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date: 26 March 2017

Pragmatics and Language Evolution

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

Pragmatics is the branch of linguistics that deals with language use in context. It looks at the meaning linguistic utterances can have beyond their literal meaning (implicature), and also at presupposition and turn-taking in conversation. Thus, pragmatics lies on the interface between language and social cognition.

From the point of view of both speaker and listener, doing pragmatics requires reasoning about the minds of others. For instance, a speaker has to think about what knowledge they share with the listener in order to choose what information to explicitly encode in their utterance and what to leave implicit. A listener has to make inferences about what the speaker meant based on the context, their knowledge about the speaker, and their knowledge of general conventions in language use. This ability to reason about the minds of others (usually referred to as “mindreading” or “theory of mind”) is a cognitive capacity that is uniquely developed in humans compared to other animals.

What we know about how pragmatics (and the underlying ability to make inferences about other's minds) has evolved. Biological evolution and cultural evolution are the two main processes that can lead to the development of a complex behavior over generations, and we can explore to what extent they account for what we know about pragmatics.

In biological evolution, changes happen as a result of natural selection on genetically transmitted traits. In cultural evolution on the other hand, selection happens on skills that are transmitted through social learning. Many hypotheses have been put forward about the role that natural selection may have played in the evolution of social and communicative skills in humans (for example, as a result of changes in food sources, foraging strategy, or group size). The role of social learning and cumulative culture however has been often overlooked. This omission is particularly striking in the case of pragmatics, as language itself is a prime example of a culturally transmitted skill, and there is solid evidence that the pragmatic capacities that are so central to language use may themselves be partially shaped by social learning.

In light of empirical findings from comparative, developmental, and experimental research, we can consider the potential contributions of both biological and cultural evolutionary mechanisms to the evolution of pragmatics. The dynamics of types of evolutionary processes can also be explored using experiments and computational models.