Vyv Evans: The Human Meaning-Making Engine

If you read my last post here at Replicated Typo to the very end, you may remember that I promised to recommend a book and to return to one of the topics of this previous post. I won’t do this today, but I promise I will catch up on it in due time.

What I just did – promising something – is a nice example for one of the two functions of language which Vyvyan Evans from Bangor University distinguished in his talk on “The Human Meaning-Making Engine” yesterday at the UK Cognitive Linguistics Conference. More specifically, the act of promising is an example for the interactive function of language, which is of course closely intertwined with its symbolic function. Evans proposed two different sources for this two functions. The interactive function, he argued, arises from the human instinct for cooperation, whereas meaning arises from the interaction between the linguistic and the conceptual system. While language provides the “How” of meaning-making, the conceptual system provides the “What”. Evans used some vivid examples (e.g. this cartoon exemplifying nonverbal communication) to make clear that communication is not contingent on language. However, “language massively amplifies our communicative potential.” The linguistic system, he argued, has evolved as an executive control system for the conceptual system. While the latter is broadly comparable with that of other animals, especially great apes, the linguistic system is uniquely human. What makes it unique, however, is not the ability to refer to things in the world, which can arguably be found in other animals, as well. What is uniquely human, he argued, is the ability to symbolically refer in a sign-to-sign (word-to-word) direction rather than “just” in a sign-to-world (word-to-world) direction.  Evans illustrated this “word-to-word” direction with Hans-Jörg Schmid’s (e.g.  2000; see also here)  work on “shell nouns”, i.e. nouns “used in texts to refer to other passages of the text and to reify them and characterize them in certain ways.” For instance, the stuff I was talking about in the last paragraph would be an example of a shell noun.

According to Evans, the “word-to-word” direction is crucial for the emergence of e.g. lexical categories and syntax, i.e. the “closed-class” system of language. Grammaticalization studies indicate that the “open-class” system of human languages is evolutionarily older than the “closed-class” system, which is comprised of grammatical constructions (in the broadest sense). However, Evans also emphasized that there is a lot of meaning even in closed-class constructions, as e.g. Adele Goldberg’s work on argument structure constructions shows: We can make sense of a sentence like “Someone somethinged something to someone” although the open-class items are left unspecified.

Constructions, he argued, index or cue simulations, i.e. re-activations of body-based states stored in cortical and subcortical brain regions. He discussed this with the example of the cognitive model for Wales: We know that Wales is a geographical entity. Furthermore, we know that “there are lots of sheep, that the Welsh play Rugby, and that they dress in a funny way.” (Sorry, James. Sorry, Sean.) Oh, and “when you’re in Wales, you shouldn’t say, It’s really nice to be in England, because you will be lynched.”

On a more serious note, the cognitive models connected to closed-class constructions, e.g. simple past -ed or progressive -ing, are of course much more abstract but can also be assumed to arise from embodied simulations (cf. e.g. Bergen 2012). But in addition to the cognitive dimension, language of course also has a social and interactive dimension drawing on the apparently instinctive drive towards cooperative behaviour. Culture (or what Tomasello calls “collective intentionality”)  is contigent on this deep instinct which Levinson (2006) calls the “human interaction engine”. Evans’ “meaning-making engine” is the logical continuation of this idea.

Just like Evans’ theory of meaning (LCCM theory), his idea of the “meaning-making engine” is basically an attempt at integrating a broad variety of approaches into a coherent model. This might seem a bit eclectic at first, but it’s definitely not the worst thing to do, given that there is significant conceptual overlap between different theories which, however, tends to be blurred by terminological incongruities. Apart from Deacon’s (1997) “Symbolic Species” and Tomasello’s work on shared and joint intentionality, which he explicitly discussed, he draws on various ideas that play a key role in Cognitive Linguistics. For example, the distinction between open- and closed-class systems features prominently in Talmy’s (2000) Cognitive Semantics, as does the notion of the human conceptual system. The idea of meaning as conceptualization and embodied simulation of course goes back to the groundbreaking work of, among others, Lakoff (1987) and Langacker (1987, 1991), although empirical support for this hypothesis has been gathered only recently in the framework of experimental semantics (cf. Matlock & Winter forthc. – if you have an account at, you can read this paper here). All in all, then, Evans’ approach might prove an important further step towards integrating Cognitive Linguistics and language evolution research, as has been proposed by Michael and James in a variety of talks and papers (see e.g. here).

Needless to say, it’s impossible to judge from a necessarily fairly sketchy conference presentation if this model qualifies as an appropriate and comprehensive account of the emergence of meaning. But it definitely looks promising and I’m looking forward to Evans’ book-length treatment of the topics he touched upon in his talk. For now, we have to content ourselves with his abstract from the conference booklet:

In his landmark work, The Symbolic Species (1997), cognitive neurobiologist Terrence Deacon argues that human intelligence was achieved by our forebears crossing what he terms the “symbolic threshold”. Language, he argues, goes beyond the communicative systems of other species by moving from indexical reference – relations between vocalisations and objects/events in the world — to symbolic reference — the ability to develop relationships between words — paving the way for syntax. But something is still missing from this picture. In this talk, I argue that symbolic reference (in Deacon’s terms), was made possible by parametric knowledge: lexical units have a type of meaning, quite schematic in nature, that is independent of the objects/entities in the world that words refer to. I sketch this notion of parametric knowledge, with detailed examples. I also consider the interactional intelligence that must have arisen in ancestral humans, paving the way for parametric knowledge to arise. And, I also consider changes to the primate brain-plan that must have co-evolved with this new type of knowledge, enabling modern Homo sapiens to become so smart.



Bergen, Benjamin K. (2012): Louder than Words. The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. New York: Basic Books.

Deacon, Terrence W. (1997): The Symbolic Species. The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, London: Norton.

Lakoff, George (1987): Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. (1987): Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Vol. 1. Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. (1991): Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Vol. 2. Descriptive Application. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Levinson, Stephen C. (2006): On the Human “Interaction Engine”. In: Enfield, Nick J.; Levinson, Stephen C. (eds.): Roots of Human Sociality. Culture, Cognition and Interaction. Oxford: Berg, 39–69.

Matlock, Teenie & Winter, Bodo (forthc): Experimental Semantics. In: Heine, Bernd; Narrog, Heiko (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmid, Hans-Jörg (2000): English Abstract Nouns as Conceptual Shells. From Corpus to Cognition. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter (Topics in English Linguistics, 34).

Talmy, Leonard (2000): Toward a Cognitive Semantics. 2 vol. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.


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Adaptive languages: Population structure and lexical diversity

A new paper by Bentz et al. is available for preview here. It is about a correlation between the lexical diversity of languages and the presence of non-native speakers in a population. This is particularly relevant to the work by Lupyan & Dale (2010), who found that morphological complexity within a language correlates with the population size of a language. It’s reasonable to expect that the percentage of second language speakers within a population will be affected by the size of a speaker population. There has been a lot of talk on this blog in the past about correlations between population structure and linguistic structure. There’s a pretty comprehensive page here covering some of the (spurious) correlations covered on the blog in the past.  Bentz. et al. are however aware of the criticisms raised by Sean and James in their Plos one paper, and are all for a pluralistic approach and state that “there needs to be independent evidence for a causal relationship” before covering qualitative and quantitative evidence from other areas.

Here is the abstract for the interested:

Explaining the diversity of languages across the world is one of the central aims of historical  and evolutionary linguistics. This paper presents a quantitative approach to measure and  model a central aspect of this variation, namely the lexical diversity of languages. Lexical  diversity is defined as the breadth of word forms used to encode constant information content.  It is measured by means of comparing word frequency distributions for parallel translations of hundreds of languages. The measure is based on indices used in studies of biodiversity and in quantitative linguistics, i.e. Zipf-Mandelbrot’s law, Shannon entropy and type-token ratios. Three statistical models are given to elicit potential factors driving languages towards less diverse lexica. It is shown that the ratio of non-native speakers in languages predicts lower lexical diversity. This suggests that theories focusing on native acquisition as driving force of language change are incomplete. Instead, we argue that languages are information encoding systems shaped by the varying needs of their speakers. Language evolution and change should be modeled as the co-evolution of multiple intertwined adaptive systems: On one hand, the structure of human societies and human learning capabilities, and on the other, the structure of language.


Language Evolution in the Infinite Monkey Cage

A couple of weeks ago there was an episode of the BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage starring (as well as Robin Ince, Prof. Brian Cox and Ross Noble) none other than Keith Jensen and Katie Slocombe! Despite it being a comedy programme, the discussion around language is very sensible and informative and covers Slocombe’s work with chimpanzees as well as talk of Vervet monkeys, and Robin comes up with a not unreasonable experiment involving throwing leopards through the air to address some of the questions covered in the study in Diana Monkeys I cover here.

You can listen by going here:

And clicking on: “Are Humans Uniquely Unique?”

Slocombe has been doing great work in the field of science communication for years now. You can check some of her activities here:

Also, I’d recommend other episodes of TIMC.

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SpecGram Essential Guide to Linguistics: electronic version

The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics is now available in electronic format.  In the highest tradition of satire, this book gives a unique insight into the world of linguistics.  It is crucial reading for any linguist who is trying to maintain a sense of perspective (or for those seeking the comfort of realising their own perspective is relatively grounded ).

There’s also a special discount for the readers of Replicated Typo! Follow this link for 16.8% off.

From the blurb:

The book is written for linguists, by linguists. It’s about Linguistics and Language, but it’s not a textbook. Rather, it takes a sidelong look at all that is humorous about the field. Containing over 150 articles, poems, cartoons, humorous ads and book announcements—plus a generous sprinkling of quotes, proverbs and other witticisms—the book discovers things to laugh about in most major subfields of Linguistics.

What people have been saying:

“Don’t wait for Jon Stewart or Louis C.K. to do something with linguisticsit ain’t gonna happen. Just get this book and give a copy to everyone who needs a laugh.”

—Stephen Dodson, Languagehat

“[The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics] will be a symbolic expression of your inner linguistic nerd.”

—Phaedra Royle, on Linguist List

“Complete with a choose-your-own-career-in-linguistics adventure game (German-sign-language-shaped dice not included), this is the ultimate gift for the budding language student, the jaded academic or the holistic forensic linguist.”

—Sean Roberts, A Replicated Typo

And just in time for Christmas.


Beyond Quantification: Digital Criticism and the Search for Patterns

I’ve collected some recent posts (from New Savanna) on patterns into a working paper. It’s online at SSRN. Here’s the abstract and the introduction.

Abstract: Literary critics seek patterns, whether patterns in individual texts or patterns in large collections of texts. Valid patterns are taken as indices of causal mechanisms of one sort or another. Most abstractly, a pattern emerges or is enacted as some machine makes its way in an environment. An ecological niche is a pattern “traced” by an organism in its environment. Literary texts are themselves patterns traced by writers (and readers) through their life worlds. Patterns are frequently described through visualizations. The concept of pattern thus dissolves the apparent conflict between quantification and meaning, for quantification is but a means to describing a pattern. It is up to the critic to determine whether or not a pattern is meaningful by identifying the mechanism that produced the pattern. Examples from Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad.

Introduction: Patterns and Descriptions There is a sense, of course, in which I’ve been aware of and have been perceiving and thinking about patterns all my life. They are ubiquitous after all. But it wasn’t until I began studying cognitive science with the late David Hays that “pattern” became a term of art. Hays and his students were developing a network model of cognitive structure – such works became common in the 1970s. Such networks admit of two general kinds of computational process, path tracing and pattern recognition. Path tracing is computationally easy, while the pattern recognition is not. Human beings, however, are very good at perceiving and recognizing patterns.

What put the idea before me, though, as something demanding specific thought, are remarks Franco Moretti made in coming to grips with his work on the network analysis of plot structure. In Network Theory, Plot Analysis (Literary Lab Pamphlet 2, 2011, p. 11) he noted that he “did not need network theory; but I probably needed networks…. What I took from network theory were less concepts than visualization.” We then examine the visualizations to determine whether or not they indicate patterns that are worth further exploration. Continue reading


Systematic reviews 101: Internal and External Validity

Who remembers last summer when I started writing a series of posts on systematic literature reviews?

I apologise for neglecting it for so long, but here is a quick write up on assessing the studies you are including in your review for internal and external validity, with special reference to experiments in artificial language learning and evolutionary linguistics (though this is relevant to any field which aspires to adopt scientific method).

In the first post in the series, I outlined the differences between narrative and systematic reviews. One of the defining features of a systematic review is that it is not written with a specific hypothesis in mind. The literature search (which my next post will be about) is conducted with predefined inclusion criteria and, as a result, you will end up with a pile of studies to review regardless of there conclusion, or indeed regardless of there quality. Due to a lack of a filter to catch bad science, we need methods to assess the quality of a study or experiment which is what this post will be about.

(This will also help with DESIGNING a valid experiment, as well as assessing the validity of other people’s.)

What is validity?

Validity is the extent to which a conclusion is a well-founded one given the design and analysis of an experiment. It comes in two different flavours: external validity and internal validity.

External Validity

External validity is the extent to which the results of an experiment or study can be extrapolated to different situations. This is EXTREMELY important in the case of experiments in evolutionary linguistics because the whole point of experiments in evolutionary linguistics is to extrapolate your results to different situations (i.e. the emergence of linguistic structure in our ancestors), and we don’t have access to our ancestors to experiment on.

Here are some of things that effect an experiment’s external validity (in linguistics/psychology):

  • Participant characteristics (age (especially important in language learning experiments), gender, etc.)
  • Sample size
  • Type of learning/training (important in artificial language learning experiments)
  • Characteristics of the input (e.g. the nature of the structure in an input language)
  • Modality of the artificial language (how similar to actual linguistic modalities?)
  • Modality of output measures (how the outcome was measured and analysed)
  • The task from which the output was produced (straightforward imitation or communication or some other task)

Internal Validity

Internal validity is how well an experiment reduces its own systematic error within the circumstances of the experiment being performed.

Here are some of things that effect an experiment’s internal validity:

  •  Selection bias (who’s doing the experiment and who gets put in which condition)
  • Performance bias (differences between conditions other than the ones of interest, e.g. running people in condition one in the morning and condition two in the afternoon)
  • Detection bias (how the outcomes measures are coded and interpreted, blinding which condition a participant is in before coding is paramount to reduce the researcher’s bias to want to find a difference between conditions. A lot of retractions lately have been down to failures to act against detection bias.)
  • Attrition bias (Ignoring drop-outs, especially if one condition is especially stressful, causing high drop-out rates and therefore bias in the participants who completed it. This probably isn’t a big problem in most evolutionary linguistics research, but may be in other psychological stuff.)

Different types of bias will be relevant to different fields of research and different research questions, so it may be an idea to come up with your own scoring method for validity to subject different studies to within your review. But remember to be explicit about what your scoring methods are, and the pros and cons of the studies you are writing about.

Hopefully this introduction will have helped you think about validity within experiments in what you’re interested in, and helped you take an objective view on assessing the quality of studies you are reviewing, or indeed conducting.


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PhD Opportunities: The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity

PhD positions are available at ANU, working with a team of people investigating diversity and cultural evolution.  The call is below:

Applications are now being sought for three PhD positions on the project ‘The Wellsprings of Linguistics Diversity’, funded by the Australian Research Council for the period mid-2014 to mid-2019.

Each PhD position will undertake substantial fieldwork on variation in a particular speech community: Western Arnhem Land (Bininj Gun-wok and neighbouring areas), Vanuatu (Sa and adjoining languages, South Pentecost Island), and Samoa (Samoan). Support will include a four-year stipend ($29,844 p/a), generous fieldwork funding, and embedding of the doctoral research in the dynamic team setting of the project, as well as the newly established ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.  Positions will start in early February 2015.

The project is led by Prof. Nick Evans and the project team including postdocs Dr Murray Garde, Dr Ruth Singer, and Dr Dineke Schokkin and doctoral scholar Eri Kashima (fieldworkers), postdoc Dr Mark Ellison (computational modelling), and consultants Profs. Miriam Meyerhoff and Catherine Travis (variationist sociolinguistics) and Emeritus Prof. Andy Pawley (Samoan).

The project’s goal is to understand the causes of why linguistic diversity evolves differentially in different parts of the world, through a combination of detailed sociolinguistic case-studies of small-scale speech communities in their anthropological setting, and computational modelling of how micro-variation engenders macro-variation over iterations of transmission. The three high-diversity field sites are western Arnhem Land (Bininj Gun-wok and neighbouring languages), Morehead district of Southern New Guinea (Nen, Nambu, Idi), and South Pentecost Island, Vanuatu (Sa and neighbouring languages).  Samoa (Samoan) supplies a low-diversity comparator to the Vanuatu, and controls from small speech communities in global languages (English and Spanish) will be obtained by other investigators on the project.

A fuller description of the project can be downloaded from

General information about the doctoral program in School of Culture, History and Language at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific can be found at

Specific enquiries should be directed to Nick Evans ( and completed application dossiers sent to Completed applications should include the following information:
(a)    CV with educational qualifications, any publications and other relevant experience (e.g. fieldwork, relevant internships)
(b)    a two-page statement setting out your preferred field site or sites, what skills and personal attributes you will bring to the project, and what you see as the most interesting and challenging issues you will need to solve
(c)    if available, other materials supporting your case (e.g. relevant articles or other materials)

Deadline:  Aug 3rd 2014, midnight, AEST

Once awards are made, successful applicants will be notified and then guided through making a formal application for enrolment status through the regular ANU system.


Syntax came before phonology?
A new paper has just appeared in the proceedings of the royal society B entitled, “Language evolution: syntax before phonology?” by Collier et al.

The abstract is here:

Phonology and syntax represent two layers of sound combination central to language’s expressive power. Comparative animal studies represent one approach to understand the origins of these combinatorial layers. Traditionally, phonology, where meaningless sounds form words, has been considered a simpler combination than syntax, and thus should be more common in animals. A linguistically informed review of animal call sequences demonstrates that phonology in animal vocal systems is rare, whereas syntax is more widespread. In the light of this and the absence of phonology in some languages, we hypothesize that syntax, present in all languages, evolved before phonology.

This is essentially a paper about the distinction between combinatorial and compositional structure and the emergence narrative of duality of patterning. I wrote a post about this a few months ago, see here. The paper focusses on evidence from non-human animals and also evidence from human languages, including Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, looking at differences and similarities between human abilities and those of other animals.

Peter Marler outlined different types of call combinations found in animal communication by making a distinction between ‘Phonological syntax’ (combinatorial structure), which he claims is widespread in animals, and ‘lexical syntax’ (compositional structure), which he claims  have yet to be described in animals (I can’t find a copy of the 1998 paper which Collier et al. cite, but he talks about this on his homepage here). Collier et al. however, disagree and review several animal communication systems which they claim fall under a definition of “lexical syntax”.

They start by defining what they mean by the different levels of structure within language (I talk about this here).  They present the following relatively uncontroversial table:


 Evidence from non-human species

The paper reviews evidence from 4 species; 1) Winter wrens (though you could arguably lump all birdsong in with their analysis for this one),  2) Campbell monkeys, 3) Putty-nosed monkeys and 4) Banded mongooses.

1) Birdsong is argued to be combinatorial, as whatever the combination of notes or syllables, the songs always have the same purpose and so the “meaning” can not be argued to be a result of the combination.

2) In contrast to  Marler, the authors argue that Campbell monkeys have compositional structure in their calls. The monkeys give a ‘krak’ call when there is a leopard near, and a ‘hok’ call when there is an eagle. Interestingly, they can add an ‘-oo’ to either of these calls change their meanings. ‘Krak-oo’ denotes any general disturbance and ‘hok-oo’ denotes a disturbance in the canopy. One can argue then that this “-oo” has the same meaning of “disturbance”, no matter what construction it is in, and “hok” generally means “above”, hinting at compositional structure.

3) The authors also discuss Putty-nosed monkeys, which were also discussed in this paper by Scott-Philips and Blythe (again, discussed here). While Scott-Philips and Blythe arrive at the conclusion that the calls of putty-nosed monkeys are combinatorial (i.e. the combined effect of two signals does not amount to the combined meaning of those two signals):


“Applied to the putty-nosed monkey system, the symbols in this figure are: a, presence of eagles; b, presence of leopards; c, absence of food; A, ‘pyow’; B, ‘hack’ call; C = A + B ‘pyow–hack’; X, climb down; Y, climb up; Z ≠ X + Y, move to a new location. Combinatorial communication is rare in nature: many systems have a signal C = A + B with an effect Z = X + Y; very few have a signal C = A + B with an effect Z ≠ X + Y.”

However, Collier et al. argue this example is not necessarily combinatorial, as the pyow-hack sequences could be interpreted as idiomatic, or have much more abstract meanings such as ‘move-on-ground’ and ‘move-in-air’, however in order for this analysis to hold weight, one must assume the monkeys are able to use contextual information to make inferences about meaning, which is a pretty controversial claim. However, Collier et al. argue that it shouldn’t be considered so far-fetched given the presence of compositionality in the calls of Campbell monkeys.

4) The author’s also  discuss Branded Mongooses who emit close calls while looking for food.  Their calls begin with an initial noisy segment that encodes the caller’s identity, which is stable across all contexts. In searching and moving contexts, there is a second tonal harmonic that varies in length consistently with context. So one could argue that identity and context are being systematically encoded into their call sequences with one to one mappings between signal and meaning.

(One can’t help but think that a discussion of the possibility of compositionality in bee dances is a missed opportunity here.)

Syntax before phonology?

The authors use the above (very sketchy and controversial) examples of compositional structure to make the case that syntax came before phonology. Indeed, there exist languages where a level of phonological patterning does not exist (the go-to example being Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language). However, I would argue that the emergence of combinatoriality is, in large part, the result of the modality one is using to produce language. My current work is looking at how the size and dimensionality of a signal space, as well as how mappable that signal space is to a meaning space (to enable iconicity), can massively effect the emergence of a combinatorial system, and I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest the modality used will effect the emergence narrative for duality of patterning.

Collier et al. attempt to use some evidence from spoken languages with large inventories, or instances where single phonemes in spoken languages are highly context-dependant meaningful elements, to back up a story where syntax might have come first in spoken language. But given the physical and perceptual constraints of a spoken system, it’s really hard for me to imagine how a productive syntactic system could have existed without a level of phonological patterning. The paper makes the point that it is theoretically possible (which is really interesting), but I’m not convinced that it is likely (though this paper by Juliette Blevins is well worth a read).

Whilst I don’t disagree with Collier et al.’s conclusion that phonological patterning is most likely the product of cultural evolution, I feel like the physical constraints of a linguistic modality will massively effect the emergence of such a system, and arguing for an over-arching emergence story without consideration for non-cognitive factors is an over-sight. 


Collier, K., Bickel, B., van Schaik, C., Manser, M., & Townsend, S. (2014). Language evolution: syntax before phonology? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281 (1788), 20140263-20140263 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0263


Why Disagree? Some Critical Remarks on the Integration Hypothesis of Human Language Evolution

Shigeru Miyagawa, Shiro Ojima, Robert Berwick and Kazuo Okanoya have recently published a new paper in Frontiers in Psychology, which can be seen as a follow-up to the 2013 Frontiers paper by Miyagawa, Berwick and Okanoya (see Hannah’s post on this paper). While the earlier paper introduced what they call the “Integration Hypothesis of Human Language Evolution”, the follow-up paper seeks to provide empirical evidence for this theory and discusses potential challenges to the Integration Hypothesis.

The basic idea of the Integration Hypothesis, in a nutshell, is this: “All human language sentences are composed of two meaning layers” (Miyagawa et al. 2013: 2), namely “E” (for “expressive”) and “L” (for “lexical”). For example, sentences like “John eats a pizza”, “John ate a pizza”, and “Did John eat a pizza?” are supposed to have the same lexical meaning, but they vary in their expressive meaning. Miyagawa et al. point to some parallels between expressive structure and birdsong on the one hand and lexical structure and the alarm calls of non-human primates on the other. More specifically, “birdsongs have syntax without meaning” (Miyagawa et al. 2014: 2), whereas alarm calls consist of “isolated uttered units that correlate with real-world references” (ibid.). Importantly, however, even in human language, the Expression Structure (ES) only admits one layer of hierarchical structure, while the Lexical Structure (LS) does not admit any hierarchical structure at all (Miyagawa et al. 2013: 4). The unbounded hierarchical structure of human language (“discrete infinity”) comes about through recursive combination of both types of structure.

This is an interesting hypothesis (“interesting” being a convenient euphemism for “well, perhaps not that interesting after all”). Let’s have a closer look at the evidence brought forward for this theory.

Miyagawa et al. “focus on the structures found in human language” (Miyagawa et al. 2014: 1), particularly emphasizing the syntactic structure of sentences and the internal structure of words. In a sentence like “Did John eat pasta?”, the lexical items John, eat, and pasta constitute the LS, while the auxiliary do, being a functional element, is seen as belonging to the expressive layer. In a more complex sentence like “John read the book that Mary wrote”, the VP and NP notes are allocated to the lexical layer, while the DP and CP nodes are allocated to the expressive layer.

Fig. 9 from Miyagawa et al. (2014), illustrating how unbounded hierarchical structure emerges from recursive combination of E- and L-level structures

Fig. 9 from Miyagawa et al. (2014), illustrating how unbounded hierarchical structure emerges from recursive combination of E- and L-level structures

As pointed out above, LS elements cannot directly combine with each other according to Miyagawa et al. (the ungrammaticality of e.g. John book and want eat pizza is taken as evidence for this), while ES is restricted to one layer of hierarchical structure. Discrete infinity then arises through recursive application of two rules:

(i) EP →  E LP
(ii) LP → L EP
Rule (i) states that the E category can combine with LP to form an E-level structure. Rule (ii) states that the L category can combine with an E-level structure to form an L-level structure. Together, these two rules suffice to yield arbitrarily deep hierarchical structures.

The alternation between lexical and expressive elements, as exemplified in Figure (3) from the 2014 paper (= Figure 9 from the 2013 paper, reproduced above), is thus essential to their theory since they argue that “inside E and L we only find finite-state processes” (Miyagawa et al. 2014: 3). Several phenomena, most notably Agreement and Movement, are explained as “linking elements” between lexical and functional heads (cf. also Miyagawa 2010). A large proportion of the 2014 paper is therefore dedicated to phenomena that seem to argue against this hypothesis.

For example, word-formation patterns that can be applied recursively seem to provide a challenge for the theory, cf. example (4) in the 2014 paper:

(4) a. [anti-missile]
b. [anti-[anti-missile]missile] missile

The ostensible point is that this formation can involve center embedding, which would constitute a non-finite state construction.

However, they propose a different explanation:

When anti- combines with a noun such as missile, the sequence anti-missile is a modifier that would modify a noun with this property, thus, [anti-missile]-missile,  [anti-missile]-defense. Each successive expansion forms via strict adjacency, (…) without the need to posit a center embedding, non-regular grammar.

Similarly, reduplication is re-interpreted as a finite state process. Furthermore, they discuss N+N compounds, which seems to violate “the assumption that L items cannot combine directly — any combination requires intervention from E.” However, they argue that the existence of linking elements in some languages provides evidence “that some E element does occur between the two L’s”. Their example is German Blume-n-wiese ‘flower meadow’, others include Freundeskreis ‘circle of friends’ or Schweinshaxe ‘pork knuckle’. It is commonly assumed that linking elements arose from grammatical markers such as genitive -s, e.g. Königswürde ‘royal dignity’ (from des Königs Würde ‘the king’s dignity’). In this example, the origin of the linking element is still transparent. The -es- in Freundeskreis, by contrast, is an example of a so-called unparadigmatic linking element since it literally translates to ‘circle of a friend’. In this case as well as in many others, the linking element cannot be traced back directly to a grammatical affix. Instead, it seems plausible to assume that the former inflectional suffix was reanalyzed as a linking element from the paradigmatic cases and subsequently used in other compounds as well.

To be sure, the historical genesis of German linking elements doesn’t shed much light on their function in present-day German, which is subject to considerable debate. Keeping in mind that these items evolved gradually however raises the question how the E and L layers of compounds were linked in earlier stages of German (or any other language that has linking elements). In addition, there are many German compounds without a linking element, and in other languages such as English, “linked” compounds like craft-s-man are the exception rather than the rule. Miyagawa et al.’s solution seems a bit too easy to me: “In the case of teacup, where there is no overt linker, we surmise that a phonologically null element occurs in that position.”

As an empiricist, I am of course very skeptical towards any kind of null element. One could possibly rescue their argument by adopting concepts from Construction Grammar and assigning E status to the morphological schema [N+N], regardless of the presence or absence of a linking element, but then again, from a Construction Grammar point of view, assuming a fundamental dichotomy between E and L structures doesn’t make much sense in the first place. That said, I must concede that the E vs. L distinction reflects basic properties of language that play a role in any linguistic theory, but especially in Construction Grammar and in Cognitive Linguistics. On the one hand, it reflects the rough distinction between “open-class” and “closed-class” items, which plays a key role in Talmy’s (2000) Cognitive Semantics and in the grammaticalization literature (cf. e.g. Hopper & Traugott 2003). As many grammaticalization studies have shown, most if not all closed-class items are “fossils” of open-class items. The abstract concepts they encode (e.g. tense or modality) are highly relevant to our everyday experience and, consequently, to our communication, which is why they got grammaticized in the first place. As Rose (1973: 516) put it, there is no need for a word-formation affix deriving denominal verbs meaning “grasp NOUN in the left hand and shake vigorously while standing on the right foot in a 2 ½ gallon galvanized pail of corn-meal-mush”. But again, being aware of the historical emergence of these elements begs the question if a principled distinction between the meanings of open-class vs. closed-class elements is warranted.

On the other hand, the E vs. L distinction captures the fundamental insight that languages pair form with meaning. Although they are explicitly talking about the “duality of semantics“, Miyagawa et al. frequently allude to formal properties of language, e.g. by linking up syntactic strutures with the E layer:

The expression layer is similar to birdsongs; birdsongs have specific patterns, but they do not contain words, so that birdsongs have syntax without meaning (Berwick et al., 2012), thus it is of the E type.

While the “expression” layer thus seems to account for syntactic and morphological structures, which are traditionally regarded as purely “formal” and meaningless, the “lexical” layer captures the referential function of linguistic units, i.e. their “meaning”. But what is meaning, actually? The LS as conceptualized by Miyagawa et al. only covers the truth-conditional meaning of sentences, or their “conceptual content”, as Langacker (2008) calls it. From a usage-based perspective, however, “an expression’s meaning consists of more than conceptual content – equally important to linguistic semantics is how that content is shaped and construed.” (Langacker 2002: xv) According to the Integration Hypothesis, this “construal” aspect is taken care of by closed-class items belonging to the E layer. However, the division of labor envisaged here seems highly idealized. For example, tense and modality can be expressed using open-class (lexical) items and/or relying on contextual inference, e.g. German Ich gehe morgen ins Kino ‘I go to the cinema tomorrow’.

It is a truism that languages are inherently dynamic, exhibiting a great deal of synchronic variation and diachronic change. Given this dynamicity, it seems hard to defend the hypothesis that a fundamental distinction between E and L structures which cannot combine directly can be found universally in the languages of the world (which is what Miyagawa et al. presuppose). We have already seen that in the case of compounds, Miyagawa et al. have to resort to null elements in order to uphold their hypothesis. Furthermore, it seems highly likely that some of the “impossible lexical structures” mentioned as evidence for the non-combinability hypothesis are grammatical at least in some creole languages (e.g. John book, want eat pizza).

In addition, it seems somewhat odd that E- and L-level structures as “relics” of evolutionarily earlier forms of communication are sought (and expected to be found) in present-day languages, which have been subject to millennia of development. This wouldn’t be a problem if the authors were not dealing with meaning, which is not only particularly prone to change and variation, but also highly flexible and context-dependent. But even if we assume that the existence of E-layer elements such as affixes and other closed-class items draws on innate dispositions, it seems highly speculative to link the E layer with birdsong and the L layer with primate calls on semantic grounds.

The idea that human language combines features of birdsong with features of primate alarm calls is certainly not too far-fetched, but the way this hypothesis is defended in the two papers discussed here seems strangely halfhearted and, all in all, quite unconvincing. What is announced as “providing empirical evidence” turns out to be a mostly introspective discussion of made-up English example sentences, and if the English examples aren’t convincing enough, the next best language (e.g. German) is consulted. (To be fair, in his monograph, Miyagawa (2010) takes a broader variety of languages into account.) In addition, much of the discussion is purely theory-internal and thus reminiscent of what James has so appropriately called “Procrustean Linguistics“.

To their credit, Miyagawa et al. do not rely exclusively on theory-driven analyses of made-up sentences but also take some comparative and neurological studies into account. Thus, the Integration Hypothesis – quite unlike the “Mystery” paper (Hauser et al. 2014) co-authored by Berwick and published in, you guessed it, Frontiers in Psychology (and insightfully discussed by Sean) – might be seen as a tentative step towards bridging the gap pointed out by Sverker Johansson in his contribution to the “Perspectives on Evolang” section in this year’s Evolang proceedings:

A deeper divide has been lurking for some years, and surfaced in earnest in Kyoto 2012: that between Chomskyan biolinguistics and everybody else. For many years, Chomsky totally dismissed evolutionary linguistics. But in the past decade, Chomsky and his friends have built a parallel effort at elucidating the origins of language under the label ‘biolinguistics’, without really connecting with mainstream Evolang, either intellectually or culturally. We have here a Kuhnian incommensurability problem, with contradictory views of the nature of language.

On the other hand, one could also see the Integration Hypothesis as deepening the gap since it entirely draws on generative (or “biolinguistic”) preassumptions about the nature of language which are not backed by independent empirical evidence. Therefore, to conclusively support the Integration Hypothesis, much more evidence from many different fields would be necessary, and the theoretical preassumptions it draws on would have to be scrutinized on empirical grounds, as well.


Hauser, Marc D.; Yang, Charles; Berwick, Robert C.; Tattersall, Ian; Ryan, Michael J.; Watumull, Jeffrey; Chomsky, Noam; Lewontin, Richard C. (2014): The Mystery of Language Evolution. In: Frontiers in Psychology 4. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401

Hopper, Paul J.; Traugott, Elizabeth Closs (2003): Grammaticalization. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Johansson, Sverker: Perspectives on Evolang. In: Cartmill, Erica A.; Roberts, Séan; Lyn, Heidi; Cornish, Hannah (eds.) (2014): The Evolution of Language. Proceedings of the 10th International Conference. Singapore: World Scientific, 14.

Langacker, Ronald W. (2002): Concept, Image, and Symbol. The Cognitive Basis of Grammar. 2nd ed. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter (Cognitive Linguistics Research, 1).

Langacker, Ronald W. (2008): Cognitive Grammar. A Basic Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miyagawa, Shigeru (2010): Why Agree? Why Move? Unifying Agreement-Based and Discourse-Configurational Languages. Cambridge: MIT Press (Linguistic Inquiry, Monographs, 54).

Miyagawa, Shigeru; Berwick, Robert C.; Okanoya, Kazuo (2013): The Emergence of Hierarchical Structure in Human Language. In: Frontiers in Psychology 4. doi 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00071

Miyagawa, Shigeru; Ojima, Shiro; Berwick, Robert C.; Okanoya, Kazuo (2014): The Integration Hypothesis of Human Language Evolution and the Nature of Contemporary Languages. In: Frontiers in Psychology 5. doi 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00564

Rose, James H. (1973): Principled Limitations on Productivity in Denominal Verbs. In: Foundations of Language 10, 509–526.

Talmy, Leonard (2000): Toward a Cognitive Semantics. 2 vol. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

P.S.: After writing three posts in a row in which I critizised all kinds of studies and papers, I herby promise that in my next post, I will thoroughly recommend a book and return to a question raised only in passing in this post.  [*suspenseful cliffhanger music*]

Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween