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Review of  The Development of Language: Acquisition, Change And Evolution

Reviewer: Ron Bonham
Book Title: The Development of Language: Acquisition, Change And Evolution
Book Author: David W Lightfoot
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 10.1000

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Lightfoot, David . The Development of Language: Acquisition, Change, and
Evolution. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 1999.

Reviewed by Ron Bonham, Malaspina University-College

Introductory Overview:

David Lightfoot's new study of language acquisition and change, based on a
"scientific approach to history," is a challenging work which extends some
theoretical notions about language while debunking and discrediting others.
It is interesting to see Lightfoot, in his concluding chapter, referring to
"we linguistic historians," where the first impression established in this
work is that he is far from sympathetic to, or in agreement with, historical
principles. Lightfoot is, however, challenging not the historical but the
"historicist" approach to language and, in fact, to knowledge in general,
offering in place of Newtonian-style theories a "chaotic" view of language
development based on his notions of "catastrophe" and "cue" with some
significant grounding in UG and syntactic study. A book which offers a
"biological view of grammar," rather than a social one, The Development of
Language is a complex and even perilous Odyssey (to use Lightfoot's own
metaphor), at times perceptive, controversial, and engaging, at times
clunky, overly abstract, and forbidding.

In light of the work of Chomsky, perhaps Lenneberg (although curiously not
mentioned here), and more recent work by such linguists as Kroch, Niyogi and
Berwick, Lightfoot presents a vigorous, sometimes heady study of language
acquisition with some valuable insights into the child's active, creative
role in language development which could be applied to an understanding of
how the ever-illusive, controversial LAD may operate. It is difficult to
know, however, what sort of readership the author has in mind as, at times,
he explains fundamental concepts like notions of language genealogy and the
distinctions between language and grammar, yet offers a limited
understanding of literacy with no recognition of discourse issues, presents
a simplistic review of language origins theories, and then offers advanced
studies of issues like genotypical systems, maladaptiveness, nonlocal
antecedents (indexed), etc. Granted, Lightfoot has shaded passages written
for what he calls "dedicated linguists" which he considers optional;
however, these passages are not always the most difficult parts of the
presentation and are not really independent of the unshaded text. It is
true, as the author claims, that the "central ideas" can be grasped with
little background by "those who have thought little about language," but
much of how those ideas are arrived at otherwise lacks transparency.
Discussions of complex parameter settings, employment of X-theory, V to I
raising, and the implications of Government Bindings, Blocking Effect and
Subjacency Conditions are clearly inaccessible to readers who have
previously read only the required "introductory text" without a comfortable
grasp of syntactic and acquisition theory. The style of the opening and
concluding chapters is also directed more to the reader with discursive
commentary and even humor, while the central chapters read more like
academic papers not fully digested into the overall text.

Synopsis/ Structural Analysis

The first three (of a total of ten) chapters in the book establish the
context for Lightfoot's examination of language change, in particular "the
structural changes which have affected the grammars of English speakers"
(19). Examining the impact of nineteenth-century linguistic thought, the
views of the "century of history," the author finds himself focussing on two
main "beefs" with its highly influential perspective: it is "too
deterministic" and offers a limited "incomplete view of language". In fact,
the discoveries of patterns of correspondence in the 19th century
influencing and influenced by historical-evolutionary understandings, led to
the general view that languages were underpinned by predictable laws which
could show them shaped in "systematic" ways. This viewpoint leads to an
advocacy of a "gradualist" perspective on change with much greater focus on
product than on process. The emphasis of the 19th century was, thus, on a
drive to establish directional change through focus on complex word elements
and an undefined, incoherent sense of "language".

In light of the advances made by Chomsky and the rationalists, Lightfoot
argues that the emphasis on biological grammar, "which is represented in the
mind/brain of an individual," challenges the 19th century perspective. The
review of the rationalist objections to imitation theory, reinforcement and
the genetic explanation for language acquisition - especially in dealing
with "poverty of stimulus" - is rewarding and informative and pursues a
somewhat persuasive model of grammar which is scientific and "uniquely
computational". Drawing on notions of internal grammar and trigger
experiences (in contrast with input models), Lightfoot employs the notions
of molecular biology to argue for the individual development in children of
a "system, a grammar, which at certain stages of development yields things
which no child hears from English-speaking adults". While such a viewpoint
is convincing in emphasizing the creative aspect of language development,
Lightfoot's work is more convincing with syntactic structures than it would
be in areas like accent, register, and semanticity which, in fact, receive
minimal if any consideration here. In fact, the author is preparing the
ground for a challenge to the existence of a social grammar, a point which
seems pushed too far in an attempt to emphasize the pervasive impact of the
biological grammar on language change.

Chapters 4 through 7 present the heart of Lightfoot's book. In Chapter 4,
"Gradualism and Catastrophes," he offers the reader the contrast between the
viewpoint that languages change in a slow, continuous manner - the view
which "has pretty much had hegemony" (83) and the view that languages change
in abrupt and discontinuous ways. The latter view, which the author relates
to "catastrophe theory," he calls "catastrophic" (emphasizing the calmer
French sense of the word in chaos theory)) where shifts and "bumpy
discrepancies" are evident and where the focus is not on "social entity" but
on "individual mental entity" as the understanding of the nature of grammar.
This chapter offers some interesting, persuasive evidence of the features of
language change (new phenomena clusters, chain reactions, S curve spread,
impact of obsolescence, meaning change, new grammatical properties) and an
important reminder about the complexities of sets of grammars and coexisting
grammars as opposed to the notion of a single, monolithic grammar. It is
here that Lightfoot dismisses the notion of "social grammar," however, where
he ties meaning change to structural change without realizing the value of
lexical change independent of lexicalist models which he sees as too

Lightfoot calls Chapters 5 through 7 the "analytical core" of his book. Here
he does some in-depth study of specific instances of "catastrophic" changes
where he shows their considerable impact. Drawing upon the notions of
thematic roles, the Minimalist Program, case analysis, he arrives at some
convincing evidence for the catastrophic viewpoint and his lead-in to how
language change takes place. It is here where he introduces his notion of a
"cue-based acquisition". Lightfoot points out that the common-sense view of
diachronic change - as the result of major disruptions due to the external
influence of population movement/ dispersal - is based on some false
assumptions in the construction of learnability models. These include the
deterministic-evolutionary notion of survival of the "fittest grammar" and
the false notion of input-matching which he has already countered with the
"poverty of stimulus" evidence and here by the further problem of succeeding
with negative and degenerate data.

At this point, the author introduces "cues" or "designated structures" which
are found not universally but only in certain grammars and which define the
parameters of and between grammars. Lightfoot's definition of cues is
necessarily vague at this point - "intensional elements, grammar fragments".
These cues act as structural triggers and reveal the interconnected nature
of morphology and syntax. Later in the book, the author admits that it is
still far from clear why cues must be followed. UG does not really help
here, since it always permits a range of optionality. Hence some of the
actual "psychology" of cue-based acquisition remains uncertain. Nonetheless,
Lightfoot's analysis of grammatical examples here and in the subsequent
chapter are persuasive evidence that such changes are contingent and yet
"deterministic" in that they are abrupt and the impact unpredictable while
parameter settings cannot be undone once in place and a set "learning path"
established. Without some "theory of cues," which does not exist, and
lacking any "fitness measure," this examination shows the reader important
ways of analyzing language change on 2 levels (the UG level where changes
are unified and the more contingent although not entirely random account of
why change occurred) but not a clear sense of what the parameters really are
or how to define or identify a possible cue.

The final 3 chapters of this book (8 through 10) widen the focus of the
argument to look at "big ideas" (19) and implications of the approach to
language change. In some ways, Chapter 8 balances with the discussion of the
nineteenth century view of language change presented in Chapter 2. Here
Lightfoot reveals the essence of his skepticism about historicism and his
view of historical law as epiphenomenal. Basing his conclusions on the
central argument he presents for catastrophic change and cue-based
acquisition, he convincingly argues for a balanced perspective of
interaction between chance (shifts in the distribution of cues) and
necessity (biological reality). Such a viewpoint allows for the influence of
factors that are not grammatical and for acknowledgement of the chaotic and
unpredictable. Lightfoot argues convincingly that UG properties are invented
by historicists based on assumptions about the nature of language only to
explain issues of directionality (as in discussion of Bauer's work),
although the research of Niyogi and Berwick, largely supported here,
includes the notion of "richer" inflectional systems which is, in itself, an
implicit judgment about how languages develop.

Chapter 9, "The Evolution of the Language Faculty," presents some solid
critique of the perspective of evolutionary theory, which have had enormous
impact on the traditional view of language change. Lightfoot contrasts the
"singularist" perspective , which emphasizes natural selection as the sole
factor governing the changes, with a "pluralist" one where natural selection
plays at best a limited role and where other non-predictable factors
pertain. This viewpoint challenges the "Panglossian fallacy" (that "anything
that performs a function well must have been selected for that purpose") of
the singularist by demonstrating the significance of "spandrels" as
by-products, the impact of physical principles, and the presence of
maladaptiveness in language change. Although Lightfoot points out the lack
of empirical evidence, he argues that physical laws are as likely a factor
in change as environmental ones since environmental factors do not "suffice
to shape the changes that result" (251).

The discussion of the limits of the evolutionary perspective leads to the
final chapter -- an exhilarating read - where the author makes important
distinctions between randomness and predictability. Here he reinforces his
cue-based approach, showing that language change "is not random, but is
unpredictably a function of contingent changes in the distribution of cues"
(259). The concluding examination of the "interplay of chance and necessity"
leads to confronting the current limits in theorizing about language change.
Thus, without a coherent theory, reconstructions can reveal similarities but
cannot hypothesize about the unattested. Grammatical changes result from
"exposure to a new triggering experience," but we are unsure of how scanning
for cues really takes place or what number of cues is necessarily involved
and the potential impact of epigenetic development. Also, the impact of
"neurological limits" in language development is still undefined, uncertain.
Nonetheless, Lightfoot argues that the historians of language are in the
best position to develop a model of change theory with some limited
predictive capacities - and perhaps the predictiveness can be advanced
further if chance is not overlooked in defining the "range of available
options for the new grammar".

Summary Evaluation:

The approach to language change becomes particularly heady stuff as this
point - an interesting challenge to the traditional ways of examining
universal change along law-governed evolutionary lines. Certainly more
understanding of neurolinguistic data would help with further theorizing
about a cue-based acquisition approach . Lightfoot's book merits some
caveats about exploration of too many scientific analogies and principles -
DNA, genotype/ phenotype of molecular biology, chaos and catastrophe theory,
motion theories, etc. - in order to establish empirical grounding for the
uncertainty of his claims. At times, the over-detailed examination of some
elements where the author seems impressed by his own erudition (eg. scaling
laws, historical approaches, heavy analysis of V to I raising) clouds the
central focus. The unevenness of the chapters - where the central,
unfortunately rather arid ones sound more like isolated academic papers than
integrated parts of the book - weakens the overall presentation. However,
this work presents some important advances on notions of language
acquisition and change; it also consolidates challenging ideas on the
interplay of language development which can only deepen understanding of
this complex reality. Lightfoot calls on linguists, scholars, and all
interested parties to see the potential for thinking in new ways and
furthering research, thereby significantly affecting how our world looks at
and understands change.

R. A. Bonham

English/ Linguistics

Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC. Canada

[email protected]

(R.A.Bonham is a Senior Faculty member at Malaspina U-C where he teaches
Linguistics and English and coordinates the Writing Center. His interests
include Indo-European philology, History of Writing Systems, Stylistics, and
Literacy, and he has devised new curriculum and supervised upper level
projects in these areas.)


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ISBN: 0631210601
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