Language evolution: syntax before phonology?

Katie Collier, Balthasar Bickel, Carel P. van Schaik, Marta B. Manser, Simon W. Townsend


Phonology and syntax represent two layers of sound combination central to language's expressive power. Comparative animal studies represent one approach to understand the origins of these combinatorial layers. Traditionally, phonology, where meaningless sounds form words, has been considered a simpler combination than syntax, and thus should be more common in animals. A linguistically informed review of animal call sequences demonstrates that phonology in animal vocal systems is rare, whereas syntax is more widespread. In the light of this and the absence of phonology in some languages, we hypothesize that syntax, present in all languages, evolved before phonology.

  • Received February 1, 2014.
  • Accepted May 29, 2014.
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