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How Could Language Have Evolved?

Figure 1

The binary operation of merge (X,Y) when Y is a subset of X leads to the ubiquitous phenomenon of “displacement” in human language, as in Guess what boys eat.

Left: The circled structure Y, corresponding to what, the object of the verb eat, is a subset of the circled structure X, corresponding to boys eat what. Right: The free application of merge to X, Y in this case automatically leads to what occupying two syntactic positions, as required for proper semantic interpretation. The original what remains as the object of the verb so that it can serve as an argument to this predicate, and a copy of what, “displaced,” is now in the position of a quantificational operator so that the form can be interpreted as “for what x, boys eat x.” Typically, only the higher what is actually pronounced, as indicated by the line drawn through the lower what.

Figure 1

doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934.g001