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Review of  Origins of Language

Reviewer: Anne Reboul
Book Title: Origins of Language
Book Author: Sverker Johansson
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Philosophy of Language
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 18.273

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AUTHOR: Johansson, Sverker
TITLE: Origins of Language
SUBTITLE: Constraints on hypotheses
SERIES: Converging Evidence in Language and Communication Research 5
YEAR: 2006
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins

Anne Reboul, Research Team ''Pragmatics and cognition'' Institute for Cognitive Sciences, CNRS, Lyons, France


According to its author, Sverker Johansson, this book does not aim at arguing for an original or personal view of language evolution, but rather at presenting as widely as possible the current literature on this question. Thus, the book has an enormous reference section (82 pages, while the text itself is only 247 pages long). Its organization is also obviously devised to be as pedagogic as possible with one or two pages long summaries at the end of each chapter (excluding the introduction and conclusion), incorporating a brief reference list indicating the books which Johansson considers central to the chapter's theme. Thus the book is intended to be accessible for both an academic and post-graduate audience, as well as for an undergraduate audience. It covers a fairly wide ground, including a chapter on the theory of evolution, as well as on more expected issues, such as animal communication in the wild or the various ape-language projects.

The book begins by a short introduction, describing the contents. It is only with the second chapter, ''What is language?'', that the author gets going, indicating that, though language has a communicative function it can't be reduced to it, as well as giving a list of a few features of language, such as double articulation, displacement, symbolism, and shortly outlining generative grammar and cognitive linguistics.

The third chapter introduces ''the theory of evolution'', indicating that, understood as an ''abstract'' process, natural selection is not in and of itself biological, explaining the role of variation, randomness and mutation in biological natural selection, discussing a few misunderstandings about it, before turning to cultural evolution. The long paragraph about cultural evolution includes a presentation of ''the three worlds of Karl Popper'', and seems to take very seriously Popper's proposition of a third Platonic realm of abstract ideas, in which Johansson seems to include cultural concepts, as debatable a proposition as Popper's own. Johansson then redescribes the well-known Baldwin effect as the way to the interaction between biological and cultural evolution. He discusses the application of evolutionary theory to language, evoking both evolutionary accounts of neural organization in development and memetics applied to language, before coming to the coevolution of linguistic and biological organisms. He finally turns to the time scale of evolution, noting that evolutionary processes are very different in time scales depending whether they occur in ontogeny or in phylogeny.

The fourth chapter is devoted to ''human origins and evolution'', beginning with mammals, ending with humans, through primates. It reminds us that our nearest living relatives are the two species of chimpanzees, before turning to hominids. This section is highly detailed, discussing both the apparition of specific features (e.g. bipedalism) in specific species (Australopithecus afarensis, i.e. Lucy) and discussing the number of species, over which there is no consensus among paleo-anthropologists. One such discussion is over whether Neanderthals and sapiens sapiens are one or two species.

Chapter 5, ''Anatomical and neurological prerequisites for language'', deals with sound production, sound perception and brain anatomy, this last being discussed both for size and for modularity, based on neuropsychological evidence, ending with a discussion of brain in fossils, as evidenced by endocasts (the imprint the brain leaves on the skull during the fossilization process).

Chapter 6 deals with ''animal communication in the wild'', discussing ''referential'' calls (e.g. the well-known vervet alarm calls), mental states they suppose, evolution and the absence of meaningful syntax in animals.

Chapter 7 asks whether non-humans can be taught language''. It discusses all the known stars of ape-language projects, such as Washoe, Nim, Sherman and Austin, as well of course as Kanzi. Johansson then turns to Dolphins and to Alex, Pepperberg's African Grey parrot, concluding that ''at least some components of language, at least on a primitive level, are not strictly limited to Homo sapiens'' (141).

Chapter 8, ''Language, mind, and self'' could (presumably should) have been a book in itself. It deals both with the relation between language, thought and consciousness and with the presence or absence of thought and consciousness (understood as self-awareness) in non-human primates, as well as with questions such as the presence or absence of theory of mind (the ability of attributing mental states to conspecifics) in apes.

The ninth chapter turns to a discussion of ''hypotheses of language origins'', pointing out that such hypotheses try to answer two main questions, which can be characterized as the when and the why of language. Johansson begins by an historical excursion, from Epicurus to Chomsky. He then discusses the vexed question of language as an adaptation or as an exaptation (a by-product of other abilities), as well as when language evolved, whether it was a gradual or a sudden process, whether it was speech from the beginnings or whether it began as gestures, and whether language is innate. His answers are: both exaptation and adaptation; early (at least 500,000 years ago, in the common ancestor to both sapiens sapiens and neandertalis); gradual; either gestures or speech; either innate or not.

Chapter 10 concentrates on the why question (''why did language evolve?''). It reviews various hypotheses, such as hunting, tool making, sexual selection, child care and teaching, social relations, as well as play, music, storytelling and art. He does acknowledge though that the central question, given the obvious advantages of language in all of these activities, is why it seems specific to humans.

The last and 11th chapter deals with ''proto-language'' and basically enumerates various types of ''protos'': proto-speech, proto-gestures, proto-semantics, proto-syntax, as well as their combination.

Chapter 12 sums up the ''conclusions''.


It is hard not to think that the author has been trying to do too much with limited means. For one thing, the inflationary bibliography at the end of the book is an indication, unfortunately confirmed in the text, that the author's reading, however wide, has been rather superficial, i.e., he has read a lot, but not very deeply. An instance of that is his discussion of the Fodorian view of modularity in chapter 5, which is confused in the extreme, mainly because it seems to be based on second-hand readings, rather than on the original book, despite the fact that it is quoted in the references. Another problem arises with the discussion of very specific problems, such as for instance the number of hominid species. Specialists have been debating this question for a long time and for a good reason: even for extant specimens, determining whether one is or not in front of a unique species may be pretty hard to decide. When the specimens concerned are fossils, and more often than not unique and only partially preserved (some fossils are a small part of the skull with all the rest of the skeleton gone), with no evidence concerning inter-reproductibility, no genetic material available (to date, the only genetic material recovered is DNA from a Neanderthalis), the question becomes even more difficult. At any specific time in the 5 to 7 million years which separate us from our common ancestor with chimpanzees, there have been several species of hominids, but it is pretty hard to determine the exact number of species. Imagine having to decide between two skeletons of contemporary sapiens sapiens, for instance a tall dolichocephalic swede and a small brachicephalic pigmy, with no genetic or interbreeding evidence available, whether this is one or two species: it would be pretty hard going. Very much the same difficulty confronts the paleo-anthropologists who try to allocate fossils to species and it is hardly surprising that lively debates arise. However, I tend to think that in such cases, where specialists do not agree, rather than trying to decide for them, it is best to be more modest and to accept what they do agree with and to just set aside the points on which they disagree as undecided. Johansson chooses to discuss the points in question and adjudicate between different positions, even though most of them do not seem to be highly relevant to the problem of the evolution of language, the fossils concerned generally predating what he calls an early hypothesis for language evolution.

Again, from time to time, one may wonder whether having adopted a more critical stance would not have helped. For instance, in chapter 10, the discussion over hunting as a possible trigger for language evolution: Johansson discusses the currently accepted view that in hunter-gatherer societies, the main contribution to nutrition is done by gathering rather than by hunting. After noting that this is not the case in Arctic environments (where no gathering is possible), he says ''living in a glacial environment is a very late development in human history (...) so an Arctic origin of language does not appear plausible'' (195). Indeed, but as he does not quote anyone proposing such a crackpot theory, why even mention it? Such examples of rather pedantic but irrelevant discussions abound in the book.

Additionally, there are a few bewildering statements, which border on outright errors. For instance, Johansson repeatedly asserts that the common ancestor to both sapiens sapiens and chimpanzees must have been chimpanzee like and hypothesizes from the life of modern chimpanzees to what life could have been like for early hominids. In just as debatable a way, he tends to extrapolate from life of nowadays hunter-gatherers to life of Neanderthals or of early modern humans (sapiens, but not sapiens sapiens). Both, though especially, the first, stances are mistaken: chimpanzees have, just as humans, evolved in the 5 to 7 million years since the separation of our respective lineages. What can be hypothesized about the common ancestor of both chimpanzees and humans can only rest on what chimpanzees and humans share and, possibly, on what chimpanzees share with other great apes, notably the gorilla lineage which separated previously. But, unless one adopts the misguided view that the evolution of chimpanzees stopped when the human lineage took out, it makes no sense to say that the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees was chimpanzee-like. In the same way, modern hunter-gatherers are not neanderthals and caution should be taken not to extrapolate from their way of life to neanderthals' and modern humans' ways of life. As Mithen (1996, 2006) has repeatedly emphasized, the greatest mystery of all is why Neanderthals left such a poor repertory of tools and why they were so different from sapiens sapiens during the few thousand years when they overlapped. This hardly argues for hypothesizing from contemporary humans' to Neanderthals' way of life.

Finally, though Johansson's claims to be aiming at an impartial presentation of the field, it may be thought that his impartiality is less than it should be. His stance is clearly anti-chomskyan, which is perfectly legitimate, but hardly argues for impartiality. In much the same way, he seems to uncritically accept claims about ape-language projects which have been discussed in the linguistic literature in a more critical way. This is disturbing in as much as a less oriented eye might have had more interesting things to say about language evolution. For instance, he has two main hypotheses (which are clearly his own): the first one is that the so-called paleolithic revolution has not occurred, because in fact it took place over a number of years. Thus, a technological (variety of tools) and cultural (apparition of symbolism and cave-art) revolution did not occur around 60 to 40,000 years ago. This is, according to Johansson, an illusion triggered by the emphasis on the European record and ignoring African evidence. Another pet theory of Johansson is that there are physiological adaptations for language (descent of the larynx, respiratory control, fine motor control, etc.) and that these could only occur when language was in place - incidentally, this should argue for a gesture first hypothesis, which Johansson does not defend. This, according to him, given that Neanderthalis had those physiological characteristics (and so do we) is evidence for the fact that our common ancestor also had them and hence that language evolved about 500,000 years ago. Neither of these two hypotheses seem attractive: for instance, the evidence for a paleolithic revolution is strong (no African evidence seems to overturn it) and explanations for the delay between the apparition of sapiens sapiens (between 200 and 150,000 years ago) and the paleolithic revolution usually rely on demographic considerations: you need a minimum population to trigger cultural evolution. As for the second hypothesis, there seems to be a general view, nowadays, among paleo-anthropologists, that these physiological and neurological peculiarities are just a mechanical by-product of bipedalism, which was achieved by the first Homos (ergaster and erectus). Thus, they are not adaptations for language and there can be no argument from their existence at a given time to the idea that language pre-dated them. Indeed, the fact that this makes speech possible, taken in conjunction with the paleolithic revolution and with the fairly simple character of Neanderthals' culture, rather argues for the late scenario of language evolution (i.e. language as such evolving as a sapiens sapiens ability).


Mithen, S. (1996) The prehistory of the mind : a search for the origins of art, religion and science, Londres, Thames and Hudson.

Mithen, S. (2006) The singing Neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind, and body, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

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 philosophical subjects. She has just completed a book on
"Langage et cognition humaine" (Language and human cognition).