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Review of  Unravelling the Evolution of Language

Reviewer: Edward McDonald
Book Title: Unravelling the Evolution of Language
Book Author: Rudolf Botha
Publisher: Elsevier Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.1497

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Date: Tue, 10 May 2005 23:35:46 +0800 (CST)
From: Edward McDonald
Subject: Unravelling the Evolution of Language

AUTHOR: Botha, Rudolf P.
TITLE: Unravelling the Evolution of Language
SERIES: Language & Communication Library Vol. 19
PUBLISHER: Elsevier Science Ltd
YEAR: 2003

Edward McDonald, China Central Television International

Rudolf Botha has set himself a difficult challenge. In this slim but
dense volume he sets out to shed some light on current debates over
the evolution of language. Focusing on a decade of debate in the
interdisciplinary journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences and other
forums both print and oral in the 1990s, he attempts to clarify
terminology, disentangle preconceptions and pin down the claims
being made by various competing theoretical proposals. The situation
he reveals is one of considerable conceptual confusion. On neither
the "entities" nor the "processes" involved in language evolution -- the
topics of Parts I and II of the book respectively -- is there any
consensus. And as for the status of "evidence and argumentation" --
the specific topic of Part III but which Botha documents in detail
throughout the book -- none of the participants in the debate can be
shown to be even anywhere near the "restrictive theory" that he
claims would be necessary for making genuine progress on these


Botha's account starts with what he calls the "core finding" of his
study. Contrary to what might be thought to be the main problem with
language evolution studies, i.e. "a paucity of factual evidence", Botha
claims instead that "[t]he main obstacle to gaining a better
understanding of central aspects of the evolution of language is a
poverty of restrictive theory." (p.7) He defines a "restrictive theory" as
a "theory T of something... S... which makes it possible to discriminate
in a non-arbitrary way between S and things whose properties don't
match those of S in respects that matter" (p.7). In relation to the
problem of language evolution, such a theory will provide "restrictive
characterizations" of a number of things: the entities and processes
involved in language evolution, the correlations between these
linguistic entities and related developments such as in brain shape
and cognitive abilities, the evidence -- including indirect evidence -- for
language evolution, and the status of arguments put forward for
language evolution (p.8).

Part I of the book examines the debates over language evolution to
identify the "entities" involved in language evolution, in other words to
see how the different participants define the entity that is assumed to
have evolved into language and what they see as preceding it. In a
situation Botha characterizes as one of "terminological profusion"
(p.13) "the entity whose evolution is believed to be at issue" (p.45) in
these debates, covers at least the following wide range of possibilities
(a) "language as hard-wired competence",
(b) "language as speech",
(c) "language as an activity",
(d) "language as a sort of contract signed by members of a
community", and
(e) "language as syntax".

In order to make sense out of this conceptual confusion, a "well-
founded linguistic ontology" is needed, in other words, a theory
which "unambiguously identifies and restrictively characterizes" the
following things (p.44):
(a) the basic linguistic entities -- objects, states, events, processes
and so on -- that occur in linguistic reality,
(b) the distinctive properties of those entities, and
(c) the ways in which those entities are interrelated.

Part II moves on to the processes of language evolution: i.e. how it
was that the entity or entities, however defined, evolved into what we
would now characterize as human language, again however defined.
Here again there are a range of possibilities which have been put
forward with analogies to different kinds of physical evolution: co-
optation or exaptation -- as in the evolution of the snail's brooding
chamber; preadaptation -- as in the evolution of birds' feathers; and
natural selection -- as in the evolution of the vertebrate eye. The first
model is associated with the work of Stephen Jay Gould (e.g. 1991),
in which he argues for a type of adaptation he calls "exaptation",
defined as "fitness enhancing characters... that enhance fitness in
their present role but... were not built for this role... by natural
selection" (p.51). An example would be the snail's brooding chamber,
which arose "as a by-product of a biological process of the winding of
a tube around an axis" (p.49). On this argument, also put forward
speculatively by Chomsky, the evolution of language can be explained
as an exaptation of changes in brain structure. (p.56).

The preadaptation model has been put forward by Philip Lieberman
(1991), on the analogy of the evolution of bird's feathers, which
having first developed as "adaptations for insulation" were co-opted
(ex-apted in Gould's terms) for insect catching, and then "having been
further adapted by natural selection for prey-catching... were co-opted
for flight" (p.67). How this model applies in the case of language is
explained by Lieberman as follows (p. 68, Lieberman 1991: 4):
"The brain mechanisms that control speech production probably
derived from ones that facilitated precise one-handed manual tasks.
Through a series of perhaps chance events they eventually evolved to
allow us to learn and use the complex rules that govern the syntax of
human language."

The natural selection model is put forward by Pinker and Bloom
(1990), drawing on arguments give by Darwin for the evolution by
slow stages of a "complex design for an adaptive function" -- e.g. the
vertebrate eye (p.93). Pinker and Bloom argue as follows for language
also having evolved in this way (p.94):
"... human language, like other specialized biological systems, evolved
by natural selection. Our conclusion is based on two facts that we
would think would be entirely uncontroversial: Language shows signs
of complex design for the communication of prepositional structures,
and the only explanation for the origin of organs with complex design
is the process of natural selection."

After detailed discussion of these different models and the critiques
that have been made of them, Bloom draws the following pessimistic
conclusion (p. 115):
"The characterizations used in some of the most detailed modern
accounts of the processes by which language is claimed to have
evolved are ad hoc and arbitrary in various ways... .This property of
these characterizations has its main cause in the fact that they rest on
informal assumptions about evolution which do not add up to a
general theory of evolution that is restrictive enough and well enough
founded... Accounts of the processes by which language or other
linguistic entities evolved will remain as ad hoc and arbitrary as they
are at present, unless their informal foundational assumptions of what
evolution is about are replaced by restrictive theories of co-optation,
preadaptation or exaptation, and adaptation."

Part III returns to the various arguments examined in Parts I and II and
critiques them as arguments, from the point of view of their testability
(pp 121-140), their use of indirect evidence (pp 141-156) and
plausible evolutionary stories or "just-so stories" (pp 173-190), and
what Botha politely terms "non-empirical argumentation" (pp 157-172),
i.e. rhetorical sleights of hand. In summing up the status of
argumentation on this topic, Botha restates his "core-finding" (p.202):

"... poverty of restrictive theory is... the root cause of the difficulties
involved in identifying what linguistic entities were affected by
evolution, in discovering by what processes these entities evolved,
and ensuring that accounts of language evolution have the desired
scientific substance."


Professor Botha's book is not an easy read. Partly because of the
complexity of the subject matter, but also because of the "meta" or
even "meta-meta" nature of its argument, which attempts not just to
compare different theories of language evolution but to see how they
measure up as scientific theories. Given the range of the arguments
he covers, and the critical acuity with which he lays bare their
inadequacies, his conclusion is oddly unambitious and rather

"... to arrive at a better understanding of what the evolution of
language involved, we would need to make substantive progress in
developing restrictive theories of the kinds touched on in this book."

I have two "explanations" for my disappointment, one rather
speculative, the other which takes a historical perspective on the
topic. To air the speculative one first, I wonder whether it is possible to
succeed at the task Botha has set himself without at the same time
putting forward a theoretical proposal oneself. If we take an
instrumental view of theory, in other words that a theory is
unavoidably shaped -- and restricted -- by what it sets out to do, then
theories are usable and useful for particular purposes, and there is no
point in asking whether they are "true" or not, or even to what extent
they are true. Thus the fact that Botha's meta-theorising takes no
particular stance in relation to the subject matter of language
evolution, apart from evaluating the different theories that have been
put forward to explain it, seems to render his account ultimately
rudderless. At the end of this 200 page book filled with detailed
discussion, I felt more informed certainly, but no more really
enlightened about the basic issues involved than when I started out.

My second, historical, explanation relates to the type of linguistics that
Botha both critiques and calls on in his critique. It seems to me that,
despite being the author of trenchant critiques of Chomskyan
linguistics (Botha 1981, 1989), the linguistic universe he deals with in
this book remains firmly circumscribed by Chomskyan preconceptions.
This is problematic on two counts. Firstly it means that the problem of
language meaning is largely sidelined in favour of language structure,
not only in the work of the scholars Botha critiques, but in his own
argument. The second is that Chomsky's own pronouncements on
language evolution, a topic which admittedly he mostly stays away
from, seem negative at best and oracular at worst. The passages
Botha quotes from Chomsky's opinions on language evolution come
across to this reader as highly-crafted pieces of rhetoric which raise
vague possibilities without committing themselves to any firm stance.
For these pronouncements to form the baseline of a discussion of
language evolution, as in effect they do in Botha's book, seems to
condemn the argument to circle around the main issues without ever
really coming to grips with them.

Looked at even from the relatively narrow perspective of twentieth
century linguistics, formal linguistics -- to give it the most inclusive
characterization -- has several striking features which render it
particularly unsuited for the sort of project treated in this book. These
features may not stand out for many of the participants in the debates
on language evolution, from both within and outside linguistics, for
whom formal linguistics has become something like common sense.
The work of the late Charles Hockett provides a salutary perspective
on this tradition, coming as it does from one whose career spanned
the high point of the previous (neo-)Bloomfieldian tradition of
American linguistics in the 1940s and what was arguably the high
point of the Chomskyan tradition in the late 1960s. Hockett's 1968
work The State of the Art provides a devastatingly insightful critique of
the philosophical bases of formal linguistics by a scholar who knows
well -- and indeed helped shape -- the previous developments which it
in part extended and in part reacted against. And twenty years later,
his call for Refurbishing Our Foundations (Hockett 1987) is a clarion
call for some serious reevaluation of the basic assumptions of the
whole discipline from one who spent a professional lifetime reflecting
on both its achievements and its blind alleys.

While I can do no better than recommend all the participants in the
language evolution debate to read these two short and highly
readable monographs, the issues may become clearer if we move
away from language for a moment and consider the topic of the
evolution of music. A collection of papers of much the same vintage as
the ones Botha considers, The Origins of Music (Wallin et al. 2000)
provides an interesting sidelight on the topic of language evolution,
with many of the papers in this collection -- e.g. Bickerton (2000) --
specifically comparing the two; Brown (2000) actually puts forward a
combined "musi-language" evolutionary model for both language and
music. Many of these discussions specifically refer to a highly
influential generative model of music (Lerdahl & Jackendoff 1983)
which demonstrates with admirable clarity both the advantages and
disadvantages of the formalist tradition. A forthcoming paper of my
own (McDonald in press) critiques this model, and by extension many
formalist models, as setting up a number of dichotomies, with one side
of each dichotomy assigned to the uninteresting or the uninsightful:
mental vs. material
psychological vs. social
structure vs. meaning
system vs. text

What this leaves us with, in relation to the exploration of systems like
music or language, are models in which the main aim of description is,
in effect, pattern recognition, with little or no cognizance being taken
of how structural patterns relate to their expressive meanings.

In essence I would see the same criticism as applying to the
arguments discussed in Botha's book. It is important is to realize that
these are in fact arbitrary choices of one side over another -- or rather
dichotomies more usefully seen as complementarities -- and that the
decision to see them as dichotomies is to a great extent shaped by the
particular historical circumstances in which formal linguistics arose
(see Hockett 1968, Ch.1). And the fact that this tradition of linguistics
is mostly unselfconscious about its own historical precedents means
that it largely remains locked within the assumptions of its background.

This unselfconsciousness often also extends to formal linguists'
awareness of their own theories as theories, in other words, as I said
above, tools developed for specific purposes. This means that many
of the arguments documented by Botha turn on a particular
divergence in the theories held by specific participants, for example,
whether one holds to the "modular" Government & Binding version of
formal linguistics or the simpler "Minimalist Program" model. Apart from
the implication that such claims need to be rethought every time in line
with even minor changes in the model, from an interdisciplinary point
of view, they operate on far too specific a level. It should surely be
possible for linguistics to be useful and enlightening in investigating
extra-linguistic questions in terms of the overall conception of
language rather than in the minor details of a particular model.

So all in all, the picture of scholarship on the evolution of language as
shown in this book is a rather depressing one. Some
serious "refurbishing of our foundations" in Hockett's terms, and a
greater appreciation of the historically contingent nature of the current
linguistic mainstream, would seem to be necessary before any even
preliminary consensus on the issues of language evolution can be


Bickerton, D. (2000) Can Biomusicology Learn from Language
Evolution Studies? in Wallin et al. (eds), 153-163.

Botha, R. P. (1981) The Conduct of Linguistic Enquiry. A Systematic
Introduction to the Methodology of Generative Grammar. Mouton.

Botha, R. P. (1989) Challenging Chomsky. The Generative Garden
Game. Oxford

Brown, S. (2000) The "Musilanguage" Model of Music Evolution. in
Wallin et al. (eds), 271-300.

Gould, S. J. (1991) Exaptation: a crucial tool for evolutionary
psychology. Journal of Social Issues 47, 43-65

Hockett, C. F. (1968) The State of the Art. Mouton.

Hockett, C. F. (1987) Refurbishing Our Foundations: Elementary
linguistics from an advanced point of view. Benjamins.

Lerdahl, F. & R. Jackendoff (1983) A Generative Theory of Tonal
Music. MIT Press.

Lieberman, P. (1991) Uniquely Human. The Evolution of Speech,
Thought, and Selfless Behavior. Harvard University Press

McDonald, E. (in press) Through a Glass Darkly: A critique of the
influence of linguistics on theories of music. Linguistics and the Human
Sciences. 1.3. November 2005

Pinker, S. & P. Bloom (1990) Natural language and natural selection.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13, 707-727, 765-784

Wallin, N.L., B. Merker & S. Brown (eds) (2000) The Origins of Music.
MIT Press.


Edward McDonald has taught linguistics and semiotics at the National
University of Singapore and at Tsinghua University in Beijing; he is
currently working as an English editor at Chinese Central Television.
His research interests lie in the areas of the grammar and discourse of
modern Chinese, ideologies about language, and the semiotics of
language and music