21.3149, Review: Cognitive Science: d'Errico and Hombert (2009)

Mon Aug 2 19:16:12 UTC 2010

LINGUIST List: Vol-21-3149. Mon Aug 02 2010. ISSN: 1068 - 4875.

Subject: 21.3149, Review: Cognitive Science: d'Errico and Hombert (2009)

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Date: 02-Aug-2010
From: Jonathan Downie < jonathan_downie at yahoo.com >
Subject: Becoming Eloquent

-------------------------Message 1 ---------------------------------- 
Date: Mon, 02 Aug 2010 15:13:45
From: Jonathan Downie [jonathan_downie at yahoo.com]
Subject: Becoming Eloquent

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Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/21/21-99.html 

EDITORS: d'Errico, Francesco; Hombert, Jean-Marie
TITLE: Becoming Eloquent 
SUBTITLE: Advances in the emergence of language, human cognition, and modern
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2009

Jonathan Downie, independent scholar, Wishaw, Scotland


Becoming Eloquent is an edited collection on research funded under the Origin of
Man, Language and Languages (OMLL) project as part of the European Science
Foundation's EUROCORES program. All the papers examine how interdisciplinary
research can help answer the question of how language first arose and developed
into its present state. The 10 papers employ methodologies from fields as
diverse as historical linguistics, genetics, artificial intelligence and
archaeology. The challenge of ensuring that these approaches form a coherent
whole rested on the shoulders of editors, Francesco d'Errico and Jean-Marie
Hombert and this challenge has been too great in places, with both research
depth and copy-editing quality varying widely between papers.

The first paper, by d'Errico et al., definitely sits at the upper end of the
quality scale in its examination of evidence from archaeology and
paleoanthropology in the search for clues on the origin and development of
language. Here readers will find astute re-evaluations of traditional theories
on language origins, especially the common view that the anatomical differences
between Homo sapiens and earlier Homo species mean that the modern use of
language was exclusive to the former. On the contrary, evidence from both grave
artefacts (pp. 15-30, 40-42) and anatomical comparisons (pp. 43-46) is shown to
be inconclusive and insufficient to rule out the use of language in earlier Homo
species. In addition, the sophistication of the musical instruments assumed to
be the work of early Homo sapiens and dating from around 36ka to 21ka before
present, suggests that musical expression, in one form or another, may be far
older than previously thought (pp. 39-42). Given that musical expression
involves many of the same faculties as spoken language, this may present a clue
as to how old spoken language actually is.

The second paper, by Tresset et al., traces the movement of domesticated herd
animals such as cows and goats from the Near East to Europe in the Neolithic
period. While the relevance of this paper for strictly linguistic discussions is
not immediately obvious, it is possible to follow the authors' assumption that
''not only the animals and skills ? were diffused, but also their symbolic
values'' (p. 85). From this point, it is possible to imagine the connection
between the diffusion of animal husbandry knowledge and linguistic advances.
Even so, the earliest date for the introduction of domesticated bovids into
Europe is c. 6,800 BC, much later than the musical advances detailed in D'Errico
et al. It is therefore necessary to conclude that at least some linguistic
knowledge predates the introduction of bovids by tens of millennia. 

The next two papers show strong similarities. The first, by Van der Veen,
Quintana-Murci and Comas, discusses linguistic, cultural and genetic
perspectives on human diversity in west-central Africa. The second, by Dugoujon
et al., examines genetic and linguistic diversity among the Berber people in
North Africa. Both offer interesting insights into the relationship between
linguistic and genetic variables, with the emphasis very much on the latter. 

Van der Veen et al. use linguistic differences and genetic markers to trace the
historical stages of the peopling of the Cameroon-Gabon area (pp. 96-109). The
authors then interweave this genetic data with cultural and anthropological data
to form a plausible hypothesis. Historical linguists, however, may be
disappointed by the depth of analysis of purely linguistic phenomena. Dugoujon
et al. include more in-depth linguistic data than Van der Veen et al., but it
may also be of more interest to anthropologists than linguists as it is not
until near the end of the article that linguistic elements are analysed. In the
context of the research question set by the editors, readers may feel that
analysis of the process by which genetically related people undergo language
shift is somewhat imbalanced in these papers.

The next paper is an intriguing investigation by Jacquesson on the ethnic and
linguistic situation in the Assam Corridor, an area in the North-East of the
Indian subcontinent. From cultural and agricultural differences through to a
detailed analysis of language distribution and relatedness, this article
demonstrates how linguistic, political and sociological factors are closely
intertwined in the region. Historical and comparative linguists especially will
find the analysis of the relationships between seven Boro-Garo languages (pp.
158-160) stimulating. As a paper that successfully balances several perspectives
on the same question, this work deserves praise.

Heyer and Mennecier in the next paper examine genetic and linguistic diversity
in Central Asia, with special attention to the geographical, genetic and
linguistic distances between populations in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and
Kyrgyzstan. In this case, the data showed a correlation between linguistic and
genetic distance but not between these and geographical distance. Thus, we see
that human breeding patterns, as part of social organisation, may be a more
important factor in linguistic diversity than geographical location.
Unfortunately, easily avoidable typographical and grammatical errors creep in
(e.g. ''ethnical'' for ''ethnic'' on p. 166, unpredictable swapping between
''Levenshtein'' and ''Levenstein'' on p. 170, etc.), detract from  what is otherwise
excellent work. 

The seventh paper is a short study by Kraaijkenbrink et al. on the relationship
between linguistic, genetic and geographical diversity, this time focussing on
the people of the Himalayan region. Once again, linguistic and genetic
indicators are seen to correlate better than genetic and geographical ones.
However, given that their work is still ongoing and that many of their research
questions could not be answered as the paper went to press, it may have been
preferable to delay publication. This paper therefore represents the first
glimpse of the potential of their work rather than a fully finished account of
the study. 

Unfortunately, the next chapter, a study by Kern, Davis and Zink on the
development of early language skills in infants, follows this same pattern. The
authors present an analysis of the general phonological trends in infant speech
from early babbling to later word stages of development, with the hypothesis
that such trends may be similar to those found in early human linguistic
evolution. In this case, small sample sizes, individual variation and the
tendency towards ''generat[ing] more questions than answers'' (p. 227) hamper what
would otherwise have been a very interesting initial report. This paper should
therefore be seen as an introduction to the potential of cross-linguistic
comparative research on infant speech phonology rather than as a fully developed
illustration of its application.

The penultimate paper, by Zuberbuehler et al., is a thought-provoking synthesis
of recent research on the evidence for syntactic and semantic complexity in the
vocal behaviour of primates. Unlike some other papers, Zuberbuehler et al. give
a well-rounded and detailed look at the state of the field, before arriving at
some strong conclusions. This paper therefore works equally well as a survey of
recent work and as a discussion of applications to the question of the
development of language capabilities. Although non-human primate communication
does show a remarkable degree of flexibility, they find significant differences
between this and human language (pp. 258-259), a balanced conclusion which opens
avenues for future research. 

The final paper, by Luc Steels, takes a very different approach, examining the
way that simulations of language evolution using artificial intelligence can
provide insights for archaeological investigations. Unlike Zuberbuehler et al.,
who seem to favour a primarily genetic explanation for the uniqueness of human
language (p. 242), Steels assumes that language arose primarily due to cultural
and cognitive factors (p. 270). Much of his evidence comes from the success or
otherwise of simulations. These language games involve abstract computer models
or physical robots set up to cooperate in tasks requiring the building and
adjustment of stores of lexical, categorical or grammatical information, akin to
those required in the early stages of language evolution. The results of these
experiments suggest that archaeologists should use data on sociological and
cognitive changes as opposed to genetic information to try and locate the
earliest forms of language.


In sum, this is a welcome volume uniting a wide range of approaches to the
question of how language first arose and how it subsequently developed. Its
interdisciplinary nature may go some way towards explaining the inconsistency in
both research depth and copy-editing quality. The papers by d'Errico et al,
Jacquesson and Steels all exemplify the considerable potential in this
sub-field. Similarly, the paper by Zuberbuehler et al. demonstrates that it is
possible to synthesise a variety of perspectives and still emerge with a clear
and stimulating conclusion. 

On the other hand, the papers by Kraaijkenbrink et al. and Kern, Davis and Zink
exemplify the challenges involved in the kind of interdisciplinary work required
to answer the questions posed in the volume. In the former case, due to the open
nature of many of its conclusions, the paper must be read as a report of
research in process rather than a final account. In the latter, it is the
difficulty of gaining access to adequate sample sizes which looms over any
attempt to draw any definite conclusions from the results.

This book will nonetheless be a useful introduction to contemporary discussions
on language evolution, even if it is already in need of revision. Both newcomers
and experienced scholars will find it inspiring and the former will no doubt
appreciate the sheer volume of works cited in some of the papers. 


Jonathan Downie is a freelance translator and interpreter and independent
scholar based in Scotland. Much of his research is related to the use and
improvement of translation and interpreting in churches and Christian

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