Winston Churchill said Russia was a “riddle wr/apped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The same can be said of the origins of language. It is not just one puzzle but several and they are tangled together. Language itself rests on a unique social structure that provides a unique function. It is build up from a system of sounds, symbols, and syntax that have nothing else like it, perhaps in the world, certainly not among primates. Thus, instead of having to explain the origin of one or even two novelties, we need to understand the appearance of a series of remarkable developments, sorting out the riddle, the mystery, and the enigma as we go.
In the part of the quotation that usually goes ignored, Churchill ended his observation by saying, “but perhaps there is a key.” This blog has long persisted on the assumption that there are two keys to unlocking the tangle—the theory of evolution and the speech triangle. Last week’s post (here) described a series of innovations proposed by Ray Jackendoff and analyzed in a paper by Willem Zuidema and Arie Verhagen. I wonder what would happen if we combined that paper’s logic with my possible keys.