ADVANTAGES

The idea of cumulative niche construction has obvious application to the case of language. If parents shape the linguistic environment of their offspring, and if we all shape the linguistic environments of our conspecifics (merely by talking to them!) then the possibility ofa ‘linguistic ratchet effect’ is clearly open. Small changes made to the language of the group by one generation — changes which perhaps make it easier to learn, or easier to understand or produce — will be transmitted to later generations, who may in turn make further changes geared to increasing language learnability and ease of use. This scenario raises the possibility, already mentioned at the end of the last section, that language may have evolved so as to be learnable and usable by us, in addition to the converse scenario (stressed in much work on the evolution of language) that we had to change in many and complex ways in order to learn and use a language. Thus, we might speculate, languages' phonetic systems evolved so as to be congenial to our animal ears; their expressive resources (in particular, their vocabularies) evolved so as to fit our communicative needs; and perhaps, as Clark 1997 has suggested and as Tomasello 2003 implicitly takes for granted, natural language syntaxevolved so as to suit our pre-existing cognitive and processing capacities. To be sure, the languages we have coded in our heads lookcomplex and weird to linguists and psychologists and philosophers whoare trying to put together theories about them. But, if languages andhuman minds have evolved in tandem, as surely they have, then languages may not look weird at all from the point of view of the brains that implement and use them.

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