A few weeks back, James posted a paper about the “Linguistic Big Bang”. Now here’s a paper about protolanguage and the linguistic “God Particle”. I’m happy to see that physics envy in the linguistic community is far from dead!
Most scholars investigating the evolution of language subscribe to the hypothesis that protolanguage occurred as an intermediate stage between the speechless state of our remote ancestors and modern language. But some scholars – Noam Chomsky and fellow biolinguists, Bernd Heine and Tania Kuteva, and others – have expressed serious doubts about the existence of protolanguage. The present article investigates the cause of this disagreement and what it reveals about the nature of influential modern work on language evolution. It does this by analysing the case made by Derek Bickerton for the existence of protolanguage, as well as Noam Chomsky’s case against the existence of protolanguage. Both cases are shown to be weak, resting on a range of implicit and/or contentious assumptions. Invoking a conceptual distinction illustrated by physicists’ hunt for the “God particle”, the article argues that the case for the existence of protolanguage has not been strengthened by recent work attributing specific properties to protolanguage. To conclude, the article discusses the conceptual means needed for shoring up the assumption that evidence for the existence of protolanguage can be derived from so-called living linguistic fossils.