Department of Psychology
The Origins of Language: Evidence from Nicaraguan Sign Language and Homesign
All human societies have languages capable of expressing the richness of human thought. To what extent is this achievement an historical accomplishment, similar to mathematics or science, and to what extent does it rely on our evolved cognitive capacities? I study these questions by looking at language creation in different communities, including Nicaraguan Sign Language (a language only 50 years old) and homesign systems. I will present results on how a new language comes to have recursion and devices for marking event participants. In these cases, I find evidence for rapid emergence of linguistic structure within a few generations. One possible explanation for these findings is that features that emerge early are those that reflect underlying shared semantic structures that are universal (or nearly) in languages. In contrast, the features that emerge later (e.g., grammatical morphology) may be those that vary across languages and require convergence and iterated learning. In the second part of my talk, I will discuss a different line of my research program looking at linguistic prediction in American Sign Language.