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Review of  Language Evolution

Reviewer: Emmanuelle Labeau
Book Title: Language Evolution
Book Author: Morten H Christiansen Simon M. Kirby
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 15.265

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Christiansen, Morten H. and Simon Kirby (2003) Language Evolution,
Oxford University Press.

Announced at

Emmanuelle Labeau, Aston University, Birmingham (UK)


Language Evolution is intended to bring together all the major
perspectives on language evolution illustrated not only in the various
areas of linguistics (psycholinguistics, computational linguistics...)
but also in disciplines as varied as psychology, primatology,
philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, biology, neuroscience,
neuropsychology or cognitive science. An original feature of the book
is that the individual chapters were submitted for discussion to
advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students at Cornell University
and fine-tuned on the basis of their electronic questions. The editors
suggest this enables the volume to be used as a textbook for courses
on the origin and the evolution of language.

In the first chapter, the editors present the book that aims at
understanding the complex nature of language, seen as the
characteristic feature of humanity, and at giving an accessible
overview of its evolution. That once popular field provoked such
outlandish speculations in the nineteenth century that it was banned
from the Société de Linguistique de Paris in 1866 and neglected
for more than a century hence the need for a state of the art.

Steven Pinker opens with Language as an adaptation to the cognitive
niche. He starts by discussing the design of the language faculty,
including words, grammar and interfaces with other parts of the mind.
He then discusses the theory of language as an adaptation before
exploring reasons for which language evolves. He concludes with a
presentation of new genetic tests that may support the claim that
language is an adaptation.

In The language mosaic and its evolution, James R. Hurford starts by
recapitulating a list of biological pre-adaptations to language
readiness, such as a pre-phonetic ability to perform speech sounds due
to the low position of vocal cords. He then describes cultural
evolution of languages such as grammaticalization and concludes on
lessons to be learnt from recent computer modeling of language

Frederick J. Newmeyer asks the rather paradoxical question What can
the field of linguistics tell us about the origins of language? The
first part of the paper explains the reluctance of linguists to tackle
the topic, neglected by theoretical linguistics as coming under
biological sciences, inaccessible to the usual tools of historical
linguistics and not in tune with the widespread uniformitarian
hypothesis that all languages are equal. In recent years, a better
understanding of linguistic theories joined with sophisticated
techniques of formal modeling as well as a better knowledge of the
vocal tract evolution have led to a change of attitude among

Derek Bickerton's attempt to present a framework covering all the
processes that provoked the emergence of human language relies on
Symbol and structure. Symbols multiplied to express new things whilst
structures remained limited hence leading to a proto-language.

Michael Tomasello pursues on the same two concepts in On the different
origins of symbol and grammar. He considers them from the point of
view of the most basic cognitive and communicative processes involved
for example in human children and chimpanzee's language.

Terrence W. Deacon explores UG and semiotic constraints in his
contribution. He argues that universals play an important role in
language but that some major aspects of the UG are neither biological
nor cultural such as semiotic constraints. These are selection
pressures that speed evolution towards forms that effectively
communicate by not violating them.

Iain Davidson brings an archaeologist's viewpoint to the problem in
The archaeological evidence of language origins: States of art. He
underlines the fact that much of our knowledge comes from the state of
the archaeology of art and leaves therefore many questions unanswered.

In What are the uniquely human components of the language faculty,
Marc D. Hauser & W. Tecumseh Fitch research whether other species
share the mechanisms underlying speech production and perception. As
some do, the authors argue that such mechanisms did not evolve for
speech production or perception, but for other communicative or
cognitive functions.

Michael A. Arbib questions in The evolving mirror system: a neural
basis for language readiness Chomsky's hypothesis that our genetic
constitution encompasses grammar, given the brief period for which we
know languages in comparison with the long history of the Homo
Sapiens. The author suggests that the first Homo Sapiens used a form
of vocal communication that evolved culturally through invention that
took advantage of the pre-adaptation of a ''language-ready'' brain but
did not encode general properties such as grammar.

Michael C. Corballis offers in his contribution Gestural origins of
language an overall evolution scenario from the emergence of
bipedalism when hominids developed more sophisticated ways to gesture
to one another. He suggests that the face became increasingly involved
in gesturing as sophisticated tools occupied the hands. The
progressive addition of sounds to facial gestures would have allowed
many gestures to retreat within the mouth where they still appear in

Robin I. M. Dunbar explores in The origin and the subsequent evolution
of language the questions of why the language evolved in the first
place and why languages are prone to diversification. He explores both
the technological and social functions to provide elements for an
answer to the first question and selects the hypothesis of social
bounding for the second.

Michael Studdert-Kennedy & Louis Goldstein reflect in Launching
language: The gestural origin of discrete infinity on the role of
discrete infinity, the property by which language constructs an
infinite variety of messages from a limited number of forms. They come
to the conclusion that, under pressure for intelligible exchange, the
vocal apparatus differentiated into lips, tongue tip, tongue body,
tongue root, velum and larynx which made it capable of effecting
discrete changes. Different languages would have then expanded and
developed the basic gestural phonology thanks to attunement through
vocal mimicry, which leads to a differentiation of gestures produced
by a given organ and a coordination of gestures into more complex

Philip Lieberman in Motor Control, Speech and the evolution of human
language attempts to demonstrate that evolution is evident when
examining the anatomical specialization and neural mechanisms that
make human speech and language possible.

Simon Kirby & Morten H. Christiansen discuss the uniqueness of human
language inasmuch as it is learned in From language learning to
language evolution. They first look at the way in which language
learning leads naturally to language variation, and what the
constraints on this variation reveal about language acquisition. They
then introduce a computational model of sequential learning the
natural bias of which mirrors human biases. They go on studying how
learning biases can lead to language universals by introducing the
iterative learning model, a model of linguistic transmission. Finally,
they consider the implications of their research for linguistic and
evolutionary theory and argue that linguistic structure arises from
the interaction between learning, culture, and evolution.

In Grammatical assimilation Ted Briscoe reviews arguments for and
against the emergence and maintenance of an innate language
acquisition device via genetic assimilation.

The final chapter on Language, learning and evolution by Natalia L.
Komarova & Martin A. Nowak aims to show how methods of formal language
theory, learning theory, and evolutionary biology can be combined to
perfect the understanding of the origins and the properties of the
human language.


As appears from this brief overview, the present volume offers a very
interdisciplinary approach to a field that was excluded from
linguistic research for more than a century, as it was felt as
inducing wild hypotheses. The place of linguistics as such is
therefore restricted quantitatively but also qualitatively as language
evolution refers to emergence of the language faculty rather to
changes within given systems.

Much of the once maligned hypothetical nature of the discussion
remains despite the ingenuity of the theories and the use of sometimes
very sophisticated methodologies. Although hypotheses presented in the
book, for example the gestural origin of language (Corballis), are
fascinating they are only hypotheses that are hotly debated (Dunbar
rejects the gestural explanation as ''not making sense''). Indeed,
Davidson's contribution is quite refreshing in its honesty about the
scope of data to which we have no access. Even if you don't need to be
made aware if this, the collection of papers proves nonetheless
fascinating reading.

While contributors come from widely different disciplines, they have
managed to make their research accessible to
non-specialists. Technical terms and concepts are kept to the minimum
and clearly explained. The chapter format is helpful with suggestions
for further reading at the end of each chapter, even if one may wonder
about the general order in which papers appear.

To conclude, the book does what it claims: offer an interdisciplinary
approach for whom it claims: advanced students who would appreciate
the accessible level and recommended readings.

Emmanuelle Labeau is a lecturer in French in the School of Languages
and European Studies of Aston University (Birmingham). Her PhD
dissertation (2002) was entitles "The Acquisition of French past tenses
by tutored Anglophone advanced learners: is aspect enough?".
She is more generally interested in time and aspect of the French past
tenses, as shown by the two volumes she co-edited with Pierre Larrivée,
Les temps du passé français et leur enseignement (2002) and Nouveaux
développements de l'IMP (forthcoming).

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