Monogenesis and "simple Darwinian grounds"

Michael Cysouw m.cysouw at
Thu Jan 29 19:20:56 UTC 1998

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The debate on the monogenesis vs. polygenesis of language normally suffers
from the assumption that we know what we mean when we say 'language' or
'human language'. The conviction people have about monogenesis/polygenesis
seems strongly correlated with their conviction about the specificity of
linguistic behaviour.
In it's most general reading, 'language' is a kind of human behaviour with
some language-specific aspects and some general behavioural aspects. One
would want to decide the monogenesis vs. polygenesis debate on the ground
of the origin of the language-specific aspects of humanity (whether
biological or anthropological): were they invented once or more than once?
But as it is still rather unclear where to place the dividing line between
language-specific aspects of human behaviour from language-inspecific
aspects that question is premature.
People who believe in monogenesis would normally stress the fact that there
isn't much in linguistic behaviour that we do not find elsewhere in the
human behaviour. They define 'language' so broadly that the question is not
*whether* there has been monogenesis, but rather *which aspects* of this
broadly defined cluster of behavioural traits called language arose before
the splitting of humanity. This seems to be what Scott DeLancey's is
arguing for:
> I assume that all languages are related at some level.  The issue
> facing any comparativist working on a relationship that is not yet
> established is, are these languages demonstrably related at the
> level that I am working at.
People who believe in (the possibility of) polygenesis normally stress the
fact that there should be some specific universal characteristic of
'language'. The question then remains open when this specific
characteristic arose; it could be monogenetic, but it could also be
polygenetic. This seems to be the possition of Richard Janda. His scenario
needs a strict distinction between the biological preconditions for
language (which are necessary monogenetic) and anthropological use of those
preconditions, which could be imagined to be polygenesic, convergently
leading to one sort of language. The problem of this position always is to
explicate the defining characteristic of 'language' where to decide the
question on.
Michael Cysouw
University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands

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