Language evolution, narrative and the nature of cognition

Andrew Feeney*, Rachel Edwards

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper supports the hypothesis that the forms that modern language assume are constrained by the need to represent externally, a wholly mind- internal Narrative of Thought. Beginning with an overview of research into the role of narrative in human culture, we go on to trace the trajectory of language evolution in relation to human cognition. We note the behavioural innovations that occurred less than 2 million years ago and argue that they arose from a greater degree of cooperation than any previous hominin species had displayed, and led to the emergence of intentional communication in the form of protolanguage. However, this stage in hominin cognition was not indicative of a qualitatively distinctive mode of thought, being grounded in subitizing, and that this is reflected in the cultural stasis that characterises the subsequent million years. The evolution of a uniquely human form of cognition, a System 2 type of thinking in Dual Processing Theory, is a more recent event which enabled the creation and retention of narrative structures through the recursive embedding of simple propositions. This new type of thinking and its external representation in linguistic narrative are seen to coevolve with aspects of autobiographical memory, a sense of self, and Theory of Mind.
Original languageEnglish
Article number320
Pages (from-to)487-539
Number of pages53
JournalJournal of Cognitive Science
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2021


Dive into the research topics of 'Language evolution, narrative and the nature of cognition'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this