Although language itself is unique to humans, many of the sub-components that underlie language processing are shared with other species. A broad comparative approach allows us to tease apart shared elements from unusual (“derived”) characteristics. I will illustrate these principles by delving into the neural circuits underlying speech (particularly vocal learning) and syntax (particularly hierarchical syntax). These examples illustrate that, even for unique features like hierarchical syntax, an evolutionary approach can illuminate the precursors for human circuits and give clues to their origins during hominin evolution.
Tecumseh Fitch is an evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist studying animal cognition and communication along with the biology and evolution of human speech, language and music. He is co-founder of the Dept. of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna, where since 2009 he is Professor of Evolutionary Cognitive Biology. His work on animal bioacoustics and communication has helped to revolutionize the study of formants in vertebrate vocalizations, and his research comparing human and animal pattern recognition capabilities has spurred a rapidly-growing interdisciplinary field in animal cognition. The recipient of an ERC Advanced Grant, he has collaborated with linguists, psychologists, physicists and speech scientists, and has worked with a wide variety of species, including birds, dogs, nonhuman primates, and humans.