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The Prehistory of Language$
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Rudolf Botha and Chris Knight

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199545872

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199545872.001.0001

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Recursion, phonological storage capacity, and the evolution of modern speech

Recursion, phonological storage capacity, and the evolution of modern speech

(p.244) 13 Recursion, phonological storage capacity, and the evolution of modern speech
The Prehistory of Language

Frederick L. Coolidge

Thomas Wynn

Oxford University Press

Recursion is considered to be the hallmark of modern language. This chapter addresses fundamental questions about its evolutionary emergence: ‘What is the relationship of recursion to modern language and thinking?’ and ‘What might be the mechanism or subspecies of recursion that bestows its advantages to cognition?’ In addressing these questions, empirical evidence is presented which shows that recursion requires not only greater working memory capacity but also greater phonological storage capacity. The chapter proposes that recursion arose as a function of an increase in phonological storage capacity and/or working memory capacity. These capacities were enhanced by a genetic neural mutation that occurred sometime between 150,000 and 30,000 years ago. That change made possible longer recursive and canonical utterances and a consequent increase in the complexity and information content of sentences.

Keywords:   language development, language capacity, evolution, recursion, modern speech, working memory, phonological storage capacity, memory capacity

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