Brains, bodies, contextualising activity and language

do humans (and bonobos) have a language faculty and can they do without one?


  • Paul J. Thibault Agder University College



Combinatorial Expansion, Distributed Cognition and Semiosis, Language Development, Language Faculty, Protolanguage, Recursion


This paper reviews selected aspects of Hauser et al..’s (2002) distinction between ‘the faculty of language – narrow sense’ and ‘the faculty of language – broad sense’, with a specific focus on their view that recursion is ‘the only uniquely human component of the faculty of language’ (2002: 1569). In critically examining this distinction and its implications, I shall propose and develop an alternative account of recursion, or what I shall prefer to discuss in terms of ‘combinatorial expansion’, at the same time that I shall explore the theoretical implications of the two views. The alternative view that I shall develop argues that brains, bodies, activity, and context are inseparable from language, and that the split between formal and bodily dimensions of language is unhelpful for understanding how language activity connects brain, body, and the ecosocial environment in which such activity takes place. In developing this alternative, I shall refer to Michael Halliday’s interpretation of one child’s transition from protolanguage to language as well as to the symbolic achievements of Kanzi, the language-competent bonobo who has been co-reared by humans, notably Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, at the Center for Research in Language at Cognition, at the State University of Georgia, Atlanta, USA.

Author Biography

Paul J. Thibault, Agder University College

Paul J. Thibault,Professor of Linguistics and Media Communication, Faculty of Humanities, Agder University College, Kristiansand, Norway


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How to Cite

Thibault, P. J. (2005). Brains, bodies, contextualising activity and language: do humans (and bonobos) have a language faculty and can they do without one?. Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 1(1), 99–125.