhuman primates. We therefore aim at highlighting the interest of studying gestural communication, by describing several characteristics of gestures and using similar methods across age groups and across species, in order to understand further the emergence of language, both within a developmental and an evolutionary framework.

Nathalie Gontier (University of Lisbon): Epistemic Pluralism and the evolution of communication

Throughout the evolution of life we can find a consistent macro-evolutionary trend toward increasingly complex behavioral, cognitive and sociocultural repertoires that enable biological entities to interact meaningfully with the biotic and abiotic world, and one such type of meaningful interaction involves communication. From within the field of evolutionary epistemology, behavioral, cognitive and sociocultural skills are one the one hand understood as systems of knowledge that have evolved by means of evolutionary mechanisms; on the other hand, knowledge itself evolves according to evolutionary mechanisms. Communication systems in general, and languages in particular, are especially intriguing knowledge systems because they result from an intricate symbiosis between various behavioral, cognitive and sociocultural skills that on the one hand are phylogenetically evolved traits of biological organisms; and on the other hand transcend these organisms because many types of communication are expressed at or above a population level during ontogeny. Investigating the phylogeny and ontogeny of communication across species through time therefore requires an understanding of the co-evolutionary mechanisms that underlie this intricate symbiosis. Most of all, it requires a multi- and transdisciplinary research stance. In this talk, we detail how combining the units and levels of evolution debate and hierarchy theory with research on the nature and scope of the extended synthesis (especially eco-evo-devo) enable us to take on an epistemic pluralistic stance from wherein we can provide a rich understanding of the evolution of communication as well as its ontogenetic expression.

Copyright AppEEL 2012