LINGUIST List 10.927

Wed Jun 16 1999

Review: Lightfoot: The Development of Language.

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  1. LANMBEAK, book review

Message 1: book review

Date: Fri, 11 Jun 1999 10:02:38 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: book review

Lightfoot, David (1999) The Development of Language: Acquisition, 
Change and Evolution. Blackwell. 287 pages 

Reviewed by Mike Beaken, School of Modern Languages, Liverpool JMU

Lightfoot's book attempts to combine 3 different elements - child 
language, the history of English, and evolutionary biology. His 
argument is that children develop internal grammars as a result of 
being exposed to triggering experiences or 'cues'- small-scale 
developments in adult's language, that lead them to construct a 
slightly variant grammar. Such differences are contingent; based on 
accidental factors that have no necessary historical explanation. 
Change in languages may appear gradual; while changes in grammar are 
abrupt, instances of punctuated equilibrium. 

The primary subject matter in presenting this argument is the 
historical development of the English language, with examples from the 
history of other languages along the way. Yet, oddly enough, history is 
rejected as an explanation of the changes described, in favour of 
biology. The third element of the book is an attempt to describe 
language changes in terms of the syntactic descriptive apparatus of UG, 
combined with principles drawn from evolutionary biology. 


After a review of the historical approach to language studies, Chapter 
3 presents arguments for an innate language faculty, drawing on UG 
theory. Chapter 4 presents the case for sudden, 'bumpy' change in 
grammar, and outlines a model of grammatical change. Chapter 5 applies 
these ideas to a particular development in the history of English - 
the loss of Grammatical case distinctions in Old and Middle English, 
examining some of the knock-on effects of a fairly simple but 
fundamental change. Chapter 6 studies other grammatical developments, 
such as V-to-I raising in English, seeking to explain wide-ranging 
changes on the basis of simple cues that are picked up by the child's 
I-language from the external E-language. Chapter 7 uses material from 
previous work of Lightfoot's on the English verbal auxiliaries to 
illustrate his model of sudden change in language systems. Chapters 8 
and 9 present a general model of historical change, based on principles 
of evolutionary biology, and finally rejecting 'historicism' as a basis 
for the explanation of historical developments in languages. 

Critical Evaluation 

What Lightfoot is good at is the description of systematic language 
change. It is a pleasure to follow him as he points out the elegant 
patterns that occur in language, and the adjustments that take place in 
one part of a language as changes occur in other parts. An example is 
his chapter on the loss of abstract Case, where he traces shifts in the 
system of morphological marking and case relationships in 
'psych-verbs', and the occurrence of the split genitives that seem to 
come out of nowhere in the Middle English period and then return there 
(pp. 117-125). The section on V-to-I raising (a term for the way that 
question formation changed from fronting the verb, as in "Visited you 
London?" to the use of a modal or the particle do), provides him with an
opportunity to discuss the nature of the adult input that leads 
children to adopt grammars with significant differences from those of 
adults. His analysis shows that children need to use quite abstract 
structural information to make their grammars work. He demonstrates that
in V-to-I raising, a number of syntactic changes occurred in step with 
each other - the re-categorizing of the modals as instances of I (= 
inflectional), rather than lexical; the development of periphrastic do 
in negatives and interrogatives; and the loss of features of Verb-second
grammar. His conclusion - that periphrastic 'do' triggered the loss of 
V-to-I raising, is the reverse of traditional accounts (p. 167). 

His discussion of Warner's work on relatively recent changes in 'be', 
'was', 'is' - suggesting that these forms ceased to be decomposable in 
the 18th century, links together some apparently unrelated changes, 
such as the loss of 'thou' and its accompanying verb forms, the loss of 
main verb fronting, the change in category of modal verbs. In other 
words, a much broader and wider reanalysis than that of the single 
items 'is', 'was', 'be', was going on. 'Neither change affected 'be' in 
particular, but their effect was to single out be and make it less like 
a verb' p. 194. This example illustrates very nicely Lightfoot's notion 
of 'contingent' change. 

His account of Verb-second languages is a pleasure to read, as is his 
entertaining discussion of the various lengths that grammars of 
different languages have to go to in order to get round the condition 
that traces must be overtly governed (pp. 243-9) 

When it comes to the theoretical context of his model, however, this 
book may please those who accept the Minimalist Program and UG, and 
irritate those who do not. A writer who starts by stating his 
assumptions, repeats his assumptions at every opportunity, and 
concludes as if the case is proved, without presenting the logical 
steps of the argument, is frustrating to read. For example, chapter 3 
starts: "Grammars are biological entities represented in people's 
brains"; chapter 4: "Grammars, then, are real biological entities 
represented in individual mind/brains". Soon after the start of Chapter 
5 you read "it is true that grammars are formed in a child in 
accordance with the prescriptions of the linguistic genotype"; then, 
chapter 6: "Grammars, in our perspective, are mental entities which 
arise in the minds of individuals when they are exposed as children to 
some triggering and shaping experience". At this point, you might be 
forgiven for thinking, "Methinks the linguist doth protest too much." 

Notice in these quotations how the transition from brain to mind is 
manipulated. At times Lightfoot conflates mind and brain, as if they 
were the same thing. Yet brain is a physical location in the body, 
given at birth, and mind is definitely something that is formed in the 
course of our social and intellectual development. We can change our 
mind - but not our brain! 

His approach to 'explanation' is revealed in a discussion (p. 97 ff.) 
on why morphological doublets are rare in languages. (i.e. why are 
there so few synonyms like Accounting and Accountancy). He explains 
that the Blocking Effect or 'economy principle' that prevents 
morphological doublets is a principle of UG. Of course, he goes on, 
there are a few exceptions: "We might take these exceptions too 
seriously, and weaken the economy principle to some kind of 'tendency'. 
However, this would be a mistake: if the no-doublets prohibition is not 
a principle, but only a tendency, it then loses its explanatory value. 
If it is just a tendency it needs to be explained, and cannot itself be 
invoked as an explanatory notion" (p. 98). This passage claims that UG 
principles not only provide 'explanatory value', but, because they are 
UG principles, they don't need to be explained themselves. Which makes 
one wonder whether 'UG' is being used here as a convenient device 
whereby you can appear to be explaining phenomena, without having to go 
to the bother of providing any proof. 

In the current pop-science style, Lightfoot brings in experts from all 
sorts of scientific fields, using them not to deepen theoretical 
understanding, but in an academic version of name dropping. So work 
from mathematical chaos theory is brought in to justify his description 
of language change as chaotic. Catastrophic change in language is 
supported by a discussion of Thom's Catastrophe theory, of the meanings 
of the word 'catastrophe' in English and French, and of work by Casti 
on economic catastrophes (pp. 89-91). 

Lightfoot seems to get uncomfortable when the word 'history' occurs, 
which it must do quite often when you work in historical linguistics. 
His review of linguistics in the last two centuries, and his criticism 
of the 'historicist' bias within the subject is reasonable. On pp. 42-3 
he discusses Marx's "very sensible approach [to history, which is] 
quite compatible with what I shall sketch in late chapters for language 
change", but then after two pages the discussion of history comes to a 
sudden end with a reference to Francis Fukuyama (author of 'The End of 
History'), and the dismissal of "gross categories like classes and 
types of society" as a problem, though it is not made clear what kind 
of problem these categories might be. Then the discussion reverts to 

This book throws into relief the problem that UG presents for 
discussions of language change, relying on the distinction between 
I-language, the child's internal, or as Lightfoot describes it, 
'biological' grammar, and E-language the language of the adult world 
outside the child. Now, if grammarians are to concern themselves 
primarily with I-language, how are they to understand the interaction 
between E-language and I-language that is the source of language 
change? For instance, how to account for an apparent increase in the 
use of 'thou' forms in the early 17th Century, and their sudden loss at 
the end of the Commonwealth period, other than by understanding the way 
that debate about political questions in the lead-up to the English 
Civil War came to be framed in biblical terms (as Hill 1993 
demonstrates)? To Lightfoot, such 'explanation' is outside the scope of 
grammarians, but can a theory of grammatical change be considered 
adequate when it specifically excludes some factors that might account 
for change? 

The work of linguists (often described as sociolinguists, as if they 
were not 'real' linguists), such as Labov and the Milroys, shows that 
external factors can be related in a quite direct way to change and 
variation in language. Labov's study of post-vocalic -r in New York, 
for example, is a classic illustration of how language change can be 
shown to have social and historical roots. Oddly enough, Lightfoot 
labels Labov's work as 'psychological grammar'! p. 81 

Clearly, the transmission of structural information from adult to child 
plays an important part in language change, but to understand how 
innovations spread through a community we have to look beyond the 
individual I-language, to the influence of age-groups, occupational 
groups and other such social groupings. The fact that children grow up 
speaking differently from their parents supports Lightfoot's model, but 
the fact that they grow up speaking exactly like other children of the 
same age is a powerful argument for considering social factors. 

When Lightfoot discusses language change in populations, he turns to 
computer simulations (pp. 102-4), calling this 'population genetics'. 
So, once again, evolutionary biology neatly dispenses with history and 

It is odd that in a book where child language is central, there should
 be only one reference to a study of 
child language (Crain and Thornton 1998). Of course, we cannot expect 
Lightfoot to have access to information about the way children learnt 
Old or Middle English, but contemporary child studies might or might
not have helped his 

Like Chomsky, but in opposition to Pinker and Newmeyer, Lightfoot 
considers that grammar is not a result of natural selection. The whole 
of UG, or some elements of it, may, he concedes, have evolved as an 
accidental side-effect of some other adaptive mutation. Indeed, he goes 
further than Chomsky in suggesting that the language faculty may not be 
unique, being just one of a number of mental abilities including the 
number system and music all of which may have evolved together (p. 

We are left with a book that provides some illuminating and informative 
accounts of changes in the English language, embedded in a lot of 
speculations about biology and language faculties, which someone 
looking back in twenty years time might recognize as the intellectual 
packaging of the late twentieth century. 


Hill, Christopher (1993) The English Bible and the 17th Century 
Revolution. Allen Lane 

Labov, W. (1966) The Social Stratification of English in New York City. 
Washington D.C. Center for Applied Linguistics 

Milroy, L (1987) Language and Social Networks. Blackwell 

(The reviewer is a Principal Lecturer in ESOL at Liverpool JMU, 
teaching subjects in English Language and Applied Linguistics. My 
research interests include the Origins and Evolution of Language. I am 
author of The Making of Language - 1996, Edinburgh University Press.) 

Mike Beaken
School of Modern Languages
Liverpool JMU
44 151 231 3268
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