July 25, 2017 114 (30) 7900-7907; first published July 24, 2017;

Edited by Andrew Whiten, university of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, joined Kingdom, and also accepted through Editorial board Member Andrew G. Clark April 12, 2017 (received for testimonial January 12, 2017)



It is widely known that language dram a an essential role in the transmission of human culture, but reasonably little is known around the mechanisms by which language simultaneously urges both social stability and cultural innovation. This record examines this concern by focusing on the use of language to transmit categories, focusing on two universal devices: labels (e.g., shark, woman) and generics (e.g., “sharks strike swimmers”; “women room nurturing”). Us propose the labels and also generics each assume two an essential principles: norms and essentialism. The normative assumption permits infection of group information with an excellent fidelity, vice versa, essentialism invites development by way of one open-ended, placeholder structure. Additionally, we map out out just how labels and generics help in conceptual alignment and the gradual “looping” between categories and cultural practices. In this way, human language is a technology that enhances and expands the categorization capacities that we share with other animals.

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It is broadly agreed the language is a distinctive person capacity and also a powerful engine of cultural transmission. As such, language is important to the layout of this special worry (1). No issue how innovative the cultural transmission solution of nonhuman varieties (and they room astonishingly sophisticated; see files in this issue) (2), they continue without language. We have the right to thus questioning what language distinctively contributes to cultural transmission in humans and (more speculatively, however importantly) what language may distinctively contribute to social evolution in humans. Recent proof from language finding out in youngsters provides brand-new insights into these questions.

In this paper, we focus specifically top top a vital universal facet of language, category labels (e.g., dogs, gold, women, Muslims), and also their main role in the transmission and evolution of group representations. The argument, in brief, is that group labels job-related in an nearly paradoxical means to ensure stability in the transmission process, yet simultaneously to permit and also even foster theoretical change. ~ above the one hand, words room conventional and also prescriptive, and administer a stable representation that is quickly shared with great fidelity, yet on the other hand, words have actually an open-ended “placeholder” structure that invites innovation. We suggest that this double capacity contributes come what is distinctive in human cultural evolution.

Propositions vs. Presuppositions

Maynard Smith and also Szathmáry said that language is one of the significant transitions in the development of complexity, specifically in the intergenerational infection of information: “We expropriate together being the decisive action in the origin of specifically human being society” (3). Kirby et al. (4) an in similar way note the “Language is distinct in being a mechanism that supports limitless heredity of social information, enabling our types to construct a distinct kind the open-ended adaptability.” and Pagel (5) likewise refers to “language’s role in the transmission of the details that makes our societies possible.”

The most obvious means that language transmits information is via clear declarative propositions (e.g., “You can crack open a nut making use of a rock”; “I’ll provide you mine money if you put down that gun”; “Don’t to trust Joe—he lies constantly”), which can share ideas, negotiate trades, deceive enemies, admire potential mates, affect reputations, and so forth. The expressive capacity of human language is practically unlimited due to the fact that of that is hierarchical, combinatorial framework (6). In contrast to the interaction systems of various other organisms (even those as outstanding as whales, bees, or vervet monkeys), human language is generative: it patent infinitely countless messages come be constructed out of a limited number the elements. This remarkably flexible system has apparent survival value, as it is supplied in the “cognitive arms race” of competitive feedback loops implicated in participating interactions that involve and also must address cheating and cheating-detection (7).

However, lot of what human language conveys is not clearly articulated via propositional content, yet rather is include via presupposition, implicature, and other creates of inference (8). Four examples follow.

(i) Language point out social identification through variation. There are around 6,000 person languages around the globe, mutually unintelligible, and also (with rarely exception) completely learnable only in childhood. These facets materially influence with whom one can communicate and coordinate, and also from who one have the right to learn. Even among those that speak the very same language, accent and dialect disclose a person’s cultural origins, and so offer as moral signals come identity, with consequences for who others pick to connect with and which models others trust to imitate and learn from (9).

(ii) Language directs a person’s attention in the moment by way of structural attributes of the grammar. Different linguistic neighborhoods focus on different facets of experience, and also in so doing suggest what is necessary (10). Because that example, Japanese has actually an honorific device that requires a speaker to decide level the politeness; Quechua has actually an evidential device for expressing just how a speaker comes to know something: straight seeing vs. Hearsay. There is debate about the role of these distinctions on nonlinguistic cognition (11, 12). However at a minimum, this structural features influence a person’s thinking in the minute of speaking (13), consisting of what details gets encoded and transmitted in ~ a social interaction.

(iii) Language transmits details through a rich system of pragmatic effects (14, 15). Interaction involves inferring the speaker’s intentions, a complex process the builds on theory-of-mind capacities (16). Realistic inferences not only allow a listener to infer a speaker’s meaning, but additionally to learn around properties that the civilization (17).

(iv) Language gives cognitive tools that aid with recall, transmission, and also manipulation of principles that otherwise deserve to be an overwhelming to hold in mind. Because that example, number words help speakers of a language, such as English or Turkish, remember and also communicate precise cardinalities that sets; speaker of a language without number words (such together Pirahã) do poorly on number reasoning tasks that tap right into these procedures (18). In this way, language offers tools lot like any kind of other informational technology, such together Arabic numerals, written language, the abacus, or even computers (19).

Our focus is on this last sort of presupposition: language as a cognitive tool. We emphasis on exactly how human languages represent categories, by way of 2 universal devices: labels and also generics. We argue that these devices convey two essential presuppositions: the categories are normative and that categories have essences. We further suggest that these presuppositions are both constraining (leading to stability) and generative (leading to innovation) in the process of social transmission.

Categories as social Inheritance

Categories are psychological representations in i m sorry perceptibly distinct entities space treated as alike (e.g., the category “apple” permits one to determine a selection of various apples together edible). Every animal species uses categories to organize their depictions of experience, recognize newly encountered instances, and also make predictive inferences, native pigeons identifying food come voles identifying kin. Category are additionally a foundational component of sociallytransfer behaviors, such as tool use (categories are essential to determine potential tools), vocalizations to warn of peril (categories are required to determine predators), or rituals to maintain team cohesion (social category are needed to decide who to copy) (20, 21).

For humans, category themselves space a crucial part of our cultural inheritance, which is to say, they exhibit learned, socially transmitted variation the cannot be defined by genetic or environmental factors (2). We are not born v a fixed collection of category (no one is born discovering of screwdrivers, or that whales room mammals, or that girls wear pink). Nor do we simply pick up on discontinuities in the biological world; rather, human categories have a social overlay. We view this in categories of organic kinds, society kinds, and also artifacts, all of which screen tremendous linguistic, cultural, and local variation. Divide of the natural human being vary in i beg your pardon animals, plants, or substances are classified together edible, which room classified together medicinal, and also which room classified as clean/unclean (22). Share of the social people vary in exactly how gender, race, and also social hierarchies are organized (23, 24). Classifications of artefacts vary in the really entities there room to be classified, v distinct types of tools, clothing, furniture, and so forth, and also category borders (25). And there is significant linguistic variation in the category of dimensions of experience, including color, number, time, space, emotions, even senses (26, 27).

Although categories can be obtained asocially by people via direct observations and also interactions with the world, human being languages provide a socially sent mechanism for efficiently connecting information about which categories there are, what belongs in those categories, and also which characteristics those category possess. Universally, languages use two gadgets for the intergenerational infection of categories: labels (names for categories, such together “shark” or “woman”) and also generics (generalizations about named categories, such together “sharks strike swimmers” or “women space nurturing”).

Labels express principles that have actually some social significance; conversely, there are indefinitely many principles one have the right to generate (e.g., “items weighing much more than 500 grams,” consisting of vultures and also the Oxford English Dictionary but not a tiny grapefruit), only a subset of these ideas are lexicalized, and also of these, only a subset are maintained in a language in time (28). Words space distinctive to humans in their number (typically about 50,000 in an adult speaker, many of which space names because that things), theoretical precision (e.g., follow vs. Flee), and need to it is in learned (29). Youngsters devote considerable time and also effort come amassing words, learning approximately 14,000 words by age 6, which averages to learning practically one new word every waking hour from 18 mo with 6 y of period (30). Although group membership can be inferred without language (e.g., recognizing an pet as a snake based upon its shape and movement), labels have informational capacity past direct observation. Even for young children, they deserve to convey surprising classification membership the an separation, personal, instance item (e.g., the a legless lizard is no a snake) (31) or present wholly brand-new categorical distinguish (e.g., come distinguish pets based on ethereal variations in antennae rather than in its entirety body shape) (32).

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Generics space generalizations that refer to a group directly (e.g., “birds fly”) (33). In contrast to details utterances (e.g., “Did you watch that bird?”), generics convey information that extends beyond the current context and indeed in principle cannot be demonstrated directly. Importantly, generics space input come children’s arising knowledge systems, as they are constant in child-directed speech and also acquired by around 2.5 y of age (34, 35). As quickly as children master the syntactic prerequisites because that expressing generics in your language (e.g., in English: plurals, articles, and also tense), they create generics (“Does lions crawl?”; “I don’t favor babies the cry”), recognize generics together kind-referring and distinct from specific reference, and recall whether info was noted using share or details language (35⇓–37). Generics have been attested in all documented languages, consisting of pidgins and Pirahã (38⇓⇓⇓–42). Children’s beforehand capacity to learn generics is particularly striking, provided that share referents space abstract (one cannot suggest to a kind, just to instances that a kind) and also their semantics cannot be reduced to a certain quantity (unlike “some,” “most,” or “all”) (43⇓–45). For example, return “Lions have manes” is acceptable despite using only to male lions, “Lions are male” is semantic unacceptable, and preschool kids understand this (46).