Linguistics 320
The Origin and Evolution of Human Language
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer
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Guest lectures by James R. Hurford


Our department was fortunate to be able to invite Prof. James Hurford of the University of Edinburgh to speak in the Linguistics department colloquium series. Prof. Hurford is an expert in many areas of Linguistics and in the last 10 years has become one of the foremost linguists working in the areas of the origins and evolution of human language.

Ling 320 benefited doubly from Prof. Hurford's visit. He offered the department an extra talk on the subject of the relation of human and animal cognition, and I jumped at the chance to have it in our class, since the topic was so apropos.

Due to Prof. Hurford's schedule, the lecture was on the first day of class, which was somewhat disadvantageous from an organizational standpoint, but in other ways was a very enlightening and useful way to begin the course. Many of the main questions and themes of the class were touched on and we will refer back to them.

Prof. Hurford graciously offered to let us post both his Powerpoints. The first one in particular will be extremely useful to refer to as we move through the topics in the first part of the course.

Talk in Ling 320, 1/8/08, on proto-human cognition

Proto-human cognition in non-human animals
James R Hurford
Dept. of Linguistics, Univ. of Edinburgh


I will sketchily review a range of evidence from the comparative psychology literature for animal characteristics that seem to prefigure aspects of human language in some way. Topics touched upon will include object permanence, metacognition, episodic memory, competence with abstract relations, transitive inference, subitizing, `frame-of-reference' systems, the where/what-dorsal/ventral separation, and global and local attention.


The following link is to a downloadable Powerpoint presentation of the Ling 320 guest lecture:
Proto-human cognition in non-human animals

Linguistics colloquium, 1/8/08, on a conceptual representation for animals

Jim's colloquium talk in the department was also about animal cognition, although from a more linguistic standpoint. In the talk he proposed a way of modifying the predicate logic system that many logicians and philosophers assume is the basic 'language of thought', so that it can usefully represent the kind of simple predicates that animals seem to be able to conceptualize.

It makes sense to think that in the course of human evolution, humans went through a stage in which they shared a simpler system (simpler than the full-blown semantic representation of modern humans, that is) with non-human animals. This proposal is not just arm-chair theorizing, but as Jim showed, actually conforms to what is known about animal neurological structure and function.

The colloquium talk corresponds to one section of the paper Hurford presented at Evolang 6, April 2006, in Rome. That paper is uploaded to our class's Owlspace site under Resources/Extra Readings. It can also be accessed as a downloadable .pdf at

Evolang 6 Program

by scrolling down to the Detailed Program for Saturday April 15 (2006), Session A7, and linking to the title "Proto-propositions" in James Hurford's talk slot on the schedule.

A parsimonious Begriffsschrift [concept notation] for animals
James R Hurford
Dept. of Linguistics, Univ. of Edinburgh


Much of our human thought is not in a fully explicit public language, with all its paraphernalia of phonological form and grammatical structure markers. Non-human animals are capable of some degree of structured thought, but obviously not in a human language. Human language was built upon, and in its turn modified, pre-existing structures in animal minds for the representation of the external world. What are such non-linguistic, but nevertheless semantic, representations like? This talk works from two ends of the problem: (1) desiderata for representing the most basic meanings expressible in human languages; and (2) what we know about human and non-human neural processes.

A simple 'box' notation is proposed for representing predicate-argument structure in such a way that it eliminates many of the separate traditional categories of conventional predicate logic and linguistic semantics. The most fundamental moves are the reduction of both individual constants and role markers (e.g. AGENT, PATIENT) to predicates, and a reduction of all predicates to one-place. Such moves have precedents in the semantic literature, but have never been combined in a single approach. The implicit psychological claims are justified by two main classes of psychological findings, relating to the distinction between global and local attention, and internal 'frame-of-reference' systems.


Here is a link is to the downloadable Powerpoint file of the colloquium talk:

A parsimonious Begriffschrift (concept notation) for animals