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The Social Origins of Language

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How human language evolved from the need for social communication

The origins of human language remain hotly debated. Despite growing appreciation of cognitive and neural continuity between humans and other animals, an evolutionary account of human language—in its modern form—remains as elusive as ever. The Social Origins of Language provides a novel perspective on this question and charts a new path toward its resolution.

In the lead essay, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney draw on their decades-long pioneering research on monkeys and baboons in the wild to show how primates use vocalizations to modulate social dynamics. They argue that key elements of human language emerged from the need to decipher and encode complex social interactions. In other words, social communication is the biological foundation upon which evolution built more complex language.

Seyfarth and Cheney’s argument serves as a jumping-off point for responses by John McWhorter, Ljiljana Progovac, Jennifer E. Arnold, Benjamin Wilson, Christopher I. Petkov and Peter Godfrey-Smith, each of whom draw on their respective expertise in linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology. Michael Platt provides an introduction, Seyfarth and Cheney a concluding essay. Ultimately, The Social Origins of Language offers thought-provoking viewpoints on how human language evolved.

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Seyfarth Robert
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Robert M. Seyfarth is professor of psychology and Dorothy L. Cheney is professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania. They are the coauthors of How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species and Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. Michael L. Platt is the James S. Riepe University Professor of neuroscience, psychology, and marketing at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Contributors vii
Introduction 1
Michael L Platt
Part 1
The Social Origins of Language 9
Robert M Seyfarth and Dorothy L Cheney
Part 2
1 Linguistics and Pragmatics 37
John McWhorter
2 Where Is Continuity Likely to Be Found? 46
Ljiljana Progovac
3 Fluency Effects in Human Language 62
Jennifer E Arnold
4 Relational Knowledge and the Origins of Language 79
Benjamin Wilson and Christopher I Petkov
5 Primates, Cephalopods, and the Evolution of Communication 102
Peter Godfrey-Smith
Part 3
Conclusion 123
Robert M Seyfarth and Dorothy L Cheney
Notes 131
References 135
Index 163

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