Justifications for a Discontinuity Theory of Language Evolution


  • Callum Hackett


In Chapter 6 of Biological Foundations of Language, Lenneberg argues against continuity theories of language evolution, which claim that language evolved from simpler communication systems. Although Lenneberg was pessimistic about even discontinuity theories explaining how language evolved, discontinuity has become significant in the Minimalist program, which posits that our species’ acquisition of Merge was the key discontinuity that made language possible. On the basis of a unified description of natural communication systems, I show that language is indeed based upon a cognitive discontinuity, which is moreover specific to linguistic ability. However, I argue that even Minimalist theories must recognise this discontinuity as the sensorimotor interface with syntax, rather than syntax itself. This ultimately supports the view that syntactic structures are structures of thought, but taking this claim seriously means reimagining how syntax relates to semantics and morphology, as the traditional ‘lexical item’ is no longer a tenable primitive of generative theory.

Author Biography

Callum Hackett, Newcastle University
PhD Candidate, Linguistics