Norms for Constructing Language in Humans and Animals

Freie Universität Berlin

Wynand van Poortvliet/Unsplash


Meta-Research, Comparative Psychology, Values in Science, Language Evolution, Animal Communication


When investigating the evolution of language, scientists often approach one prominent question: What makes humans human? While researchers might share a common question that motivates them to investigate the origin of language, they do not share a common definition of that original term. The current dissertation hypothesises that definitions of language are ever-changing, temporary constructions which are implicitly informed by historical and social values. By utilising a mixed-methods approach, which combines socio-historical research with quantitative strategies, three examples are investigated: (i) Language defined as speech (oral norm); (ii) Language defined as highest evolutionary achievement (Scala Naturae); (iii) Language defined from its external structure (Behaviourism). The dissertation reveals and illustrates that each of the historical constructions has its problems. Regarding (i), a historical argument from analogy to the deaf discourse reveals prejudices towards nonverbal forms of communication. Addressing (ii), a quantitative text analysis on 915 articles from a time span of 10 years testifies the use of value-laden adjectives in some publications. Analysing (iii), a citation network on 653 articles, published over the time of 69 years, illustrates how the term intention enters a discourse that originates from a behaviouristic era and turned into a cognitive one. The quantitative evidence revealed by the dissertation demonstrates: Science is not, never was and likely never will be free from social and historical influences. That is not a problem. It is a problem, however, to neglect or ignore those influences. The current meta-analysis points to them in order to enable the reader to develop a critical standpoint in relation to the current and past language origin discourse. Hence, providing evidence by systematic investigation of these values is an active contribution to scientific self-correction.


Ullrich, Robert. Norms for constructing language in humans and animals. Freie Universität Berlin, 2019, doi:10.17169/refubium-1665.



urn: urn:nbn:de:kobv:188-refubium-23890-4

doi: 10.17169/refubium-1665 coisas


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