tems, which we call
Despite debate onthe precise nature of these systems, and about whether they are substantially shared with other vertebrates or uniquely adapted to the exigencies of language, we take asuncontroversial the existence of some bio-logical capacity of humans that allows us(and not, for example, chimpanzees) toreadily master any human language withoutexplicit instruction. FLB includes this ca-pacity, but excludes other organism-internal systems that are necessary but notsufficient for language (e.g., memory, res-piration, digestion, circulation, etc.).
Faculty of language
FLN is the abstract linguistic compu-tational system alone, independent of the oth-er systems with which it interacts and inter-faces. FLN is a component of FLB, and themechanisms underlying it are some subset of those underlying FLB.Others have agreed on the need for arestricted sense of
but have sug-gested different delineations. For example,Liberman and his associates (
) have argued that the sensory-motor systems were specifi-cally adapted for language, and hence should be considered part of FLN. There is also along tradition holding that the conceptual-intentional systems are an intrinsic part of language in a narrow sense. In this article, weleave these questions open, restricting atten-tion to FLN as just defined but leaving thepossibility of a more inclusive definitionopen to further empirical research.The internal architecture of FLN, so con-ceived, is a topic of much current researchand debate (
). Without prejudging the is-sues, we will, for concreteness, adopt a par-ticular conception of this architecture. Weassume, putting aside the precise mecha-nisms, that a key component of FLN is acomputational system (narrow syntax) thatgenerates internal representations and mapsthem into the sensory-motor interface by thephonological system, and into the conceptu-al-intentional interface by the (formal) se-mantic system; adopting alternatives thathave been proposed would not materiallymodify the ensuing discussion. All approach-es agree that a core property of FLN is recur-sion, attributed to narrow syntax in the con-ception just outlined. FLN takes a finite set of elements and yields a potentially infinite ar-ray of discrete expressions. This capacity of FLN yields discrete infinity (a property thatalso characterizes the natural numbers). Eachof these discrete expressions is then passed tothe sensory-motor and conceptual-intentionalsystems, which process and elaborate thisinformation in the use of language. Eachexpression is, in this sense, a pairing of sound and meaning. It has been recognized for thou-sands of years that language is, fundamental-ly, a system of sound-meaning connections;the potential infiniteness of this system hasbeen explicitly recognized by Galileo, Des-cartes, and the 17th-century
and their successors, notablyvon Humboldt. One goal of the study of FLNand, more broadly, FLB is to discover justhow the faculty of language satisfies thesebasic and essential conditions.The core property of discrete infinity isintuitively familiar to every language user.Sentences are built up of discrete units: Thereare 6-word sentences and 7-word sentences,but no 6.5-word sentences. There is no long-est sentence (any candidate sentence can betrumped by, for example, embedding it in
Mary thinks that . . .
), and there is no non-arbitrary upper bound to sentence length. Inthese respects, language is directly analogousto the natural numbers (see below).At a minimum, then, FLN includes the ca-pacity of recursion. There are many organism-internal factors, outside FLN or FLB, that im-pose practical limits on the usage of the system.For example, lung capacity imposes limits onthe length of actual spoken sentences, whereasworking memory imposes limits on the com-plexity of sentences if they are to be under-standable. Other limitations
for example, onconcept formation or motor output speed
represent aspects of FLB, which have their ownevolutionary histories and may have played arole in the evolution of the capacities of FLN.Nonetheless, one can profitably inquire into theevolution of FLN without animmediate concern for theselimiting aspects of FLB. Thisis made clear by the observa-tion that, although manyaspects of FLB are shared with other vertebrates, thecore recursive aspect of FLNcurrently appears to lack anyanalog in animal communi-cation and possibly other do-mains as well. This point,therefore, represents thedeepest challenge for a com-parative evolutionary ap-proach to language. We be-lieve that investigations of this capacity should includedomains other than commu-nication (e.g., number, socialrelationships, navigation).Given the distinctionsbetween FLB and FLN and the theoretical distinctionsraised above, we can definea research space as sketched in Fig. 3. This researchspace identifies, as viable,problems concerning theevolution of sensory-motor systems, of conceptual-in-tentional systems, and of FLN. The comparative ap-proach, to which we turnnext, provides a framework for addressing questionsabout each of these com-ponents of the faculty of language.
The ComparativeApproach to LanguageEvolution
The empirical study of theevolution of language is be-set with difficulties. Lin-guistic behavior does notfossilize, and a long tradi-
Investigations into the evolution of the faculty of languageare confronted with a three-dimensional research space thatincludes three comparative-evolutionary problems cross-cut bythe core components of the faculty of language. Thus, for eachproblem, researchers can investigate details of the sensory-motorsystem, the conceptual-intentional system, FLN, and the interfac-es among these systems.
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www.sciencemag.org SCIENCE VOL 298 22 NOVEMBER 2002