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Review of Origen, evolución y diversidad de las lenguas
AUTHOR: Mendívil Giró, José Luis TITLE: Origen, evolución y diversidad de las lenguas SUBTITLE: Una aproximación biolingüística SERIES: Studien zur romanischen Sprachwissenschaft und interkulturellen Kommunikation 52 PUBLISHER: Peter Lang YEAR: 2009
Kalle Korhonen, Department of Classical Philology, University of Helsinki
José Luis Mendívil Giró's (= M.) work is a theory about how language change could be described with evolutionary concepts. It is based on the generative framework, and in particular in the principles-and-parameters model. Unlike William Croft, whose work (2000) was influenced by the biology of Richard Dawkins and the ''neodarwinist'' school, M. builds his theory on the framework developed most prominently by S. J. Gould.
M's goal is to consider why and how languages change, what is the extent of linguistic diversity, and, especially, what linguistic diversity can tell us about the human language faculty. M. defines his approach as ''biolinguistic''; this means that language is seen as an innate property of human beings, as a ''natural instinct''. The novelty of M's work is in exploring how a theory of language change and linguistic diversity, based on the principles-and-parameters model, could be used to formulate a theory on the naturalness of the language faculty.
The book is divided in 20 concise chapters, of which the first ten focus on the phenomenon of linguistic change, and the second discuss the structural diversity of languages. The language choice shows that the work is intended especially for those members of the community of linguists who are literate in Spanish.
After defining the goals of the work in his introduction, M. gives an overview of the research tradition on linguistic change. For long periods, the purpose of the scholars of language was to prevent change. M. points out that even in the 21st century, cultivated audiences seem to be much more aware of the actual processes of biological evolution than of those of linguistic change; this certainly is a challenge for linguistic popularization. He claims that a more comprehensive vision of these two types of evolution would help us to understand better both linguistic change and biological evolution. When approaching the question ''what does linguistic diversity tell us about the naturalness of the language faculty?'', M. distinguishes between three possible lines of thinking. The first emphasizes the differences, and claims that linguistic diversity is so profound that the language faculty either does not exist or exists only on a very general level. The second line considers the diversity of languages as superficial and all the languages as variations of the same theme, which is why linguistic diversity is not particularly informative about the language faculty. According to M., the two approaches correspond with much of functionalist and formalist/generativist linguistic thinking, respectively. In a third way of thinking, preferred by M., linguistic diversity is seen as profound but also significant for determining the structure of the language faculty.
Chapters 1 and 2 focus on the comparison between languages and biological species, an analogy suggested by Charles Darwin in the ''Origin of Species'', and elaborated in his ''The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex'' (1871). After a brief look at the contemporaneous work on the same theme, especially by the comparative linguist August Schleicher, M. presents the principles of the theory of evolution as formulated by Darwin and looks at how the concepts of heredity, mutation and isolation, can be used to describe a process in which one language diversifies in two. He then goes on to comment on Darwin's famous passage on the parallels between the formation of languages and species, included in Ch. III of ''The Descent of Man''. At the same time, the history of comparative and contact linguistics is presented with examples from 19th to 21st century research. M. focuses on Darwin's point ''distinct languages may be crossed or blended together'' (pp. 44-46), which brings to mind the concept of mixed languages. M. follows Dixon (1997) in claiming that mixed languages in the technical meaning of the term are not likely to be born ''in the normal course of linguistic evolution'', but that such phenomena derive from language engineering. He compares this to the modern possibilities of genetic engineering.
Chapter 3 presents the background for M’s own theory, in the ''Chomskyan biolinguistic tradition'', with three essential concepts: Universal Grammar (UG), which is an initial state of the language faculty, interiorized language (language-i), and exteriorized language (language-e). Language-i is here defined as a kind of a mental grammar. Following the generative tradition, M. sees the purpose of linguistics as an effort to construe a theoretical model in which all the grammatical sentences of language-i are generated. This is where the parametric properties of individual languages come into play. He also presents some examples of how languages change, pointing out that linguistic change is not the same as functional optimization. M. claims that functional approaches to linguistic change inevitably lead to considering change as an improvement or refinement.
The differences between functional and generative approaches to language change are discussed in chapters 4 and 5, in which the two strands of linguistic thought are compared to the two principal traditions in current evolutionary biology. Here, M's discussion has been influenced by Sampedro (2002). The currents of biology, which are in M's work called ''neodarwinism'' and ''antineodarwinism'', differ in the following three respects: 1) in the principal units of selection; 2) the role of adaptation and natural selection; 3) the graduality vs. punctualism of evolutionary changes. In antineodarwinism, adaptation does not explain the morphology of a species entirely, but the laws of physics, or ''formal laws'', are taken into account better. M’s own theory is antineodarwinist, which is what, according to him, the generative linguistic tradition is. According to him, UG constrains variation, but in functionalist approaches all variation is possible as long as the functions are fulfilled. M., on the other hand, follows Lass (1997) in assuming that external functional pressure is not a factor in linguistic change, but that language develops despite the intentions of the speakers. In Lass' thinking, one phase of a language is not more functional than another. M. discusses in a lucid way the problems with explanations for linguistic change in which language is perceived as becoming more functional than before.
Many scholars have proposed lists of correspondences for the essential concepts of biological and linguistic evolution, most recently Croft (2000) and Mufwene (2008). In Ch. 6, M. develops his own parallelism, based on his biolinguistic approach:
Biological evolution - Linguistic evolution Organism - Language-i Species - Language-e Genes - Parameters DNA - UG
In biology, the totality of replicators is DNA, and genes are replicators; in Croft's version, utterance corresponds with DNA, and linguemes with genes.
M’s approach is elaborated in the following chapters. In Chs. 7 and 9, he specifies his ''punctualist'' model of language change: long periods of stability, followed by series of rapid changes; in Ch. 8, the connection of the origin of the language faculty with UG. In Ch. 10, M. presents a summary of the preceding chapters. He claims that the connection between languages and species is stronger than a mere analogy: it is a ''homology'', which in biology means an inherited characteristic (defined on p. 30).
The remaining chapters of the book (11-20) are dedicated to a discussion of the structural diversity of the languages, which helps to develop further M’s theory, now defined as ''teoría paramétrica minimalista'' (minimalist parametric theory) (p. 131). In Ch. 11, M. repeats the tripartite division, presented in the Introduction, on how different strands of linguistic thinking see the relationship between structural diversity and language faculty. He sees formalist approaches as examples of deductivist and functionalist approaches as inductivist thinking, and goes on to compare the manifestations of these two currents in the history of linguistic science (summarized in Fig. 6 on p. 134). Some universal categories are necessary (Ch. 12), and the contribution of typological research is essential (Ch. 13). In Ch. 13, M. defines his view of the relationship between UG and the language faculty; Wunderlich (2004) had shown that two kinds of interpretations prevail as to the nature of UG: 1) the totality of human languages and 2) the algorithm of human language. It is no wonder that M’s approach is closer to type (2). His view of the language faculty is based on recent work by Fitch, Chomsky and Hauser (Hauser et al. 2002, Fitch et al. 2005), in which they distinguish between the narrow and broad conceptions of language faculty (FLN, FLB).
The form of M’s parametric theory is presented in Chs. 14 to 16. Taking into account the critique of parametric theory by Haspelmath (2008) and Newmeyer (2005), M. constructs a framework which owes very much to Baker (2001) and in which the parameters are seen not as the atoms of language, but as the atoms of linguistic diversity (p. 164). He proposes that the locus of the parameters is probably the interface between the computational system and the rest of the language faculty (FLB). M. then discusses how different types of word order can be explained on the basis of parametric theory.
M. returns to evolution proper in Chs. 17 to 19. The first two chapters elaborate on how parameters actually can be made to correspond with genes in biology (see above), i.e., as units of selection and as genes of grammar. Before presenting the summary of his theory in Ch. 20, M. presents a lot of very interesting discussion in Ch. 19. He comments notably on Newmeyer (2005) who had claimed that a formalist theory of grammar is not relevant for explaining the structural typology of languages, and that grammar explains the possible, not the probable. M. does not see UG as consisting of certain grammatical principles. He proposes the following analogies: UG corresponds with biochemistry, grammatical theory with genetics, and external factors with natural selection. Thus, UG sets the limits for what is possible, and what is probable is determined by the history of a language. History naturally has constraints, which are 1) contingent phenomena and bottlenecks; 2) processing and other functional factors; 3) the proper UG as a system which combines the FLN and the FLB. Thus, what is probable is not just a question of history and processing.
In his concise concluding chapter 20, M elaborates on the three-way distinction developed by the biologist George C. Williams between ''organism-as-crystal'', ''organism-as-artifact'' and ''organism-as-document''. The applicability of this distinction in linguistics has recently been discussed in an excellent way by Carstairs-McCarthy (2008), who has emphasized that the organism-as-document approach, i.e., looking at the organism as the product of its own evolutionary history, is the most fruitful in the research on language evolution. M's own conclusions are presented as a list on pp. 229-30.
The internal organization of M's work is very clear, which makes the text easy to follow. The approach is down-to-earth in the first chapters, and becomes progressively more complex. But still, for such an ambitious work, English would nowadays be the natural language choice.
It is not within the competence of this reviewer to assess the quality of the work within parametric theory, because few real examples from languages are discussed. One must remark, however, that there are some instances in which M., although a professed generativist, crosses the line between generativism and functionalism. Here, I must point out that it is very interesting to see what direction the research on the relatedness of languages with the aid of phylogenetic methods is going to take. I am referring to the recent papers by Dunn et al. (2008) and Longobardi and Guardiano (in press, 2009): the approaches are based on different traditions, but the future could bring some convergence. As far as M's work is concerned, it must be pointed out that when the author is not in his own field, the expressions are not always satisfactory. E.g., M's view of mutual intelligibility is very simplistic, when he claims that ''intelligibility is usually of the type all or nothing'' (p. 119).
Finally, I must mention again the important challenge for linguistic popularization on p. 14. The (cultivated) general public is much more familiar with how biological evolution works than on linguistic change.
On the technical side, the most glaring problem is the lack of an index; one certainly misses at least the indices of key terms and scholars discussed. The book contains a small number of typographical errors which mostly do not disturb the reading. ''Asilamiento'' in italics on p. 27 (for aislamiento) left the reviewer puzzled for a while. On p. 211, VOS should read SVO. David Hull's seminal work ''Science as a Process'' is listed as ''Science as Progress'' in the bibliography on p. 235.
I wish to thank Carita Klippi (University of Tampere) for her helpful comments.
Baker, M. 2001. The Atoms of Language. New York: Basic Books. Carstairs-McCarthy, A. 2008. ''Poor design features in language as clues to its prehistory'', in B. Laks et al. (eds.), Origin and Evolution of Languages. Approaches, Models, Paradigms. London - Oakville: Equinox, 63-78. Croft, W. 2000. Explaining Language Change. An Evolutionary Approach. Harlow: Longman. Dixon, R. M. W. 1997. The Rise and Fall of Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Dunn, M., S.C. Levinson, E. Lindström, G. Reesink, A. Terrill. 2008. ''Structural Phylogeny in Historical Linguistics: Methodological Explorations Applied in Island Melanesia''. Language 84, 710-59. Fitch, T., M. Hauser, N. Chomsky. 2005. ''The evolution of the language faculty: Clarifications and implications''. Cognition 97, 179-210. Haspelmath, M. 2008. ''Parametric versus functional explanations of syntactic universals'', in T. Biberauer (ed.), The Limits of Syntactic Variation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 75-107. Hauser, M., Chomsky, N., Fitch, W. T. 2002. ''The language faculty: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?'' Science 298, 1569-1579. Lass, R. 1997. Historical Linguistics and Language Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Longobardi, G., C. Guardiano. (in press) 2009. ''Evidence for syntax as a signal of historical relatedness''. Lingua. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2008.09.012. Mufwene, S. 2008. Language Evolution. Contact, Competition and Change. New York: Continuum. Newmeyer, F.J. 2005. Possible and Probable Languages: A Generative Perspective on Linguistic Typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Sampedro, J. 2002. Deconstruyendo a Darwin. Los enigmas de la evolución a la luz de la nueva genética. Barcelona: Crítica.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Kalle Korhonen, PhD, is acting university lecturer in Classical Philology
at the University of Helsinki, Finland. His research focuses mainly on the
contacts between Greek and Latin and the sociolinguistics of ancient and
medieval societies where these languages were used. He has worked
extensively on Sicily. Korhonen is a member of the Biological Evolution and
the Diversification of Languages initiative (BEDLAN) founded by the Kone