Cognitive fire: Language as a cultural tool

Document Type

Conference Presentation



Conference Title

Annual Meeting of the Association for Behavior Analysis


Association for Behavior Analysis


San Antonio, TX

Conference Dates

May 28-June 1, 2010

Date of Presentation



This talk makes the case that language is not innate, that there is no language instinct, and that talk of universal grammar or a language organ doesn't match up well with the evidence from evolution, language development, or data from the world's languages. The points of this talk will be illustrated by means of personal experiences of mine and others in Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere. I survey research by psychologists, computer scientists, primatologists, anthropologists, linguists, philosophers and others to make the case that language is an elaborate tool for our brains, the basis for other tools like math and music. Probably language was invented just once in human history, but evolves in all societies such that the form of language (grammar) comes to match the needs of its containing culture. Language was originally developed by someone like the guy on the GEICO commercials. That is, language most likely derives from the brains and efforts of normal hominins, rather than resulting from a sudden evolutionary saltation. Or to aphorize, it comes from cavemen, not X-men.

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