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Language and Learning Group Seminar: Insights on The Evolutionary Origins of Language from Chimpanzees and Human Infants, Dr Edmund Donnellan

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Location: H5.45 Humanities

Speaker: Dr Edmund Donnellan

Abstract: Recent theories of language evolution posit that the human capacity for language emerged in the gestural domain. Proponents of this theory offer two supporting arguments: (1) that great ape gestures resemble aspects of human communication more closely than their vocalisations do; (2) that infants’ gestures are the fundamental intentionally communicative precursors to language. In this talk I present work that prompts re-evaluation of these arguments. Regarding (1), I present data from studies of chimpanzee pant-hooting that suggest that these vocalisations more closely resemble human communication than previously thought. From this, I argue that detailed comparative study of both vocalisations and gestures is necessary and present an example of this approach applied to chimpanzees. Regarding (2), I present our recent study that suggests that infants’ intentionally communicative prelinguistic vocalisations are the most important predictor of early spoken language (when compared to a comprehensive range of early communicative behaviours). Finally, I discuss to what extent this research should influence theories of how language has evolved.

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