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Review of  New Essays on the Origin of Language

Reviewer: Miguel Rodríguez-Mondoñedo
Book Title: New Essays on the Origin of Language
Book Author: Jürgen Trabant Sean Ward
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 12.2881

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Trabant, Jurgen, and Sean Ward, ed. (2001) New Essays on the
Origins of Language. Mouton de Gruyter, 258pp, hardback ISBN
3-11-017025-6, DM 176.00 Trends in Linguistics: Studies
and Monographs 133.

Miguel Rodriguez-Mondonedo
Department of Spanish and Portuguese, The University of Arizona

Publisher's announcement at:

This book presents a collection of essays with the results
of discussions regarding the origin of language that took
place in the Berlin Academy (BA) in December 1999. The
meeting was held to celebrate the 300-Anniversary of the BA.
Several researchers in the field got together for that
occasion (you can see the list of authors in the URL cited
above), whose works are published now. There is no doubt
that this book constitutes a panoramic vision of research on
the origin of language that is worth reading.

My description of the essays collected in this book will
start with some words about the introduction, in which
Trabant remembers that the BA has an old tradition related
to the topic, since it was the main arena for its discussion
during the eighteenth century. The Academy even posed a
prize question about it, that Johan Herder won in 1772
(Herder is called "the first Chomskyan" by Trabant because
of his conception of the language as essentially
internalized). Trabant introduces a brief review of every
essay, after which he come up with a strange conclusion:
"This volume as a whole suggests that the Chomskyan school's
reductionist view of language is ultimately untenable"
(p.9). I will show later that such a conclusion is far to be

The book has three parts. The first one discusses the
biological aspects of the subject. It has two essays.

The first essay, by Philip Lieberman, is "On the Subcortical
Bases of the Evolution of Language". Lieberman criticizes
the standard assumption that the neocortex is the neural
basis of language; instead of that, he argues that several
experimental studies support the idea that the basal
ganglia, a subcortical structure, are a better option. He
conceives such neural basis as a distributed network rather
than a specific area in the brain, and uses this to attack
Chomsky's ideas about Universal Grammar (UG). Lieberman
disregards as well the syntax as a unique human language
property, as he attributes such feature to the apes.
Analyzing mainly Aphasia and Parkinson's Disease, he claims
that the same subcortical structures are involved in the
motor control (like finger sequencing or walking, but also
vocalization) and in cognition (namely, language). This
links language's evolution with upright bipedal locomotion.

The next is "Origin of the Human Language Faculty: the
Language Amoeba Hypothesis", by Eors Szathmary, who thinks
of the biological presence of language in the brain as a
process in which an organism takes its habitat. There has to
be adequate conditions to install this "language amoeba",
which is conceived as a "neural activity pattern that
essentially contributes to processing of linguistic
information" (p.42). Such pattern needs a genetic
representation, but the genes associated to it could not be
more than a few, and its place in the brain can be plastic,
since Positron Emission Tomography shows a shift in the
precise location of linguistic neural activity during
ontogenesis. Although there would not be a neural
microstructure exclusively associated to language, it is
clear that microstructures have to be suitable for the
language properties (namely, for syntax). This grants to
language a unique condition as a mechanism to generate
"hierarchically embedded syntactic structures" (p.49)
necessarily using recursive loops. This could lead to an
excess of "internal talking", like the one we see in
schizophrenia, that can be considered the "price" for

The second part discusses some core aspects of the emergence
of language. It has six essays.

"The Apparent Paradox of Language Evolution: Can Universal
Grammar Be Explained by Adaptive Selection?" by Mandred
Bierwish, introduces a solution for the vicious circle
regarding language evolution. If a random genetic variation
improves the language faculty, then, in order to be
selected, it has to provoke some advantage to the individual
who carries it. For example it can improve its social
skills. But to achieve that, the other individuals also have
to be endowed with such improvement, otherwise it will be
useless. Then, we actually presuppose the faculty whose
origin we want to explain. Bierwish solves this problem
assuming Bickerton (1990, 1995)�s idea that the stages of
the evolution of language are only two: firstly, the
development of a set of stimulus-free signs (lexicon), and,
secondly, a device for recursive combination of signs that
allows compositional interpretation (syntax). It is clear
that in order to expand the lexicon social interchange is
necessary, but a bigger lexicon leads to more social
interaction, and vice versa. Then, after mutual improvement,
the lexicon is big enough to need some organization. In this
scenario, syntax emerges (through random mutation) to select
some features from the lexical items or to add formal
features in order to arrange combinations recursively.

Dealing with the same paradox of the previous essay,
"Elementary Forms of Linguistics Organisation," by Wolfgang
Klein, proposes that the process of learning a language,
even a second one (L2), could display features unlike that
very language. These features could be the conditions for
symbolic capacity. To prove his hypothesis, Klein reports
the results of a cross-linguistic research project. The
experiment involves forty native speakers of seven different
languages who are learning five different L2. He finds a
Basic Variety (BV) which contains aspects that does not
match the native language of the individuals, nor the L2
they are learning. This BV includes lexical, morphological,
syntactic and pragmatic aspects. Following his assumption
that the present conditions of language may reveal something
about its past, he proposes that BV is the "interplay
between function and form in human language" (p. 94).

"From Potential to Realisation: an Episode in the Origin of
Language," by Bernard Comrie, raises the question of what
triggers the innate capacity of language, specifically
syntax. He analyzes three cases in which it is possible to
think of the emergence of syntax from a lexicon: feral
children, creoles, and languages of deaf people and twins.
He concludes that only the last two can be considered a
clear example of such emergence, although it is necessary to
add some social constrains. Then, under appropriate social
stimulus, a lexicon will surface, and it will lead to

"Protothought had no logical names," by James Hurford,
explores the possibility that the system of mental
representation supporting protolanguage (a "protothought"
for the lexical knowledge), could be explained with
Predicate Calculus. He claims that protothought does not
have proper names (individual constants) because no
distinction between individual and properties is available
in such state. Therefore, he suggests that modern Subject-
Predicate dichotomy must come from communicative pressures.

In "The Birth of Rules," Jean Aitchison claims that grammar
rules come from communicative habitats. She states that
lexicon was formed after the hominids gained control over
their vocal emissions and improved their urgency for naming.
Such a lexicon is a requirement for rule formation. Then,
she studies three phenomena in which rules emerge: routine
speech (in auctions and sport comments), the general impulse
to mark new information (what she calls "newsworthiness"),
and newspaper headlines. According to her, these activities'
rules can come only from constant repetition.

"How Language Changed the Genes: Toward an Explicit Account
of the Evolution of Language," by Daniel Dor and Eva
Jablonka, is not only the largest article of the collection
but also one of the most interesting. Their starting point
is the statement that syntax is not independent of
semantics: they argue that certain purely syntactic
concepts, as Island Constraint (Ross 1967), can be accounted
for as sets of semantic constraints. They conceive the
language as a mapping system to put together meaning and
form, and draw this schema (where rep=representations, and

Figure 1
[conceptual rep]<->|| [ling meaning]<-> [ling form] || <->
[phonetic rep]

to show how "syntactic representations are no longer needed"
(p. 162); therefore, there will not be a "relevant
distinction between a syntactic and a presyntactic language"
(p. 153). Instead of that, they believe that what is
selected by evolution is the ability to learn better; but as
long as learning is also a cultural phenomenon, then such
ability changes the social environment and imposes higher
standards to survive. Therefore, only the best learners will
be selected. This builds a "linguistic spiral" that selects
some semantic word features to be used as a clue to make
easier ordering words; then they become formal features,
accelerating the social interchange. The authors' conclusion
is that "the formal question and the social question are one
and the same" (p.175).

The three final essays discuss some collateral aspects of
the question about language origin.

"The Narration 'Instinct': Signalling Behavior,
Communication, and the Selective Value of Storytelling," by
Volker Heeschen, has a daring goal: to explain the
biological basis of verbal art. He departs from the idea
that language improves harmony in social relations, helps to
maintain some detachment from emotions and ritualizes
aggression. Studying speech practices in small communities,
Heeschen concludes that the practice of storytelling has an
adaptive value because it helps to simulate a consensus,
which is the condition for social cooperation.

"Taxonomic Controversies in the Twentieth Century," by
Merrit Ruhlen, entertains the idea of the monogenesis of all
actual languages. Ruhlen poses the hypothesis (compatible
with archaeological and human genetics data) that the very
first language emerged in Africa at least 50,000 years ago.
It left some traces as "pal" ("two"), a word that can be
traced cross-linguistically after appropriate

"The Origin of Origins: A Play in Five Acts, with a Prologue
in Himmel and an Epilogue auf der Erde," by Henri
Meschonnic, linguist and poet, offers a personal reflection
about the research in language origin itself. He points out
ideological motivations for such a question, and finally
comes to some very skeptical conclusions.

As Trabant says in the introduction, Ray Jackendoff also
participated in BA's meeting, but his essays was published
in Jackendoff (1999).

Now I will do some comments on the essays.

It is not clear in Lieberman's article how the view of the
language's neural basis as a network with subcortical
participation could be incompatible with Chomsky�s UG. Since
UG is a mental property, not a bunch of neurons, it is not
impossible that its neural basis may be distributed. On the
other hand, it is hard to believe that "the sole aspect of
human linguistic ability that chimpanzees lack is speech"
(p.37), as he says to grant them syntax, based on apes'
comprehension of simple English sentences with the same
words in different orders (which leads to different
meanings). Other scholars (like Szathmary in the following
article) think that there is nothing in the "linguistic"
behavior of chimpanzees that resembles syntax. Also,
Lieberman tries to ridicule the modular approach to the mind
calling Fodor a "neophrenological theorist" (p.22), what
seems to me just a way to avoid serious discussion.

Just as Lieberman, Szathmary also conceive the habitat of
language as a neural network, however, unlike Lieberman, he
does not derive from this any reason to attack linguistic
theories. On the contrary, his research seems to confirm the
idea that syntax is at the core of linguistic faculty.
Therefore it will be necessary to trace the sprout of
syntactic capacity from an evolutionary point of view.

Bierwisch's work designs a plausible picture for the
evolution of language. He thinks of language as a biological
faculty and tries to find a explanation for the emergence of
UG. His account thoroughly draws on every feature attributed
to UG by Generative Grammar. Therefore, it provides us with
enough reasons to reject Trabant's claim that the Chomskyan
view of language is not longer useful. However, Bierwisch
does not resolve his own paradox very well. His syntax can
barely elude the vicious circle, but not the lexicon (how to
expand a lexicon if you are the one with that capacity?).
Surprisingly, the solution will come from Dor and Jablonka's
article (a heavily anti-Chomskyan one, as we will see): we
must distinguish between the capacity to create words ex
nihilo and the capacity to understand them (or even to learn
them). In such scenario, the first individual to come up
with a lexicon could be understood, or could teach his/her
new knowledge. Then, evolution will select the master and
the best learners, thus starting the language.

The Klein's BV resembles Bioprogram Hypothesis (Bickerton
1984) and its explanatory adequacy will depend on further
research, but it suggests a strong link between pre-
determined mental conditions and actual performance, just
like Chomsky predicts. Therefore, as Klein says, it is
necessary to understand the present conditions of linguistic
knowledge in order to attempt an explanation of its origins.
Then, if we can reduce the complexity of the first
linguistic stage, we will be able to explain better the
emergence of a full language.

The essays of Comrie, Hurford and Aitchison have an
interesting feature in common: they all considered lexicon
as a sine qua non condition for syntax, but only Aitchison
raises the question of what could be the origin of lexicon
itself. As Trabant says in the introduction, this is maybe
the less explored issue in language origin inquiry, but it
will be the main task of future research. Additionally, they
all explain syntax by social considerations, but none of
them raise the question if today it can be explained in the
same manner. The next essay will allow us to state such
question in a clearer way.

I find Dors and Jablonka's narrative of language evolution
very convincing. But I disagree with their claim that their
argument could be used to reject Chomsky's ideas about
language. First, if you look at figure (1), you may
recognize Chomsky (1995)'s explanation of language faculty,
in other words, they pose Minimalist Program's idea that
language is a device to put together sound and meaning.
Secondly, if they are right, the only serious conclusion is
that today human children born with a set of formal
features, and, since they are no longer purely semantics, it
is necessary to have a device to operate them, namely,
syntax. That is why it does not matter that Island
Constraints ALSO have a semantic explanation. Therefore,
even if syntax has a social origin (in phylogenetic terms),
that is no longer the case. For those reasons, I truly
believe that, details aside, this article can be considered
a very Chomskyan one.

The last three articles pose unusual questions in this
field. To link the origin of esthetics with the origin of
language is a suggestive idea, which deserves further
investigation. Additionally, if human roots are really
common, the same has to be true for all languages.

I disagree with Meschonnic's claim that, given the fact
that language is a historical phenomenon, there is no hope
for questions about its ahistorical origin. This book is very
conclusive evidence that we can go beyond the limitation of
data, and draw a big picture of our origins. After all, that
is the true gift of language.

Bickerton, Derek. 1984. The language bioprogram hypothesis.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences 7:173-221.

Bickerton, Derek. 1990. Language and Species. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.

Bickerton, Derek. 1995. Language and Human Behavior.
Seattle: University of Washington.

Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge,
Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Jackendoff, Ray. 1999. Possible stages in the evolution of
the language capacity. Trends in Cognitive Sciencies 3:272-

Ross, J.R. 1967. Constraints on variables in syntax, Ph.D.
Dissertation. MIT

I'm a graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese,
in The University of Arizona, Tucson. I want to become a formal
linguist and I'm considering the language origin as topic of
research, but I also have strong interest in syntax,
phonetics, and syntax-pragmatics interface. Right now, I'm
working in a thesis about modality in Spanish to get my MA.
Also, I'm looking for a place to get my Ph.D in Linguistics.
My webpage is


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