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Inventing Knowledge – Blog

Michael Pleyer, PhD
The Evolution and Foundations of the Interaction-, Language, and Construction-Ready Brain

I would like to discuss the evolution and foundations of a brain that is able to support human forms of interaction, language, and linguistic constructions. These questions are central to the science of language evolution (Żywiczyński & Wacewicz 2019), which tries to uncover the evolutionary foundations of our ability to learn and use language. In addition, the science of language evolution also tries to uncover the processes and mechanism that shaped the emergence and development of language in human evolution and human history. In other words, language evolution research is interested in the evolutionary foundations and development of the “language-ready brain,” (Arbib 2012) that is a brain ready to support the emergence of language, as well as language use, language acquisition, and language change.

Much recent work in language evolution has also directed attention to the fact that language is at its core a social, interactive phenomenon. Indeed, social cognitive abilities such as joint attention and perspective-taking seem to represent some of the most central foundations of language. This is why language evolution researchers have become increasingly interested in the evolution of the ‘human interaction engine’ (Levinson 2006), in other words they are not only interested in the evolution and structure of the “language-ready brain”, but also in the evolution of the “interaction-ready brain”, which supports human forms of social interaction and meaning-making. Along with this goes an interest in the “language-ready social settings” (Pleyer & Lindner 2014), that is the social environment that supports the emergence of linguistic structure in interaction (Pleyer 2017).

Language evolution research is a fundamentally interdisciplinary endeavour, drawing on research from a multitude of fields, including, for example, cognitive sciences such as linguistics, psychology, neuroscience and anthropology, as well as primatology, biology, computational modelling and many others. It therefore requires a multifaceted, pluralistic approach. In addition, research from within these fields can also be done within a multitude of frameworks, all of which are relevant to the science of language evolution (Wacewicz et al. in press, Hartmann et al., accepted).

One such approach whose implications for language evolution is are increasingly explored is the linguistic approach of usage-based construction grammar (Pleyer 2017, Pleyer & Hartmann 2020; Hartmann & Pleyer, in press).

This approach is founded on two main theoretical assumptions about language. First, the constructionist assumption: Knowing a language means having internalised a complex, structured network of constructions (Goldberg 2003; Diessel 2019). Constructions are defined as form-meaning pairings of different degrees of complexity and schematicity. This means that they can range from simple and concrete constructions (dog, avocado) over simple and abstract constructions (freedom, justice) and simple schematic constructions (e.g. syntactic categories such as NOUN and VERB) to complex schematic constructions (e.g. the ditransitive transfer construction [DITR  NP V NP NP], as in he gave her a cake) (Stefanowitsch & Flach 2017)  What this means for language evolution research is that from a constructionist perspective, we are interested in a) the evolution of our capacity to represent form-meaning pairings/constructions in terms of a interconnected network in long-term memory b) the components and evolutionary foundations of this ability.

The second foundational assumption is the usage-based assumption: Constructions are abstractions from actual usage events in interaction (Barlow & Kemmer 2000). For example, children learn constructions by using abilities such as frequency-sensitive pattern extraction and schematisation on the input they receive (Tomasello 2003). In addition, constructions emerge in interaction as we co-create and negotiate meaning together, finding ways to express and share perspectives on entities, situations and events. From a language evolution perspective, this directs attention to the evolution of a) cognitive abilities that enable us to learn and create constructions, and b) the processes and mechanisms that lead to the emergence of constructions in interaction. That is, a usage-based, constructionist asks what it is that makes the human brain “construction-ready.” (Hartmann & Pleyer, in press).