Project

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Evolution of phonetics and phonology (EVOPHON)

Applicant Moran Steven
Number 186841
Funding scheme Eccellenza
Research institution Institut de Biologie Université de Neuchâtel
Institution of higher education University of Neuchatel - NE
Main discipline Other languages and literature
Start/End 01.10.2020 - 30.09.2025
Approved amount 1'890'688.00
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All Disciplines (2)

Discipline
Other languages and literature
Prehistory

Keywords (8)

linguistics; paleoanthropology; evolutionary biology; comparative great ape communication; language evolution; speech; phonology; phonetics

Lay Summary (German)

Lead
Über die Ursprünge der Sprache ist sehr wenig bekannt. Ob sie sich plötzlich oder allmählich während der Evolution unserer Spezies entwickelt hat, ist Mittelpunkt heißer Debatten. Nähere, studiengestützte Einblicke in die Entwicklung der Sprache werden daher von großem Interesse nicht nur für Linguisten, sondern auch für Biologen, Genetiker, Anthropologen und Archäologen sein.
Lay summary

Sprache ist allgemeinhin der Standardmodus der Kommunikation über alle Kulturen hinweg und unterteilt sich in gestische und gesprochene Sprache. Ziel dieses Projekts ist, die Evolution des Sprechens an sich zu untersuchen und damit dem Ursprung der Sprachen nachzugehen. Vorteil dieses Ansatzes ist, dass zahlreiche Aspekte des Sprechens - darunter Akustik, Artikulation und neuronale Kontrolle - mit vielen anderen Spezies geteilt wird. So haben beispielsweise Affen, Menschenaffen und Menschen eine spezialisierte Anatomie zur Klangerzeugung und Klangwahrnehmung für kommunikative Zwecke entwickelt. Und obgleich es keinen Konsens darüber gibt, auf wann man die Entstehung der Sprache genau datieren soll, so herrscht doch unter den meisten Forschern Einigkeit darüber, dass die grundlegenden Komponenten dafür schon seit mindestens einer halben Million Jahre existieren.

Dieses Projekt wird die Evolution des Sprechens anhand von drei entscheidenden Fragen untersuchen: Welche Parallelen bestehen zwischen menschlicher und nichtmenschlicher Vokalisierung? Welche Sprechklänge konnten ausgestorbene Humanoide wie Neandertaler erzeugen? Welche Sprechklänge gehen auf unsere biologischen Voraussetzungen zurück und welche unterliegen kulturellen Zwängen? Die Antworten werden eine Naturgeschichte des Gebrauchs von Sprechklängen sein, Bausteine im komplexen Kommunikationssystem, auch als menschliche Sprache bekannt.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 06.09.2020

Lay Summary (English)

Lead
Very little is known about the origin of language. Whether it evolved suddenly or gradually during the evolution of our species is hotly debated. Therefore any insights from studying the evolution of speech will be of strong interest to not only linguists, but also biologists, geneticists, anthropologists and archaeologists.
Lay summary

Although speech is the default mode of communication across all cultures, language itself can be either gestural (sign language) or spoken (speech). The goal of this project is to study the evolution of speech in its own right and also as a proxy for investigating the origin of language. The advantage of this approach is that many aspects of speech, including its acoustics, articulation, and neural control, are shared with other animals. For example, monkeys, apes, and humans have evolved specialized anatomy for producing and perceiving sounds for communicative purposes. And although there is no consensus on the precise dating of when language emerged, most researchers agree that the speech faculty’s essential components have been in place for at least half a million years.

This project will investigate the evolution of speech through the lens of three big questions. First, what parallels exist between human and nonhuman vocalizations? Second, what speech sounds could extinct hominins, such as Neanderthal, make? Third, which speech sounds today are determined by our biology and which are due to cultural pressures? The answers to these questions will create a natural history of the use of speech sounds as building blocks in the complex communication system known as human language.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 06.09.2020

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Employees

Abstract

The goal of this project is to investigate the origin of vocal communication and to identify a timeline of when different phonetic, and ultimately, phonological features, were co-opted for speech. Very little is known about the origin of language and any detailed insights from the study of speech will be of strong interest not only to linguists, but also biologists, geneticists, anthropologists, and archaeologists.Whether language evolved suddenly, or gradually during the evolution of our species, is hotly debated. Theoretical camps are split between two positions. The discontinuity theory hypothesizes that human language appeared rather suddenly within Homo sapiens due to a genetic mutation, circa 50-100 kya. This position assumes that (i) symbolic thought and language are functionally inseparable and cannot be studied independently because they arose at the same time, and (ii) that archaeological proxies (e.g. tool use) in the fossil record are the only available evidence for identifying ancient language use.The continuity theory suggests that language evolved gradually over evolutionary time, i.e. over millions of years, in which a complex interplay of factors, including phenotype plasticity, adaptation, cultural evolution, and exaptation, built on genetic, cognitive, and anatomical precursors. This position is supported by neurological evidence, e.g. biological substrates lying deep within the primate lineage, and the fact that our closest extant relatives, nonhuman great apes, exhibit language-like abilities in both cognition and speech. Moreover, evidence from genetics, paleoanthropology, and comparative anatomy suggests that recently extinct hominins, including Neanderthals, had linguistic abilities and even fully articulate speech, similar to us.In light of these two theoretical positions, and due to a serious lack of empirical data, studying how language evolved is difficult because we must define what language is. Although speaking is the default modality of communication in all cultures, human language itself is modality-independent. Human language comes in both gestural and spoken forms, i.e. sign languages and speech, which are equal in terms of complexity and expressive power. As such, we may conceptualize human language as the cognitive ability to acquire and use language, but this does not make the study of its origin any easier.I propose studying the evolution of vocal communication both in its own right and as a proxy for investigating the origin of language proper. The advantage of this approach is that many aspects of speech, including its acoustics, articulatory underpinnings, and neural control, are shared with other animals. Without question, monkeys, apes, and humans have evolved specialized anatomy for producing sounds for communicative purposes. And although there is no consensus on the precise dating of when spoken language emerged, most researchers agree that the speech faculty’s essential components, including breathing control and a descended larynx and hyoid bone, have been in place for at least half a million years. Thus, the key ingredients of speech emerged before Homo sapiens and I hypothesize that the origin of language lies deep within the Hominidae lineage and that it evolved gradually over time.This proposal will develop novel methodologies that involve analyzing the results from cutting-edge approaches across acoustic phonetics, geometric morphometrics, and computational phylogenetics. The team will examine elements of vocal communication in terms of acoustic structure and signal content, adaptative function and causality, and phylogenetic signal and diachronic stability. The approach taken in this proposal is centered around three evolutionary tracks, the objectives of which are organized into five work packages. The long-term track involves novel comparative acoustic analysis of pan-great ape communication systems. The mid-term track will investigate the potential speech sounds of extinct hominins. And the near-term track will focus on the quantitative analysis of speech sounds and phonological features in anatomically modern human languages to shed light on linguistic diversity and its place in the evolution of speech.
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