Shared Evolutionary and Developmental Foundations of Pretence and Pantomime

Michael Pleyer, Sławomir Wacewicz and Przemysław Żywiczyński

Two central goals of language evolution research are a) specifying the cognitive and evolutionary foundations underlying our capacity to use and acquire language and b)investigating potential scenarios for the evolutionary emergence of that capacity. Of course, these two goals are closely related. Specifically, when looking at the individual component parts that together serve as the grounding for our linguistic abilities, we also have to ask what the cognitive and evolutionary foundations of these components are and how they might have evolved. On the one hand, researchers have stressed the importance of specifically human social cognition in the emergence of human forms of communication and interaction (Levinson 2006; Tomasello 2008). On the other hand, our ability to acquire and use multimodal semiotic systems been highlighted as central to human communication and cognition (Levinson & Holler 2014, Zlatev 2019).

Regarding evolutionary pathways to language, one strand of research has argued that pantomime serves as the “original human-specific communicative system.” (Zlatev et al. 2020). Pantomime is a complex semiotic system based on iconicity that together with the social settings favouring its emergence and use represents a promising protolinguistic platform for the evolution of language (Arbib 2012). If we adopt the view that pantomime was a foundational steppingstone for language evolution, unravelling the cognitive and evolutionary foundations of pantomime posits an important research area in language evolution research.

We take a closer look at one such cognitive foundation of pantomime, namely our ability for pretence, which is most evident in children’s universal proclivity for pretend play (Weisberg 2015; Lillard 2017). One central aspect of pantomime is that the communicator pretends to perform the actions they want to semiotically represent, making pantomime a form of pretence (Gärdenfors 2017). In addition, both pantomime and pretence are built on semiotic cognition, which as mentioned above, together with social cognition is foundational to language. Pretence in a way, then, can be said to represent a pathway to pantomime, which in turn in combination with pretence represents a pathway to language.

When investigating the cognitive and evolutionary foundations of pantomime as a precursor to language evolution, we also need to look at the question which cognitive capacities are shared by both pantomime and pretence and how they support our ability to use and acquire language.

In order to investigate this question, we will discuss which cognitive processes underlie both our capacity for pretence, especially pretend play, and pantomime, and the degree to which they are present in both humans and nonhuman animals. In addition, we will look at the relationship between pretence and pantomime in human ontogenetic development.


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Zlatev, J., Żywiczyński, P., & Wacewicz, S. (2020). Pantomime as the original human-specific communicative system. Journal of Language Evolution, 5(2), 156-174.