LINGUIST List 23.2181

Sun May 06 2012

Review: Anthropological Ling.; Cognitive Science: Tallerman & Gibson (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 06-May-2012
From: Michael Pleyer <>
Subject: The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution
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EDITORS: Tallerman, Maggie and Gibson, Kathleen R.TITLE: The Oxford Handbook of Language EvolutionSERIES TITLE: Oxford Handbooks in LinguisticsPUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2011

Michael Pleyer, English Department, University of Heidelberg

SUMMARYThe Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution is an edited volume containing 65chapters surveying a highly interdisciplinary field that has been developingrapidly in the last two decades. The book includes a general introduction by theeditors and is divided into five parts, each preceded by an introductionhighlighting key results as well as theoretical divergences.

The volume is divided as follows: The first two parts, "Insights fromcomparative animal behaviour" (I) and "The biology of language evolution:Anatomy, genetics, and neurology" (II) deal with the evolutionary and biologicalfoundations of language evolution. The other three deal with theory and evidenceon how language(s) evolved and what needs to be explained linguistically andpsychologically: "The prehistory of language: When and why did language evolve"(III), "Launching language: the development of a linguistic species" (IV),"Language change, creation, and transmission in modern humans" (V).

Part I: Insights from comparative animal behaviourIn chapter 3, "Language or Protolanguage? A Review of the Ape LanguageLiterature", Gibson concludes that apes are capable of protolanguage, but lackthe motivation to do so in the wild as well as the capacity to form higher-orderhierarchical mental representations.

Seyfarth and Cheney, in chapter 4, present evidence of "Primate Social Cognitionas a Precursor to Language." What is lacking in other highly social primatessuch as baboons or chimpanzees and bonobos, though, they argue, is a theory ofmind which built the foundation of the evolution of syntax and structuredvocalizations.

Chapter 5, "Cooperative Breeding and the Evolution of Vocal Flexibility" byKlaus Zuberbühler, deals with evidence of intentionality and combinatoriality inprimate vocal communication and hypothesises that the transition to speech inthe human lineage happened in the context of cooperative breeding.

De Waal and Pollick, in chapter 6, in contrast focus on "Gesture as the MostFlexible Modality of Primate Communication." They argue that the flexibilityexhibited by chimpanzees and bonobos in the gestural modality makes it apromising candidate for the evolutionary platform from which language evolutionin early hominins took off.

Slocombe, in the next chapter, takes a different view and asks whether we mightnow have "Underestimated Great Ape Vocal Capacities." Their flexibility in vocalproduction, she argues represents a neglected area of research.

After the previous chapters dealt with primate cognition and communication, thenext two chapters are centred around bird's vocal abilities.

Slater examines the relevance of birdsong for language evolution as a case ofconvergent evolution for some, but by no means all aspects of human vocalcommunication and learning. Pepperberg offers "Insights from Parrots andSongbirds" on the evolution of communication and language, which, she argues canprovide useful models for the evolution of vocal communication. In the section'slast chapter, Gibson poses the following questions "Are Other Animals as Smartas Great Apes? Do Others Provide Better Models for the Evolution of Speech andLanguage?" She concludes that to date research on other animals has notdemonstrated that they exhibit the same cognitive sophistication as apes, whichtherefore still present the best model of the likely cognitive capacities of theearliest hominins.

Part II: The biology of language evolution: Anatomy, genetic, and neurologyFollowing the section introduction, Fitch presents an analysis of the profusionof terms regarding 'innateness.' He advises that 'innate' and 'instinct' shouldbe avoided, but holds that the underlying concepts are still highly relevant.

Számadó and Szathmáry argue that the co-evolution of language and the brain isstill a biologically plausible scenario, even if language is envisioned as afast-changing 'moving target' as proposed, for example, by Chater & Christiansen(Chapter 65).

In Chapter 15, Diller and Cann deal with "Genetic Influences on Language: AnEvaluation of the Evidence." However, according to the authors, ourunderstanding of genes and genetic networks relating to the development of theneuroanatomical structures involved in language is only at the beginning.

Chapters 16 and 18-20 deal with neurobiological aspects of language, whereas inchapter 17 Donald presents his theory that the representational mode of mimesisshould be seen as the crucial pre-adaptation for language in hominin evolution.In chapter 16 Gibson points out that it is "Not the Neocortex Alone", but that"Other Brain Structures Also Contribute to Speech and Language." Hopkins andVauclair, in chapter 18, show that hemispheric specialization can be found innon-human primates as well and thus predates language. Wilkins, in the nextchapter, also demonstrates the importance of comparative neuroanatomy for anevolutionary biology of language. Arbib, in chapter 20, presents the MirrorSystem Hypothesis, according to which pantomimic imitation supported by anintegration of mirror neuron systems and other systems was the crucial step inthe evolution of a language-ready brain.

In Chapter 21, Coolidge and Wynn propose four "Cognitive Prerequisites for TheEvolution of Indirect Speech": phonological storage capacity, recursion, theoryof mind, and executive function.

MacLarnon's chapter, finally, summarises what the fossil record can tell usabout the evolution of features of human speech production and the potentialspeech capabilities of extinct hominin species.

Part III: The prehistory of language: When and why did language evolve?As pointed out in the section introduction, we do not have a very clear pictureof when and why the language faculty evolved, but these chapters indicatedirections in which we might look for potential answers. Cann, in chapter 24,for example, gives a brief overview of "Molecular Perspectives on HumanEvolution." Wood and Bauernfeind, in the next chapter, conclude - paceMacLarnon (Chapter 22) and others - that "little, or no, reliable evidence aboutthe speech capabilities" (p. 271) of early hominins can be found in the fossilrecord.

In chapter 26, Mann is concerned with "The Genus Homo and the Origins of'Humanness." He also sketches current debates over the "Out-of-Africa" versus"Multiregional Evolution" models and how these relate to whether Neanderthalspossessed all attributes of modern humans such as modern cognition, symbolicrepresentation, social complexity and manual skills.

Wynn, in chapter 27, surveys "the Palaeolithic Record" and what the differenttechnologies they employed can tell us about the subsistence, cognition, andsocial complexity of Palaeolithic hominins. Mithen (chapter 28) presents histheory that "Musicality and Language" are tightly interlinked and that some formof musical communication might even have served as a precursor for (proto-)language. The potential "Linguistic Implications of the Earliest PersonalOrnaments", which appeared between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago, are discussedby D'Errico and Vanhaeren in chapter 29. The authors share the view of mostarchaeologists that these beadworks can be seen as indicative of symbolicbehaviour, cultural transmission and conventions, perspective-taking, andprobably also syntactic language, which, as Henshilwood and Dubreuil (2009),argue, requires the same recursive and meta-representational ability asperspective-taking.

Botha, in the next chapter, however, is highly critical of archaeologists'attempts at "Inferring Modern Language from Ancient Objects" on theoreticalgrounds. He outlines conditions which successful inferences in languageevolution research must satisfy, including the use of independently motivated'bridge theories', and argues that current theories of links betweenarchaeological artefacts and linguistic behaviour fail these requirements.

Lightfoot, in chapter 31, voices the concern often addressed by scholars withinthe Generative tradition that too much in language evolution is being explainedin terms of natural selection, something he terms "Natural Selection-itis".Instead, he pleads for the consideration of language properties as exaptedaccidental by-products as well as emerging from not very-well understood "deep,physical principles that affect much of life" (p. 315).

Falk presents her "putting the baby down" hypothesis in chapter 32, according towhich vocal interactions between early hominin mothers, who were using bothhands for foraging tasks, and infants lying on the ground were the steppingstone for the evolution of protolanguage.

De Boer also considers the relationship between "Infant-Directed Speech andLanguage Evolution" in chapter 33. He concludes that caretaker-child interactionand infant-directed speech might have played an important role in languageevolution and continue to do so in language acquisition. However, they do notexplain the emergence of the full semantic and syntactic complexity of language,which has to be accounted for by other factors.

A developmental perspective on language evolution is also taken by Locke inchapter 34, arguing that the uniquely human developmental periods of childhoodand adolescence should be taken into account in theories of language evolutionand that "Displays of Vocal and Verbal Complexity" which functioned asindicators of genetic fitness might have played an important role in thedevelopment of vocal learning and protolanguage.

Gibson, in chapter 35, argues that major, tool-dependent changes in foragingstrategies might have played a significant role in language evolution.

In chapter 36, "Gossip and the Social Origins of Language", Dunbar presents histheory that language evolved as a form of 'vocal grooming' which made possiblesocial bonding and group cohesion on a much larger scale than found in otherprimates (~150 vs. ~50). Fully grammatical language then evolved in the contextof other social requirements such as the exchange of social information,reputation management, and the identification of group members.

Knight and Power, chapter 37, deal with the necessary "Social Conditions for theEvolutionary Emergence of Language." Their explanation centres around femalesolutions to male-female reproductive conflicts over access to resources and sex.

Part IV: Launching language: the development of a linguistic speciesThe editors describe this section as the most "immediately 'linguistic'" (p.353) in that it deals with the central properties of language and theircognitive foundations that have to be accounted for in language evolution research.

Anderson (chapter 39), contrary to Lightfoot (chapter 31), maintains that thehuman faculty of language has been shaped by natural selection in the same wayas other complex biological systems and that the Baldwin effect has likelyplayed an important role.

In "The Origins of Meaning" (chapter 40), James Hurford presents the main pointsof his book-length treatment of the topic with the same name (Hurford 2007). Heargues and presents evidence that there are precursors to both conceptual andpragmatic meaning in other animals, but that crucially the emergence of languageenabled the creation of new kinds of meaning. For language to launch, however,we had to go beyond the cognitive foundations found in other animals, anddevelop capacities such as being able to share intentions (cf. Tomasello et al.2005).

Corballis, in chapter 41, considers the possible "Origins of Language in ManualGestures." His views are also shared by de Waal & Pollick (chapter 6), Arbib(chapter 20), and Tomasello (2008), but as the editors note, this is (still) aminority view in language evolution research. Somewhat consistent with thisview, however, Harnard in chapter 42, proposes that categories grounded insensorimotor experiences and pantomime supplied the crucial grounding for theemergency of fully symbolic language.

Drawing on his highly influential 1997 book (Deacon 1997), Deacon discusses theimportance of "The Symbol Concept" and the complexity of semiotic reference intheories of language evolution in chapter 43.

Burling, in chapter 44, argues that "Words Came First" and presents possible"Adaptations for Word-Learning," which include our evolved capacity for thestorage of a lexicon, learning a phonological system with contrastive featuresas well as an elaborate syntax.

Chapters 45-47 deal with Phonetics, Phonology, and Morphology, respectively.In chapter 45, Studdert-Kennedy considers "The Emergence of Phonetic Form",discussing evidence from child development and computational models. Similarly,MacNeilage, who like Studdert-Kennedy sees the vocal, not the gestural domain asthe evolutionary platform for language, deals with issues surrounding "TheEvolution of Phonology." These include the relation between phonological theoryand innateness, phylogenetic models of speech production such as MacNeilage'sFrame/Content Theory, and the relationship between speech perception andproduction.

Carstairs-McCarthy, in "The Evolution of Morphology", argues that morphology,which is not found in all human languages, still is to be considered as abiologically, not only culturally, evolved property of the language faculty.

Tallerman, in chapter 48, poses a fundamental question: "What is Syntax?" anddiscusses the syntactic capacities that are held to be universal.Proto-syntactic capacities can be found in other animals, but hallmark featuresof syntax such as grammatical functions, displacement, semanticcompositionality, and functional vocabulary have not been demonstrated in anyother species.

Bickerton, in the next chapter, focuses on "The Origins of Syntactic Language"more explicitly. He summarises and criticises three proposed scenarios for theorigins of syntax: cultural invention accounts, catastrophic accounts andadaptive accounts. He also discusses theories on the sequence of syntacticevolution, often treated as possible windows on early syntax. Finally, he alsobriefly proposes that when the first words appeared, the primate brain wasalready equipped for assembling them into hierarchical structures, and that thisserved as the selection pressure for the evolution of other cognitive processessupporting syntax.

A particularly controversial question is addressed by Carstairs-McCarthy, inchapter 50, the question whether some languages are more or less complex thanothers. He considers cases such as Creoles, Riau Indonesian, Second-Languagespeaker's 'Basic Variety', Pirahã, and artificial languages, arguing that thedebate about differing linguistic complexity has much to contribute to languageevolution research.

Tallerman, in chapter 51, discusses a similarly controversial topic: the conceptof "Protolanguage", a hypothetical pre-linguistic communication form of earlyhominins. She examines whether protolanguage was compositional, holistic, ormusical, while strongly criticizing the latter two proposals. She also discussesto what extent protolanguage can be seen as continuous with primate calls andcognition.

Finally, in the section's last chapter, Cedric Boeckx deals with "The Emergenceof Language from a Biolinguistic Point of View." Boeckx presents currentGenerative theorizing on language evolution in light of the MinimalistProgramme's attempts at minimizing innate UG-components and finding generalcomputational laws involved in the constitution of the language faculty.

Part V: Language change, creation, and transmission in modern humansAfter the editors' introduction, Heine and Kuteva analyse the role of"Grammaticalization Theory as a Tool for Reconstructing Language Evolution." Bylooking at the development of linguistic forms over historical time, they argue,inferences can be made about earlier stages of language in prehistoric time.

As a representative of the usage-based and Cognitive-linguistic point of view onlanguage evolution, Bybee sees "Domain-General Processes as the Basis forGrammar." According to Bybee, language should be conceived of as a dynamic,construction-based, and situated phenomenon supported by capacities such asneuromotor automation, chunking, categorization, inference-making, andcross-modal association instead of a static set of algorithmic rules detachedfrom meaning and context. This view also has implications for languageevolution, because it suggests that only after thoroughly considering theevolutionary role of domain-general abilities and the processes ofgrammaticalization and cultural transmission should we consider possibledomain-specific factors.

Roberge, in the next chapter, deals with "Pidgins, Creoles, and the Creation ofLanguage." He critically assesses the use language evolution scholars have madeof these 'mediums of interethnic communication' of differing complexity andcases of language creation. He cautions that these cases of 'communal languagecreation' differ in important ways from the likely course language evolutiontook in pre-modern humans, but that they might still offer important insights.

In chapter 57, Goldin-Meadow asks "What Modern-Day Gesture can Tell Us AboutLanguage Evolution." She demonstrates that manual gesture plays a role both incommunication and thinking. She also states that it is equally suited as acombinatorial mode of representation as oral language, which is indicated byemerging as well as conventional sign languages and home sign systems. However,the manual modality might surpass the oral modality in its ability to serve asan imagistic representational format, which might be the reason that in modernhumans, manual and gestural modalities function as an integrated communicativesystem allowing for both compositional and imagistic modes of representation.

Based on linguistic geography and palaeodemography, Nichols, in chapter 58,finds it unlikely that there was "A Single Ancestral Language for All Humanity."Instead, she argues that there was a gradual evolution of various pre-languagesinto fully modern languages in diverse populations with considerable linguisticdiversity from the very beginning.

Combining genetic and linguistic analyses, Pakendorf is concerned with"Prehistoric Population Contact and Language Change" in chapter 59. She offers acase study of this phenomenon in Siberia, and argues that language contact haslikely been an important factor in the evolution of language.

Chapters 60-63 deal with the role that the creation of linguistic forms andcultural/social transmission might have played in the evolution of language.They also demonstrate the growing importance of various forms of modelling inlanguage evolution research.

Kenny Smith first shows "Why Formal Models are Useful for EvolutionaryLinguists." He argues that computational and mathematical models allow us totest the results of a given set of assumptions that a particular theory makes.As Smith points out, recent work in the field tries to test predictions made byformal models empirically in the laboratory (e.g. Kirby et al. 2008), and alsotries to bring the assumptions modellers make about learning into contact withempirical research.

Arguing that "Language is an Adaptive System", Kirby also explores "The Role ofCultural Evolution in the Origins of Structure." Language can be seen as theresult of three interacting complex adaptive systems: individual learning,socio-cultural transmission and biological evolution. To explain the evolutionand structure of language, we have to elucidate and explore the contributionsand relationships of these three systems. As Kirby argues,computational/robotic, mathematical, and experimental models will play animportant role in understanding language as a complex adaptive system emergingfrom cognitive/linguistic, social, and biological interactions.

Cangelosi presents current research on "Robotics and Embodied Agent Modelling ofthe Evolution of Language," which are used to investigate the evolution ofpre-linguistic signalling behaviour, social coordination, as well as theemergence of shared lexicons, referential capabilities and even syntax.According to Cangelosi, one of the advantages of these approaches is that bybeing able to incorporate linguistic and cognitive/sensorimotor properties in anagent, they take seriously recent advances in the field of 'embodied cognition'and invite an interdisciplinary dialogue with empirical areas of research.

De Boer asks what role "Self-Organization", i.e. "the spontaneous emergence oforder in a system," (p. 613) might have played in language evolution. Thisprocess is currently explored in mathematical analyses and computer simulations.Explanations based on the emergence of order in a system offer the advantagethat they reduce the need to explain aspects of language as due to specificadaptations through biological evolution instead of relying on more generalcognitive mechanisms also found to a large degree in other animals.

Chapter 64, by Graf Estes, explores one such cognitive mechanism important for,but not specific to language: Statistical learning, which, as the author shows,is employed by infants and young children in the acquisition of words andsyntax. Graf Estes sees this research as supporting the hypothesis, espoused byChristiansen & Chater in the next chapter, that language has evolved in a waythat is adapted to the statistical learning biases and constraints exhibited bylanguage learners.

The proposal to see "Language as an Adaptation to the Human Brain" is exploredmore fully by Christiansen and Chater in the last chapter. They argue againstthe assumption of a Universal Grammar because linguistic conventions change toorapidly for biological evolution to incorporate them into the genome. Instead,they hold that the languages are shaped by an interaction of cultural creationand transmission and multiple cognitive and biological constraints of the humanbrain. These include constraints from thought, pragmatic constraints, cognitivemechanisms of learning and processing as well as perceptuo-motor factors.

EVALUATIONAs pointed out above, over the last two decades language evolution has grown asa field characterized by a high degree of interdisciplinarity and differingperspectives. The last major overview volume is now almost a decade old(Christiansen & Kirby 2003) and language evolution research has continued toproliferate at a stunning rate. Therefore, The Oxford Handbook of LanguageEvolution, much wider in scope and more ambitious than its predecessor inspirit, is a highly commendable and much needed volume that brings together themost important theories and research relevant to this highly interdisciplinaryfield.

I fully share the hope of the editors that this handbook - among some otherrecent publications (Fitch 2010; Hurford 2007, 2012) - "will be a standard workof reference for years to come" (p. xi). What is especially commendable aboutthis volume is that it tries to incorporate, and be accessible to scholars andstudents from, the many different "disciplines that contribute pieces of thelanguage evolution puzzle" (p. xi), as the editors put it. Another highlight arethe six comprehensive introductions preceding the volume and each section,respectively, in which the editors summarise the key points, discuss how theresearch contributions presented in the individual chapters can be related toeach other or whether they present conflicting perspectives, and also outlineoutstanding issues and problems.

As is the nature of handbooks, it can always be argued that particular topicsshould have received more attention, and that some influential scholars inlanguage evolution are not represented enough. Michael Tomasello's recent workon differences in social cognition and motivations in young children andnon-human primates and the evolution of language (e.g. Tomasello 2008) would bean example here, although his theories are discussed in a number of chapters(e.g. by Gibson in Chapter 3, Hurford in chapter 40, Tallerman in chapter 51.).It is quite possible, however, some of these perceived omissions are due to thefact that a number of invited authors "sadly, felt unable to take the time towrite for a general audience" (p. xi).

Two final issues warrant mention. It should be noted that, like the otherconcerns raised here, they by no means diminish the overall worth and importanceof this contribution to language evolution research.

Firstly, some contributions do not directly enough engage key questions oflanguage evolution and especially the origins of language. This holds to somedegree, for example, for Fitch's essay on the concept of innateness (13), andsome chapters in Part V, such as Heine and Kuteva on grammaticalization (54),Pakendorf (59), and Graf Estes (64) on "Statistical Learning and LanguageAcquisition." Although these chapters deal with topics highly relevant tolanguage evolution, they at times do not outline their application to thecentral question of what evolved in language and how in enough detail. Regardinglanguage acquisition, the volume as a whole might have benefited from a morecomplete account of the key cognitive capacities and acquisitional processesinvolved, and how these relate to the question of how language evolved.

Secondly, some critics might argue that, as articles in an introductoryhandbook, some of the chapters, for example the ones by Bickerton on theevolution of syntax (49) and by Tallerman on protolanguage (49), could havepresented the controversial issues they discuss in a more balanced andnon-partisan way without rejecting certain positions in such a decisive manner.

The editors should be commended though, for also including some of the morerecent and still-developing perspectives in language evolution research, such asChater & Christiansen's (65), theory of language as an adaption to the brain andthe Cognitive-linguistic and usage-based perspective on language evolution,which is represented by Bybee (55) and also discussed in a number of otherchapters, e.g. by Tallerman & Gibson (1), Cangelosi (62), and Chater &Christiansen (65) (see also Pleyer 2012).

Overall, the Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution is a landmark publication inthe field that will serve as a useful guide and reference work through theentanglements and pitfalls of the language evolution jungle for both experiencedscholars and newcomers alike.

REFERENCESChristiansen, Morten H. & Simon Kirby (eds.). 2003. Language evolution. Oxford:Oxford University Press.

Deacon, Terrence W. 1997. The symbolic species: The coevolution of language andthe brain. London: Penguin Press.

Fitch, Tecumseh. 2010. The evolution of language. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Henshilwood, Christopher S. & Benoît Dubreuil. 2009. Reading the artefacts:Gleaning language skills from the Middle Stone Age in Southern Africa. RudolfBotha & Christ Knight (eds.). The cradle of language. Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress. 41-61.

Hurford, James R. 2007. The origins of meaning: Language in the light ofevolution I. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hurford, James R. 2012. The origins of grammar: Language in the light ofevolution II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kirby, Simon, Hannah Cornish & Kenny Smith. 2008. Cumulative cultural evolutionin the laboratory: An experimental approach to the origins of structure in humanlanguage. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 105.10681-10686.

Pleyer, Michael. 2012. Cognitive Construal, Mental Spaces and the Evolution ofLanguage and Cognition. Thomas C. Scott-Phillips, Monica Tamariz, Erica A.Cartmill & James R. Hurford (eds.). The evolution of language. Proceedings ofthe 9th conference on the evolution of language. Singapore: World Scientific.288-295.

Tomasello, Michael. 2008. Origins of human communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tomasello, Michael, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, & Henrike Moll.2005. Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition.Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28(5). 675-691.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERMichael Pleyer is a PhD student at the English Department of the Universityof Heidelberg and the Heidelberg Graduate School of Humanities and SocialSciences. His PhD project is on "Perspective and Perspective in Languageand Cognition: A Cognitive-Linguistic and Cognitive-DevelopmentalApproach." His research interests include Cognitive Linguistics, LanguageAcquisition, Perspectivation and Construal, Social Cognition, and theEvolution of Language and Cognition. He has a blog, Shared Symbolic Storage(, and contributes tothe academic group blog A Replicated Typo (,on the evolution of language, culture, and cognition.

Page Updated: 06-May-2012