LINGUIST List 21.3149

Mon Aug 02 2010

Review: Cognitive Science: d'Errico and Hombert (2009)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

        1.    Jonathan Downie, Becoming Eloquent

Message 1: Becoming Eloquent
Date: 02-Aug-2010
From: Jonathan Downie <>
Subject: Becoming Eloquent
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EDITORS: d'Errico, Francesco; Hombert, Jean-Marie TITLE: Becoming Eloquent SUBTITLE: Advances in the emergence of language, human cognition, and modern cultures PUBLISHER: John Benjamins YEAR: 2009

Jonathan Downie, independent scholar, Wishaw, Scotland


Becoming Eloquent is an edited collection on research funded under the Origin of Man, Language and Languages (OMLL) project as part of the European Science Foundation's EUROCORES program. All the papers examine how interdisciplinary research can help answer the question of how language first arose and developed into its present state. The 10 papers employ methodologies from fields as diverse as historical linguistics, genetics, artificial intelligence and archaeology. The challenge of ensuring that these approaches form a coherent whole rested on the shoulders of editors, Francesco d'Errico and Jean-Marie Hombert and this challenge has been too great in places, with both research depth and copy-editing quality varying widely between papers.

The first paper, by d'Errico et al., definitely sits at the upper end of the quality scale in its examination of evidence from archaeology and paleoanthropology in the search for clues on the origin and development of language. Here readers will find astute re-evaluations of traditional theories on language origins, especially the common view that the anatomical differences between Homo sapiens and earlier Homo species mean that the modern use of language was exclusive to the former. On the contrary, evidence from both grave artefacts (pp. 15-30, 40-42) and anatomical comparisons (pp. 43-46) is shown to be inconclusive and insufficient to rule out the use of language in earlier Homo species. In addition, the sophistication of the musical instruments assumed to be the work of early Homo sapiens and dating from around 36ka to 21ka before present, suggests that musical expression, in one form or another, may be far older than previously thought (pp. 39-42). Given that musical expression involves many of the same faculties as spoken language, this may present a clue as to how old spoken language actually is.

The second paper, by Tresset et al., traces the movement of domesticated herd animals such as cows and goats from the Near East to Europe in the Neolithic period. While the relevance of this paper for strictly linguistic discussions is not immediately obvious, it is possible to follow the authors' assumption that ''not only the animals and skills ? were diffused, but also their symbolic values'' (p. 85). From this point, it is possible to imagine the connection between the diffusion of animal husbandry knowledge and linguistic advances. Even so, the earliest date for the introduction of domesticated bovids into Europe is c. 6,800 BC, much later than the musical advances detailed in D'Errico et al. It is therefore necessary to conclude that at least some linguistic knowledge predates the introduction of bovids by tens of millennia.

The next two papers show strong similarities. The first, by Van der Veen, Quintana-Murci and Comas, discusses linguistic, cultural and genetic perspectives on human diversity in west-central Africa. The second, by Dugoujon et al., examines genetic and linguistic diversity among the Berber people in North Africa. Both offer interesting insights into the relationship between linguistic and genetic variables, with the emphasis very much on the latter.

Van der Veen et al. use linguistic differences and genetic markers to trace the historical stages of the peopling of the Cameroon-Gabon area (pp. 96-109). The authors then interweave this genetic data with cultural and anthropological data to form a plausible hypothesis. Historical linguists, however, may be disappointed by the depth of analysis of purely linguistic phenomena. Dugoujon et al. include more in-depth linguistic data than Van der Veen et al., but it may also be of more interest to anthropologists than linguists as it is not until near the end of the article that linguistic elements are analysed. In the context of the research question set by the editors, readers may feel that analysis of the process by which genetically related people undergo language shift is somewhat imbalanced in these papers.

The next paper is an intriguing investigation by Jacquesson on the ethnic and linguistic situation in the Assam Corridor, an area in the North-East of the Indian subcontinent. From cultural and agricultural differences through to a detailed analysis of language distribution and relatedness, this article demonstrates how linguistic, political and sociological factors are closely intertwined in the region. Historical and comparative linguists especially will find the analysis of the relationships between seven Boro-Garo languages (pp. 158-160) stimulating. As a paper that successfully balances several perspectives on the same question, this work deserves praise.

Heyer and Mennecier in the next paper examine genetic and linguistic diversity in Central Asia, with special attention to the geographical, genetic and linguistic distances between populations in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In this case, the data showed a correlation between linguistic and genetic distance but not between these and geographical distance. Thus, we see that human breeding patterns, as part of social organisation, may be a more important factor in linguistic diversity than geographical location. Unfortunately, easily avoidable typographical and grammatical errors creep in (e.g. ''ethnical'' for ''ethnic'' on p. 166, unpredictable swapping between ''Levenshtein'' and ''Levenstein'' on p. 170, etc.), detract from what is otherwise excellent work.

The seventh paper is a short study by Kraaijkenbrink et al. on the relationship between linguistic, genetic and geographical diversity, this time focussing on the people of the Himalayan region. Once again, linguistic and genetic indicators are seen to correlate better than genetic and geographical ones. However, given that their work is still ongoing and that many of their research questions could not be answered as the paper went to press, it may have been preferable to delay publication. This paper therefore represents the first glimpse of the potential of their work rather than a fully finished account of the study.

Unfortunately, the next chapter, a study by Kern, Davis and Zink on the development of early language skills in infants, follows this same pattern. The authors present an analysis of the general phonological trends in infant speech from early babbling to later word stages of development, with the hypothesis that such trends may be similar to those found in early human linguistic evolution. In this case, small sample sizes, individual variation and the tendency towards ''generat[ing] more questions than answers'' (p. 227) hamper what would otherwise have been a very interesting initial report. This paper should therefore be seen as an introduction to the potential of cross-linguistic comparative research on infant speech phonology rather than as a fully developed illustration of its application.

The penultimate paper, by Zuberbuehler et al., is a thought-provoking synthesis of recent research on the evidence for syntactic and semantic complexity in the vocal behaviour of primates. Unlike some other papers, Zuberbuehler et al. give a well-rounded and detailed look at the state of the field, before arriving at some strong conclusions. This paper therefore works equally well as a survey of recent work and as a discussion of applications to the question of the development of language capabilities. Although non-human primate communication does show a remarkable degree of flexibility, they find significant differences between this and human language (pp. 258-259), a balanced conclusion which opens avenues for future research.

The final paper, by Luc Steels, takes a very different approach, examining the way that simulations of language evolution using artificial intelligence can provide insights for archaeological investigations. Unlike Zuberbuehler et al., who seem to favour a primarily genetic explanation for the uniqueness of human language (p. 242), Steels assumes that language arose primarily due to cultural and cognitive factors (p. 270). Much of his evidence comes from the success or otherwise of simulations. These language games involve abstract computer models or physical robots set up to cooperate in tasks requiring the building and adjustment of stores of lexical, categorical or grammatical information, akin to those required in the early stages of language evolution. The results of these experiments suggest that archaeologists should use data on sociological and cognitive changes as opposed to genetic information to try and locate the earliest forms of language.


In sum, this is a welcome volume uniting a wide range of approaches to the question of how language first arose and how it subsequently developed. Its interdisciplinary nature may go some way towards explaining the inconsistency in both research depth and copy-editing quality. The papers by d'Errico et al, Jacquesson and Steels all exemplify the considerable potential in this sub-field. Similarly, the paper by Zuberbuehler et al. demonstrates that it is possible to synthesise a variety of perspectives and still emerge with a clear and stimulating conclusion.

On the other hand, the papers by Kraaijkenbrink et al. and Kern, Davis and Zink exemplify the challenges involved in the kind of interdisciplinary work required to answer the questions posed in the volume. In the former case, due to the open nature of many of its conclusions, the paper must be read as a report of research in process rather than a final account. In the latter, it is the difficulty of gaining access to adequate sample sizes which looms over any attempt to draw any definite conclusions from the results.

This book will nonetheless be a useful introduction to contemporary discussions on language evolution, even if it is already in need of revision. Both newcomers and experienced scholars will find it inspiring and the former will no doubt appreciate the sheer volume of works cited in some of the papers.


Jonathan Downie is a freelance translator and interpreter and independent scholar based in Scotland. Much of his research is related to the use and improvement of translation and interpreting in churches and Christian organisations.

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