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Did our ancestors speak a holistic protolanguage?

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Maggie Tallerman



The dominant theory of the evolution of complex language from protolanguage can be termed the synthetic approach. Under this view, single words arose first in evolution, and were combined as syntax evolved. More recently, an alternative scenario for protolanguage has been proposed, which we can term the holistic approach. Scholars subscribing to this view propose that words emerge from longer, entirely arbitrary strings of sounds - non-compositional utterances - via a process of fractionation. Such holistic utterances initially have no internal structure, but represent whole messages. The idea is that over time, chance phonetic similarities are observed between sections of utterances, and that if similar meanings can be ascribed to these strings, then "words" will emerge. This paper dissects the main ideas found in the holistic approach, and argues on a number of grounds that it is conceptually and empirically flawed. A proposal that protolanguage developed out of an earlier holistic primate communication system is hard to sustain, in view of differences between primate vocalization and language. Evidence against the holistic approach is offered on the basis of known facts about the historical development of natural languages, and a conclusion is drawn in favour of synthetic models of protolanguage. © 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Tallerman M

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Lingua

Year: 2007

Volume: 117

Issue: 3

Pages: 579-604

Print publication date: 01/03/2007

ISSN (print): 0024-3841

ISSN (electronic): 1872-6135

Publisher: Elsevier BV


DOI: 10.1016/j.lingua.2005.05.004


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