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The Linguistic Review

Editor-in-Chief: Hulst, Harry

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Constraints and preadaptations in the earliest stages of language evolution

Dorothy L. Cheney / Robert M. Seyfarth

Citation Information: The Linguistic Review. Volume 22, Issue 2-4, Pages 135–159, ISSN (Online) 1613-3676, ISSN (Print) 0167-6318, DOI: 10.1515/tlir.2005.22.2-4.135, December 2005

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If we accept the view that language first evolved from the conceptual structure of our pre-linguistic ancestors, several questions arise, including: What kind of structure? Concepts about what? Here we review research on the vocal communication and cognition of nonhuman primates, focusing on results that may be relevant to the earliest stages of language evolution. From these data we conclude, first, that nonhuman primates’ inability to represent the mental states of others makes their communication fundamentally different from human language. Second, while nonhuman primates’ production of vocalizations is highly constrained, their ability to extract complex information from sounds is not. Upon hearing vocalizations, listeners acquire information about their social companions that is referential, discretely coded, hierarchically structured, rule-governed, and propositional. We therefore suggest that, in the earliest stages of language evolution, communication had a formal structure that grew out of its speakers’ knowledge of social relations.

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