Theorizing Language Evolution Using Nct and Conlangs: an Etiological Study

Authors: Menon Swathi Sivakumar (Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, NIT Trichy)
Dr. Vinod Balakrishnan (Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, NIT Trichy)
Speakers: Dr. Vinod Balakrishnan, Menon Swathi Sivakumar
Topic: Anthropological Linguistics
The CALA 2021 General Session


Even in the posthuman scenario, our understanding of language is elusive. Taking into account a rapidly evolving digital environment in which constructed languages (conlangs) have been coetaneous with the internet, the paper proposes that conlangs and the theory of Niche Construction (NC) may be deployed to hypothesise the phenomenon of natural language.

Four decades of cognitive studies have displaced the previously accepted assumption that the mind is a separate thought entity.  Notably, the interventions of S. Pinker, A. Clarke, and J.A. Feldman have been effective counter positions to radical Chomsky’s.

The authors posit that the constructivist propensity in the examination of human languages has been neglected so far, and adopt Odling-Smee and Laland’s Niche Construction Theory (NCT) to address the perceived gap. It also studies conlangs instead of natural languages (natlangs) in order to understand natlangs better. Towards this end, studies in evolution, cognitive linguistics and neurolinguistics are consulted.

The choice of conlangs is justified thus:

  1. their origins are well-known
  2. the purpose of the conlanger (creator of the conlang) is identifiable.
  3. it becomes an object of study with tangible proofs of manipulation.
  4. it can be a prototype to further our understanding of natlangs.

Because the evolutionary significance of human oriented NC encompasses cultural, cognitive and neural enhancement as the result of human modified environments, the digital environment of conlang evolution is laid parallel to the ecological environment of biological evolution. In the process, the paper revisits prominent theories like Chomsky’s Minimalist Program which led to the 2002 proposal by Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch about the Recursion Mechanism as the missing link in the language evolution inquiry.

Furthermore, Michael Tomasello’s contribution and W.T Fitch’s hypotheses using phylogeny are employed along with NCT. Tomasello’s concepts of joint intentionality and cooperation can help complement Steven Pinker’s analysis of a language gene. Examining his separation between social and societal, one could establish that languages are indeed ‘cultural artifacts’.

It may be noted that neurolinguistic studies of Roman Jakobson and the empirical testing methods of Alexander Luria, have contributed to understanding language disabilities and specific language impairments, but have not confronted the process of language construction in the brain.

Focusing on the attempt to create a conlang can provide insight into the language creation process which promises an alternative to the Recursion Mechanism as the missing link in language evolution.

Keywords: Conlangs, natlangs, niche theory, cognitive linguistics, neurolinguistics, language evolution