Construction grammar for monkeys?

Evolutionary Linguistic Theory 2 (2):153-194 (2020)
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Abstract

In recent years, multiple researchers working on the evolution of language have put forward the idea that the theoretical framework of usage-based approaches and Construction Grammar is highly suitable for modelling the emergence of human language from pre-linguistic or proto-linguistic communication systems. This also raises the question of whether usage-based and constructionist approaches can be integrated with the analysis of animal communication systems. In this paper, we review possible avenues where usage-based, constructionist approaches can make contact with animal communication research, which in turn also has implications for theories of language evolution. To this end, we first give an overview of key assumptions of usage-based and constructionist approaches before reviewing some key issues in animal communication research through the lens of usage-based, constructionist approaches. Specifically, we will discuss how research on alarm calls, gestural communication and symbol-trained animals can be brought into contact with usage-based, constructionist theorizing. We argue that a constructionist view of animal communication can yield new perspectives on its relation to human language, which in turn has important implications regarding the evolution of language. Importantly, this theoretical approach also generates hypotheses that have the potential of complementing and extending results from the more formalist approaches that often underlie current animal communication research.

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