One question I have been avoiding on this blog is the boundary between two kinds of speech evolution. Babel’s Dawn is about the evolution of speech itself, the transformation from vocalizing to talking. But there is a second kind of evolution, the sort that in a thousand years transformed spoken English from a Germanic, inflected language to the Frenchified, word-order thing we speak to day. The first kind was the result of Darwinian evolution, the second reflects changes of culture and habit. The trouble begins when you try to show where one begins and the other ends.
Some people see no problem at all. Derek Bickerton writes:
Of course [language evolution] has stopped, because the biological evolution of humans (saving the odd minor development like the spread of lactose tolerance or proneness to sickle-cell anemia) has, to all intents and purposes, stopped also. What is happening (and has been happening for perhaps as many as a hundred thousand years) is cultural change (sometimes misleadingly described as ‘‘cultural evolution’’); within the envelope of the language faculty, languages are recycling the limited alternatives that this biological envelope makes available. (See article here.)
It is nice when things are so clear.
Things are equally clear, though in the opposite direction, for Bernard H. Bichakjian who spoke at the Stellenbosch conference in October;
What genetics clearly suggest is that we have a potential for speech, we are not imprinted with a grammar. Language is not a genetic program; it is a technique that humans have continuously improved to make it an ever-higher performing instrument of thought and communication. In essence, the evolution of language is not different from the evolution of any other technique. … Just as today’s cruise missiles are the product of an evolution that had started with hand-thrown projectiles, today’s languages are the result of a long and steady evolution, which started with the most primitive forms of communication.
And when Bichakjian says language has been “continuously improved,” he is not kidding. French is an improvement over Latin, Hindi over Sanskrit, and Modern English over Middle English. Yet he does mention a “potential for speech.” I questioned him further on the point and Bichakjian acknowledged that “humans, during their evolution, have acquired central and peripheral features that make language possible.” But he seems chiefly to be a radical exponent of the tabula rasa theory of knowledge. We are born with lips and a tongue, but no knowledge of what to say or how to organize it. As a result, the border between biological evolution and cultural change is as sharp as the California coastline, and all the interesting stuff has happened on the cultural change side of the line.
Bickerton argues from the same epistemological school as Chomsky and Pinker, which finds knowledge of syntactic elements and linguistic properties built into our heads. He’s got a sharp border too, but Bickerton is entirely concerned with the biological evolution side of it.
It might seem then that the solution is to refer to Bickerton’s group whenever you want to know about how the ability to speak evolved and then to Bichakjian to find out what happened afterward, but life is never so easy. Each of them thinks the other’s side contains nothing of interest because it was all worked out in their own area. Thus, Bickerton’s story is of a species stuck with protolanguage waiting for the proper mutation to come along like a fairy godmother at the prince’s birth and give them syntax. Bichakjian meanwhile tells of a people born with not much more in their genetic favor than a flapping tongue, but who gradually improve upon their power so that they can speak in an ever more efficient manner.
Bickerton’s view forces the opinion that languages have not evolved since the rise of syntax. They merely change, and they change pretty much in the tedious manner of locations changing over geologic time. Sometimes they are oceans, sometimes fertile land, sometimes deserts. Over the eons they change, and yet it couldn’t be more exhausting and pointless. For languages, sometimes they are highly inflected; at other times they are governed by a strict word order. Sometimes the subject comes before the verb and sometimes after. It too makes for an exhausting story because it signifies nothing.
Bichakjian's story signifies something: the shift from an inefficient, holistic and complicated, analog kind of language to an energy-saving, unfolding and complex, digital type of language. Every day, in every way, we seem to be getting better and better. And I thought we had lost something when we moved from Charles Dickens to Erich Segal!
This blog’s evolutionary approach makes it is hard to take either view seriously. The “language potential” is not something we woke up with one morning and then cultural evolution took over. Something must have been going on to give us language-adapted lips, tongue, larynx, and breath control. Nor can the “language envelope” have been hermetically sealed at some point in our biological history, leaving matters to rattle around without anything of interest happening for the next X-thousand generations.
Much more credible as a story of evolution would be an account of a co-evolution of biological and cultural factors. Over the very long view, say every quarter of a million years, biological evolution is probably the dominant feature as the body adapts to support speech, while at any point on that line, say every ten thousand years, cultural change will predominate. That relationship seems plainly true in our own age, but it was probably also true two million years ago. Back then language was very different from what we have today, but it was probably still changing much more rapidly than the body was evolving.
This week, using Bickerton’s on-line essay and Bichakjian Stellenbosch presentation as my poles, I want to take a look at these two processes.