Sarah Brocard

Research interest

Human language can be considered as a unique social tool, as it allows us to share with others about our minds and the events happening around us. An event can be described by its causal structure (A acts on B) and the protagonists of this event can be classified into agents (the ones initiating the event and carrying out the action) and patients (the recipients of the action). Event cognition – the ability to decompose the causal structure of events and to distinguish between event protagonists’ roles – is critical for the abstract structure of sentences in human language (syntax) and may hold clues to its evolution.

However, evidence for the evolution of these abilities is sparse. Is the capacity to decompose complex events into its separate components learned through experience or innate? Is this a recent human innovation? Or does it exist in our closest relatives: the great apes?

By conducting comparative studies between nonhuman great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans) and humans (adults and children), my PhD project aims to examine similarities, or differences, in the way that these species process events.

This project is supported by both the University of Neuchâtel and the NCCR Evolving Language and is conducted under the supervision of Klaus Zuberbühler and in collaboration with Balthasar Bickel (University of Zurich) and Basel Zoo.

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© E. Déaux

Sarah Brocard

Phd student