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Language OriginsReview - Language Origins
Perspectives on Evolution
by Maggie Tallerman (Editor)
Oxford University Press, 2005
Review by Manuel Bremer, Ph.D.
Oct 3rd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 40)

Language Origins collects sixteen papers which started as talks at the Fourth International Conference on the Evolution of Language (2002). The papers thus are academic and present state of the art perspectives on language evolution. The reader should have background knowledge in cognitive linguistics and cognitive science

 The book has four parts, each with a short introduction that complements the general introduction. Part I deals with spoken language and speech sounds, Part II with the evolution of grammar (in the narrow sense of syntax and morphology). Part III asks what can be learned from a comparative perspective with respect to other species. Part IV considers questions of language learnability and the origins of the diversity of the natural languages we know.

Language evolves in several ways and in several dimensions. On the one hand we have to have theories how language was able to evolve at all (e.g. by processes that exapted [neural] structures already present for other purposes), and on the other hand we have to have theories of the stepwise evolution of complexity (e.g. from proto-grammatical sign chains to phrasal structures) and diversity, where additional historical (non-biological) influences occur as well.

To give an impression of the theories developed I summarize one paper of each section.

Michael Arbib defends the Mirror System Hypothesis. It explains the occurrence of shared signs and symbolization as result of complex mutual imitation of gestures and pantomime, where this kind of mutual imitation depends on the presence of a neuronal mirror system. Mirror neurons are neurons that are involved both in one's own production of (signing or gesturing) behavior as well as in the perception of such behavior in others. "[B]rain mechanisms supporting language evolved from the mirror system for grasping in the common ancestor of monkey and human" (34). Supposedly proto-languages of such signing behavior in early humanoids preceded vocal language, which then could exploit the already present neural structures. Early vocalizations ("protospeech") and sign use then "feeding off each other in an expanding spiral"(22). Given non-compositional "unitary utterances" then grammatical structure had to evolve. Part II of Language Origins carries on from here.

Maggie Tallermann discusses and criticizes Andrew Carstairs-McCarthies' thesis that the clauses evolved from the syllable. (Carstairs-McCarthies himself is present in the collection with a newer paper in which he tries to trace the evolution of morphology to allomorphy first, and ultimately to the side effects of natural speech production.)  All these evolutionary scenarios share the assumption of an early stage of non-grammatical proto-language. One might speculate that grammatical structures evolved stepwise from morphemes to syllables to phrasal structures. Tallermann, however, doubts that the syllable was the basis for the clause, the "apparent similarities" being only "superficial" (125). For example, syllables have a nucleus, but sentences don't. Not all grammatical categories developed from morphemes (since they need not be expressed at all). With respect to q-roles and argument structures it has to be said "that the structure of the syllable does not predict or in any other way explain the kinds of properties that we see universally in argument structure" (149). What is also missing with syllables but essential for phrases, of course in the presupposed transformational approach, is movement. Dana McDaniel continues here. She argues that "movement was motivated by properties of language production rather than language comprehension" (155). A system without movement would have been to costly an overhaul of a production system based on Merge (in the sense of transformational grammar). Movement answered to our communicative needs (like focus) given the initial syntax the production system had. Thus, like and others claim with respect to derivations aimed for other cognitive interfaces, Move and Merge may be the two crucial ingredients in the development of proper syntax. Given some initial complexity of language, cognitive and linguistic complexity increased in co-evolutionary patterns. Therefore the gap to non-linguistic animals widened in both areas. Nevertheless there have to be homological traits in humanoids and primates.

Klaus Zuberbühler, in Part III, traces the prerequisites of human language in the primate lineage. The "brain regions most heavily involved in language processes in humans did not arise de novo, but evolved from older structures already present in the primate lineage" (263). Studying the linguistic capacities of today's non-human primates may provide us with insights on the cognitive capacities necessary, though not sufficient, for human language. Monkeys are able to produce acoustically distinct vocalizations in response to discrete external events. As recipients at least apes can deduce meaning from combinatorial rules.

In Part IV Henry Brighton, Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith propose three principles underlying the view that language adapts (itself) to be learnable. Languages themselves survive by adapting their structure to learnability constraints. These reflect, for example, conditions of cultural transmission. Further on, generalizable forms have a greater chance to survive. The first learnability principle stresses that humans have a biologically determined set of predispositions, the 2second that situatedness and cultural transmission are as important to language as our cognitive faculties, the third that some aspects of language do not depend on communication or other functions of language (but are driven either by adaptive constraints or internal dynamics).

A theory of adaptive forms will thus contain sub-theories of the conditions of preferred reproduction and the initial learning/extracting devices in children. Another paper in this part by Matthew Roberts, Luca Onnis and Nich Chater provides evidence from computer simulations of learning processes that the idiosyncratic features of individual languages (i.e. all the quasi-regularities where some forms to be expected are absent) are learned by a processes of building and choosing the simplest explanatory hypothesis.

Each paper in this collection is interesting in itself and provides clues to the vast topic of language origin and evolution. Since each paper also provides a Further Reading section Language Origins is a good place to start also for graduate students and (academic) non-specialists.


© 2006 Manuel Bremer


Manuel Bremer, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Germany


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