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Talmy Givon: Bio-Linguistics; the Santa Barbara Lectures.

Talmy Givon: Bio-Linguistics; the Santa Barbara Lectures. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins, 2002. xviii + 383 pp. ISBN 90-272-2590-7.

Bio-Linguistics, as it has been aptly termed by T. Givon, has become a central topic in language study again since transformational theorizing has defended its so-called innateness hypothesis. Squarely opposed to the theory of an innate grammatical system are those advocating a more Darwinian approach--as Givon phrases it: it seems "plausible that the cognitive representation system that underlies human language has been recruited to language processing without major adjustments" (p. 160).

Two major approaches can be distinguished, roughly, in the evolutionary theory: a gestural basis for the development of human language and a visual coding. The former has been argued for by Armstrong (1999) and Stokoe (2001). Referring to animal communication on the one hand and sign language such as ASL on the other hand, the latter holds that "the earliest languages would certainly have resembled modern deaf sign languages" (p. 48). The visual orientation defended by Givon gets fundamental support from empirically sustained observations.

Does this imply that the innateness hypothesis is to be squarely refuted, especially since it does not seem to have empirical support? The lack of observed phenomena does not seem to apply any longer. The discovery of the gene FOXP2 and the mutations that have taken place, cosegregating with disorder in a family half of which has linguistic difficulties, suggests that the said gene has caused some fundamental changes on the human lineage. One of its consequences is a typical development toward human language, since the mutation did not occur among nonhuman primates. The authors venture that "the time when such a FOXP2 variant became fixed in the human population may be pertinent with regard to the evolution of human language" (Enard 2002: 871). Their research suggests, moreover, that the process occurred in the last 200,000 years and is thus concomitant with the emergence of Homo sapiens. The Barbara lectures go in the opposite direction as they consider the evolution of human language as necessarily preceeded by visual and gestural communication.

The book under discussion opens and closes, in a sense, with Joseph Greenberg. The opening is a dedication to him, the final chord an extensive epilogue on "J. Greenberg as a theorist," written with admiration, friendship, and a fundamental conviction of scientific kinship. The guiding principle in Greenberg's theory as well as in Givon's expose, is a message by the former, expressed here on p. 346: "In language as in bio-evolution, extant types ('species') are but the tail end of developmental pathways that give them rise ('evolution'). The universals--the regularities, not only the occasional distortions--are all universals of emergence."

Professor Givon's lectures demonstrate that language operates between two poles: a biological basis and behavioral adaptation. Therefore a rigorous distinction of synchrony and diachrony in linguistic theorizing is refuted: there is a permanent interaction between what is genetically coded and experience. Linguistic development, it is argued, just like other biological systems is rooted in evolution, and variation plays a major role in learning and adaptation. Therefore the innateness hypothesis as defended by Chomsky and his school is firmly refuted. A separation between biology and culture as assumed by the latter is incompatible with a well-founded theory of evolution. Human culture, in other words, cannot be understood if its biological roots are not acknowledged.

Bio-Linguistics consists of ten chapters, each describing its field of research independently though being interconnected nonetheless, thus covering the whole domain of linguistic growth and adaptation. How essential this evolutionary growth is becomes apparent, also, in small closed communities where linguistic communication is a means of social cooperation, heavily relying on trust: "The patterns of trust and cooperation in societies of intimates arose through a protracted, adaptive cultural and biological evolution" (p. 302).

To my mind, the theoretical core of the book is chapter 4: "Human language as an evolutionary product." The chapters 1, 2, and 3 lay the foundations, extensively defining adaptation and variation, while the basic assumptions of transformational theorizing are critically x-rayed. The latter half of the book illustrates the theoretical stand, giving a wealth of neuropsychological, visual, and purely linguistic arguments.

In order not to get lost in an and summing-up of the contents of the chain of chapters--and a strong chain it is--we will concentrate on the contents of chapter 4 and only draw some main lines through other propositions, hoping not to diminish the richness and clear line of argumentation every treated subject shows.

Human language according to the argumentation in the fourth chapter has developed in an evolutionary way out of the visual processing system as we find it in primates. In this development the lexicon was coded first, the rise of grammar was second. The conceptual lexicon stands for generic information and is organized in a network of nodes and connections: it thus runs parallel with what has been proposed in Rosch's prototype theory (1975). Lexical concepts are combined into propositions which in their turn are put together in discourse. It is logical inclusion that captures the relation between the different semantic layers.

Referring to the fact that signing children acquire a lexicon first, it is argued that grammar in its largest sense is the latest acquisition in communication. The whole process is based on an underlying cognitive structure (so-called semantic memory) that is already in place. Grammar is responsible for two domains of representation: propositional and discourse pragmatics. The priority of the lexicon is also sustained by so-called pregrammatical communication as it is found, for example, in child pidgin and agrammatical aphasia.

As regards visual information processing basic to language acquisition, this is complex rather than linear: there is a ventral stream in the brain for object vision and a dorsal stream for spatial relations. The streams correspond in a convincing way with semantic memory (the lexicon) and episodic memory (propositions) respectively. Connection between the ventral stream and the lexical representation is also apparent in primate communication.

On the basis of neuropsychological research Givon argues for a single multimodal module of processing, responsible for both vision and language, also because this is sustained by trends in biological evolution. It is furthermore argued that the restriction of coding--decoding to Broca's area is too simple: the representation in the brain must be distributive. Moreover "Broca's area is also involved in the visual representation of complex rhythmic-hierarchic activity" (p. 144).

Summarizing the arguments for a visual-gestural coding as basic to the evolution of linguistic communication, the attention is drawn to the ease of associative learning, the concreteness of the early lexicon, and the support of visual-gestural information where hearing is impaired. Interestingly, in the evolution of writing systems we meet with the gradual move from iconic to abstract that we also note in the language acquisition of children. The development trend in language learning shows the following temporal hierarchy: lexicon before syntax, lexicon before morphology, and pidgin before grammatical communication. That iconic syntax precedes arbitrary syntax can, again, be interpreted as fitting in with a major trend in the evolution of animal as well as human communication. As to the preceding and following chapters of "Human language as an evolutionary product" we will restrict ourselves to some general outlines. However, it should be stressed, that a lot of introductory work on the one hand, and conclusive derivations on the other hand can be discerned in these chapters. Most fundamental to me is the thorough way in which the first chapter refutes the well-known Saussurean dogmas: arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, the distinction langue-parole, and the strict segregation of synchrony and diachrony, all three demonstrating a blind eye for change and variation in language and language use.

In chapter 2, "The adaptive basis of variation," a prototypical approach involving "graded continua" is argued for. Adaptation on the level of categorization is largely responsible for the developmental aspects of language as is the case also in biology. Language and language use are neither rigid as generative grammar holds nor sloppy as is sometimes argued in so-called emergentist theory: Givon goes for the middle position.

Chapter 3, "The demise of competence," offers a clear refutation--with a wealth of supportive examples--of competence as it is advocated by Chomsky: research is to shift "from the idealized realm of Plato's eidon to the rough-and-dirty domain of biological information processing" (p. 121). Furthermore, the strict configurational representation of grammatical relations by so-called phrase structure trees is to be abandoned. Studying oral in stead of written language one realizes that it is close to nonconfigurational language such as Pidgin. Large bits of spoken conversation (performance) prove that only carefully written texts suggest uniformity as generative grammar wants to see it.

"An evolutionary account of language processing rates," as chapter 5 is called, presents two experiments in which the speed of visual information processing and of language processing are compared. It appears that conscious visual object recognition operates with the same speed as is evidenced in language processing. Although it is not irrefutably proved that the rates of processing at language level are an outgrowth of visual object and event processing, the two types of processing rates are remarkably alike. This, again, seems to corroborate the precedence of visual information processing over that of language, as has been argued in the core chapter.

Chapter 6, on diachrony and language universals, once more argues that "the analogy between diachronic rise of grammatical structures and the evolutionary rise of biological organs is indeed striking" (p. 220). Linguistic typology on a purely synchronic level, moreover, does not lead to trustworthy results.

"The neuro-cognitive interpretation of context," chapter 7, tries to reinterpret the notion of context, defining it in terms of a mental model. The context in communication is a systematic construction of mental representations, ranging over presupposition, implicature, and the like. We are presented with a clear representation of a memory device and of the way a referent translates into a grammatical structure. With a series of conversations taken from spoken English as well as Swahili it is proved that context, relevant to pragmatics and communication, is a mental construct dependent on selective attention.

In "The grammar of the narrator's perspective in fiction," chapter 8, the author follows a byway into the world of literature and the role of the narrator's attitude as it becomes visible in grammar and lexicon. Rather than contributing to the central theme of bio-linguistic research it concentrates on Givon's proper literary work and the question in how far the author's perspective is expressed in that of the narrator, the first-person, and the third-person one.

Chapter 9 on "The society of intimates" brings us back to the main subject: language, evolution, and biology. Societies of intimates--small-scale societies such as the foraging groups of some 10,000 years ago--demonstrate patterns of cooperation resulting from an adaptive cultural and (again) biological evolution. How the cooperation works becomes visible in the exchange system of a Melanesian people, the Tobrianders. Usually cooperation is not free, but dominated by relatively rigid cultural mechanisms. However, cultures are not purely homogeneous, but balance between uniformity and diversity: they constitute an organized diversity.

A chapter on the linguist as a scientist closes the series of lectures. It offers interesting remarks on the pragmatics of negation where, contrary to the rules of logic, I am happy and I am not unhappy are not synonymous. Neg-assertions appear to correct the hearer's misguided beliefs rather than offering new information. Therefore, they are rather infrequent in conversation and are best avoided.

Bio-Linguistics, as must be clear from this brief review, is an extremely rich and well-written work. The references to classical authors such as Aristotle and Plato, the examples taken from the most diverging languages and the fundamental discussion of other linguistic approaches turn it into a theory, at the same time all-encompassing and profound. Moreover, the arguments in favor of the central theme: variation as a tool of change and adaptation are presented with such persuasiveness (and tenacity) that they seem irrefutable. Is this, then, the final word on the evolution of human language on the basis of gestural and visual encoding? That seems too optimistic for more than one reason. To begin with, the relation of visual processing and the phonetic aspects of language and language use ask for a more technical elaboration. Moreover, the evolution from animal processing of information--such as the classification of a visual phenomenon as either friend or foe--to propositional procedures basic to sentence formation has not been explained (cf. my tentative propositions in JLS 2003). And though impressed by the number and variety of works cited, covering a vast field of cognitive, neurological, linguistic, and philosophical investigation, I feel obliged to mention a few books I have regretfully missed: Kirby (1999) in relation to formalism and functionalism in chapters 1 and 5; Kamp and Reyle (1993) on proposition and discourse in chapter 4, Carruthers (1996) regarding linguistic thinking and consciousness in chapter 5; and Johnson-Laird (1983) in relation to mental models in chapter 7.


Armstrong, Donald (1999). Original Signs: Gesture, Signs, and the Sources of Language. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Carruthers, Peter (1996). Language, Thought and Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Droste, Flip G. (2003). Linguistic thinking; or the poet, his beloved and the outsider. Journal of Literary Semantics 32, 1-18.

Enard, Wolfgang (2002). Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language. Nature 418, 869-871.

Johnson-Laird, Philip N. (1983). Mental Models: towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference and Cognition. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Kamp, Hans; and Reyle, Uwe (1993). From Discourse to Language. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Kirby, Simon (1999). Function, Selection and Innateness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rosch, Eleonor (1975). Cognitive representation of semantic categories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 104, 192-233.

Stokoe, William (2001). The origins of language. In Semiotics and Linguistics, Paul Cobley (ed.), 40-51. London: Routledge.


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Author:Droste, Flip G.
Publication:Linguistics: an interdisciplinary journal of the language sciences
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2004
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