LINGUIST List 14.1734

Thu Jun 19 2003

Review: Historical Linguistics: Givon & Malle (2002)

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  1. Anne Reboul, The Evolution of Language out of Pre-language

Message 1: The Evolution of Language out of Pre-language

Date: Wed, 18 Jun 2003 13:11:09 +0000
From: Anne Reboul <>
Subject: The Evolution of Language out of Pre-language

Givon, Talmy and Bertram F. Malle, eds (2002) The Evolution of
Language out of Pre-language. John Benjamins Publishing Company,
paperback ISBN 1-58811-238-1, ix+392.

Announced at

Anne Reboul, Institute for Cognitive Sciences, CNRS, France


This collection of papers is devoted to the subject of language
evolution from a (mostly) functionalist point of view (language as a
tool for communication rather than for thought). It includes papers by
linguists, neurophysiologists, anthropological paleontologists and
psychologists. It is on the whole easily accessible to graduate
students, though it suffers from a lack of basic discussion: the
functionalist perspective is adopted without so much as an argument.


The book is made of four parts: language and the brain; language and
cognition; language and social cognition; language development. Part
one opens with a paper by one of the editors, T. Givon, on ''The
visual information-processing system as an evolutionary precursor of
human language'', and defends the corresponding (main) thesis that
neural linguistic structures evolved from the visual
information-processing system and the (secondary) thesis that the
lexicon first emerged as a gestural code. Givon distinguishes two
components of the human language, considered as a system for the
representation and communication of experience: the cognitive
representation systems, conceptual lexicon, propositional information,
multi-propositional discourse, and the symbolic communicative codes,
peripheral sensory-motor codes and the grammatical code. The
conceptual lexicon is a network of nodes and connections and
corresponds to ''semantic memory'' while propositional information is
encoded in clauses and corresponds to ''episodic memory''. The
multi-propositional discourse can be seen as sequences of
clause-chains (sentences combining several propositions). While
peripheral sensory-motor codes map lexical-conceptual meaning onto
phonological words, grammar is the latest evolutionary addition, as
shown both by the order in first- and second-language acquisition and
by the easy acquisition of symbolic systems by animals though grammar
remains difficult if not altogether impossible for them. Pre-grammar
is considered as proto-grammar and largely consists of what
pragmaticians would call pragmatic rules (common sense rules more or
less on gricean lines), which are to be found as much in
non-linguistic as in linguistic communication. Givon then turns to
neural substrates of language and recalls the distinction between the
ventral stream for object recognition and the dorsal stream for space
information processing, linking them directly, respectively, to the
lexicon (semantic memory) and to propositions (episodic memory). Givon
defends the thesis that language modules are distributed all over the
brain. The main evolutionary hypothesis of the paper is double: the
cognitive representation modules (semantic and episodic memories)
arose pre-linguistically as visual information-processing modules and
were the basis of a peripheral lexical code, which evolved from a
visual-gestural beginning to a auditory-oral system. The grammar was a
late addition to the human communicative system that may or may not
have preceded the evolution from the gestural to the oral code. The
paper ends with a defense of the hypotheses of a gestural code
preceding the oral code and of a late evolving grammar.

The next paper by D. Tucker, proposes an evolutionary-developmental
analysis of adaptive semantics. Its main idea is that ''language
evolved to transcend evolution'' (51), allowing shortcuts in behavior
changing through cultural transmission. Language is ''embodied'' in
the left cerebral hemisphere. Evolution concentrated on ''terminal
additions'', i.e. ''recent forms could be added only to the terminal
stage of embryogenesis'' (55) which means that they concentrate on the
telencephalic structures, the striatum and the limbic
circuits. However, important preadaptations for human language go with
social communication and are thus almost certainly precortical. The
paper would have benefited from a more important number of
illustrations and brain maps to make it more digestible. The third
paper is devoted to a description of the missing links in hominid
fossils and is by C. Li. Li reviews recent discoveries in human
paleonthology (e.g. Australopitecus ghari who used stone tools) and
discusses their impact on the language evolution debate. He quite
rightly emphasizes that the evidence is not enough to provide clues to
the debate and advocates an integration of paleoanthropologic,
neuroscientific, ethological, linguistic and evolutionary
informations. According to him, rather than recursion, the criterion
dividing pre-linguistic from linguistic communication is the
dependence of the first of darwinian evolution and the dependence of
the second on cultural transmission. Language evolution depends on the
emergence of symbolic signals, referring in a context-independent way
to concrete objects, though the cristallization of language can be
complete only with the symbolization of abstract or absent
entities. Once the lexicon reaches a critical mass, grammar will
emerge in a few generations, as shown by creolization. However, ''the
cognitive prerequisite for the emergence of language is the ability to
understand fully intentionality, causality and the mental states of
conspecifics'' (95), an ability shared by humans and chimpanzees. Li
then evokes mirror neurons (which fire both in planning and in
recognizing action) as a tool for learning (and for language
acquisition) as well as the uniquely human migration of neuronal
precursor cells from the telencephalon to the diencephalon in the
foetus, explaining the wide differences between human and chimp brain
despite the genetic similarities (99% of common DNA between the two
species). Though Li's paper is enthusiastic and well-informed, it
takes a lot for granted, notably the idea that language developped
primarily if not exclusively as an instrument for communication. A
sentence deserves quotation: ''even from the perspective of intuition,
it is difficult to imagine language as an instrument of thought before
the dawn of civilization which is marked by such features as written
language, urbanization, advanced technology, expanded population and
complex social organization'' (87). It might equally be said that it
is difficult to imagine the development of written language,
urbanization, advanced technology, expanded population and complex
social organization if language is not or could not be used as an
instrument for thought. This is very much an egg-or-hen argument and,
as is well-known, such an argument does not prove anything.

Part 2 opens with a paper by J. Bybee on ''sequentiality as the basis
of constituent structure''. Her hypothesis is ''that sequentiality is
basic to language and constituent structure emerges from sequentiality
because elements that are frequently used together bind together into
constituents'' (109). Constituents are defined as sequences that can
be used alone, can be replaced by pro-forms and can occur in various
places in the sentence. Grammatical knowledge is procedural and thus
unconscious. Bybee justifies her hypothesis from a study on the
composition of English noun phrases, concentrating on eleven lexical
nouns most frequently found in a corpus and examining the items
immediately preceding and immediately following the nouns in
question. She finds that the most frequent items before the nouns are
determiners while those following the nouns are prepositions, verbs
and relative clauses. ''The primary counter-examples involve preceding
prepositions, which seem restricted to certain high frequency phrases,
and common verbs or auxiliaries following the noun'' (120). This leads
her to the claim that language learning consists in storing ''repeated
fragments of speech'' (120), leading to the frequent production of
prefabricated units in adulthood. Hierarchy is thus created out of
automated sequences, a domain-general cognitive process. An additional
argument is that chunking (e.g. auxiliary contraction) occurs in
violation of constituent structure, but according to the predictions
of the frequency hypothesis. ''Thus constituency (?) is the
convergence of two other factors and is itself not a basic
structure. It is an emergent property of language'' (130) and is
basically epiphenomenal to the linguistic system. This leads to the
view that the development of grammar is the result of domain-general
abilities. Bybee's work is based on statistical analysis and the main
problem, as often in the use of statistics, is the interpretation of
the data. For instance, there is nothing surprising in the results of
the noun p hrases analyses given a generative view of language. The
same thing goes for the argument that 55% of spoken and written texts
are made of prefabricated units: there still remains 45% which are NOT
made of prefabricated units, not such a feeble result after all! And
finally, chunking in violation of constituent structure can also be
explained in GG: the most likely hypothesis is that it is a
phonological rather than syntactical phenomenon. Some support for that
hypothesis can be found in the asymmetry between subject and object in
liaison, in French for instance (impossible between a full NP subject
and the verb or auxiliary, possible between the verb and the object).
The next paper deals with the internal structure of the syllabe from
an ontogenetic perspective and is by B. Davis and P. MacNeilage. The
idea is that speech could have evolved from non-speech vocal
capacities, through coordination of mammalian laryngeal phonation and
articulatorily alternations between open and closed mouth
configurations. These can be found in infant babbling and thus this
paper, as most in the volume, relies on the hypothesis that ontogeny
recapitulates phylogeny. Rhythmic mandibular oscillations are the
basis, simulating consonants and vowels. This is general through the
acquisition of languages, however different they may be
phonologically. Thus, ''evolution may likely have preserved functional
aspects of the internal structure of the jaw cycle (i.e. intrasyllabic
regularities) while elaborating over time with additional adaptations
seen in increase of independent articulator movements within syllables
in the service of increase in message complexity'' (149).
The next paper, by the same authors in reverse order, deals with the
origins of intersyllabic complexity, that is, it justifies the content
of the first paper by explaining why the relative phonological poverty
of infant babbling leaves room for differentiated consonants and
vowels in successive syllables. The order is usually labials-coronals
because labials being more easy to produce are chosen to initiate the
action, then are followed by the less easy coronals and finally with
the still less easy dorsals. The trend for this preference is not
found only in early words but is widely spread across languages, where
the frequency order for initial position in words is
labial>coronal>dorsal while it is reversed for final position. ''Sound
patterns of words are a result of two sometimes conflicting forces
production constraints and the need for perceptual distinctiveness''
(166). Thus, phonology evolved through ''a self-organizing process of
resolution of conflicts between production and perception
constraints'' (167). These two papers are well-argued and fairly
convincing, but it is hard to see why their empiric claims should go
against a generative account of language evolution or development. If
anything, they would seem in agreement with some central tenets of
optimality theory.

Chapter 7, by T. Givon and M. Barker, deals with the pre-linguistic
origins of language processing rates. The paper is based on the
stability of the temporal flow of word-processing (ca. 250 msecs) and
clause-processing (ca. 1.0 sec.). The paper returns to the hypothesis
of two neural systems for two types of memories for, respectively, the
lexicon and clauses presented in Givon's opening paper to the present
volume, introducing mirror neurons, to the debate. The difference in
time between the processing of words and clauses led to the hypothesis
that episodic memory of individual events and objects would decay
rapidly if they were presented at rates inferior to the language
processing of, respectively, clauses and words. This led to two
experiments, which ''fit, substantially if not absolutely, the
predictions'' (188). Thus, the two types of processing rates
coincide. ''Given the evolutionary precedence of visual information
processing over language, an evolutionary interpretation of the
amazing coincidence of the two types of rates is an eminently
respectable theoretical gambit'' (189).

G. Fenck-Oczlon and A. Fenck sign the next paper on the clausal
structure of linguistic and pre-linguistic behavior. It begins with a
plea for the co-evolution of language and the relevant cognitive
capabilities, but concentrates on the cognitive pre-conditions for
language development. A first requisite is mental propositions with a
predicate-argument-structure, corresponding to ''kernel-sentences''. A
trans-cultural phenomenon in human action is a segmentation in the
range of a few seconds, and the hypothesis is that ''intonation units
[corresponding to propositions] in a language are a special case of
action units'' (221). Thus ''the underlying span of (about two seconds
and) about seven syllables has, according to our findings, the
appropriate size for encoding one proposition'' (226). This leads us
to part 3, which opens with a paper on the gradual emergence of
language by B. Mac Whinney. Mac Whinney, though he acknowledges the
species-specific character of language, insists that language did not
evolve in and of itself but was the result of the six million years of
evolution that produced modern humans. He distinguishes four major
evolutionary periods, all of them accompanied by brain modifications:
the acquisition of the bipedal gait, the development of group
structure solidification through face to face interaction, the growth
of social expression of language functioning prosody, chant, gesture,
dance, etc., and, finally the linking of language with the development
of double articulation at phonological and syntactic levels and
cultural production. ''The four challenges [behind these evolutionary
periods] are: bipedalism, social cohesion, mimetics, and
systematization'' (235). Chapter 10, by the co-editor of the volume,
B. Malle, is devoted to the co-evolution of language and theory of
mind, both onto- and phylogenetically. Though language and theory of
mind are not inseparable, they are strongly linked. Language developed
for communication that itself is crucial to social
coordination. Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states
to others and to reason about them and develops in the child from the
visual perception of agency and the development of the concept of
intention. Though theory of mind in the full sense implies language,
there are non-linguistic precursors to theory of mind (e.g. shared
attention) as is shown by the fact that ''language acquisition itself
appears to rely on theory of mind skills'' (269). This leads to the
following picture: Theory of mind -> early language -> later stages of
theory of mind. This suggests to Malle a coevolution hypothesis, which
he discusses according to three models: coincidental coevolution,
coevolution due to the emergence of a third factor, evolutionary
escalation. He favors the third, though he recognizes that no clear
evidence exists at present.

D. Baldwin signs the next paper on the rise of human intentional
understanding, taken to be a system closely-allied to
language. Language is riddled with intentionality, filling most
descriptions of action with meaning and, as a tool for communication,
is in contact with intentional understanding. And, as language,
intentional understanding is a generative system. Acquisition of
intentional understanding goes through structure detection and
induction and the same is true for language acquisition. Part 4 opens
with a paper by M. Tomasello on the emergence of grammar in early
child language, describing a model based on the following hypothesis:
the acquisition of language proceeds through the functional analysis
of utterances in terms of their communicative function, the creation
of schemas both at utterance and at constituent level, the assembling
of schemas into utterances. What this leads to is a bottom-up view of
language acquisition in which the acquisition of syntax is similar to
the acquisition of lexical morphology. This is followed by a chapter
by J. Morford, trying to answer the question of why exposure to
language matters. Morford begins by distinguishing two categories of
grammatical properties: ''system internal'' ones (within a single
grammar, presumably involved in creolization), and
''processing-dependent'' ones, resulting from the automation of
language processing. The second ones are crucially dependent on
exposure. Morford discusses the cases of deaf children of normal
parents and of the way their gestural production is organized, despite
their lack of exposure to signed language. She reminds us of how
difficult it is to learn a first language as a teenager through the by
now classical example of Genie. Her conclusion is that ''the same
individual who innovates structure in a communication system will not
have the opportunity to automate processing of that structure'' (338),
because automation needs exposure. S. Goldin-Meadow, well-known for
her work on deaf children, speaks of language creation, turning rather
naturally to deaf children to highlight the linguistic creativity of
language learning. She reports a study of severely deaf children
raised by hearing parents with an oral method. She analyzes the
gestures used by these children and notes that they show resilient
linguistic properties, such as stable words paradigmatically and
categorically organized and with grammatical functions, sentences
marked by deletion, word order, inflection and recursion, and,
finally, pragmatic properties of language use, such as indexicality,
communication about absent or imaginary objects, narration, self-talk
and metalinguistic uses. Such gesture systems develop over time, this
being manifest in utterance growth, the apparition of morphology,
grammatical categories. Goldin-Meadow compares this with language
creation in adults (typically the hearing parents of deaf children,
communicating through a sui generis gesture system), noting that
though some grammatical structure (i.e. ergativity) emerges,
morphology does not. She hypothesizes that two types of forces are at
play: synchronic forces operating on communication and diachronic
forces constraining the evolution of the system. The final paper is
by D. Slobin and probes the parallels between language evolution,
acquisition and diachrony. In particular he examines four hypotheses
that are well represented in the preceding papers: ''1. The course of
language development in the child has parallels with the development
of language in our genus and species. 2. The sequence of development
of linguistic forms in the child mirrors the diachronic development of
those forms in the language that the child is acquiring. 3. Diachronic
language change is, in part, the product of the learner. 4. The
emergence of new languages creoles and Nicaraguan Sign Language is
due to child learners'' (376). He dismisses all of them with diverse
arguments, e.g. the heterochrony of cognitive development between
humans and chimps (making the comparison of toddlers with monkeys or
apes irrelevant). His criticisms appear well founded and convincing,
which throws doubts on much of the papers that appear in the rest of
the book.


It is highly commendable in a book where most if not all of the
chapters rely on the hypothesis that ontogeny recapitulates philogeny
to include a chapter such as Slobin's which raises difficulties for
such a view. However, it should be clear that, with the exception of
deaf children raised by non-signing parents, there is absolutely no
reason to suppose that acquiring an existing language through normal
exposure at an individual level can be productively compared with
evolving a language at a species level. Thus, the whole idea of the
ontogeny of language acquisition recapitulating the phylogeny of
language evolution seems, to say the least, debatable. At the most, it
can give rise to what Slobin calls ''speculative scenarios'' which
''we can never have sufficient evidence to scientifically evaluate''
(389). Much of the book is (understandably) like that. The difficulty
of studying language evolution, given that there are no fossil
languages, leads rather naturally to the four hypotheses that Slobin
rejects as the only possible approaches to the problem. Yet, if, as he
convincingly claims, these hypotheses cannot be maintained, then maybe
the very problem should be abandoned. In other words, though language
evolution is a fascinating problem, it is far from clear that it can
be scientifically studied.

Another problem stems from the very functionalist perspective of the
book that pervades most if not all papers and leads to rather strong
though not clearly justified assertions on the communicative function
of language (see above, Li's quotation). A more balanced view, given
that, as said above, there is no clear indication of the reason why
language evolved in the first place (and of whether it evolved as the
result of a specific mutation or just emerged as a byproduct of the
evolution of other cognitive capacities) might be to suppose that
language is both a communicative and a cognitive tool, facilitating
not only communication but thought, an hypothesis which is supported
by some studies in comparative psychology. For instance, Povinelli
(2000) has argued that chimpanzees not only do not have the same folk
physics and theory of mind as we do, but do not seem to be able to
acquire the concepts underlying these cognitive abilities in human. He
suggests that this is due to the lack of language in chimpanzees. And,
as Malle recognizes, language, even though it may depend on theory of
mind for its acquisition, seems to constrain later developments in
theory of mind abilities. Thus, there may be some place for a dual
view of the language function: both social for communication and
cognitive for thought. Finally, though quite a few papers in the
book claim that language developped because of the constraints placed
upon communication by the growth in number of hominid groups, it
should be said that no one really knows how big or small those groups
were: for all we know, they might have the same size as contemporary
groups of chimpanzees and chimpanzees seem to manage a fairly
sophisticated social organization without language. Unless one wants
to fall in the fallacy of considering present day so-called stone age
people as similar to pre-sapiens hominids, there is no way other than
sheer speculation and wishful thinking of describing the size or
social organization of hominid groups when language appeared.

One line which, in the light of the above criticisms, might be pursued
to study language evolution is simulation. Though simulation will not
be able to determine which scenario actually occurred, it can at least
help decide which scenarios are or are not possible. Thus simulation
would at least be a test space for evaluation of concurrent scenarios.

Finally, there are some arguments which seem misguided. For instance,
the first chapter (by Givon) relies fairly often on comparisons
between language acquisition and learning to read which seems
debatable as (first) language acquisition clearly is a natural
phenomenon while learning to read, just as clearly, is not. What is
more, it is not obvious that the structure of the adult brain as well
as its activation as recorded in brain-scan studies can tell much
about what would or would not be specific to language or about what is
or is not innate in language acquisition.


D.J. Povinelli, ''Folk physics for apes: The Chimpanzee's Theory of
how the world works'', Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000.


Anne Reboul is a First Class Research Fellow at the French Center for
Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. She has a Ph.D. in Linguistics
(EHESS, Paris) and a Ph.D. in philosophy (University of Geneva,
Switzerland). She has written some books, among which an Encyclopaedic
Dictionary of Pragmatics and quite a few papers in French and English,
on pragmatics and/or philosophic subjects.


I have benefited from the help of the following colleagues in writing
this review: Viviane Deprez, Jacques Moeschler and Tatjana
Nazir. Needless to say, any errors are mine.
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