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Review of  Evolutionary Syntax

Reviewer: Hannah Little
Book Title: Evolutionary Syntax
Book Author: Ljiljana Progovac
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 27.3298

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Evolutionary Syntax” by Ljiljana Progovac outlines a gradualist perspective on how language could have evolved within the Minimalist Program of syntax (Chomsky 1995), promoting the evolutionary framework of Pinker and Bloom (1990) in contrast to the saltationist position proposed by Chomsky himself (e.g. in Berwick & Chomsky, 2011). Primarily focussing on the ideas of Jackendoff (1999), the book proposes several incremental steps for syntactic emergence with reference to the idea of “living fossils” within existing human language. The book proposes 4 stages for the evolution of “syntactic bond”, which evolved via biological evolution. The first stage is a one-word stage, similar to modern utterances such as “Run!” or “Fire!”. The second is a paratactic stage: utterances with flat structure which have no headedness or hierarchy, where semantic relationships were instead understood from prosodic cues. The third stage is proto-coordination: flat structure but with something similar to Merge. Finally, the fourth stage is a specific functional category stage: hierarchical structure with movement and recursion, as found in modern human language. Further, the book proposes possible evolutionary pressures which might have caused language to evolve from one stage to the next via selection for communicative usefulness, as well as sexual selection.


Though the preface of the book states that the book is meant to be readable by non-linguists, I found from early on that a background knowledge in minimalism is quite necessary. Even within the introduction, standard abbreviations from minimalism are used without glossing (e.g. CP, vP, TP, etc.), though they are glossed later in the content chapters. I would advise non-syntactician readers to perhaps brush up on their knowledge of minimalism before getting to grips with the book. The introduction provides a useful overview of what to expect in the book. However, it seems unnecessarily long, with summaries of content under different topic-headings, and then again as a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, which are of course categorised by topic as well.

Progovac uses the concept of linguistic ‘fossils’ throughout the book, having borrowed the term from Jackendoff (1999). As in Jackendoff, the fossils Progovac refers to are parts of language which still exist (e.g. pidgins, home-sign, aphasic language, second language production, and examples from fully formed natural languages). Of course, some of these “fossils” may well be evolutionarily relevant. However, how directly relevant this evidence is varies considerably between types of evidence, and what assumptions about language and language evolution one has. It is an oversimplification to conflate all examples of more basic structures from existing languages under one heading, even as a metaphor. Progovac herself points out that the fossils she talks about are not the same as fossils in biology: they can’t be because they still exist in language today, rather than being the remains of something which no longer exists. However, using this terminology somewhat downplays why the evolution of language is such a challenging topic. The language evolution literature talks about a complete lack of fossils, which is what makes indirect evidence so valuable in language evolution. By treating indirect evidence in the same way as scientists treat fossils, rather than as nuanced, complex, non-specific and, indeed, indirect puzzle pieces, Progovac has almost painted language evolution as something which is simply solved. This illusion makes for a convincing read, but may not stand up to scrutiny when one starts questioning the assumptions made to build the narrative.

Progovac explains that her book primarily focuses on reconstructing plausible syntactic emergence patterns, while giving supporting empirical evidence a more background role. The self-described strength of this book is the depth and detail within which it goes into reconstruction using syntactic theory, rather than the breadth which remains the strength of Jackendoff’s work. The work also departs from Jackendoff’s (1999) theory in several places, e.g. instead of agent-first constructions, Progovac proposes more absolutive-like constructions in her paratactic stage. However, this singular focus, and the depth of detail offered by Progovac, might alienate the general reader, or even those in the field who have long given up on such detailed accounts of linguistic emergence, because of their necessary reliance on so many assumptions. Obviously, for any account of language evolution one needs to start with a list of assumptions to work from (in this book, the assumption of slow emergence and a Chomskian account of syntax), but strength in the field should not be sought from detail or depth, but instead support from empirical evidence. Progovac does make an admirable effort to support her account using evidence throughout, but the scope of the empiricism remains primarily in the field of linguistics (with examples primarily from English and Serbian). The book promises multidisciplinary evidence; however, when evidence from neuroscience or genetics is discussed, it is often evidence which shows that Progovac’s narrative is possible, rather than probable. Progovac herself makes sure to say that when she becomes very detailed in her account, she is only talking in hypotheticals, and that the only reason she has given such a detailed account is to ensure that she is proposing something that is, at least, possible. However, one can’t help but think that the possibility of an account should not be valued over the probability of it, and the more detail one gives, the less probable an account is to be true because it increases the number of purely hypothetical details one might be wrong about.

Progovac cites the findings that FOXP2 increases synaptic plasticity (Vernes et al. 2007) and argues that FOXP2 might have been a plausible root to more complex syntax, which makes sense. However, the syntactic theory in which the entire book is steeped rests on a foundation of Chomskian ideas that language in the brain is not the result of cognitive plasticity, but something specialised from birth. If plasticity were the thing which triggered more complex syntax, one would assume that this must have resulted from general processes and cultural evolution, rather than the biolinguistic perspective which the book is pushing. Given this incongruity, and the recent explosion of research arguing that the emergence of linguistic structure is the result of very small cognitive biases or more generalised cognitive mechanisms and functional needs, I’m surprised that there isn’t more extensive discussion in the book on the role of cultural transmission in the evolution of language.

Without recourse to accounts of cultural transmission then, what are the pressures which drove the transition from one stage to another? Progovac adopts Pinker and Bloom’s (1990) hypothesis that language has been selected for enhancing communication. For example, one proposed pressure for one or two word proto-grammars to have evolved into more complex syntax was to break away from what Progovac calls the “prison of pragmatics”. Without any hierarchy within language, there would be no way to distinguish between subjects and objects, and so our ancestors would have had to rely on pragmatics to make these inferences. With the introduction of syntax, people no longer had to rely on pragmatics to create meaning, and could then also use displacement (talking about things not present). I agree with this as a functional argument, but I disagree with the description of pragmatics as a “prison” from which we must escape. Every single linguistic utterance in modern language is still only understood because of pragmatics. Pragmatics is the very thing that makes language so flexible and productive (Scott-Phillips, 2014), rather than the thing we’re trying to get away from in order to be more rigid and specific. Progovac also turns to sexual selection as a mechanism that drove the biological evolution of language, claiming that the ability to create compound insults (such as “fuck head”) would have been used by men to display quick-wittedness and deride sexual rivals. However, one of the hallmark features of a trait which has been evolved through sexual selection is that it differs between the sexes (Darwin, 1871). And yet language displays very few sexually dimorphic features, though Progovac notes a difference in the sexes between the use of procedural and declarative memory in language, but fails to make the link between this and the ability to make compounds. Further, sexually selected traits often only develop at puberty (Gluckman and Hanson, 2006), but language develops in early childhood, including the ability to create novel compounds to insult people (e.g. “poo head”).


This book is great food for thought for both generative syntacticians and those interested in evolutionary linguistics. It is especially important, as it highlights that subscribing to minimalism as a framework for studying language, does not align you to Chomsky’s views on everything. I’m very pleased to see a book which invites a more empirical approach to the study of language evolution within generative linguistics. The breadth of linguistic examples from across languages is impressive, and I agree with Progovac that cross-linguistic analyses of patterns in language can reveal insights about our linguistic origins; however a framework that selects specific examples rather than looking for bigger trends using statistical methods is on empirically shaky ground. Still, this book would be interesting to the student of language evolution or syntax. However, a background knowledge of the bigger themes in language evolution and syntax would be required in order to put the book in context. Knowledge of the traditions which inform the assumptions of the book is needed in order to give proper appraisal to its theories.


Berwick, R. C., & Chomsky, N. (2011). The biolinguistic program: The current state of its development. The biolinguistic enterprise: New perspectives on the evolution and nature of the human language faculty, 19-41.

Chomsky, N. (1995). The minimalist program (Vol. 1765). Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex (2 vols.) London: John Murray.

Gluckman, P. D., & Hanson, M. A. (2006). Evolution, development and timing of puberty. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, 17(1), 7-12.

Jackendoff, R. (1999). Possible stages in the evolution of the language capacity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3(7):272—279

Pinker, S. & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13. (4): 707-784.

Progovac, L. (2015). Evolutionary Syntax. Oxford University Press.

Scott-Phillips, T. C. (2014). Speaking Our Minds. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vernes, S. C., Spiteri, E., Nicod, J., Groszer, M., Taylor, J. M., Davies, K. E., ... & Fisher, S. E. (2007). High-throughput analysis of promoter occupancy reveals direct neural targets of FOXP2, a gene mutated in speech and language disorders. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 81(6), 1232-1250.
Hannah Little is a PhD candidate supervised by Bart de Boer in the Artificial Intelligence lab at the VUB. She is using cultural learning, communication and signal creation experiments to explore the emergence of combinatorial structure in speech-like signals. Previously, she did an MSc in the Evolution of Language and Cognition from the Language Evolution and Computation unit (LEC) at the University of Edinburgh. She blogs about evolutionary linguistics at

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