As a PhD Student in an interdisciplinary project I work on three partial studies altogether. Many constructions of the term ‘language’ do exist in current language evolution discourse. That pluralism might be explained by a missing intra- or cross-disciplinary common sense definition. It is the project’s underlying assumption that: What researchers understand by ‘language’ is determined by implicit non-epistemological values (e.g. norms) within the respective cross-cultural or cross-species disciplines.
The project’s aim is to identify and quantify at least three different non-epistemological norms: (i) the oral norm; (ii) the norm of directed progress (‘The Great Chain of Being’); (iii) the norm of social reputation. The project uses a mixed-methods-design. Qualitative, historical research provides the basis for subsequent quantitative text mining and citation network analysis. With this the project belongs to the field of ‘meta-research’. Results might help in developing a critical view on results of cross-species and cross-cultural research addressing the evolution of language.
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When writing about non-human and human animal’s ‘language’, scientists apply the same term to different concepts. Some ascribe ‘language’ to communication others to thinking (e.g. Evans and Marler 1995, 370 – 374 vs. Scott-Phillips 2015, 79 – 83).
The confusion is caused by implicit background assumptions to the entire concept. Some assumptions follow normative attitudes. Those will be denoted as ‘norms’. Norms signify what is ‘commonly done’ (i.e. descriptive norms), or they express what is ‘commonly approved’ (i.e. social norms). Norms may exist independently of behaviour or empirical evidence, but because of commonly shared values of a group.
By spelling out normative background assumptions one might be able to reveal the skeleton upon which the faculty of 'language' is constructed. Also, it may help to get clear about the very role of norms. On the one side they motivate research in opposed areas, thus responsible for detecting incompatible facts to competing approaches. On the other side they motivate a discussion about incompatible normative approaches by itself. However, as is planned to show, it is the discussion of incompatible facts, rather than that of normative approaches which will lead to progress in ‘language’ research.
Evans, Christopher S, and Peter Marler. 1995. “Language and Animal Communication: Parallels and Contrasts.” In Comparative Approaches to Cognitive Science, edited by Herbert L. Roitblat and Jean-Arcady Meyer, 341–82. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Scott-Phillips, Thomas C. 2015. Speaking Our Minds. Why Human Communication Is Different, and How Language Evolved to Make It Special. London, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.