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Given the vast differences between human language and animal communication systems, how could meaningful speech have evolved from such systems?

Walter C. Murray Lecture: Origins of Meaning

Philosopher Dr. Dorit Bar-On (PhD) discusses how language might have evolved from animal communication


Date: Friday, Jan. 27
7–8:30 pm (reception to follow)
Health Sciences Building Room 1150, 107 Wiggins Rd., Saskatoon

Free and open to the public

About this event

Hosted by the University of Saskatchewan Department of Philosophy

Origins of Meaning
by Dr. Dorit Bar-On (PhD)
Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Connecticut

One of Darwin’s most vocal and persistent opponents, Friedrich Max Müller, famously claimed that “Language is the Rubicon which divides man from beast, and no animal will ever cross it.” This poses the following challenge for our understanding of the evolution of language:

Given the vast differences we see between human language and animal communication systems, how could meaningful speech have evolved from such systems?

Darwin himself suggested that the transition from animal sounds and gestures to language would require “unusual wisdom” and intentions to communicate. This is the core of what I will refer to as the communicative-intentions approach to language and language evolution. After explaining this approach, I will motivate a different approach, which focuses on a kind of communi­cation that we share with existing nonhuman animals: namely, expressive communication. My main purpose will be to argue that expressive behavior, and the kind of communi­cation it affords, exhibit features that fore­shadow significant aspects of linguistic communication, quite apart from the presence of communi­ca­tive intentions or ingenious insight. This is not to say that animal communication as we know it already is language. It is just to say that, if we understand certain forms of animal communication systems properly, we can gain better (and more realistic) understanding of what it would have taken – evolutionarily speaking – to get from animal communication to language.

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