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Hypothesis and Theory ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00477

The Syntax of Testimony Indexical Objects, Syntax, and Language

  • 1Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Language––often said to set human beings apart from other animals––has resisted explanation in terms of evolution. Language has two fundamental and distinctive features: syntax and the ability to express non-present actions and events. We suggest that the relation between syntax and representation can be analyzed as a relation between structure and function. The structure allows expression of an infinite number of propositions using finite means (productivity). Thus it is possible to refer e.g. to who did what to whom. The strategy of the paper is to ask if there is evidence of any pre-linguistic kind of communication that fulfills the function of communicating an absent action. We identify a structural similarity between understanding indexes of past actions or events and linguistic syntax. For instance, when a human being infers past events from an index (i.e. a trace, the conditions of a conspecifics or an animal, a constellation or an object) the interpreters' comprehension must rely on concepts similar in structure and function to the ‘thematic roles’ believed to underpin the comprehension of linguistic syntax: in his or her mind the idea of a past action or event emerges along with thematic roles––like concepts; in the case of the presentation of e.g. a hunting trophy, the presenter could be understood to be an agent (subject) and the trophy a patient (direct object), while the past action killed is implied by the condition of the object and its possession by the presenter. We discuss whether both the presentation of a trophy and linguistic syntax might have emerged merely by having the same function (to represent a past action) or whether the presentation of an index of a deed could constitute a precursor of language. Both possibilities shed new light on early language use.

Keywords: index, biolinguistics, language evolution, Semiotics, sign-language, syntax, testimony, Thematic roles, Trophy, Peircean Linguistics

Received: 24 Sep 2018; Accepted: 18 Feb 2019.

Edited by:

Regina E. Fabry, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany

Reviewed by:

Yasmina Jraissati, American University of Beirut, Lebanon
Koji Fujita, Kyoto University, Japan  

Copyright: © 2019 von Heiseler. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Mr. Till Nikolaus von Heiseler, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany,