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The Origin of Syntax


Ljiljana Progovac’s recent research on language evolution uses the postulates of syntactic theory to reconstruct the initial stages of proto-syntax/proto-grammar, by undoing the postulated layers of hierarchical structure. Not only are approximations of this proto-syntax still in use in certain present-day language constructions, but this “fossil” syntax is shown to be built into the very foundation of more complex syntactic structures, providing evidence of evolutionary tinkering with the language design. This proposal regarding the evolution of syntax can be cross-fertilized with the recent findings in neuroscience and genetics. 

By removing the layer of sentential (Tense Phrase) structure, one arrives at various kinds of “small clauses,” still alive and in use in present-day languages (e.g. Case closed; Mission accomplished; Me first!). By removing the layer of transitivCaptionsity (light Verb Phrase layer in syntactic theory), one arrives at intransitive absolutive-like structures, which do not distinguish subjects from objects, still found in various modern constructions. There is an astounding variety of such absolutive-like structures across languages, including among verbal compounds, as well as of structures that straddle the boundary between transitivity and intransitivity, the so-called “middles.”

This kind of syntactic reconstruction leads to the postulation of proto-grammars which could only generate simple concatenations consisting of e.g. one verb and one noun, but with no grammatical means for distinguishing subjects from objects, or for expressing tense. When it comes to sentence combinations, the best these grammars can do is loosely (paratactically) conjoin two proto-sentences, as approximated in some proverb-like expressions across languages (e.g. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; Monkey see, monkey do.) This research program also addresses how the progression to each new stage of grammar would have incurred concrete and specific communicative advantages, which would have been subject to natural/sexual selection.

Ljiljana Progovac has published her work on language evolution in several venues, including two volumes on language complexity (Oxford University Press, 2009; In Press), a volume on recursion in human language (Mouton, 2010), and the journal Biolinguistics (2009a,b; 2010). She has given 22 national/international presentations on this line of research in 8 different countries, 4 of which were keynote presentations. She is currently preparing a book manuscript on the topic, tentatively entitled “A Program for Evolutionary Syntax.”


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