Cognitive elements of language have existed for 40 million years
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Language is one of the most powerful tools available to humankind, as it enables us to share information, culture, views and technology. "Research into language evolution is thus crucial if we want to understand what it means to be human," says Stuart Watson, postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Comparative Language Science of the University of Zurich. Until now, however, little research has been conducted about how this unique communication system came to be.
Identifying connections between words
An international team led by Professor Simon Townsend at the Department of Comparative Language Science of the University of Zurich has now shed new light on the evolutionary origins of language. Their study examines one of the most important cognitive elements needed for language processing -- that is, the ability to understand the relationship between the words in a phrase, even if they are separated by other parts of the phrase, known as a "non-adjacent dependency." For example, we know that in the sentence "the dog that bit the cat ran away," it is the dog who ran away, not the cat, even though there are several other words in between the two phrases. A comparison between apes, monkeys and and humans has now shown that the ability to identify such non-adjacent dependencies is likely to have developed as far back as 40 million years ago.