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Review of  The Development of Language

Reviewer: Derek Irwin
Book Title: The Development of Language
Book Author: Geoff Williams Annabelle Lukin
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 16.112

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Date: Fri, 14 Jan 2005 11:03:51 -0500
From: Derek Irwin
Subject: The Development of Language: Functional Perspectives on Species
and Individuals

EDITORS: Williams, Geoff; Lukin, Annabelle
TITLE: The Development of Language
SUBTITLE: Functional Perspectives on Species and Individuals
SERIES: Open Linguistics Series
PUBLISHER: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
YEAR: 2004

Derek Irwin, English Programme, York University.


This collection presents theories of language development along two
temporal scales: the phylogenetic (evolutionary) and the ontogenetic
(individual life-span). While these two perspectives are obviously distinct,
several of the papers presented here argue convincingly for the inter-
relation of theoretical approaches to them. The other axis upon which the
approaches depend is that of the material versus the semiotic; it is again the
inter-relations between these two which distinguish a unique perspective.
Lukin and Williams point out in their introduction, "Emerging Language,"
that the texts were predominantly conceived through a "'linguistic'
orientation...not simply that language is _used_ to make meaning, but that
it is _organized_ as a meaning-making system."(1, emphasis in original).
This approach, stemming from Halliday's description of "Language as a
Social Semiotic"(1978), thus categorizes the broader approach of this
collection as Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). However, the strong
influences from such diverse fields as primatology, paleobiology,
psychology, and critical pedagogy turn this text into something of
a "transdisciplinary conversation" (Halliday: 15 this volume).

As Lukin and Williams also point out (3), because language is
simultaneously engaged in both the semiotic and the material, the
complement to this position is that language and the brain are the products
of 'co-evolution', or 'co-construction' (cited from Deacon 1997; Baltes and
Singer 2001; Halliday 2002a; also explored by Matthiessen, this volume).
Avenues exploring and arguing for the results of this co-evolutionary
process here are primary language development in human children and
that of certain primates, as well as classroom learning from the first and
second-language perspectives. What ties all of these together is the
process which Halliday calls "Learning How to Mean" (1975). In fact, this is
the key to the title of the present volume, for unlike other approaches which
perceive language as something to be "acquired", the SFL perspective is that
language is "developed", although once again the term "co-evolved" could
perhaps be used.

Ch. 2
We begin with Halliday's "On Grammar as the Driving Force from Primary to
Higher-order Consciousness." This paper continues Halliday's exploration
of language development in infants, stemming from his longitudinal study
of his son, Nigel in "Learning How to Mean" (1975). In broad strokes, the
theory rests on an infant going through three major phases of language
development: the first is the creation of an independent communication
system termed a "protolanguage," the second is a transition into the adult
language, and the third is the wholesale development of the adult language
and the abandonment of the protolanguage. Each stage is marked by the
use of more advanced linguistic functions, such as "regulatory"
or "interactional". One of the more interesting additions in this paper is a
discussion on "the nature of the protolanguage in relation to the human
body."(23) Language development is tied in with an infant's physical
interaction and orientation within his or her environment; in other words,
motility engenders advances in the dimensional demands of the semiotic
system. This is similarly tied in to our evolution; in the process of learning
how to walk, "The moving body has undergone a revolutionary change,
leaping over hundreds of generations of biological evolution."(24) By the
addition of this "bodily environment" to that of the "ecosocial" and that of
the brain, Halliday has lost such hedges as that present in his earlier
work: "When we examine how a child learns the linguistic system from the
functional standpoint, we get a picture which _could_ be a picture of how
human language evolved,"(1978: 53, emphasis in original). This tri-stratal
view of the protolanguage in turn sets up for the emergence of grammar
within what Halliday calls "the grammar brain" (34), which functions in the
ecosocial environment in that "it _construes_ the eco, whereas it _enacts_
the social." (35) Painter later elaborates and emphasizes this point.

Ch. 3
Matthiessen provides us with a mirror image of this theory of co-evolution
in "The Evolution of Language: A Systemic Functional Exploration of
Phylogenetic Phases." This is based within a "cosmogenetic" perspective,
which has led to looking at language as a "particular kind of complex
adaptive system in the context of the evolution of complex adaptive human
systems in general."(82) In essence, the three phases of infant language
development are applied to language evolution; this rests on the notion
that the development of registers in language are the indicators of
unidirectional change, and that "we can infer aspects of the evolution of
language based on the evolution of registers that we can correlate with
socio-cultural evolution."(46) What is, of course, the vital basis to this
theory is that "each stage of development is functional in its own right; it
shows how more complex semiotic patterns develop out of existing
ones...and it shows how the human potential to mean increases in the
course of development."(48) From this is postulated a model whereby
language evolved according to organizational complexity from bistratal to
tristratal, based on the emergence of the lexicogrammar within the content-
expression planes. This model is then applied against both biological and
social evolution, including the phased evolution of the mind based on
Mithen's (1996) model. An intriguing figure in light of the next two articles,
(3.8: 76) is a result of superimposing the three phases of development onto
a figure from Mithin (1996: 12) which looks at the mean brain volume of
primates over time. This places the mean brain volume for chimpanzees
and gorillas into the same range as that of Australopithecines circa 3
million years ago: the same era where Matthiessen locates our evolutionary

Ch. 4
The next article, by Taglialatela, Savage-Rumbaugh, Rumbaugh, Benson,
and Greaves, entitled "Language, Apes and Meaning-Making," works as an
argument that the labeling of primate communication as "protolanguage" is
not doing justice to the complexity of the communication being employed
by some apes in captivity. It does this by exploring a 'Theory of Mind'
(ToM), or "the ability to attribute mental states to others" (94), in both
human children and non-human primates. While the results from
numerous studies are often contradictory in their implications of ToM in
non-humans, the authors postulate that this is because the apes involved
are actually demonstrating cognitively complex behaviours, and that often
negative results can be attributed to the numerous difficulties of cross-
species communication. A couple of points are thus important here: have
the apes been exposed to language from an early age and in a 'natural'
environment? And are the human interactants consistently treating their
utterances as "intentional actions in a connected series of events"? (100)
The latter question is one which has been embedded in the experimental
process itself ever since the cueing of animals such as Clever Hans was
revealed (related here from Pfungst 1965). By insisting that there be no
chance of cueing in testing the linguistic abilities of non-humans, it can be
conclusively shown that bonobos such as Kanzi have impressive levels of
English comprehension. However, "there is a very high price to be paid for
decontextualization, since it does violence to the way language is learned
and used, in both inter-species and intra-species communication."(106)
The greatest violence, then, is in the vast under-estimation of non-human
species' abilities.

Ch. 5
Thibault's article, "Agency, Individuation and Meaning-making: Reflections
on an Episode of Bonobo-Human Interaction," is a close reading of 10
seconds between Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and another bonobo,
Panbanisha. The episode in question is one which does not make use of
spoken communication, relying instead on the modalities of posture,
movement, gaze, and gesture, as they pertain to Panbanisha's use of a
lexigram keyboard familiar to both her and Savage-Rumbaugh. Thibault
argues here that a move such as pointing is "co-contextualized with other
semiotic resources" in the sense that it "is a dialogically organized and
coordinated act."(117) Thus, since Panbanisha is operating as a self-
organized individual with agency, and Savage-Rumbaugh interprets her as
such, this interaction clearly demonstrates an example of meaning-making
which goes beyond the merely indexical.

Ch. 6
Painter also demonstrates the importance of the self, albeit that of human
infants, in "The 'Interpersonal First' Principle in Child Language
Development." Those familiar with SFL will recognize the Interpersonal as
one of the metafunctions of language, the other two being the Ideational,
with its Logical and Experiential functions, and the Textual. Here Painter
reminds us that "we need to understand 'interpersonal' as including not
only the 'inter' (between persons) but the 'personal' (attitudinal or
emotional) aspects of the term."(138) This is because of the nature of the
protolanguage: it is not representing items in the Experiential sense, but
rather providing appraisal of experience. An argument in favour of this
point of view is that the final function developed in infant language is that
of the informative; describing something using only language is a difficult
concept, although in adult terms it is by far the most common use. It is
therefore falls to reason that "in the SFL development case studies...various
grammatical resources within the ideational metafunction were first used by
the child in contexts where it was the interpersonal negotiation with the
addressee that was principally at stake, not the referential domain
itself."(144) The fact that language is typically constructed via dialogue with
a linguistically superior caregiver makes "the co-ordination of minds"(148)
of the utmost importance, and this is most certainly an interpersonal act.

Ch. 7
Hasan's "The World in Words: Semiotic Mediation, Tenor and Ideology" has a
somewhat different strategy, in that it concentrates not on the infant's
language development, but on the adult's modeling of language. It is
through this that adults "define, at least initially, the child's world, giving it
the power of 'reality' and the attraction of new possibilities."(159) It is
therefore important to concentrate not on specialized knowledge or
processes, but rather on the mundane construction of the entire picture
found within everyday talk, again emphasizing the role of dialogue as
semiotic mediation. Over time, it becomes obvious that knowledge can be
replaced or discarded, "but the mental disposition and the sense of social
identity that the adult's discourse develops in the child is something that
requires extraordinary circumstances to diverge from its established
course."(174) It is this social positioning which leads us into SFL's Tenor
context, as well as "an account of the co-genesis of language and
society,"(175) itself a kind of microcosm earlier accounts of co-evolution.

Ch. 8
Meares and Sullivan's "Two Forms of Human Language" demonstrates what
they believe to be a uniquely human form of identity evolution: all primates
have a form of "I", but only the higher forms have a "me" that can be
recognized as the self in a reflection, and "only humans, we suppose, have
developed the experience of 'myself',"(184) which is the stable self-identity
as in the example "I was not myself yesterday." In the same way that
children increase the functional capacities of their language in an emulation
of evolution, children begin with only Social Speech, and it is through
symbolic play that a child develops the capacity to form Inner Speech. Here
is created "an embryonic narrative of self, which becomes increasingly
complex."(188) From this point on, language is coordinated between the
two language forms: for example, stream-of-consciousness literature
reflects a heavy leaning towards the characteristics of Inner Speech, while
legal documents are likewise biased towards Social Speech. In constructing
a more empirically measurable idea of 'self', Meares and Sullivan are hoping
to be able to test hypotheses such as a stunted 'self' being evident in
borderline personality disorders.

Ch. 9
Gibbons' "Changing the Rules, Changing the Game: A Sociocultural
Perspective on Second Language Learning in the Classroom" is an
exploration of the unstated 'rules' which in and of themselves define the
activity; her analogy is to the game of chess, where if the rules are changed
the game can continue, but it is no longer 'chess.'(196-7) Since classroom
discourse uses a different and more difficult register than other social
contexts, what are the implications in the dialogue of those who are not
only trying to operate in the new register, but are also trying to develop
proficiency in a second language? What Gibbons finds is that the traditional
classroom discourse rules of 'IRF' or 'IRE' (Initiation, Response,
Feedback/Evaluation) are subtly altered in a second language setting to
enable for difficulties in the specialized vocabulary to make room for
equivalency words taken from another register, for example alternating the
terms "sticking" and "pushing away" with "attracting" and "repelling" in a
discussion of magnets.(203-4) Thus "the kind of register 'meshing' that
results in a 'hybrid' a significant factor in the successful
development of new academic registers with young second language
learners."(206) The 'game' itself has also altered in the sense that it is now
designed to not only pass on grade-school science content, but the
linguistic knowledge necessary to discuss said content.

Ch. 10
Butt's "How Our Meanings Change: School Contexts and Semantic
Evolution" examines the increasing semantic complexity which the
apprenticeship of school reinforces on a path to critical abstraction. In
order to do this, abstractions must not only be "'naturalized' into a
recognizable type of _local_ knowledge,"(236, emphasis in original) but the
workings of the system must be opened so that the system itself is
apparent. Thus the work of the teacher is not the task of filling empty
vessels, but simultaneously displacing previous assumptions as well as
demonstrating the 'evolutionary' process itself: our 'cultural DNA'.

Ch. 11
A blueprint for achieving Butt's classroom goal can be found in
Williams' "Ontogenesis and Grammatics: Functions of Metalanguage in
Pedagogical Discourse," which takes a closer look at the potential use of
self-reflexivity in the language system in schools, 'grammatics' being to
grammar what 'linguistics' is to language (from Halliday 2002b: 385-6).
Williams follows Vygotsky's (1986) argument that although the study of
grammar is somewhat useless, it nevertheless contributes to the mental
development of the student. He then explores how SFL can introduce
concepts of grammatics without recourse to simple lists of word classes.
The basis is that "children require intellectual tools which enable them
literally to see grammatical features in relation to meaning-making
practices."(263) This project is ultimately important as social semiotics
continues to evolve to greater levels of complexity, hence the ontogenesis
of these abstract relations is necessary for students to be able to operate
effectively within the ecosocial environment.


The perspectives explored in this book make for a theoretically fascinating
read. I was particularly interested in Matthiessen's direct comparison
between ontogenesis and phylogenesis; it is always of fundamental interest
in the field to ask where language comes from, not only within the
individual, but also in the social and evolutionary sense. Mattheissen's "big
picture", while impossible to prove or disprove, is quite convincing due to
the demonstrated parallels of language taken alongside the biological and
cultural evolution of the human animal.

Looking back to how we were, it is striking that others still may be so; it is
therefore striking to consider the abilities of non-human primates
operating in human languages. Taglialatela et al continue to challenge
notions that there is some arbitrary 'great divide' between the human and
non-human worlds, providing an exhaustive number of critically-evaluated
studies as well as first-hand experience. It is worth noting here how new
the human-bonobo culture actually is, and it is incredibly exciting to
consider where it still may go; as they point out, it is no longer a question of
_if_ apes have language, but to what extent symbolic systems are used.
(106) By taking an approach in which it is assumed a bonobo is using a
symbolic system, Thibault readily finds a wealth of examples within a
microscopic moment of interaction. This does call into question the
concept of Meares and Sullivan that only humans have a conception of a
base self ("myself"); I suspect that bonobos which have been acculturated
into human society will demonstrate some form of this entity, although it
would be difficult to test for. I look forward to further work using the
Theory of Mind to help settle this question.

The work within pedagogy is similarly interesting in its revelation of the
potential of children to apprehend metalinguistic systems. I was especially
struck by Williams' examples of the discussions a basis in SFL can spur
within a class of 11 year-olds; not only do they quickly learn and apply quite
sophisticated concepts, but the fact that it is all done through 'play' in
language leads to some very amusing moments, such as the child who
deliberately identifies the multi-word Process 'throw up' as
a 'reprocess.'(258)

Overall, this text provides stimulating perspectives on language origins and
development. Anyone interested in these issues from a functional
perspective will find "The Development of Language" an excellent read.


Baltes, P. B. and Singer, T. (2001) "Plasticity and the Ageing Mind: an
Exemplar of the Bio-cultural Orchestration of Brain and Behaviour."
European Review 9.1, 59-76.

Deacon, T. (1997) The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and
the Human Brain. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press.

Halliday, M. A. K (2002a) "Meanings, Wording and Context: Modeling
the 'Language Brain'." Paper delivered to Brain Sciences Institute, RIKEN,
Tokyo, 2002.

---------- (2002b) "On Grammar and Grammatics," in On Grammar:
Volume 1 of the Collected Works of M.A.K. Halliday, ed J.J. Webster. London:

---------- (1978). Language as a Social Semiotic: the Social Interpretation
of Language and Meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

---------- (1975). Learning How To Mean - Explorations in the
Development of Language. London: Edward Arnold.

Mithen, S. (1996). The Prehistory of Mind: a Search for the Origins of Art,
Religion and Science. London: Thames and Hudson.

Pfungst, O. (1965). Clever Hans, The Horse of Mr. Von Osten. New York:
Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.


Derek Irwin is a PhD candidate at York University, Toronto. His dissertation
is on First Nations' loan words in early Canadian literature from an SFL
perspective. Theoretical interests also include infant language
development, ESL learning strategies, multi-modal expression planes, and
human-bonobo language interaction.

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