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Talk Is Not Cheap: Kinship Terminologies and the Origins of Language


Kinship terminology is a human universal, a kind of cultural knowledge circulated through language. In this paper I explore the possibility that the need for social rules prompted the development of fully syntactic language via kinship terminologies. In other words, kinship terms are at the core of modern language. They require uniquely human cognitive features such as symbolic reference and recursiveness, which in turn require a cognitive capacity beyond that of non-human primates. The conceptualization of kinship types was crucial in the transition from non-human primate to human social organization and the ‘invention’ of kinship terms facilitated this transition. The heuristics used in kin classification could have provided the decisive cognitive leap that introduced the essential tools for organizing and expanding social relationships and increasing the chances for survival. Thus kinship terms could have been the original nucleus of human language.

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