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Gökhan Doğru 15.01.

Philosophy, Bogazici University
Master Student

Review of The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It
Evolve? by M. Hauser, N. Chomsky W. T. Fitch1 2

1. Introduction

There are two big questions that should be answered in order to be able to study

evolution of language, as are uttered by Piattelli-Palmarini and Uriagereka (2005): What is

language such that it may have evolved? and, What is evolution such that it may have applied

to language? (conveyed from Boeckx, 2011)3. Any struggle to understand how human

language has evolved needs first to have a solid perspective (theory) about what is language

and how it works. Only after such a clarification, theories of evolution of human language can

be put forward and tested sufficiently. The reason for scarcity of studies on evolution of

language after 1950s Chomskyian cognitive revolution is said to be the lack of linguistic

theory with explanatory adequacy4. Especially Chomsky has refrained from focusing on

evolution of language for a long time. However, following the great leaps in linguistics

(Principles&Parameters framework, Minimalist Program), linguistics has reached to a

relatively satisfactory explanatory adequacy (at least to a level usable in evolution of

language). This advance has enabled opportunity to study evolution of language in view of

modern linguistic theory. Bearing in mind these progresses and opportunities, Noam

Chomsky, Mark Hauser and W. T. Fitch wrote an article together in 2002 to prepare a

Hauser, M. D., Chomsky, N., & Fitch, W. T. (2002). The faculty of language:
What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science, 298, 1569-1579.
I submitted this paper as a term paper in my Philosophical Aspects of Evolution of Language course. I will be
happy to receive comments/criticisms about it to see its academic value. My email is:
Boeckx, C. In press c. Some reflections on Darwin's Problem in the context of Cartesian Biolinguistics. In The
biolinguistic enterprise: New perspectives on the evolution and nature of the human language faculty, ed. A.-M.
Di Sciullo and C. Boeckx. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Noam Chomsky suggests three levels of success for linguistic theory: observational adequacy, descriptive
adequacy and explanatory adequacy. The third one is seemingly the last frontier; but one of the aims is to go
beyond it. In Chomsky, Noam. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. Mouton&Co. 1970.
framework for the study of language evolution. This seminal article has been one of the most

important papers guiding works in this field. In my paper, I am going to try to explain the

methodology and main arguments of this article and criticize them, when possible.

In their article, Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002) firstly define language in terms of

its main components and try to sketch out a research program for studying evolution of

language based on this definition; then, they give their own hypothesis about evolution of

language. Most importantly, they call for collaboration among “linguists, biologists,

psychologists, and anthropologists.”5 (HCF, 2002, p.1570) There have been increasing

number of studies trying to approximate biology and linguistics, and start interdisciplinary

cooperation to understand language and its evolution from a biological perspective; these

studies have been collected under the name of biolinguistics. I think a short description of

biolinguistics may be helpful to understand the context of HCF article. Biolinguistics is an

exciting research area regarding language as a biological organ of the human brain (mind). It

gained impetus after the publication of HFC article and subsequent discussions of it. The two

editors of Biolinguistic Enterprise (2011), Boeckx and Di Sciullo, define biolinguistics in the

general preface of the book like this: “[It] is an important new interdisciplinary field that sets

out to explore the basic proper ties of human language and to investigate how it matures in the

individual, how it is put to use in thought and communication, what brain circuits implement

it, what combination of genes supports it, and how it emerged in our species.” Since

biolinguistic perspective brings many different disciplines together, it is highly possible that

any scholar from these disciplines may understand and use same concepts with varying and

incommensurable meanings which may cause big problems and unproductive conflicts. Such

a collaboration needs a clear common ground. In this context, HCF say that their aim in this

paper is “to further this goal [of interdisciplinary collaboration] by, first, helping to clarify the

I believe philosophers (of language, mind) should also contribute to this collaboration.
biolinguistic perspective on language and its evolution.” (p. 1570). They begin this

clarification by the nature of language. Firstly, they argue that a distinction shall be made

“between questions concerning language as a communicative system and questions

concerning the computations underlying this system, such as those underlying recursion.” (p.

1569) All animals have communication systems in varying quantity and quality of

expressivity. But human language has some distinctive traits which these systems lack. It is

open-ended, hierarchical, generative, stimulus-independent and recursive. According to HCF,

these properties may not have evolved solely for allowing communication and it is possible

that usefulness for communication may be a byproducts of their evolution. Therefore,

language shall be dealt with as an individualistic object, namely as an internal component of

the brain/mind, not as a communication means between more than one individual. This is the

distinction between External Language (E-Language) and Internal Language (I-Language).

HCF, then, divide I-language into two main parts: Faculty of Language in the Broad Sense

(FLB) and Faculty of Language in the Narrow Sense (FLN). Yet, in this distinction FLN is a

subcomponent of FLB, and possible subcomponent(s) of FLN are also subcomponents of


2. Faculty of Language: In Broad Sense and Narrow Sense

FLB has three components. FLB call them sensory motor system, conceptual-

intentional system and FLN, an internal computational system. Here, there try to include all

necessary components of faculty of language but at the same time they exclude other aspects

of human body which have indirect relation to language like memory, respiration etc.

Sensory-motor system includes general processes of perception and vocal production while

conceptual-intentional system includes conceptualization, theory of mind, signal learning.

And as uttered above, FLN is a subset of FLB and “a key component of FLN is a

computational system (narrow syntax) that generates internal representations and maps them
into the sensory-motor interface by the phonological system, and into the conceptual-

intentional interface by the (formal) semantic system.” (p. 1570) As far as I understand, HCF

believe that human language is produced in the mind like that (In the last part of the paper I

will try to relate this computational process to minimalist program). And this view of

language faculty guides their evolution of language perspective. Before explaining their

comparative method of studying evolution of language, I would like to summarize three main

theoretical dichotomy used in debates of evolution of language. As HCF say, scientists defend

radical or moderate positions about these issues. These are i). shared vs. unique, ii). gradual

vs. saltational and iii). continuity vs. exaptation.

i). shared vs. unique

This distinction is used when comparing animals and human beings in terms of their

“language faculty (communication system)”. Since it is not easy to trace the evolution of

language in human beings by looking at fossils, HFC focuses on comparative analysis.

Namely their method concentrates on living animals. It presupposes that human beings share

many traits with animals since they have a common ancestor and that in the process of

evolution, human beings happen to have a special capacity of language. This suggests that

there may be something new in human brains/minds which is unique to them and not shared

by other animals because as far as it seems, no animal communication system have such

properties as stimulus-independent rich expressivity and recursion. However, many properties

of FLB is shared with other animals, in fact, not only with great apes but also with other

animals like birds, whales, seals etc. Their focus on other animals is a fairly new approach in

the field of evolution of language. Prior studies were only concerned with great apes.

Returning back to the discussion of uniqueness, it is really hard to name a trait unique. It

requires great empirical work. “[I]f the language evolution researcher wishes to make the

claim that a trait evolved uniquely in humans for the function of language processing, data
indicating that no other animal has this particular trait are required.” (p. 1572) HCF criticizes

the ones who proclaim a trait as “unique” immediately without sufficient empirical data. But

in the part of the article, they will hypothesize that “Only FLN is uniquely human.” (p. 1573),

which seems a bit contradictory. But his hypothesis does not necessarily mean that the

component of FLN, recursion, necessarily evolved for the faculty of language. It may be

unique to human beings, but not unique to language. One of their implicit claim is that

recursion may have been only a function of “spatial or numerical reasoning, Machiavellian

social scheming, tool making” (p. 1570) and then somehow it proved to be useful as a

communication tool “guided by particular selective pressures, unique to our evolutionary past,

or as a consequence (by-product) of other kinds of neural reorganization.” (p. 1578) Of

course, this last claim is a speculation; but they believe that it is open to be tested by

comparative works.

ii). gradual vs. saltational

A trait gradually evolves and happens to be a qualitatively different trait or this

evolution happens in evolutionarily short time (even suddenly). This discussion is one of the

most central discussion of evolutionary biology; therefore, it is also conveyed to the

discussions of evolution of language. Has language evolved gradually or saltational? Looking

from the multi-component perspective will help us make clearer arguments. It is possible that

some components (sensory-motor and conceptual-intentional) of FLB evolved gradually, on

the other hand, recursion seems to be the result of a saltational evolution since it enables

discrete infinity, namely forming infinite expressions from finite means. A system can be

finite or infinite; there is no half-infinite or an evolutionarily interphase. Thinking that

recursion is in the heart of language faculty, this saltation to infinity seems very important.

iii) continuity vs. exaptation

This third distinction and the second distinction seem like similar to me (or a bit

unclear). As far as I understand, here, what is important is not the speed of evolution of a trait

but the continuity of it. Language may have evolved from “gradual extension of preexisting

communication systems,” or it may have “exapted away from previous adaptive function” (p.

1570) according to this view. In either cases, it seems to me, new traits are the result of the

change of prior traits. This change is either minor with a result of similar trait in the end; or

major with a result of radically different trait. HCF states that the empirical challenge is “to

determine what was inherited from [our] common ancestor [with nonhuman animals], what

has been subjected to minor modifications, and what (if anything) is qualitatively new.” (p.

1570) For me, this has been the clearest explication of HCF’s comparative analysis agenda

because it does not necessarily state that evolution of language is a totally new adaptation (or

maybe, exaptation). In other words, it implies that language is not a totally special/unearthly

capacity compared to other animal systems. It is possible to trace common properties with

animals. The hardest thing to do is to find what is really qualitatively new that makes human

language faculty so different.

The main claim of HCF, as repeated several time, is that although sensory-motor and

conceptual-intentional systems of FLB are shared with other animals, FLN (recursion) is

unique to human. There are some scientists like Liberman who places sensory-motor into

FLN with the claim that this system is specially evolved for human beings. Some others place

conceptual-intentional system in FLN, yet HCF prefers to exclude them from FLN, leaving

only recursion in it. They also leave the door open to the idea that FLN may be empty and all

faculty of language is shared with other animals systems with varying degrees, however all

components of FLB have been evolutionarily remodelled/rewired in human beings in such a

way that faculty of language, as it is now, happens to be. All these hypotheses need. the

guidance of empirical studies. HCF test two common hypotheses about evolution of language
and thirdly suggest their own hypothesis. The main concern here is to show how productive

hypothesis testing can be done in the field other than telling just-so stories which cannot be

falsified in scientific methods.

3. Three Hypotheses about the Evolution of Language

After defining language and explaining the comparative method, HCF discusses two

hypotheses which are common in evolutionary linguistics, then they suggest and defend their

own hypothesis. It seems to me that HCF mainly provide counterarguments against

adaptationist programme (initiated by Pinker&Bloom, 1990) and its assumptions. I will

briefly explain the first two hypotheses and then give their discussion under the third


Hypothesis 1: FLB is strictly homologous to animal communication. (p. 1572)

According to this hypothesis homologs of the components of FLB exists in nonhuman

animals. This hypothesis is based on the assumption that human language is for

communication. Therefore it tries to find parallels between human language and animal


Hypothesis 2: FLB is a derived, uniquely human adaptation for language. (p. 1572)

This hypothesis views FLB as a unique adaptation for language. Again, in this

hypothesis the emphasis is on communication. HCF claims that scholars like S. Pinker and R.

Jackendoff are of this view. These scholars views language as a very complex system which

can only evolve by means of natural selection since according to the argument from design,

only natural selection can generate such complex adaptive system. In Pinker&Bloom6’s

Pinker, S. and Bloom, P., “Natural Language and Natural Selection”, Behav. Brain Science, 13, 1990.
perspective, some traits of FLB are selected and perfected to provide adaptive advantages in

communication. These two hypotheses are challenged in the third hypothesis.

Hypothesis 3: Only FLN is uniquely human. (p. 1573)

This view holds that most components of FLB are shared with other animals and they

have a long evolutionary history before the rise of language. On the other hand, FLN is a

fairly new capacity that changed the course of language. There is an emphasis made by HCF

which is very important: “According to this hypothesis, much of the complexity manifested in

language derives from complexity in the peripheral components of FLB, especially those

underlying the sensory-motor (speech or sign) and conceptual-intentional interfaces,

combined with sociocultural and communicative contingencies.” (P. 1573) Therefore,

complexity is not intrinsic to FLN. For HCF, FLN should/may be quite restricted and simple 7:

“core computational mechanisms of recursion as they appear in narrow syntax and the

mappings to the interfaces.” (p. 1573) Then HCF argue against the idea that FLN may be an

adaptation. They think that there is little reason to suppose that FLN has independent but

interacting subcomponents which have their own evolutionary history and selected by natural

selection. But as far as I see, they provide little support for this argument. Instead they claim

that certain aspects of the faculty of language may be ‘spandrels’. This means that these

aspects may be “byproducts of preexisting constraints rather than end products of a history of

natural selection” (p. 1574). To the common sense, such a view seems a bit surprising since

language seems like an efficient system with a sophisticated design. The article does not

contain sufficient data to support this claim. But it is fairly interesting. It can refute the claim
This simplicity is manifested in Noam Chomsky’s Biolinguistic Explorations: Design, Development, Evolution
article with the operation of Merge within the framework of Minimalist Programme.
that language is shaped by natural selection for communication. It is clear that hypothesis 3

does not view language only as a communication system. The underlying assumption is that

faculty of language is first a cognitive faculty and then a capacity for communication. As far

as I understand, the emphasis of the article is on the FLN and it is what makes human faculty

of language so special. Therefore, explaining its evolution is the core of evolution of

language. Yet without a better description and explication of FLN, these struggles to explain

its evolution may be staggered. I think that a better explication from theoretical linguistics

will help enhance its current understanding and its evolution. Thinking hypothetically, it may

be the case that FLN is not unique to human. It is sometimes claimed that some animals also

have recursion. But I am not familiar with such study. In this case, the comparison between

human faculty of language and an animal having recursion might focus on interface mappings

or ‘wirings’ among sensory-motor, conceptual-intentional systems and FLN since all

components are shared. By this, necessary and sufficient conditions may be determined.

In the last part before conclusion, HCF reviews some studies of evolution of language

which are relevant to the hypotheses offered. These comparative studies are generally

conducted on animals. HCF categorize them according to FLB: the ones about sensory-motor

systems, the ones about conceptual-intentional systems and the ones about FLN. These

studies generally demonstrate how FLB components are shared with different animals and

how discrete infinity is unique to human beings.

4. Comparative Studies on Evolution of Language

i). Comparative studies on sensory-motor systems

HCF begin with a comparative study of sensory-motor system and ask the question of

“How special is speech?” They say that the traditional answer to this question is that speech is

really special to human. Many scholars believe that speech is uniquely human and is adopted
for speech production and speech perception. But HCF show data that it is shared with

animals. “For perception, for example, many species show impressive ability to discriminate

between and generalize over human sounds.” (p. 1574) And for production, they say, birds

and non-human primate naturally produce and perceive components of their species-specific

vocalizations. They use this idea to refute a popular idea in evolution of language: Descended

larynx of human beings is believed to be an adaptation for language. They say that new

evidence shows several mammalian species also have a descended larynx. Since they lack

speech, then larynx may have nonphonetic function. (p. 1574) They conclude that although

not all phenomena of human speech perception have been studied, they say, current data

suggest that there is a continuity between animals and humans. This hypothesis shall be

refuted with comparative work in order to say that human speech is unique. Until that point, it

is valid. Another important capacity for speech is vocal imitation according to HCF. They

claim that it is really necessary to acquire a shared and arbitrary lexicon. (p. 1574) Although

the vocal imitation and learning are not uniquely human, the fact that apes are very bad at

vocal imitation show that this aspect is necessary for FLB.

ii). Comparative studies on conceptual-intentional systems

This part is mainly concerned with comparative studies on conceptual-intentional

systems. They show data that many mammals and birds have conceptual representations. Yet,

their problem is that they cannot express it by vocal communication. I think this is an

evidence of the multicomponent view of Fitch8 and here of HCF, that although human beings

share many components of FLB with animals, only human beings may have the right

necessary and sufficient condition for the faculty of language.

Fitch, W.T., The Evolution of Language, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Other empirical studies show that animals acquire and use a wide range of abstract

concepts like tool, color, geometric relationships, food and number. Some scholars claim that

animals have a theory of mind. Here, theory of mind means “a sense of self and the ability to

represent the beliefs and desires of other group members.” (p. 1575) HCF are attentive about

this fact. But they say at least chimpanzees, but not other nonhuman animals have a basic

theory of mind. Even this case is undermined by some studies. So, there is not sufficient data

about it and the reliability of the available data is questioned.

HCF suggest the best evidence of referential communication in animals not comes from

chimpanzees but from birds and monkey types (there is no evidence suggesting that these

animals have a theory of mind). But there are many studies on them and HCF derives five

basic points from them9 (p. 1576):

1. Individual animals produce acoustically distinctive calls in response to functionally

important contexts like detection of predators and discovery of food.

2. Listeners can respond to this signals (although arbitrary)

3. Repertoire is small, restricted to objects and events. (stimulus-dependent)

4. Acoustic morphology is fixed. Generally learnt in development phase.

5. There is no evidence that it is intentional or whether it is done for benefits of other

group members.

ii). Comparative studies on FLN

HCF concentrate on the generative power of language in this part. This title here is

“discrete infinity and constraints on learning. A normal human being can produce and

understand limitless number of sentences without hearing and memorizing them first.

I summarized 2,3,4 and 5. points.
According to Chomskyian grammar, a child is generally exposed to little data but he/she can

understand most of the sentences with different structures he hears. Therefore, he/she may

not simply acquire this ability from external data sources. He must have an “innate

disposition” which Chomsky calls “Universal Grammar”. Yet, HCF says that there is still

controversy on how a child learns. Again in this point they resort to studies made on animals.

These studies show or provide further evidence for the idea that animals lack capacity to

create open-ended generative systems. When you teach a child, numbers from 1 to 9, he will

most probably understand the sequence without hardship and a while will understand how the

system works, but a chimpanzee will learn each number with the same difficulty.

HCF finally concentrate on rule-learning in human and animals and, again, based on

studies, conclude that animals are not as successful as humans in terms of rule-learning.

They conclude the article by making three points. Firstly, HCF calls for collaborative

studies which, they predict, will go beyond theoretical discussions and lead to productive

empirical studies. Secondly, they claim that their hypothesis is a tentative and testable

hypothesis. Thirdly, they believe that comparative approach will lead to new hypotheses. I

assume that the first point presupposes that theoretical discussions should carry on but be

accompanied by empirical studies. But it seems to me that without theoretical positions

distilled from theoretical studies, empirical studies may be meaningless or aimless.

5. Discussion

The two questions asked in the first part of the paper are still waiting to be answered.

Producing solid scientific hypotheses to the first question was nearly impossible before 50

years since there were no linguist theory that can relate biological evolution to language. That

was because language used to be seen as a social phenomenon not as an object of human

biology. In fact, even after Chomskyian revolution in linguistics, the rules and mechanisms
producing language were so complex and varied that Chomsky deliberately did not write

about evolution of language since he thinks these rules and mechanisms are not applicable to

evolution studies. However, after the advent of the minimalist program10 in 1995, questions

about evolution of language became askable since this programme offers reducing the number

of principles into minimum numbers. And as Neske11 claims, this program is a candidate to be

a bridge between biology and linguistics, which has been the struggle of linguistics.

According to the minimalist programme, there is only one operation that makes language

recursively generative: Merge. It is “an operation that takes objects already constructed, and

reconstructs a new object from them, generating a ‘language of thought’.”12 In the current

thinking, Merge may be the essence of FLN. Evolution of this simple Merge may be the

distinctive and unique property of language that makes it so special. Now, new questions can

be asked. How does Merge evolved? What were the constraints underlying it? Is it unique or


Consequently, I think that minimalist programme has opened up the way to study

language evolution after 1995. And this HCF (2002) paper has brought dynamism and shape

to this study. I agree that the understanding of language and its evolution require collaborative

study among many disciplines. I believe that philosophy with its related branches should also

be part of this struggle.

Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press
Neske, Garrett, The Minimalist Program: A Bridge Principle in Biolinguistics.
Chomsky, Noam. Biolinguistic Explorations: Design, Development. International Journal of Philosophical
Studies Vol. 15(1), 1–21. 2007

Bayırlı, İsa Kerem. Dilin Evrimi. Cogito. N. 60-61, 2009. p. 309-331

Boeckx, C. In press c. Some reflections on Darwin's Problem in the context of Cartesian
Biolinguistics. In The biolinguistic enterprise: New perspectives on the evolution and nature
of the human language faculty, ed. A.-M. Di Sciullo and C. Boeckx. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press
Chomsky, Noam. Biolinguistic Explorations: Design, Development. International Journal of
Philosophical Studies Vol. 15(1), 1–21. 2007
Chomsky, Noam. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. Mouton&Co. 1970.
Fitch, W.T., The Evolution of Language, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Hauser, M. D., Chomsky, N., & Fitch, W. T. (2002). The faculty of language:
What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science, 298, 1569-1579.
Neske, Garrett, The Minimalist Program: A Bridge Principle in Biolinguistics.
Pinker, S. and Bloom, P., “Natural Language and Natural Selection”, Behav. Brain Science,
13, 1990.