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Robin Burling questions about the evolution of language are intriguing but
difficult to answer because researchers cannot rely on any direct (fossil)
evidence. He claims that any theorizing about language evolution has to depart
from one of two anchor points: (i) the communication-behavior of our closest
primate cousins (chimpanzees and bonobos) as an approximation of the starting
point and (ii) the languages spoken by modern humans as the endpoint. To bridge
the gap between these two endpoints Burling proposes as the central argument of
his book, "that language comprehension, rather than production, was the
driving force for the human ability to use language" (p.4). His somewhat
counterintuitive approach refocuses attention from the "obvious" part
of language (speaking) to the occasionally neglected part (understanding) and
offers a solution to one of the most vexing puzzles of language evolution:
language seems necessary to use language, so how could it evolve in a
pre-linguistic species? Burling suggests that the puzzle dissolves when we
recognize that communication does not begin with a meaningful vocalization or
gesture but with the interpretation of the behavior of another individual. An
individual who can understand another's action even when no communication has
been attempted gains an evolutionary significant advantage (p.20). And, because
social animals naturally engage in countless instrumental acts, there is always
a lot to interpret. Throughout his book Burling supplies a wealth of details
about language, communication, and the human mind to support his argument.
The first three
chapters contain a detailed comparison between human language and animal
communication systems. Burling's rejection of the idea that language could have
evolved from primate calls is based on two facts. First, there are significant
differences between language and any known animal communication system. Second,
human communication is not restricted to language but includes also a complex
system of non-linguistic referential vocalizations (oh-oh, uh-uh, etc.)
paralinguistic elements (intonation, gesticulation), and "gesture calls"
(laughs sobs, screams, frowns, etc.). The latter seem to be homologous to
primate calls and probably have the same evolutionary roots. This means that we
can learn a lot about the evolutionary roots of our own gesture calls by
comparing them to the calls of other primates; but for the roots of language we
need to look elsewhere.
Next, using the
example of 'monolinguistic demonstration', Burling illustrates the essential
pre-requisites for learning a language: (i) shared conceptual understanding of
the world, (ii) joint attention, (iii) ability to imitate, (iv) ability to
understand iconic gestures, and (v) pattern finding skills. He elaborates on
the importance of these pre-requisites and shows how all of them could have
been useful to the pre-linguistic hominins and how their combination greatly
improved the ability to communicate. Natural selection is, according to
Burling, the only plausible 'launching mechanism' for language: "Selection
for better communication brought language into existence and fostered its
development" (p.91). Other possible launching mechanisms are briefly
introduced and dismissed.
in the following six chapters a possible way in which a system of communication
could have evolved from motivated signs (which refer somewhat directly to
objects or actions) to the conventional symbols of modern languages (which seem
to be entirely arbitrary and fail to resemble the things they refer to in any
obvious way). Burling employs a classification system that was first suggested
by Peirce (1968) and was used in an almost identical context by Deacon (1997).
It is based on three fundamentally different methods of reference: icons, which
resemble objects; indices, which point to objects; and symbols, which refer by
convention. And, while spoken language depends almost exclusively on arbitrary
symbols most of the paralinguistic systems have maintained iconicity to some
degree. Again, Burling stresses similarities and differences between animal
communication and our gesture call system (p. 108). He considers it plausible
that the arbitrary words of modern language originated from iconic symbols and
illustrates how written languages (e.g., Sumerian, Chinese, p.112f) and sign
languages (ASL) moved over time from iconic to more and more arbitrary signs. As
before, Burling emphasizes that the growing ability of the listener to
interpret the intentions of the speaker was the driving force towards more
complex and arbitrary symbolic communication. He stresses that motivational
signs are easier to learn but arbitrary signs reduce ambiguities and allow us
to express complex thoughts and abstract concepts (p.120). Burling speculates
that language did not develop from communicative gestures but from earlier
forms of vocalizations. It probably shares the same roots as music (chanting
and singing). He proposes a long step-by-step evolution from a holistic single
word stage over two-word combinations to the complex syntactic structures of
modern languages (p.150). The justification for this type of argument is familiar
ever since Dawkins (1986): a sequence of steps of simpler but still useful
forms of a trait can bridge the gap between no trait at all and a highly
complex trait (p.152). Burling speculates about plausible processes that could
have carried a loosely gathered group of initial words over thousands of
generations of speakers towards a structured modern kind of complex grammar
The final two
chapters deal with slightly different questions: (i) what is the main purpose
of language and (ii) how did language-use change our lives? Burling holds that
our complex language could not have evolved exclusively for practical purposes
(e.g., information exchange, coordination of activities, teaching children)
because, considering the level of technology of our Paleolithic ancestors, a
very simple (pidgin-like) language would have sufficed for such purposes.
Following Dunbar (1997), Burling suggests that language evolved mainly as a
means for establishing, maintaining, and refining social relationships (p.193).
In his opinion sexual selection would be a plausible mechanism for language
evolution: superior language skills could be one means for acquiring leadership
and leadership could improve chances for reproductive success. Burling believes
that language has influenced the way we perceive the world and allowed us to
invent the kind of life we live today. "Complex language evolved as a
delicate instrument for engaging in ever more intricate social relationships
and language continues to serve this purpose" (p.227).
has written an informative, very readable book that is accessible to a wide
audience. He kept jargon to a minimum, explained crucial terms in a glossary,
and provided an extensive bibliography that will be helpful for anyone who
wants to research the subject further. Burling supplies both, a wealth of
carefully researched information about many aspects of human language and
insightful speculation that could motivate further research.
Dawkins, R. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton.
T. (1997). The Symbolic Species. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
R. (1997). Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
C. (1968). Über die Klarheit unserer Gedanken. Frankfurt/Main: V. Klostermann.
© 2006 Christina Behme
Christina Behme, MSc (1986, Biology, University Rostock,
Germany), MA (2005, Philosophy, Dalhousie University) is currently a PhD
student in the philosophy department at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her research interests are philosophy of mind and psychology,
cognitive science, and philosophy of language.