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Jim Hurford

Jim Hurford of the University of Edinburgh will speak at the UCSD Linguistics Department Colloquium on February 8, 2010, at 2:00 pm in AP&M 4301.

Syntax in the Light of Evolution

The talk will, very superficially, go over some of the arguments in a forthcoming book, `The Origins of Grammar'.  Standing back, and looking at language and linguistics from an evolutionary perspective, certain themes emerge: similarities and differences are matters of degree; linguists' approaches to language are justified, but extreme positions are not tenable.  The ideas to be touched on are summarized below as bullet, and sub-bullet, and sub-sub-bullet points.  There probably will not be time to cover all these ideas in the formal talk, but any uncovered items can be raised in discussion.

Animal Syntax? Implications for Language as Behaviour

  • Wild animals have no semantically compositional syntax
    • Combining territorial and sexual messages
    • Combinatorial, but not compositional, monkey and bird calls
  • Noncompositional syntax in animals: its possible relevance
  • Formal Language Theory for the birds, and matters arising
    • Simplest syntax: birdsong examples
    • Iteration, competence, performance and numbers
    • Hierarchically structured behaviour
    • Overt behaviour and neural mechanisms
    • Training animals on syntactic `languages'

Syntax in the Light of Evolution

  • Language in its discourse context
  • Speech evolved first
  • Message packaging - Sentence-like units
  • Competence(-plus)
    • Regular production
    • Intuition
    • Gradience
    • Working Memory
  • Individual differences in competence-plus
  • Numerical constraints on competence-plus

What Evolved: Language Learniong Capacity

  • Massive storage
  • Hierarchical structure
  • Word-internal structure
  • Syntactic categories
    • Distributional criteria and the proliferation of categories
    • Categories are primitive, too - contra radicalism
    • Multiple default inheritance hierarchies
    • Features
    • Phrasal categories are unnecessary
    • Functional categories - grammatical words
  • Grammatical relations
  • Long range dependencies
  • Constructions, complex items with variables
  • Island constraints

What Evolved: Languages

  • Widespread features of languages
  • Growth rings - layering
  • Linguists on complexity
  • Piraha
  • Riau Indonesian
  • Creoles and Pidgins
    • Identifying creoles and pidgins
    • Substrates and superstrates
    • Properties of pidgins and creoles
  • Basic Variety
  • New Sign Languages
    • Nicaraguan Sign Language
    • Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language
  • Social correlates of complexity
    • Shared knowledge and a less autonomous code
    • Child and adult learning and morphological complexity
    • Historico-geographic influences on languages