Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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Review of The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution
EDITORS: Tallerman, Maggie and Gibson, Kathleen R. TITLE: The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution SERIES TITLE: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2011
Michael Pleyer, English Department, University of Heidelberg
SUMMARY The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution is an edited volume containing 65 chapters surveying a highly interdisciplinary field that has been developing rapidly in the last two decades. The book includes a general introduction by the editors and is divided into five parts, each preceded by an introduction highlighting key results as well as theoretical divergences.
The volume is divided as follows: The first two parts, “Insights from comparative animal behaviour” (I) and “The biology of language evolution: Anatomy, genetics, and neurology” (II) deal with the evolutionary and biological foundations of language evolution. The other three deal with theory and evidence on how language(s) evolved and what needs to be explained linguistically and psychologically: “The prehistory of language: When and why did language evolve” (III), “Launching language: the development of a linguistic species” (IV), “Language change, creation, and transmission in modern humans” (V).
Part I: Insights from comparative animal behaviour In chapter 3, “Language or Protolanguage? A Review of the Ape Language Literature”, Gibson concludes that apes are capable of protolanguage, but lack the motivation to do so in the wild as well as the capacity to form higher-order hierarchical mental representations.
Seyfarth and Cheney, in chapter 4, present evidence of “Primate Social Cognition as a Precursor to Language.” What is lacking in other highly social primates such as baboons or chimpanzees and bonobos, though, they argue, is a theory of mind which built the foundation of the evolution of syntax and structured vocalizations.
Chapter 5, “Cooperative Breeding and the Evolution of Vocal Flexibility” by Klaus Zuberbühler, deals with evidence of intentionality and combinatoriality in primate vocal communication and hypothesises that the transition to speech in the human lineage happened in the context of cooperative breeding.
De Waal and Pollick, in chapter 6, in contrast focus on “Gesture as the Most Flexible Modality of Primate Communication.” They argue that the flexibility exhibited by chimpanzees and bonobos in the gestural modality makes it a promising candidate for the evolutionary platform from which language evolution in early hominins took off.
Slocombe, in the next chapter, takes a different view and asks whether we might now have “Underestimated Great Ape Vocal Capacities.” Their flexibility in vocal production, she argues represents a neglected area of research.
After the previous chapters dealt with primate cognition and communication, the next two chapters are centred around bird’s vocal abilities.
Slater examines the relevance of birdsong for language evolution as a case of convergent evolution for some, but by no means all aspects of human vocal communication and learning. Pepperberg offers “Insights from Parrots and Songbirds” on the evolution of communication and language, which, she argues can provide useful models for the evolution of vocal communication. In the section’s last chapter, Gibson poses the following questions “Are Other Animals as Smart as Great Apes? Do Others Provide Better Models for the Evolution of Speech and Language?” She concludes that to date research on other animals has not demonstrated that they exhibit the same cognitive sophistication as apes, which therefore still present the best model of the likely cognitive capacities of the earliest hominins.
Part II: The biology of language evolution: Anatomy, genetic, and neurology Following the section introduction, Fitch presents an analysis of the profusion of terms regarding ‘innateness.’ He advises that ‘innate’ and ‘instinct’ should be avoided, but holds that the underlying concepts are still highly relevant.
Számadó and Szathmáry argue that the co-evolution of language and the brain is still a biologically plausible scenario, even if language is envisioned as a fast-changing ‘moving target’ as proposed, for example, by Chater & Christiansen (Chapter 65).
In Chapter 15, Diller and Cann deal with “Genetic Influences on Language: An Evaluation of the Evidence.” However, according to the authors, our understanding of genes and genetic networks relating to the development of the neuroanatomical structures involved in language is only at the beginning.
Chapters 16 and 18-20 deal with neurobiological aspects of language, whereas in chapter 17 Donald presents his theory that the representational mode of mimesis should be seen as the crucial pre-adaptation for language in hominin evolution. In chapter 16 Gibson points out that it is “Not the Neocortex Alone”, but that “Other Brain Structures Also Contribute to Speech and Language.” Hopkins and Vauclair, in chapter 18, show that hemispheric specialization can be found in non-human primates as well and thus predates language. Wilkins, in the next chapter, also demonstrates the importance of comparative neuroanatomy for an evolutionary biology of language. Arbib, in chapter 20, presents the Mirror System Hypothesis, according to which pantomimic imitation supported by an integration of mirror neuron systems and other systems was the crucial step in the evolution of a language-ready brain.
In Chapter 21, Coolidge and Wynn propose four “Cognitive Prerequisites for The Evolution of Indirect Speech”: phonological storage capacity, recursion, theory of mind, and executive function.
MacLarnon’s chapter, finally, summarises what the fossil record can tell us about the evolution of features of human speech production and the potential speech capabilities of extinct hominin species.
Part III: The prehistory of language: When and why did language evolve? As pointed out in the section introduction, we do not have a very clear picture of when and why the language faculty evolved, but these chapters indicate directions in which we might look for potential answers. Cann, in chapter 24, for example, gives a brief overview of “Molecular Perspectives on Human Evolution.” Wood and Bauernfeind, in the next chapter, conclude – pace MacLarnon (Chapter 22) and others – that “little, or no, reliable evidence about the speech capabilities” (p. 271) of early hominins can be found in the fossil record.
In chapter 26, Mann is concerned with “The Genus Homo and the Origins of ‘Humanness.” He also sketches current debates over the “Out-of-Africa” versus “Multiregional Evolution” models and how these relate to whether Neanderthals possessed all attributes of modern humans such as modern cognition, symbolic representation, social complexity and manual skills.
Wynn, in chapter 27, surveys “the Palaeolithic Record” and what the different technologies they employed can tell us about the subsistence, cognition, and social complexity of Palaeolithic hominins. Mithen (chapter 28) presents his theory that “Musicality and Language” are tightly interlinked and that some form of musical communication might even have served as a precursor for (proto-) language. The potential “Linguistic Implications of the Earliest Personal Ornaments”, which appeared between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago, are discussed by D’Errico and Vanhaeren in chapter 29. The authors share the view of most archaeologists that these beadworks can be seen as indicative of symbolic behaviour, cultural transmission and conventions, perspective-taking, and probably also syntactic language, which, as Henshilwood and Dubreuil (2009), argue, requires the same recursive and meta-representational ability as perspective-taking.
Botha, in the next chapter, however, is highly critical of archaeologists’ attempts at “Inferring Modern Language from Ancient Objects” on theoretical grounds. He outlines conditions which successful inferences in language evolution research must satisfy, including the use of independently motivated ‘bridge theories’, and argues that current theories of links between archaeological artefacts and linguistic behaviour fail these requirements.
Lightfoot, in chapter 31, voices the concern often addressed by scholars within the Generative tradition that too much in language evolution is being explained in terms of natural selection, something he terms “Natural Selection-itis”. Instead, he pleads for the consideration of language properties as exapted accidental by-products as well as emerging from not very-well understood “deep, physical principles that affect much of life” (p. 315).
Falk presents her “putting the baby down” hypothesis in chapter 32, according to which vocal interactions between early hominin mothers, who were using both hands for foraging tasks, and infants lying on the ground were the stepping stone for the evolution of protolanguage.
De Boer also considers the relationship between “Infant-Directed Speech and Language Evolution” in chapter 33. He concludes that caretaker-child interaction and infant-directed speech might have played an important role in language evolution and continue to do so in language acquisition. However, they do not explain the emergence of the full semantic and syntactic complexity of language, which has to be accounted for by other factors.
A developmental perspective on language evolution is also taken by Locke in chapter 34, arguing that the uniquely human developmental periods of childhood and adolescence should be taken into account in theories of language evolution and that “Displays of Vocal and Verbal Complexity” which functioned as indicators of genetic fitness might have played an important role in the development of vocal learning and protolanguage.
Gibson, in chapter 35, argues that major, tool-dependent changes in foraging strategies might have played a significant role in language evolution.
In chapter 36, “Gossip and the Social Origins of Language”, Dunbar presents his theory that language evolved as a form of ‘vocal grooming’ which made possible social bonding and group cohesion on a much larger scale than found in other primates (~150 vs. ~50). Fully grammatical language then evolved in the context of other social requirements such as the exchange of social information, reputation management, and the identification of group members.
Knight and Power, chapter 37, deal with the necessary “Social Conditions for the Evolutionary Emergence of Language.” Their explanation centres around female solutions to male-female reproductive conflicts over access to resources and sex.
Part IV: Launching language: the development of a linguistic species The editors describe this section as the most “immediately ‘linguistic’” (p. 353) in that it deals with the central properties of language and their cognitive foundations that have to be accounted for in language evolution research.
Anderson (chapter 39), contrary to Lightfoot (chapter 31), maintains that the human faculty of language has been shaped by natural selection in the same way as other complex biological systems and that the Baldwin effect has likely played an important role.
In “The Origins of Meaning” (chapter 40), James Hurford presents the main points of his book-length treatment of the topic with the same name (Hurford 2007). He argues and presents evidence that there are precursors to both conceptual and pragmatic meaning in other animals, but that crucially the emergence of language enabled the creation of new kinds of meaning. For language to launch, however, we had to go beyond the cognitive foundations found in other animals, and develop capacities such as being able to share intentions (cf. Tomasello et al. 2005).
Corballis, in chapter 41, considers the possible “Origins of Language in Manual Gestures.” His views are also shared by de Waal & Pollick (chapter 6), Arbib (chapter 20), and Tomasello (2008), but as the editors note, this is (still) a minority view in language evolution research. Somewhat consistent with this view, however, Harnard in chapter 42, proposes that categories grounded in sensorimotor experiences and pantomime supplied the crucial grounding for the emergency of fully symbolic language.
Drawing on his highly influential 1997 book (Deacon 1997), Deacon discusses the importance of “The Symbol Concept” and the complexity of semiotic reference in theories of language evolution in chapter 43.
Burling, in chapter 44, argues that “Words Came First” and presents possible “Adaptations for Word-Learning,” which include our evolved capacity for the storage of a lexicon, learning a phonological system with contrastive features as well as an elaborate syntax.
Chapters 45-47 deal with Phonetics, Phonology, and Morphology, respectively. In chapter 45, Studdert-Kennedy considers “The Emergence of Phonetic Form”, discussing evidence from child development and computational models. Similarly, MacNeilage, who like Studdert-Kennedy sees the vocal, not the gestural domain as the evolutionary platform for language, deals with issues surrounding “The Evolution of Phonology.” These include the relation between phonological theory and innateness, phylogenetic models of speech production such as MacNeilage’s Frame/Content Theory, and the relationship between speech perception and production.
Carstairs-McCarthy, in “The Evolution of Morphology”, argues that morphology, which is not found in all human languages, still is to be considered as a biologically, not only culturally, evolved property of the language faculty.
Tallerman, in chapter 48, poses a fundamental question: “What is Syntax?” and discusses the syntactic capacities that are held to be universal. Proto-syntactic capacities can be found in other animals, but hallmark features of syntax such as grammatical functions, displacement, semantic compositionality, and functional vocabulary have not been demonstrated in any other species.
Bickerton, in the next chapter, focuses on “The Origins of Syntactic Language” more explicitly. He summarises and criticises three proposed scenarios for the origins of syntax: cultural invention accounts, catastrophic accounts and adaptive accounts. He also discusses theories on the sequence of syntactic evolution, often treated as possible windows on early syntax. Finally, he also briefly proposes that when the first words appeared, the primate brain was already equipped for assembling them into hierarchical structures, and that this served as the selection pressure for the evolution of other cognitive processes supporting syntax.
A particularly controversial question is addressed by Carstairs-McCarthy, in chapter 50, the question whether some languages are more or less complex than others. He considers cases such as Creoles, Riau Indonesian, Second-Language speaker’s ‘Basic Variety’, Pirahã, and artificial languages, arguing that the debate about differing linguistic complexity has much to contribute to language evolution research.
Tallerman, in chapter 51, discusses a similarly controversial topic: the concept of “Protolanguage”, a hypothetical pre-linguistic communication form of early hominins. She examines whether protolanguage was compositional, holistic, or musical, while strongly criticizing the latter two proposals. She also discusses to what extent protolanguage can be seen as continuous with primate calls and cognition.
Finally, in the section’s last chapter, Cedric Boeckx deals with “The Emergence of Language from a Biolinguistic Point of View.” Boeckx presents current Generative theorizing on language evolution in light of the Minimalist Programme’s attempts at minimizing innate UG-components and finding general computational laws involved in the constitution of the language faculty.
Part V: Language change, creation, and transmission in modern humans After the editors’ introduction, Heine and Kuteva analyse the role of “Grammaticalization Theory as a Tool for Reconstructing Language Evolution.” By looking at the development of linguistic forms over historical time, they argue, inferences can be made about earlier stages of language in prehistoric time.
As a representative of the usage-based and Cognitive-linguistic point of view on language evolution, Bybee sees “Domain-General Processes as the Basis for Grammar.” According to Bybee, language should be conceived of as a dynamic, construction-based, and situated phenomenon supported by capacities such as neuromotor automation, chunking, categorization, inference-making, and cross-modal association instead of a static set of algorithmic rules detached from meaning and context. This view also has implications for language evolution, because it suggests that only after thoroughly considering the evolutionary role of domain-general abilities and the processes of grammaticalization and cultural transmission should we consider possible domain-specific factors.
Roberge, in the next chapter, deals with “Pidgins, Creoles, and the Creation of Language.” He critically assesses the use language evolution scholars have made of these ‘mediums of interethnic communication’ of differing complexity and cases of language creation. He cautions that these cases of ‘communal language creation’ differ in important ways from the likely course language evolution took in pre-modern humans, but that they might still offer important insights.
In chapter 57, Goldin-Meadow asks “What Modern-Day Gesture can Tell Us About Language Evolution.” She demonstrates that manual gesture plays a role both in communication and thinking. She also states that it is equally suited as a combinatorial mode of representation as oral language, which is indicated by emerging as well as conventional sign languages and home sign systems. However, the manual modality might surpass the oral modality in its ability to serve as an imagistic representational format, which might be the reason that in modern humans, manual and gestural modalities function as an integrated communicative system allowing for both compositional and imagistic modes of representation.
Based on linguistic geography and palaeodemography, Nichols, in chapter 58, finds it unlikely that there was “A Single Ancestral Language for All Humanity.” Instead, she argues that there was a gradual evolution of various pre-languages into fully modern languages in diverse populations with considerable linguistic diversity from the very beginning.
Combining genetic and linguistic analyses, Pakendorf is concerned with “Prehistoric Population Contact and Language Change” in chapter 59. She offers a case study of this phenomenon in Siberia, and argues that language contact has likely been an important factor in the evolution of language.
Chapters 60-63 deal with the role that the creation of linguistic forms and cultural/social transmission might have played in the evolution of language. They also demonstrate the growing importance of various forms of modelling in language evolution research.
Kenny Smith first shows “Why Formal Models are Useful for Evolutionary Linguists.” He argues that computational and mathematical models allow us to test the results of a given set of assumptions that a particular theory makes. As Smith points out, recent work in the field tries to test predictions made by formal models empirically in the laboratory (e.g. Kirby et al. 2008), and also tries to bring the assumptions modellers make about learning into contact with empirical research.
Arguing that “Language is an Adaptive System”, Kirby also explores “The Role of Cultural Evolution in the Origins of Structure.” Language can be seen as the result of three interacting complex adaptive systems: individual learning, socio-cultural transmission and biological evolution. To explain the evolution and structure of language, we have to elucidate and explore the contributions and relationships of these three systems. As Kirby argues, computational/robotic, mathematical, and experimental models will play an important role in understanding language as a complex adaptive system emerging from cognitive/linguistic, social, and biological interactions.
Cangelosi presents current research on “Robotics and Embodied Agent Modelling of the Evolution of Language,” which are used to investigate the evolution of pre-linguistic signalling behaviour, social coordination, as well as the emergence of shared lexicons, referential capabilities and even syntax. According to Cangelosi, one of the advantages of these approaches is that by being able to incorporate linguistic and cognitive/sensorimotor properties in an agent, they take seriously recent advances in the field of ‘embodied cognition’ and invite an interdisciplinary dialogue with empirical areas of research.
De Boer asks what role “Self-Organization”, i.e. “the spontaneous emergence of order in a system,” (p. 613) might have played in language evolution. This process is currently explored in mathematical analyses and computer simulations. Explanations based on the emergence of order in a system offer the advantage that they reduce the need to explain aspects of language as due to specific adaptations through biological evolution instead of relying on more general cognitive mechanisms also found to a large degree in other animals.
Chapter 64, by Graf Estes, explores one such cognitive mechanism important for, but not specific to language: Statistical learning, which, as the author shows, is employed by infants and young children in the acquisition of words and syntax. Graf Estes sees this research as supporting the hypothesis, espoused by Christiansen & Chater in the next chapter, that language has evolved in a way that is adapted to the statistical learning biases and constraints exhibited by language learners.
The proposal to see “Language as an Adaptation to the Human Brain” is explored more fully by Christiansen and Chater in the last chapter. They argue against the assumption of a Universal Grammar because linguistic conventions change too rapidly for biological evolution to incorporate them into the genome. Instead, they hold that the languages are shaped by an interaction of cultural creation and transmission and multiple cognitive and biological constraints of the human brain. These include constraints from thought, pragmatic constraints, cognitive mechanisms of learning and processing as well as perceptuo-motor factors.
EVALUATION As pointed out above, over the last two decades language evolution has grown as a field characterized by a high degree of interdisciplinarity and differing perspectives. The last major overview volume is now almost a decade old (Christiansen & Kirby 2003) and language evolution research has continued to proliferate at a stunning rate. Therefore, The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution, much wider in scope and more ambitious than its predecessor in spirit, is a highly commendable and much needed volume that brings together the most important theories and research relevant to this highly interdisciplinary field.
I fully share the hope of the editors that this handbook – among some other recent publications (Fitch 2010; Hurford 2007, 2012) – “will be a standard work of reference for years to come” (p. xi). What is especially commendable about this volume is that it tries to incorporate, and be accessible to scholars and students from, the many different “disciplines that contribute pieces of the language evolution puzzle” (p. xi), as the editors put it. Another highlight are the six comprehensive introductions preceding the volume and each section, respectively, in which the editors summarise the key points, discuss how the research contributions presented in the individual chapters can be related to each other or whether they present conflicting perspectives, and also outline outstanding issues and problems.
As is the nature of handbooks, it can always be argued that particular topics should have received more attention, and that some influential scholars in language evolution are not represented enough. Michael Tomasello’s recent work on differences in social cognition and motivations in young children and non-human primates and the evolution of language (e.g. Tomasello 2008) would be an example here, although his theories are discussed in a number of chapters (e.g. by Gibson in Chapter 3, Hurford in chapter 40, Tallerman in chapter 51.). It is quite possible, however, some of these perceived omissions are due to the fact that a number of invited authors “sadly, felt unable to take the time to write for a general audience” (p. xi).
Two final issues warrant mention. It should be noted that, like the other concerns raised here, they by no means diminish the overall worth and importance of this contribution to language evolution research.
Firstly, some contributions do not directly enough engage key questions of language evolution and especially the origins of language. This holds to some degree, for example, for Fitch’s essay on the concept of innateness (13), and some chapters in Part V, such as Heine and Kuteva on grammaticalization (54), Pakendorf (59), and Graf Estes (64) on “Statistical Learning and Language Acquisition.” Although these chapters deal with topics highly relevant to language evolution, they at times do not outline their application to the central question of what evolved in language and how in enough detail. Regarding language acquisition, the volume as a whole might have benefited from a more complete account of the key cognitive capacities and acquisitional processes involved, and how these relate to the question of how language evolved.
Secondly, some critics might argue that, as articles in an introductory handbook, some of the chapters, for example the ones by Bickerton on the evolution of syntax (49) and by Tallerman on protolanguage (49), could have presented the controversial issues they discuss in a more balanced and non-partisan way without rejecting certain positions in such a decisive manner.
The editors should be commended though, for also including some of the more recent and still-developing perspectives in language evolution research, such as Chater & Christiansen’s (65), theory of language as an adaption to the brain and the Cognitive-linguistic and usage-based perspective on language evolution, which is represented by Bybee (55) and also discussed in a number of other chapters, e.g. by Tallerman & Gibson (1), Cangelosi (62), and Chater & Christiansen (65) (see also Pleyer 2012).
Overall, the Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution is a landmark publication in the field that will serve as a useful guide and reference work through the entanglements and pitfalls of the language evolution jungle for both experienced scholars and newcomers alike.
REFERENCES Christiansen, Morten H. & Simon Kirby (eds.). 2003. Language evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Deacon, Terrence W. 1997. The symbolic species: The coevolution of language and the brain. London: Penguin Press.
Fitch, Tecumseh. 2010. The evolution of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Henshilwood, Christopher S. & Benoît Dubreuil. 2009. Reading the artefacts: Gleaning language skills from the Middle Stone Age in Southern Africa. Rudolf Botha & Christ Knight (eds.). The cradle of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 41-61.
Hurford, James R. 2007. The origins of meaning: Language in the light of evolution I. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hurford, James R. 2012. The origins of grammar: Language in the light of evolution II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kirby, Simon, Hannah Cornish & Kenny Smith. 2008. Cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory: An experimental approach to the origins of structure in human language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 105. 10681-10686.
Pleyer, Michael. 2012. Cognitive Construal, Mental Spaces and the Evolution of Language and Cognition. Thomas C. Scott-Phillips, Monica Tamariz, Erica A. Cartmill & James R. Hurford. (eds.). The evolution of language. Proceedings of the 9th conference on the evolution of language. Singapore: World Scientific. 288-295.
Tomasello, Michael. 2008. Origins of human communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Tomasello, Michael, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, & Henrike Moll. 2005. Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28(5). 675–691.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Michael Pleyer is a PhD student at the English Department of the University
of Heidelberg and the Heidelberg Graduate School of Humanities and Social
Sciences. His PhD project is on “Perspective and Perspective in Language
and Cognition: A Cognitive-Linguistic and Cognitive-Developmental
Approach.” His research interests include Cognitive Linguistics, Language
Acquisition, Perspectivation and Construal, Social Cognition, and the
Evolution of Language and Cognition. He has a blog, Shared Symbolic Storage
(http://sharedsymbolicstorage.blogspot.com), and is also a contributor to
the academic group blog A Replicated Typo (http://www.replicatedtypo.com),
which deals with the evolution of language, culture, and cognition.