LINGUIST List 26.3078

Mon Jun 29 2015

Review: Anthropological Ling; Cog Sci; Pragmatics: Dor, Lewis, Knight (2014)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 20-Feb-2015
From: Anish Koshy <>
Subject: The Social Origins of Language
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Daniel Dor
AUTHOR: Christopher Knight
AUTHOR: Jerome Lewis
TITLE: The Social Origins of Language
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Studies in the Evolution of Language 19
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Anish Koshy, English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This volume is the nineteenth in a long series of comprehensive works brought out by the OUP under its “Oxford Studies in the Evolution of Language” series. Under the series, various publications have taken up engaging issues like the origin of sound systems, morphology, grammar, meaning, etc., from multiple theoretical perspectives. This volume is based on the premise that a theory with co-evolutionary dynamics explains language evolution better than theories of genetic changes alone. The volume is organized as a collection of 23 papers along with a brief introductory note by the editors, arranged in five sections.


Introducing the two central assumptions in the volume, Daniel Dor, Chris Knight, and Jerome Lewis in “Introduction: A social perspective on how language began” propose that: (a) genetic changes are preceded by behavioural changes, and (b) there were barriers to language evolution that only humans overcame and no other species including other primates. Language evolved in a world of conflicts and mistrustful social conditions, requiring socio-political changes as well as trusting stable relationships.

Part I, “Theoretical Foundations”, with four papers, places theories of language origin within the broader evolutionary framework. Daniel Dor and Eva Jablonka in their chapter “Why we need to move from gene-culture co-evolution to culturally-driven co-evolution” argue that genetic accommodation for language was preceded by behavioural changes, triggered by cultural and cognitive plasticity. Genetic mutations did not lead to a capacity for language; rather ‘we evolved for language.’ Chris Sinha in “Niche construction and semiosis: Biocultural and social dynamics” looks at language as a biocultural niche, and language evolution as a transition from a system of signals to a symbolic system with intersubjectivity, conventionalization and structural elaboration playing an important role. Camilla Power in “Signal evolution and the social brain” argues that the human signal system with its digital components, though very efficient, is extremely unreliable and that this paradox is resolved by the development of a socio-cognitive complex of cooperation, egalitarianism, mind-reading and establishment of systems of counter dominance through ritual actions. Sverker Johansson in “How can a social theory of language evolution be grounded in evidence?” reviews four main sources of empirical evidence: (a) the communication and sociality in non-human animals, (b) the use of language for social purposes in social contexts, (c) neurobiology and genetics of the human language capacity and general social capacities, and, (d) fossil and archaeological evidence.

Part II, “Language as a collective object”, with four papers, tries to understand what exactly language is in terms of its fundamental defining aspects. Adam Kendon in “The 'poly-modalic' nature of utterances and its relevance for inquiring into language origins” argues that human communicative act is poly-modalic, with language evolving as a result of specialization and differentiation of speech and gesture. In “BaYaka Pygmy multi-modal and mimetic communication traditions”, Jerome Lewis highlights that the BaYaka communication system consists of not only speaking but also dancing, yodeling, drumming, gesturing, mimicking and imitating animal sounds as well as neighbouring languages, with deeply gendered differences. Any speculation on the origins of languages, must take such ethnographic details of communicative traditions into account. Nick J. Enfield and Jack Sidnell in “Language presupposes an enchronic infrastructure for social interaction” look into the dynamics of natural conversation (based on Conversational Analysis) and conclude that conversations are managed procedurally within an ‘enchronic infrastructure for social interaction.’ Any inquiry into language is looked upon as part of the ‘socio-relational concerns of research on human sociality.’ Daniel Dor in “The instruction of imagination: Language and its evolution as a communication technology” connects the emergence of language to a ‘systematic instruction of imagination’ via an ‘instructive strategy’ which encourages the listener to construct/imagine the intended meaning in the lines intended by the communicator.

PART III, “Apes and People, Past and Present” with eight papers, seeks to know why language emerged only in humans and not in apes. Simone Pika in “Chimpanzee grooming gestures and sounds: What might they tell us about how language evolved?” discusses the complex, intentional and flexible nature of gestural production/comprehension in chimpanzees, accompanied by vocalizations, and draws many parallels between chimpanzee grooming gestures and vocalization, and pre-linguistic human children. Zanna Clay and Klaus Zuberbühler in “Vocal communication and social awareness in chimpanzees and bonobos” argue that primate vocalizations are not ‘involuntary expressions of emotions’ but are flexible systems with underlying cognitive mechanisms, providing insights into individual awareness and social dynamics. Vocalizations as influenced by social environment and knowledge are important precursors in the evolution of human language. Charles Whitehead in “Why humans and not apes: The social preconditions for the emergence of language” links the origins of human language to the origins of human rituals and discusses different kinds of human social displays – communication, play and performance, in their different modes – implicit, mimetic and conventional. Emily Wyman in “Language and collective fiction: From children's pretence to social institutions” explores the origins of human language in shared fictions and prescribed imaginings, as in pretend plays/games and institutional practices, with social consent and subscribed normative behaviours. Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson in “The time frame of the emergence of modern language and its implications” argue that language and speech emerged before the splitting of modern humans and Neanderthals, around 0.6-1.5 million years ago, in a co-evolution of our culturally complex communication system with the anatomical, physiological and neurological changes required to support it. Looking at ritualized sexual selection processes as possible earliest contexts for symbolic communication, Camilla Power in “The evolution of ritual as a process of sexual selection” argues that language emerged in a social setting where dominance of individuals is countered by collective domination by the group. Ian Watts in “The red thread: Pigment use and the evolution of collective ritual” correlates the emergence of collective ritual with the use of red ochre as a symbol of fertility, arguing that the evolution of language is not co-terminus with the emergence of symbolic rituals but a later development. Arguing that the evolution of language is only one aspect of a complex evolutionary picture of various symbolic aspects of social and cultural evolutions, Chris Knight in “Language and symbolic culture: An outcome of hunter-gatherer reverse dominance” reviews ideas on cooperation between strangers, the role of symbolism, the evolution of the deep social mind, the emergence of counter-dominance and the role of female coalitionary strategies, among others.

PART IV, “The Social Origins of Language Evolution” with four papers, explores the central theme of the volume. Jordan Zlatev in “The co-evolution of human intersubjectivity, morality, and language” argues that since evolution is fundamentally an individual trait, and language a socially shared symbolic system, it must have co-evolved with two other anomalous features of human sociality, namely, intersubjectivity and morality, involving a trade-off between selfish and group-level traits. Ehud Lamm in “Forever united: The co-evolution of language and normativity” analyzes the bi-directional interaction between language and normative contexts, arguing that this is a result of co-evolutionary dynamics. This interaction, Lamm argues, affects the spread of innovations as well as the evolution of innate capacities, social conventions as well as cultural knowledge. Jean-Louis Dessalles in “Why talk?” explores the selection pressures for language, seeing it as having evolved as a strategy for diminishing chances of being killed, as humans developed deadly weapons. Language evolved when humans cooperated as friends against potential dangers. Chris Knight and Jerome Lewis in “Vocal deception, laughter, and the linguistic significance of reverse dominance” analyze the role of vocal mimicry (by men) and choral singing (by women) in developing trust and harmonized emotions, as well as in developing interest in listening to others and believing in their make-believe deceptions. Reverse-dominance of the group over individuals is seen to have established the social conditions required for the evolution of language.

PART V, “The Journey Thereafter”, the last section with three papers, explores the cultural evolution of language, its stabilization and its diversification. Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka in “Memory, imagination, and the evolution of modern language” connect the evolution of language with the emergence of a capacity for imagination and memory. Language becomes ‘an imagination instructing communication technology’, allowing episodic recalls and pretend plays. Nick J. Enfield in “Transmission biases in the cultural evolution of language: Towards an explanatory framework” analyses ‘transmission biases’ that promote or inhibit cultural innovation. Enfield discusses a four-stage dynamic involved in a process of ‘item-based language transmission’ – exposure, representation, reproduction, and finally material instantiation/grounding. Luc Steels in the last chapter of the volume “Breaking down false barriers to understanding” discusses what he calls false dichotomies in linguistic research, including, synchrony-diachrony, nature-culture, competence-performance, processing-describing, formalism-functionalism, etc, and argues that language evolution can be understood only with a composite view which holds that cooperation and trust are important prerequisites for language evolution.


We’ve definitely come a long way in the discussion of the evolution of human language from the 1866 banning of such discussion by the constitution of the SLP (Société de linguistique de Paris), to avoid unscientific speculations on the origins of language. This occurred 7 years after Darwin’s 1859 theory of evolution.

The theme of the book as represented by its title ensures a very focused discussion, unlike some earlier volumes in the series like Christiansen and Kirby (2003) where each scholar (called ‘the big names in every discipline’) had gone off on his/her own tangent, with the volume overall failing to present a cohesive picture of the state of the art. The title also reminds us of the other dominant perspective on language evolution in linguistics, that of the generative linguists led by Chomsky. Therefore, it is important for us to understand and evaluate, both how and if this book is different from previous publications on this topic, and also if it addresses any of the criticisms that the generative linguists level at enquiries on language evolution from a sociolinguistic or a functional perspective – mainly, that it does not explain the evolution of the hierarchical structure of language as well as the property of recursion.

It should not be surprising that language evolution research is both interdisciplinary as well as rife with disagreements. Christiansen and Kirby (2003), Larson, Déprez and Yamakido (2010), Tallerman and Gibson (2011) are good sources of information about some of these disagreements. These disagreements have ranged from whether language is primarily for thought or for communication, with Chomsky and other formalists maintaining it is for the former; whether language evolution was gradual or sudden; whether language evolution is a matter of adaptation and natural selection or a product of genetic mutation; if language disorders are due to genetic factors and not environmental, then can the capacity for language be environmental; conversely if it is a matter of only genes and genetic changes, why only humans have language and no other species even though human beings are genetically close to many other species; whether the form preceded the function or vice-versa, that is, whether language had evolved before the necessary neuro-cognitive changes had taken place or whether such changes made the evolution of language possible; whether language evolved out of gestures or some form of a proto-language; whether language evolution is a matter of individual learning, a socio-cultural transmission or biological evolution or all of these and whether they happened gradually or all simultaneously.

What is the qualitative and quantitative place of linguistics in a debate on language evolution, largely still based on speculations, ingenuous theories and data to which we have no access? The role of linguistics may boil down to whether the formal or the functional approach is better at speculations, unless the focus is changed or slightly altered to present an account of language evolution on the basis of data that is available – something that is possible for those arguing for a social origin of language.

Most works on the evolution of human language suffer from what Knight had called the “two cultures’ divide” (2004: 930) where views from humanities and social sciences are excluded by those writing from a biological perspective and vice-versa, with the consequence that instead of promoting synthetic state-of-the-art understanding of the issue, they stand accepted by one group and rejected by the other. Nowhere is this divide more pronounced unfortunately, than the generative linguists’ refusal to accept or even accommodate a functional perspective on the question of language evolution. That evolutionary biologists like Fitch and Hauser (see: Fitch (2010); Hauser and Fitch (2003)) have conceded that there may not be any real ‘language organ’ (what was referred to as ‘the narrow language faculty’ in the joint paper that they had with Chomsky), has not had much of an impact on the generative linguists’ continued search for an answer for language evolution in this hypothetical language organ, ignoring insights from psychology, anthropology, ethno-linguistics and other behavioural sciences.

This volume must be commended for taking on board positions on language from the fields of psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence and linguistics, for a comprehensive view of language and in using that integrated view of language in addressing the question of language evolution in order to come out with a more credible narrative. With fossil records remaining inconclusive, and with evolutionary biologists like Fitch (2010) ruling out any language specific biological evolutions in human beings (like lowering of larynx, categorical perception, etc.), the question of language evolution from a biological point of view has also been reduced to one of conjectures and hypotheses. If the solution is to be found in conjectures, it is more useful to approach the question of language evolution not in terms of abstract unprovable hypotheses, but through methods and positions with direct access to language in its dynamic context. This is in consonance with the Darwinian caveat that unless compelled by evidence, it is to be assumed that processes observed in the present must have existed historically as well. It is exactly this that gives strength and credence to the approach that the authors in this volume adopt, in trying to understand the purpose of language evolution in terms of the purpose for which language would have been used. This is done by looking at language use in the present and the purposes it is called to fulfill - symbolic communication, maintaining group cohesion and group identity formations.

If language is a product of evolution, and not mere sudden genetic mutations, then it has to be through a slow process of natural selection for which sufficient and necessary conditions must exist. In addressing the circumstances, the volume scores over most formal linguistic proposals on language evolution. The dependence on actual data on the communicative abilities of both humans and apes, presents a more useful perspective in understanding why it developed in humans and not in our pre-linguistic ancestors. The data-driven approach makes the work as empirical as possible while addressing the question of a historical evolution. Considering the speculative nature of the enquiry, the authors must be commended for also not resorting to grand-standing or extreme partisan positions, and presenting a balanced perspective, even at times acknowledging the shortcomings of their proposals. Linguists and others who appreciate a functional perspective on language will welcome the volume’s treatment of language not in a vacuum, but from the perspective of evolving human behaviour, strategies, alliance formations in an atmosphere of power, obligations and cooperation.

Not everything we know about language, its structure, and its neurobiological underpinnings need have been subjected to evolution and just because the structure of language is abstract and complex, it need not be assumed that the factors that led to its evolution must also be equally abstract and complex! By looking at what could have facilitated language evolution, this volume pitches itself into the debate at a time-frame when the necessary conditions for its evolution were being created. It may be true that social factors had no role and only genetic mutations did, in the final shape that the structure of language took, but then the book does not make any claims on that phase of language evolution.

Notwithstanding the importance of the volume, not all ideas presented in the chapters are new. For example, the importance of gossip, in maintaining social cohesion and cooperation, is already discussed in detail in Dunbar (1996). This importance of gossip, as also other cultural factors in the evolution of language is also acknowledged by Fitch (2010). If one has already read Tallerman and Gibson’s Handbook (2011), one will find that many of the issues discussed in various chapters in connection with the social evolution of language in this volume has already been discussed there. This includes: the role of symbolic behaviour (like in the use of beadworks), cultural transmission and conventions and perspective taking, foraging strategies, vocal grooming through gossip; the evolution of language to enhance exchange of social information, manage reputation and identify group members; the role of language in sharing intentions; the role of gestures; the interaction between cognitive-biological constraints and cultural creation and transmission, among others. But that does not detract from the attempt the book as a whole makes in presenting a more unified narrative.

It is indeed unfortunate that most of the criticisms of a functional perspective on language evolution from generative linguists have assumed that those trying to give a social explanation are denying the structural complexity of language and therefore have no useful contribution to make to this debate. Far from denying the structural complexity of language, or being ignorant about it, most papers in this volume show an acute awareness and appreciation of the complexity of human language. A social perspective does not deny this recursive, hierarchical complex nature of human language, but tries to explain what may have happened before we developed the cognitive and neurobiological capacities that made such a complex language possible. With fossil records remaining inconclusive on language evolution, and recursion and hierarchical structure both biologically present in other non-human species (though not in their communication systems), to persist in arguing for a language organ as the only reasonable inquiry in language evolution is likely to keep the generative linguists’ inquiry into the evolution of language in the domain of the abstract – neither proved nor provable. A social explanation, as in this volume, even if mostly conjectural, still relies on a concrete empirical grounding in the practices of human societies.

It is clear that a fruitful understanding of the question of language evolution would require a multi-disciplinary and cumulative approach. Our best bet lies in understanding language evolution through observable phenomena, taking a social/functional approach, coupled with a cognitive and biological perspective. The authors are justified in maintaining that language is not an individually beneficial, self-sufficient biological adaptation, and therefore to look for its evolution only in fossils and biological changes would be futile, and that language evolved as a result of social, political, cultural, cognitive and emotional entanglement, developing and residing at the level of the community with individuals acquiring it as part of their socialization process.

The volume comes with a comprehensive and well-built bibliography extending over 70 pages, which will prove a resource for both teachers and students looking for more extended reading. The editors deserve a special mention for ensuring that in spite of a single comprehensive bibliography at the end, instead of one at the end of each chapter, the references are cross-listed perfectly, even when there are authors with multiple publications in the same year, and when only one is referenced in a particular chapter. The editors must also be commended for summarizing the key points in individual chapters and also for connecting the individual chapters and even their conflicting perspectives into the grand narrative theme presented by the title of the book. Outstanding issues and problems are adequately highlighted leaving room for future scholars to add to and modify to our knowledge of the enigmatic origin of language.


Christiansen, M. H., and Kirby, S. (Eds.). 2003. Language evolution. Oxford: OUP.

Dunbar, R. 1996. Gossip, grooming and the evolution of language. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Fitch, W. T. 2010. The evolution of language. Cambridge: CUP.

Hauser, Marc D., and Fitch, W. Tecumseh. 2003. “What are the Uniquely Human Components of the Language Faculty?” In M. H. Christiansen and S. Kirby (eds.) Language evolution. Oxford: OUP, 158-181.

Knight, Chris. 2004. Review of Language Evolution by Morten H. Christiansen and Simon Kirby. In The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Dec., 2004), pp. 929-930.

Larson, R. K., Déprez, V., and Yamakido, H. 2010. The evolution of human language. Cambridge: CUP.

Tallerman, M., and Gibson, K. R. (Eds.). 2011. The Oxford handbook of language evolution. Oxford: OUP.


Anish Koshy has worked on the Mon-Khmer languages Pnar and Khasi spoken in Meghalaya in the Northeastern region of India and submitted a dissertation on the pronominal clitics in these languages at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is presently working on his Doctoral thesis on ''The typology of clitics in the Austroasiatic languages of India'' while also teaching at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India. His career interests include working on the morphosyntax of lesser-studied languages of India from a typological perspective.

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