The road to language is paved with good genes, said God. – No, roared the Apes and set off on their wonderful adventure to the kingdom of evolutionary randomness

Vasiliki VALLA, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

RÉSUMÉ

From biblical stories up until Chomsky and his contemporaries, the language entity has often been treated as the mystical illustration of a profound change in thought that emerges within a vague framework of evolutionary conditions with communicative language as a byproduct. Evolutionary linguistics, a relatively young, multidisciplinary field, aims to provide substantiated data on how language actually appeared and evolved.

Among the most controversial questions that need to be answered lies the specificity of language, i.e. whether it is uniquely human (species-specific) and/or uniquely linguistic (domain-specific) or whether it depends on the way that social interaction and knowledge have interacted over millions years of evolution on Earth. For many decades, language acquisition and evolution was confined to the “nature VS nurture” debate model.

Nativists claim that traits and behavior are, to a large extent, the result of inheritance and therefore language is also an innate faculty, something like a pre-installed set of rules in the human mind. Advocates of this point of view, that often had to fight against Chomsky’s immense popularity rather than solid scientific data, believe that evolution is in control of our characteristics and behaviors, i.e. social culture and environmental factors are the determinants of language evolution.

Evolutionary linguistics and genetic research have entered the battle field very vigorously and for the first time, gaps around language emergence, acquisition and evolution are filled with anatomical, archaeological, anthropological and paleontological data that provide an insight into the successive phases of speech and language evolution. On top of that, state-of-the-art molecular and imaging techniques are now gradually revealing the neurogenetic pathways that underlie the language faculty as well as certain developmental language disorders. Decoding of the human genetic architecture and the role of proteins such FOXP2 in hominis evolution are now considerable allies at the side of linguists.