Over a series of blogs we’ve been learning about the research of our members and others whose research is pertinent to the network’s ambitions. This month we hear from Antonio Benítez Burraco of the University of Seville.
Human self-domestication and the nature of prehistoric languages
The comparative method in linguistics has enabled to trace phylogenetic relationship among distant languages and reconstruct extinct languages from the past. Nonetheless, it has limitations and shortcomings, which result, in part, from some of its methodological assumptions (particularly, its heavy reliance on the lexicon), but mostly, from the real nature of language change, as languages do not only change by divergence from a common ancestor, but also as a result of (extensive) contact with non-related languages. At the same time, ongoing research suggests that language change depends not only of the internal dynamics of linguistic systems, but also of factors external to languages, particularly, aspects of human cognition and features of our physical and cultural environments.
Our fundamental hypothesis is that the limitations of historical linguistics can be partially alleviated by the consideration of the links between aspects of language structure and aspects of the biological underpinnings of human language, human cognition, and human behaviour. Specifically, we think that research on human self-domestication (that is, the existence in humans of features of domesticated mammals compared to wild extant primates), which seemingly entailed notable physical, cognitive, and behavioural changes in our species, can help illuminate facets of the languages spoken in remote Prehistory, the vast time period during which human beings have lived for longer. We expect that the languages spoken in that epoch exhibit most of the features of the so-called esoteric languages, which are used by present-day, close-knit, small human communities that share a great amount of knowledge about their environment.
Our (ongoing) project
Present-day populations exhibit a significant correlation between social and physical aspects of self-domestication. For instance, higher relative status of women compared to men has been found to correlate with reduced sexual dimorphism. We want to check whether all the features associated to human self- domestication parallel the esoteric-exoteric continuum of languages. Putting this roughly, because self-domestication results in enhanced sociability and because enhanced sociability results in exoteric languages, our prediction is that features of domestication will be attenuated in esoteric human groups and exacerbated in exoteric societies. For testing this possibility, we have planned to rely on the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample and the WALS. However, a good characterization of the languages found in these samples is still pending, particularly, regarding their morphology, that allows to classify them as esoteric or exoteric languages in an accurate way. You are very welcome to contribute to this project!