UConn Researcher Receives NEH Fellowship for Book on Origins of Language

Portrait of Dorit Bar-On
(Christie Wang/UConn Photo)

University of Connecticut professor of philosophy, Dorit Bar-On recently received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to work on a book about the origins of language.

From the late 19th century until the end of the 20th century, there was in effect a moratorium on theorizing about and studying the origins of language. Within the past 30 years however, there has been a resurgence of interest by linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and biologists on this topic.

Philosophers have the role of stepping back from what the sciences tell us and considering it from a sort of conceptual bird’s-eye-view. — Dorit Bar-On

One of the biggest questions they are investigating is how human language could have emerged from animal communication systems. While many non-human animal communication systems are much more complex than we once imagined, they are still a far cry from our definition of human language.

Scientists are looking to understand what separates human language from other animal communication systems and what could explain its evolution. Bar-On’s book will offer a philosophical perspective on current empirical research into the origin of language.

In her book, Bar-On argues in favor of the idea of “protolanguage,” a hypothesized intermediate stage in the emergence of human language from non-human animal communication.

“If we’re going to understand how human language emerged from animal communication systems, we have to theorize a stage that is more sophisticated, in very specific ways, than animal communication as we know it now, but is also not yet language proper,” Bar-On says.

Bar-On considers non-linguistic forms of expressive communication such as body language, facial expressions, vocalizations, and gestures to be important precursors to protolanguage.

“When you look at these behaviors in animals and human infants and analyze the properties they have, you find that they could, with the right selection pressures, evolve into protolanguage,” Bar-On says. “I think we’ll stand to make a lot of progress if we can get as far as understanding protolanguage.”

Currently, there is a divide within the research community studying the evolution of language, with some researchers underestimating important continuities between human language and other animals’ communication systems, and others underplaying key discontinuities between them, essentially placing human and other animal “languages” on the same level, Bar-On says.

But, Bar-On says, “I’d like to think that we are increasingly moving toward a more sensible, nuanced understanding of both the continuities and discontinuities between human language and animal communication.”

Bar-On’s book will urge scientists to work toward a middle ground concerning the similarities and differences between human and non-human communication. Philosophers can help scientists integrate insights from different domains about the phenomena they study, says Bar-On.

“Philosophers have the role of stepping back from what the sciences tell us and considering it from a sort of conceptual bird’s-eye-view,” Bar-On says. “The question of the origin of language is still a philosophical puzzle at this stage. So philosophers may be able to help get a clearer perspective on both the question and the possible answers.”

Bar-On’s book will aim to provide a philosophical framework within which scientists can articulate the questions surrounding the evolution of language and evaluate different answers.

Bar-On’s research has had a heavy interdisciplinary emphasis. She established the Expression, Communication and the Origins of Meaning (ECOM) research group at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2010 and has brought it to UConn in 2014. This interdisciplinary group of researchers and scholars work on various ECOM-related projects.

“One goal of the book is to reach a broad audience from different disciplines who show interest in the origins of language and to create a framework for raising and addressing these questions,” Bar-On says.

Bar-On’s book will be published by Oxford University Press in 2021.

Bar-On holds a master’s and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles. She received her bachelor’s degree at Tel Aviv University. Her research focuses on philosophy of language and mind, epistemology and metaethics.

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