The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?

Science. 2002 Nov 22;298(5598):1569-79. doi: 10.1126/science.298.5598.1569.


We argue that an understanding of the faculty of language requires substantial interdisciplinary cooperation. We suggest how current developments in linguistics can be profitably wedded to work in evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience. We submit that a distinction should be made between the faculty of language in the broad sense (FLB) and in the narrow sense (FLN). FLB includes a sensory-motor system, a conceptual-intentional system, and the computational mechanisms for recursion, providing the capacity to generate an infinite range of expressions from a finite set of elements. We hypothesize that FLN only includes recursion and is the only uniquely human component of the faculty of language. We further argue that FLN may have evolved for reasons other than language, hence comparative studies might look for evidence of such computations outside of the domain of communication (for example, number, navigation, and social relations).

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Communication
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Concept Formation
  • Humans
  • Imitative Behavior
  • Language*
  • Learning
  • Linguistics*
  • Mathematics
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena
  • Speech
  • Vocalization, Animal