The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 10/11 - Ljiljana Progovac (Wayne State)

Speaker: Ljiljana Progovac  (Wayne State)
Title: What use is half a clause? The Five Problems facing language evolution research
Date and time: Thursday, 10/11, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

I have proposed that human languages reconstruct back to an intransitive absolutive-like grammar, which provides the foundation and common denominator for crosslinguistic variation in the expression of transitivity (e.g. Progovac 2015, 2016). The proposal is based both on an internal reconstruction using syntactic theory (in particular, Chomsky’s 1995 Minimalism), and on comparative typological considerations, in an attempt to directly bring together formal, typological, and evolutionary considerations.

The internal reconstruction is achieved by peeling off, from the top, the syntactic layers postulated to form the basic skeleton of the modern sentence/clause (CP>TP > vP > VP/SC), leading to reconstructing the initial, ancestral grammar as intransitive, featuring only the VP/SC layer with one single argument. Approximations of such one-argument grammars are arguably found in the absolutive and middle constructions across a variety of languages, as well as in certain verb-noun compounds, both of which will be illustrated and discussed. Rather than staying with general, vague claims, I will use specific data and detail in an attempt to make this proposal testable, and will report the results of an fMRI experiment designed to test some predictions of this proposal (Progovac et al. 2018: doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00278).

I will furthermore introduce The Five Problems/Challenges routinely encountered in language evolution research (Progovac, In Press), and will use the proposal above as a test case to demonstrate how these challenges can begin to be addressed.

  1. Identification of the initial stage(s) of language (The Decomposition Problem)
  2. The genetic basis for language, i.e. how genetic basis for language came to be (The Selection Problem)
  3. The language-brain-genes linkage (The Loop Problem)
  4. Compatibility with the parameters of language variation and change (The Variation Problem)
  5. Grounding in linguistic theory and analysis (The Theoretical Grounding Problem)

Especially thorny are The Decomposition and The Selection Problems, partly because they are intertwined, in the sense that only a successful decomposition will reveal utility, which can in turn identify possible reasons for natural/sexual selection. Consistent with the proposal above, I will explore a specific natural/sexual selection scenario which attempts to disentangle the two, while addressing the question of “What use is half a clause?”