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Review of  Origen, evolución y diversidad de las lenguas

Reviewer: Kalle Korhonen
Book Title: Origen, evolución y diversidad de las lenguas
Book Author: José-Luis Mendívil Giró
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): None
Issue Number: 21.2234

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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
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

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

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

Biological evolution - Linguistic evolution
Organism - Language-i
Species - Language-e
Genes - Parameters

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

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:
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:
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.

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 Foundation. (