Survival of the Wittiest (not Friendliest): Causal Role of Early Syntax


3 to 4:30 p.m., Feb. 9, 2024


My argument is that language, in particular early syntax, played a crucial, causal role in human evolution, both linguistic and cognitive, driven in part by the selection for quick-wittedness (“using words in a clever and funny way”), specific to language and unique to humans. While my reconstruction of the earliest stage of syntax is based on formal syntactic considerations, it also takes into account typological considerations, and it cross- fertilizes with some relevant neuroscientific and genetic findings. The reconstructed stage provides the foundation, a common denominator, for cross-linguistic variation in the expression of e.g. transitivity (i.e. accusative vs. ergative vs. serial-verb grammars). I will provide specific approximations of this early stage of syntax (including, but not limited to “exoteric” verb-noun compounds/small clauses across languages), demonstrating their relevance not only for the quick-wittedness argument, but also, through fMRI experiments, their evolutionary role in (playful, humorous, often pejorative) naming. It is hard to be witty in a single word stage, but, as these approximations demonstrate, with just a single instance of a verb-noun composition, arguably instantiating an absolutive-like (intransitive) grammar, one can reach impressive metaphorical heights and verbal virtuosity. This is what it would have taken to entrench this early language/grammar, later to be built upon, overcoming eons-deep competition based on physical aggression and posturing. Wittiness is that kind of trait which allows competition (by ‘outwitting’ others) while at the same time favoring “friendliness” in the sense that it provides an excellent platform for replacing physical aggression with cognitive contest. There are several considerations, both theoretical and experimental, that have paved the way toward the view of human evolution as the “survival of the wittiest,” offering better explanatory power than the recent proposals advocating the “survival of the friendliest,” and giving a causal role to language in human evolution. Research on language evolution has largely neglected the artistic dimension of language, including eloquence and wittiness, and yet the fitness in humans has been found to be correlated with linguistic prowess, and human mate choice even today is often influenced by displays of cognitive abilities through the creative use of language, including humor.


Passcode: LingCo1