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Review of  The Origins of Complex Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth

Reviewer: John Hammink
Book Title: The Origins of Complex Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth
Book Author: Andrew D. Carstairs-McCarthy
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 12.1607

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Carstairs-McCarthy, Andrew. 1999. The Origins of
Complex Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary
Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth, Oxford
University Press. Paperback ISBN: 0-19-823821-5, xi+260pp,

Reviewed by John Hammink, F-Secure Corporation, Helsinki

Linguistic origin and evolution has long been an issue of
debate among a range of academic disciplines, including
linguistics, anthropology, archeology, and biology.
However, to my knowledge, few works have attempted to
explain, in the broadest scope possible, certain aspects
of language, which other evolutionary accounts either
render ambiguous or simply leave unexplained. This book
is unique in that it is able to merge many apparently
distinct or specialized views, and more unique still in
that it calls directly for more comment on the issue.
Even though the book "makes no assumptions about the
readers prior knowledge" a good general knowledge of
linguistics, particularly phonology and syntax, are
helpful. However the introductory chapter asks the reader
to take "an outside view" and "visualize alternative
directions in which language might plausibly have
travelled" were it not for certain underlying
peculiarities of human language.

One of these peculiarities-namely, the universality of
the syntactic distinction between sentences and noun
phrases (NPs)- is a cornerstone of the inquiry, and the
author's perspective continually supplies a reason for it
consistent with the other arguments raised. This is
eventually reconciled with a syllabic theory of syntactic
development- that is, modern universal syntax is derived
from a syllabic model associated with the descent of the
larynx in proto-humans.

Towards the end of Chapter 1, where the real book seems
to start, the author lays out the plan of the book and
encourages the reader to proceed through the chapter in
the order he/she chooses--some arguments may be better
clarified by reading later chapters first and some
chapters (namely chapter 3) provide auxiliary but not
essential material to the course of inquiry.

In Chapter 2 the central argument begins as we look at
three universal peculiarities of human language:

-vocabulary size;

-duality of patterning: Linguistic expressions are
analysable on two levels:
1. As composed of meaningless elements (sounds
belonging to a finite inventory);
2. As composed of meaningful ones (words and

-the distinction between sentences and NPs.

So what is so peculiar about these "peculiarities"?
First, vocabulary size. The point here may otherwise be
brain size, but the author seems to allude to the concept
of organization when he starts to talk about duality of
patterning. Duality of patterning, of course, provides a
mechanism whereby vocabulary can be extended, because
elements are recombinable on both levels. Is duality of
patterning a direct consequence of vocabulary expansion?
Maybe. Or maybe not. While some new words are combined
from purely phonological resources (nerd, gizmo, quark)
most new vocabulary is derived from existing vocabulary
items, either through extending the meaning of existing
words, compounding, blending, and through meaning change
and affixation. These mechanisms do not need duality of
patterning to operate.

We are taken down a slightly different course when
learning about the distinction between sentences and NPs.
The author shows us 3 different scenarios for what could
have been the evolution of syntax. First, no syntax: Languages
might have large vocabularies and exhibit duality of
patterning, but sentences are otherwise strung together
in a "rough-and-ready" manner, with no grammatical
constraints. To understand "Asyntactic", one must rely
solely on common sense or pragmatic clues. The second
syntax scenario makes use of the Spatiotemporal Co-
ordinates and the Type/Token Distinction. A sentence in
"Spatiotemporal" may be constructed as follows: Location
in space + location in time + Object or Event. For
example "In Riga + Yesterday + Man bite dog". The third
syntactic scenario, called Monocategoric, lacks category
distinctions between expressions. There are only simple
expressions (Snake, you, John, Mary, story) and operators
monocategoric [you snake SEE]YESTERDAY could be glossed
as 1. 'You saw a snake yesterday' 2. 'your seeing a snake
yesterday' 3. 'the snake you saw yesderday' 4. 'you who
saw a snake yesterday'. Note that none of the above
scenarios, asyntactic, spatiotemporal, or monocategoric
require or make a distinction between sentences and NPs.
However, the author demonstrates that each system works
at least well enough so one cannot rule out the
scenarios as "unworkable" (Carstairs-McCarthy, p. 27).
Why then, did human languages universally evolve with
this distinction?

Chapter 3 discusses the philosophical distinction between
Truth and Reference. Section 3.1 asks "Are Truth and
Reference Distinguishable Nongrammatically?" Throughout
the chapter, several philosophers are called into play:
Frege (section 3.2); Wittgenstein (3.3); and more
recently Strawson (3.5). Of particular interest were
Plato's views (3.5) about Falsity and Non-existence and
(3.6)Syllables and Sentences. The latter carries over to
the author's view, e.g. that "the sentence/NP distinction
arises from a carry-over into syntax of a pattern of
organization that evolved in the first instance for the
neural control of phonetic articulation." (Carstairs-
McCarthy p. 63). Apparently Plato noticed a resemblance
between sentence and syllable structure. The way in
which Plato illustrates the difference between syllables
and certain phonemes seems to reflect the difference
between saying and naming. (Ryle, 1960). In Thaetus,
Plato shows that while the So- in Socrates is divisible
into s- and o-, there are also sounds like b- that
essentially can't be pronounced without an accompanying

Chapter 4 is appropriately titled Attempts to Solve the
Problem, and it contains some previous explanations for
the 3 pecularities of human language: vocabulary size,
duality of patterning and the sentence/NP distinction.
The author illustrates that these explanations do not
account for the peculiarities in a unified fashion. One
explanation for vocabulary size relates to the concept of
"synonomy avoidance" whereby it is rarely the case that
two (or more separate words) are exchangable perfectly in
all contexts. Duality of patterning may turn out to
be on by-product of contrasting meanings for a growing
number of distinct calls. Several separate concepts are
weighed and either critiqued and or dismissed here,
including call blending, sound symbolism, phonetic
assimilation, semantic drift and phonological self-
organization. The longest section in the chapter had to
do with the Sentence/NP distinction, because far more
scholastic effort has been devoted to syntactic structure
than either of the previous two concepts. The discussion
begins with Universal Grammar (UG), which was postulated
to explain why all human languages have characteristics
in common. Unfortunately, it seems that most Chomskyan
linguists seem to avoid discussions of the evolution of
UG, except for Frederik Newmayer (1991, 1998) Stephen
Pinker(1994, 1995) and Paul Bloom (Pinker and Bloom,
1990). The author sides with his colleagues as to
whether the evolution of UG is worth discussion, but
disagrees with them on a number of fronts as to how and
why it happened as it did.

In Chapter 5, the author presents his solution. In the
first section, Scope of the Solution, we are presented
the three peculiarities of human language as the result
and reminded that no other account of language evolution
account for these peculiarities. The following sections
begin by exploring the reasons for exact synonomy in
adult vocabulary, particularly as they relate to language
acquisition. 5.2 proposes a language where objects are
named disjunctively. This brings up the question: Why is
it intuitive to name things separate in appearance with
separate names? Is this part of our biological
endowment? The next subsection deals with principles
guiding vocabulary acquisition. These principles are
applied in a study of Vocabulary Acquisition Principles
in Inflectional Morphology. Again, in this section, the
author proposes another scenario language where
disjunctive categories are applied to a wordclass. The
author is able to show clearly how this is
counterintuitive. Then we look at a study of several
real world languages, which seem to apply these very
disjunctive classes to their inflectional morphology of
nouns, however, on closer examination, it is more
systematic than first appears-some inflections appear to
be what the author calls 'class defaults' whereby others
appear to be 'class identifiers'. It is the range of
these identifiers that varies.

There are evolutionary implications to this, as we first
learn about the descent of the larynx in walking
hominids. The larynx in other mammals is positioned high
in the back of the mouth which allows them to breathe
while eating, something humans cannot do. However
something we can do (besides walk upright) is form
vowels. Vowels are formed in the supralaryngal cavity,
and where and how the tongue splits this is what
partially determines the frequencies of the first and
second formants of vowels. For example, for the vowel
[a] the tongue is low in the mouth, so the oral air
volume is large while the pharyngal volume is small.
(Carstairs-McCarthy p. 127). This makes the first formant
(the pharyngal one) high relative two other vowels, and
the second (the oral one), low. There is even a little
"exercise" provided to allow one to listen to the first
formant. Tilt your head back so that the front of the
neck is taut. Place the lips and tongue silently in
position for each of the vowels [a], [e], [i], [o], [u]
while simultaneously tapping the neck with a finger or
pencil for each. (Ladefoged, 1993). Essentially we are
shown, without the new L-shaped configuration of the
supralaryngal cavity, there would be no clearly defined
first and second formants. Without these, there would be
no distinctions in vowel timbre.

The next section 5.4, Our Ancestors' Dilemna, we recall
that our hominid ancestors had a vocal call system which
obeyed synonomy-avoidance principles (principles strong
enough, we are reminded, in modern language, to create
intralinguistic "meanings" such as collocational
restrictions and inflection-class distinctions)
(Carstairs-McCarthy p. 129). What therefore happens to
our hominids' vocal call system when the new
supralaryngal cavity vowel potential is combined with
strong synonomy avoidance?

Because our brains are finite, memory capacity is
limited. A modest increase in muscular precision means
that we have exponentially more potential sounds we can
combine into new calls. In particular, labial, alveolar,
and velar sounds like [p] [t] and [k] respectively are
robust enough that the sound characteristic doesn't
change much if the place of articulation varies by as
much as a centimeter one way or the other. An educated
adult nowadays knows between 50,000 and 250,000 words
(Aitchinson 1987:7). Differences in sounds between two
words or two affixes tends to cause a meaning to come
about to differentiate them. Given this, it seems likely
that synonomy avoidance principles are part of our
linguistic inheritance. Thus the dilemna: on one hand,
with our new supralaryngal cavity and enhanced motor
control, our ancestors had a lot of new sounds to try
out, but with the expectation that all the distinct calls
should differentiate in meaning. On the other hand, with
those finite brains, it's impossible for all those
possible distinct calls to be memorized with distinct

The dilemna is resolved in section 5.5. Vocabulary
grows, while duality of patterning is introduced. The author
elaborates: "Cultural development uninhibited by any
vocabulary size limits is just what we will expect
if...potential vocabulary size is driven not by
environmental or social factors but rather by inherited
synonomy-avoidance principles (Carstairs-McCarthy p.

However, this in itself creates yet another dilemna: If
language now evolves such that longer calls are rendered
usable by being strings of shorter calls (with meaning),
how will the combined meaning of these strings be
determined? Syntax. But syntax isn't arbitrary. The
author thus argues that these early syntactic features
(and ultimately the sentence/NP distinction) are a
natural outcome of speech innovations due to vocal-tract
changes. But what specifically?

In 5.6.1. we are introduced to syllables themselves as
the phonetic motivation. Syllables embody a rapid
alteration in sound sonority, whereby (usually) a sound
with higher sonority (a vowel) can be surrounded by a
sound with lesser sonority (for example a plosive or a
stop). Syllables can be broken up into margins (onsets
and codas) with a nucleus (sonority peak) in the middle.
In 5.6.2 we are shown the internal organization of the
syllable and given several prevaling views in phonetics
about syllable weight. However, the brass tacks come at
5.6.3, where we finally see the syllable as a model for
sentence structure.

Linguists have found similarities for some time between
phonology and syntax, and the author, in this section
proposes the influence of phonology on syntax. At first,
he holds some other views to light before he
substantiates his own views. In so doing, he provides,
in detail, many structural similarities between syllables
and sentences. He disproves further the proposed
languages Spatiotemporal and Monocategoric by attempting,
and failing, to map them to compliance with syllabic
models. He finally reaches some conclusions with this:
''...if human language is descended from something like a
primate call system, there is no stage in its evolution
at which the sentence/NP distinction would have had to
emerge in order for it to express everything that human
language can...Monocategoric, just like Spatiotemporal,
is not the sort of language we would expect to evolve in
an environment where syntax was modelled on syllable
structure, so as to favor the three asymmetries."
(Carstairs-McCarthy p. 150). Farther on, he draws a 6-
point checklist on how syntax would comply with the
syllabic model and reflect the three peculiarities. Most
of the rest of the chapter is more expansion on these
proofs and their implications.

Chapter 6, entitled apes, anthropology, and the brain,
has subsections pertaining to exactly these three things.
These, of course, provide some complementary evidence to
the author's claims, as section 6.1 indicates. 6.2,
Archeology and Biological Anthropology provides
complimentary evidence from these fields. Some
linguistic developments can be mapped similarly to tool
development, at least in relative terms of complexity.
As it turns out, the impetus for vocal-tract changes may
be traceable to our hominid ancestors attempts to walk
upright, as the larynx can be placed by measuring the
base of the skull. Some of the dates related to the
dropping of the larynx can provide correlating evidence
to various "Growth spurts" in early human culture. 6.3,
The Brain looks at aspects of the brain, which allow the
language evolutionist to study from a more abstract point
of view. Some issues discussed here include the effects
of Broca's Aphasia and some points brought up from the
study of the grammatical structure of sign language. 6.4
Apes and language, discusses how chimpanzees avoid
synonymy, the nature of Ape's sign combinations and how a
bonobo understands spoken English.

The final chapter, 7, is titled "Just How Unique are We?"
and is intended to summarize the whole of the
author's argument and discuss its implications. The
outcome is discussed, some parallels drawn between
linguistic and cognitive evolution, and there is even a
section that explains, among other things, how the nature
of knowledge may certainly affect our interpretation of
the evidence (one example being the way chimpanzees react
to commands). The last section, "Why Humans?" we are
shown two questions which must be independently resolved
if one is to dig deeper into the evidence surrounding
language evolution: "How did language originate?" and
"Why was it in humans that language evolved?"

Summary Evaluation

In a sense, this was a difficult book to summarize, in
that there were so many points to be considered that it
was often difficult to follow the main thread of the
discussion without going too far in depth. There were
too many "sub-threads" supporting the main argument,
which I felt were expanded a bit too far. This is not in
detriment to the work itself. In fact, I believe that if
one of the goals of this book is to spark debate, I am
sure there will be reactions from most if not all of the
disciplines represented.

Despite the fact that the book seemed to lack empirical
evidence in some places, I could find little to argue
with. In fact, the author himself points out that
collecting data for this sort of "experiment" may prove
to be a bit different than doing controlled laboratory
research, and I'd have to say that I agree.

If I were editing this book for non-specialist readers, I
would probably order the chapters more or less in the
opposite order, starting with the conclusion, working
next to the supporting evidence in other fields, and then
getting on with the three pecularities (actually chapter
2) and the proof itself (chapter 5), and finishing by
showing the conclusions presented in the context of their
implications. I would probably omit Chapter 3 altogether,
or at least move it to the end of the book as a
supplementary chapter, because it doesn't provide
directly supporting evidence to the already very dense
text in the supporting chapters. In fact reading this
book in the order it is written is something of a
liability if one is trying to follow the author's
impressive argument.

On the whole I found the book both accessible and
informative, if a bit dense. It should be of interest of anyone
attempting to follow the language evolution debate.
However to be of more general (or even popular) interest,
it could at least provide more background for non-
linguists if not be written in a more general vain. This
book itself (when combined with some of its
bibliographical references) could be the basis
for a useful graduate-level course in language evolution,
or its method of study, if this is not already the case.


Aitchinson, Jean. 1987. Words in the Mind: An
Introduction to the Mental Lexicon. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hurford, James R, Studdert-Kennedy, Michael, and Knight
Chris. 1998. (eds.). Approaches to the Evolution of
Language: Social and Cognitive Bases, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Ladefoged, Peter. 1993. A course in Phonetics (3rd
International Edn.). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1991. Functional explanation in
linguistics and the origins of language [with peer
commentary and response]. Language and Communication,
11: 3-114.

- -1998. On the supposed 'counterfunctionality' of
Universal Grammar: some evolutionary implications. In
Hurford et al.(1998), 305-19.

Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct. New York:
William Morrow.

- -1995. Facts about human language relevant to its
evolution. In Changeux and Chavallion (1995), 262-83.

- -and Bloom, Paul. 1990. Natural language and natural
selection [with peer commentary and response].
Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13: 707-84.

Ryle, Gilbert. 1960. Letters and syllables in Plato.
Philosophical Review, 69: 431-51.

John Hammink holds a B.Sc. in Linguistics from Eastern
Michigan University. He has been working for the last
five years in the areas of data-security software
localization and validation. His work with validation
(particularly test automation) involves both training the
corpora of the end application as well as developing a
trainable "test" corpus for the automation machine. His
interests include Corpus Linguistics, Linguistic
Evolution and the. Finno-Ugric Language group.