Objects, situations and the syntactic revolution in early humans

time and place

27 July 2001, Corwin East Hall, University of California at Santa Barbara


7th International Cognitive Linguistics Conference, July 22-27, 2001


Frederik Kortlandt Spinoza Project, Leiden University.


Language in modern humans can be described in terms of speech sounds abstracted as linguistic forms and real-world referents abstracted as meanings. The sense of direction implied in both types of abstraction has often been questioned. Carl Ebeling (1978: 22) proposes a reversal of the convential order, describing referents as realizations of linguistic meaning and utterances as instantiations of linguistic form; similar arguments are pursued by George W. Grace (1987). This opens up a view of language as an organism in the Darwinian sense.

The memetic dimensions of human language are explored by Frederik Kortlandt (1985) and George van Driem (2000; forthcoming 2001). The reconstruction of early human semantics has been taken up by Charles N. Li (forthcoming 2001) and Jeroen Wiedenhof (1996). In particular, it has been claimed that "[t]he naming of a concrete object is the simplest and cognitively least-demanding symbolization. Naming an activity, event or experience appears to be cognitively more complex because of the intrinsic nature of activity, event or experience." (Li forthcoming 2001, chapter 6). Modern languages seem to support this view, because entities tend to require less complex semantics than activities, events and experiences.

In this paper, a different scenario is argued on evolutionary grounds. The proposal reconstructs a proto-syntactic stage which accommodated entities as mental abstractions derived from situations. The paper explores the implications of this reconstruction for the origins of temporal consciousness and modern syntax.


last modified: 1 July 2001

evolutionary linguistics