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Review of  The Origins of Complex Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth

Book Title: The Origins of Complex Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth
Book Author: Andrew D. Carstairs-McCarthy
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 12.1338

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Carstairs-McCarthy, Andrew (2000) The Origins of Complex
Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings
of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth. New York: Oxford
University Press, paperback, 260 pp.

Asunci�n �lvarez, Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

It comes as quite a surprise that Andrew
Carstairs-McCarthy, the author of the highly
specialized, exhaustive Current Morphology, should
tackle a topic as apparently unrelated to morphology
as evolution. However, it was precisely his former
work that led him to evolutionary linguistics. As he
puts it, "Meaning is the senior partner [in the
sound-meaning pair], we tend to feel, in that spoken
words exist in order to express meanings. Yet my work
on inflectional morphology led me to wonder whether,
in some real sense, things may be the other way round:
meanings exist in order to provide something for
spoken words to express". This provocative idea is the
motor of the book, which is an attempt to explain it
in evolutionary terms and to explore its philosophical
implications (Carstairs-McCarthy trained as a
philosopher and Classicist before turning to
Linguistics stricto sensu).

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 1 consists of a brief introduction to the
book's main themes. Foremost among these is the
universality of the syntactic distinction between
sentences and noun phrases (NPs). Former inquiries
into the nature of language have consistently taken
this distinction as a necessary given. However,
Carstairs-McCarthy argues, this is due to their being
tainted by the fact that they were necessarily carried
out by speakers of human languages. Carstairs-McCarthy
holds that human language as we know it was not the
only possible outcome of evolution, and that seeing
the sentence-NP opposition as a necessary foundation
for the possibility of language, far from clarifying
the question, is merely a display of anthropocentric

Chapter 2: The Peculiarities of Language
In Chapter 2 Carstairs-McCarthy expounds what he takes
to be the three main peculiarities of human language:
vocabulary size, duality of patterning, and the
distinction between sentences and NPs.
Carstairs-McCarthy sees the vocabulary size in
languages as an oddity. From the viewpoint of adaptive
specialization, he argues, the human being, with his
capacity to learn many different specialized
vocabularies, would resemble "a mammal with the
aquatic habits of a seal but whose forelimbs were
equipped not only for swimming but also for
terrestrial food gathering [...] [and which] also had
an elongated digit subtending a web of membrane
attached to its flank, like a bat, equipping it for a
mode of locomotion that it had never used". Natural
selection encourages specialization - then "why",
wonders Carstairs-McCarthy, "has not natural selection
also encouraged a form of language in humans that is
specialized [...] - that is, in which the capacity to
learn and remember words is just sufficient to
accommodate the social and economic needs of small
bands of individuals living by hunting and gathering,
without scope for technical and cultural elaboration
or versatility?"
Duality of patterning (a.k.a. as double
articulation) is the characteristic of language
whereby linguistic expressions are analysable on two
levels: a meaningless level, in which mere arbitrary
sounds (phones) are arranged into abstract units made
up of bundles of distinctive features (phonemes); and
a level in which phonemes are arranged into larger,
meaningful units (morphemes). Some animal systems of
communication can be analysed as involving combinable
units, but none of them involve a dual structure of
meaningfulness-meaninglessness. Carstairs-McCarthy
argues that duality of patterning is not necessary for
vocabulary expansion, and indeed that there exist
linguistic forms which work in a non-dual way, such as
sign languages of the deaf and dumb and some writing
systems. I find this is a misrepresentation. Sign
languages and the Chinese writing language, asserts
Carstairs-McCarthy, lack minimal distinctive units
which can be rearranged into larger units, such as
phonemes. Thus Carstairs-McCarthy defines the double
articulation as a dual structure in which both levels
are linked by a causal relationship - the 'higher',
meaningful level being componentially made up of units
belonging to the 'lower', meaningless level. However,
duality of patterning need not involve a causal,
componential relationship between the two levels. The
'higher', meaningful level does indeed have its
material support in the 'lower' level of physical
sounds (or ink stains, or whatever), but the laws for
the self-regulation of the levels need not be the same
for both of them. Besides the interface between
meaninglessness and meaning, each level has its own
internal laws, which may or may not resemble those of
the other one. The point of the notion of duality of
patterning, I believe, is precisely the
distinctiveness of the levels. Saying that meaning is
determined exclusively by the combination of the
meaningless units which underlie it amounts to
establishing a continuum between both levels, thus
blurring the radical difference between them.
Finally, Carstairs-McCarthy states that the
distinction between sentences and noun phrases,
however essential to language we believe it to be, is
in fact quite arbitrary. He then proceeds, rather
amusingly, to illustrate this point with several
invented languages lacking altogether this
distinction: 'Asyntatic' (which has no syntax as
such), 'Spatiotemporal' (characterized by the
compulsory specification of spatial and temporal
coordinates),'Monocategoric' (lacking different
syntactic categories - there are only simple and
complex expressions), and 'Nominalized English' (which
has no verbs and uncannily resembles Officialese).
Carstairs-McCarthy ascertains that such systems work
correctly, in terms of communication. Thus he
concludes that there is no necessary reason for the
privileged status of the sentence-NP distinction -
indeed, he argues, there are many similar linguistic
distinctions which a grammar might express but
generally neglects, such as those between token and
type, or between activity and achievement.

Chapter 3: Truth and Reference
Chapter 3 deals with the philosophical implications of
questioning the sentence-NP distinction. Indeed, this
distinction practically amounts to that between the
classic philosophical notions of predication - the
function by which statements are made and deemed to be
true or false - and reference - the function by which
'things' (entities, both abstract and concrete, in the
world or in possible worlds) are named. Pursuing his
inquiry into the nature of the sentence-NP
distinction, Carstairs-McCarthy seeks an
extralinguistic foundation for it. To that end, he
examines the views of three main philosophers on this
question: Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and
Peter Strawson. The conclusions he draws from this
examination confirm him in his assertion that there
are no extralinguistic reasons for the sentence-NP (or
truth-reference) divide.

Chapter 4: Attempts to solve the problems
This chapter is an overview of the main explanations
that have been proposed for the three aspects of human
language the book deals with.
Insofar as vocabulary size is concerned,
Carstairs-McCarthy has little to oppose to, as few
theories dealing with this feature of human language
have been advanced. Thus he merely points out the
paucity of synonyms and the abundance of homonyms
which seem to prevail in language. As regards duality
of patterning, Carstairs-McCarthy discusses the
theories of call blending, sound symbolism, and
phonological self-organization. Finally, and
concerning the sentence-NP distinction, he examines
Chomsky's universal grammar, Pinker and Bloom's study
of auxiliaries, cognitive grammar, pragmatics,
Bickerton's ideas about protolanguage, Sampson's
hierarchical syntax, gesture and sign language.
Carstairs-McCarthy finds none of the explanations
he examines satisfactory. He therefore presents his
own account of the three features in question, which
is advanced in the next chapter.

Chapter 5: A Different Solution
Chapter 5 presents Carstairs-McCarthy's own theory
concerning vocabulary size, duality of patterning, and
the sentence-NP distinction in human language. This
theory is based on evidence from two quite disparate
areas of language research: vocabulary acquisition in
children and the anatomy of the vocal tract. Basing
himself on arguments drawn from these two areas (and
which are too elaborate to summarize here),
Carstairs-McCarthy arrives at the conclusion that
syntax is motivated by phonology, which in turn is
conditioned by the descent of the larynx in our
hominid ancestors, caused by bipedalism. This
physiological modification would have led to what
Carstairs-McCarthy charmingly terms later in the book
(chapter 7) "the binary strait-jacket". The bipolar
continuum of sonority made possible by the descent of
the larynx would have produced a syntactic mould which
in turn would have generated an analogous bipolarity
in semantics (thing vs. event, static vs. dynamic,
noun vs. verb, NP vs. sentence).

Chapter 6: Apes, Anthropology, and the Brain
In this chapter Carstairs-McCarthy attempts to
buttress the scenario presented in chapter 5 with
extralinguistic evidence drawn from biological
anthropology, brain neurophysiology, and studies of
the linguistic abilities of the great apes. The
research he draws on includes Stringer and McKies'
ideas on human evolution, Calvin and Ojemann's work on
neurobiology, Deacon's inquiry into language and brain
evolution, and Lewis and Savage-Rumbaugh's study of
the omnipresent chimp Kanzi.

Chapter 7: Just How Unique Are We?
This chapter is a sum-up of the book. It states its
conclusions quite simply and concisely: "Human
language turns out (if I am right) to be a by-product
of a change in the anatomy of the vocal tract brought
about by our ancestors' taking to the ground and
walking on two legs". It also serves as a disclaimer
against possible attacks, denying any pretence to
explanatory exclusiveness - his argument,
Carstairs-McCarthy pleads, is quite compatible with
cognitive claims: "The issue becomes not how cognitive
developments caused our large vocabularies or our
sentence-NP syntax, but how they interacted with
them." However, this chapter does imply an attack on
propositional thought, which Carstairs-McCarthy
considers the consequence of a "parochial linguistic
phenomenon, scarcely more relevant to philosophy than
(say) the distinction between strong and weak noun
declensions in German".

The Origins of Complex Language is a well-written,
eminently readable book, despite the occasional
convolution of the author's argument. There are
however several theoretical points which I find fuzzy.
One is Carstairs-McCarthy's notion of double
articulation, which was mentioned above. Another one
is the universality of the sentence-NP distinction: I
wonder whether the notion of configurationality as
defined by Hale (1983) does not suppose a challenge to
this assumption. Also, I find that the lowering of the
larynx does not explain in itself the appearance of
the dual structure of language. While providing its
physical support, it does not account for the twofold
leap to abstraction (the coding of a coding, one would
say) which the double articulation supposes. And
finally, the book's title: I fail to grasp what The
Origins of COMPLEX language means. Does the author
imply that a simple (as opposed to complex) language
is possible?
As for the book's merits, I believe that the
foremost one is its pointing out the peculiarity of
the double articulation and the sentence-NP
distinction (vocabulary size seems to me to be a
derived feature). Although I find Carstairs-McCarthy's
account ultimately unconvincing, I certainly agree
with him that they are key concepts which must be
clarified if we are to achieve a greater understanding
of the nature of human language.


Hale, K. (1983): "Warlpiri and the grammar of
nonconfigurational languages" in Language and
Linguistic Theory,1, pgs. 5-47.

Asunci�n �lvarez is a Linguistics graduate. Her
research interests include philosophy of language and
mind, writing systems, and the relationship between
linguistic and psychoanalytic thought.


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