Richard Futrell

“Language is an example of human creativity, evolving from our ability to adapt and innovate within constraints. This article outlines how the limitations of our physical and cognitive capacities have shaped diverse and efficient systems of languages.

In his seminal book on how visual and perception work in the brain, David Marr left us with a powerful framework for understanding complex adaptive systems, from vision to bird flight to language. As he had it:

“Trying to understand perception by studying only neurons is like trying to understand bird flight by studying only feathers: it just cannot be done. In order to understand bird flight, we have to understand aerodynamics; only then do the structure of feathers and the different shapes of birds’ wings make sense.” (Marr, 1982: 27)

The point is this: to understand something like bird flight or vision or language, a purely mechanical approach is not going to work. You are just not going to figure out how wings work by looking only at feathers, although you certainly should look at them. You have to consider the function of the system as a whole and the constraints under which it operates. The various shapes of bird wings are solutions to the problem of flying under constraints of aerodynamics, power usage, weight, flexibility, and so on.

So, from this perspective: what is language? How can we understand language as we would understand the totality of bird’s flight using wings? What is language’s function, and what are the constraints that shape it?”

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