Just before Christmas I found myself in the pub speaking to Sean about his work on bilingualism, major transitions and the contrast between language change and the cultural evolution of language. Now, other than revealing that our social time is spent discussing our university work, the conversation brought up a distinction not often made: whilst language change is part of language evolution, the latter is also what we consider to be a major transition. As you evolutionary biologists will know, this concept is perhaps best examined and almost certainly popularised in Maynard Smith & Szathmáry’s (1995) The Major Transitions in Evolution. Here, the authors are not promoting the fallacy of guided evolution, where the inevitable consequence is increased and universal complexity. Their thesis is more subtle: that some lineages become more complex over time, with this increase being attributable to the way in which genetic information is transmitted between generations. In particular, they note eight transitions in the evolution of life:
The Journal of Evolutionary
Psychology has published its special issue on language evolution, and access is currently free.
Here’s the table of contents:
Evolutionary psychology and the origins of language (editorial)
Thomas C. Scott-Phillips
Review of geographic variation in terrestrial mammalian acoustic signals: Human speech variation in a comparative perspective
Adriano R. Lameira, Roberto A. Delgado and Serge A. Wich
Environment, methodology, and the object choice task in apes: Evidence for declarative comprehension and implications for the evolution of language
Modelling vocal anatomy’s significant effect on speech
Bart de Boer
What exactly evolved?
A review of The Evolution of Human Language: Biolinguistic Perspectives , edited by Richard K. Larson, Viviane Déprez, Hiroko
A minimal approach is insufficient
A review of Language Evolution and Syntactic Theory by Anna R. Kinsella
How language came to be?
A review of The Evolution of Language , by Tecumseh Fitch
I noticed it’s almost been a month since I last posted some links. What this means is that many of the links I planned on posting are terribly out of date and these last few days I haven’t really had the time to keep abreast of the latest developments in the blogosphere (new course + presentation at Edinburgh + current cold = a lethargic Wintz). I’m hoping next week will be a bit nicer to me.
The reality of a universal language faculty? Melodye offers up a thorough post on the whole Universal Grammar hypothesis, mostly drawing from the BBS issue dedicated Evans & Levinson (2009)’s paper on the myth of language universals, and why it is a weak position to take. Key paragraph:
When we get to language, then, it need not be surprising that many human languages have evolved similar means of efficiently communicating information. From an evolutionary perspective, this would simply suggest that various languages have, over time, ‘converged’ on many of the same solutions. This is made even more plausible by the fact that every competent human speaker, regardless of language spoken, shares roughly the same physical and cognitive machinery, which dictates a shared set of drives, instincts, and sensory faculties, and a certain range of temperaments, response-patterns, learning facilities and so on. In large part, we also share fairly similar environments — indeed, the languages that linguists have found hardest to document are typically those of societies at the farthest remove from our own (take the Piraha as a case in point).
My own position on the matter is fairly straightforward enough: I don’t think the UG perspective is useful. One attempt by Pinker and Bloom (1990) argued that this language module, in all its apparent complexity, could not have arisen by any other means than via natural selection – as did the eye and many other complex biological systems. Whilst I agree with the sentiment that natural selection, and more broadly, evolution, is a vital tool in discerning the origins of language, I think Pinker & Bloom initially overlooked the significance of cultural evolutionary and developmental processes. If anything, I think the debate surrounding UG has held back the field in some instances, even if some of the more intellectually vibrant research emerged as a product of arguing against its existence. This is not to say I don’t think our capacity for language has been honed via natural selection. It was probably a very powerful pressure in shaping the evolutionary trajectory of our cognitive capacities. What you won’t find, however, is a strongly constrained language acquisition device dedicated to the processing of arbitrary, domain-specific linguistic properties, such as X-bar theory and case marking.
Babel’s Dawn Turns Four. In the two and half years I’ve been reading Babel’s Dawn it has served as a port for informative articles, some fascinating ideas and, lest we forget, some great writing on the evolution of language. Edmund Blair Bolles highlights the blog’s fourth anniversary by referring to another, very important, birthday:
This blog’s fourth anniversary has rolled around. More notably, the 20th anniversary of Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom‘s famous paper, “Natural Language and Natural Selection,” seems to be upon us. Like it or quarrel with it, Pinker-Bloom broke the dam that had barricaded serious inquiry since 1866 when the Paris Linguistic Society banned all papers on language’s beginnings. The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology is marking the Pinker-Bloom anniversary by devoting its December issue to the evolution of language. The introductory editorial, by Thomas Scott-Phillips, summarizes language origins in terms of interest to the evolutionary psychologist, making the editorial a handy guide to the differences between evolutionary psychology and evolutionary linguistics.
Hopefully I’ll have a post on Pinker and Bloom’s original paper, and how the field has developed over these last twenty years, at some point in the next couple of weeks. I think it’s historical importance will, to echo Bolles, be its value in opening up the field: with the questions of language origins and evolution turning into something worthy of serious intellectual investigation.
When talking about language evolution there’s always a resistance from people exclaiming; ‘but how do we know?’, ‘surely all of this is conjecture!’ and, because of this, ‘what’s the point?’
Thomas Scott-Phillips and Simon Kirby have written a new article (in press) in ‘Trends in Cognitive Science’ which addresses some of the techniques currently used to address language evolution using experiments in the laboratory.
The Problem of language evolution
The problem of language evolution is one which encompasses not only the need to explain biologically how language came about but also how language came to be how it is today through processes of cultural evolution. Because of this potential ambiguity arises when using the term ‘language evolution’. To sort this ambiguity the authors put forward the following:
Language evolution researchers are interested in the processes that led to a qualitative change from a non-linguistic state to a linguistic one. In other words, language evolution is concerned with the emergence of language