Musings of a Palaeolinguist

Hannah recently directed me towards a new language evolution blog: Musings of a Palaeolinguist. From my reading of the blog, the general flavour seems to be focused on gradualist and abruptist accounts of language evolution. Here is a section from one of her posts, Evolution of Language and the evolution of syntax: Same debate, same solution?, which also touches on the protolanguage concept:

In my thesis, I went through a literature review of gradual and abruptist arguments for language evolution, and posited an intermediate stage of syntactic complexity where a language might have only one level of embedding in its grammar.  It’s a shaky and underdeveloped example of an intermediate stage of language, and requires a lot of exploration; but my reason for positing it in the first place is that I think we need to think of the evolution of syntax the way many researchers are seeing the evolution of language as a whole, not as a monolithic thing that evolved in one fell swoop as a consequence of a genetic mutation, but as a series of steps in increasing complexity.

Derek Bickerton, one of my favourite authors of evolutionary linguistics material, has written a number of excellent books and papers on the subject.  But he also argues that language likely experienced a jump from a syntax-less protolanguage to a fully modern version of complex syntax seen in languages today.  To me that seems unintuitive.  Children learn syntax in steps, and non-human species seem to only be able to grasp simple syntax.  Does this not suggest that it’s possible to have a stable stage of intermediate syntax?

I’ve generally avoided writing about these early stages of language, largely because I had little useful to say on the topic, but I’ve now got some semi-developed thoughts that I’ll share in another post. In regards to the above quote, I do agree with the author’s assertion of there being an intermediate stage, rather than Bickerton’s proposed jump. In fact, we see languages today (polysynthetic) where there are limitations on the level of embedding, with one example being Bininj Gun-wok. We can also stretch the discussion to look at recursion in languages, as Evans and Levinson (2009) demonstrate:

In discussions of the infinitude of language, it is normally assumed that once the possibility of embedding to one level has been demonstrated, iterated recursion can then go on to generate an infinite number of levels, subject only to memory limitations. And it was arguments from the need to generate an indefinite number of embeddings that were crucial in demonstrating the inadequacy of finite state grammars. But, as Kayardild shows, the step from one-level recursion to unbounded recursion cannot be assumed, and once recursion is quarantined to one level of nesting it is always possible to use a more limited type of grammar, such as finite state grammar, to generate it.

2 thoughts on “Musings of a Palaeolinguist”

  1. To my mind, this way of posing the question is misguided, asking about what languages might have had (how many embeddings, what constructions, etc.) instead of asking what capacities individuals within the population might have had. I’m a fan of the broader “construction grammar” family of approaches to syntax, which view constructions as the result of analogy over usage tokens, and treat a complex syntactic structure as an online fusion of various constructions. (In Langacker’s words, something done by speakers rather than by grammars.) On this view, the limits of language are determined by various perceptual, attentional and memory constraints, as well as by functional principles of communication. So, when I read this:

    an intermediate stage of syntactic complexity where a language might have only one level of embedding in its grammar

    I interpret it like this:

    an intermediate stage of human perceptual and cognitive capacities which, when producing novel linguistic structures online, generally would have reliably processed no more than one level of embedding

  2. Hi J. Goard,

    I agree that we could look at the biological constraints placed on the population, and this may very well explain why there was a cap on the degree of syntactic complexity. There may also be cultural-demographic constraints on why a language might remain at an intermediate degree of syntactic complexity: hence why there are populations today with only a limited amount of embedding, even though they are capable of learning languages with many levels of embedding. I think the point being made, and why I highlighted it, is that there probably was an intermediate level. How quickly this intermediate level lasted for is based on the constraints that gave rise to it. If it was primarily due to biology, then I would predict it would have taken considerably longer to have moved out of this intermediate stage. If, on the other hand, our ancient ancestors were quite capable of learning languages with greater degrees of syntactic complexity, then the intermediate stage might have transitioned considerably quicker. Then again, it might have remained static if the underlying cultural and demographic conditions remained stationary…

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