Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Did human grammar(s) evolve?

In order to hypothesize about the evolutionary origins of grammar, it is essential to rely on some theory or model of human grammars. Interestingly, scholars engaged in the theoretical study of grammar (syntacticians), particularly those working within the influential framework associated with linguist Noam Chomsky, have been reluctant to consider a gradualist, selection-based approach to grammar. Nonetheless, these scholars have come up with an elaborate and precise theory of human grammars. It has recently been shown that this syntactic theory can in fact be used, precise as it is, to reconstruct the stages of the earliest grammars, and to even point to the constructions in present-day languages which resemble/approximate these early proto-grammars (Ljiljana Progovac, 2015, Evolutionary Syntax). These constructions can be considered “living fossils” of early grammars, as they have continued to live alongside more recently evolved structures (Ray Jackendoff, 2002, Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution).

While some say that we can never figure out language origins because “language leaves no fossils,” my recent engagement with this topic leads me to the conclusion that language, and better yet, the thousands of human languages spoken today, reveal a multitude of living fossils and other clues to language origins. But it is only by using a coherent linguistic theory as a tool that one can access such fossils and clues. Moreover, due to recent advances in neuroscience and genetics, it is now possible to test hypotheses of this kind.

Following a reconstruction method mentioned above, one arrives at the initial stage of grammar which was an intransitive two-slot mold, and in which the subject/object distinction could not be expressed grammatically. In syntactic theory sentences and phrases are considered to be hierarchical constructs, consisting of several layers of structure, built in a binary fashion. Thus, to derive a sentence such as Deer will eat fish, we first put together the inner layer, the small clause (eat fish). The tense layer (will), and the transitivity layer (deer), are added only later on top of this small clause foundation. The transitivity layer enables the grammatical differentiation between subjects and objects (e.g. Deer eat fish; Eat fish by deer).

Importantly, the layer upon which the whole sentence rests is the inner, foundational (eat fish) layer, which can therefore be reconstructed as the initial stage of grammar. The unspecified role of the noun in this layer can be characterized as the absolutive role, as such roles are not directly sensitive to the subject/object distinction. Absolutive-like roles are found not only in languages that are classified as ergative-absolutive, but probably in all languages, in some guise or another. Human languages in fact differ widely with respect to how they express transitivity, and this reconstructed absolutive-like basis provides the common denominator, the foundation from which all the variation can arise. Given this approach, variation in the expression of transitivity can shed light on the hominin timeline, as well as the timing of the emergence of different stages of grammar.

One absolutive-like living fossil is found among verb-noun compounds, such as English: cry-baby, kill-joy, tattle-tale, turn-coat, scatter-brain, tumble-dung (insect); Serbian cepi-dlaka (split-hair; hair-splitter), ispi-čutura (drink-up flask; drunkard), vrti-guz (spin-but; fidget), jebi-vetar (screw-wind; charlatan); and Twi (spoken in Ghana) kukru-bin (roll-feces; beetle). If we compare compounds such as turn-table and turn-coat, we observe that the first describes a table that turns (table is subject-like), and the second describes somebody who turns his/her coat, metaphorically speaking (coat is object-like). But these two compounds are assembled by exactly the same grammar: the two-slot verb-noun mold, unable to make subject/object distinctions.

Bonobo-Head
Head of a Bonobo (Pan paniscus) by User:Amir. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

It is important that this kind of two-slot grammar, combining a verb-like and a noun-like element, is not completely out of reach for non-humans. The bonobo Kanzi has been reported to have mastered such syntax in his use of lexigrams and gestures (Patricia Greenfield and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, 1990, “Language and intelligence in monkeys and apes”). If Kanzi is in principle capable of (sporadic) two-sign combinations, then it is conceivable that at least some individuals of our common ancestor with bonobos were, too. Researchers sometimes assume that seeking continuity of grammar with animal capabilities entails finding identical abilities. But that cannot be right, for, after all, humans had millions of years to undergo selection for language abilities since the time of our common ancestor with bonobos. Continuity should thus be sought in the most rudimentary precursors to language abilities.

In addition to being illustrative of a most basic grammar, it is intriguing that verb-noun compounds in many languages specialize for derogatory reference and insult when referring to humans. There have existed many crude, obscene representatives of such compounds in various languages, the vast majority of which, however, have been lost and forgotten. In medieval times alone, thousands of such compounds were used, certainly many more than nature needs. Such abundance, indeed extravagance, is usually associated with display and sexual selection, the force that has also created the peacock’s tail. Just like with the peacock’s tail, what a species selects for is not necessarily good or superior in some lofty sense, or for long-term purposes. It may just be what is found interesting and novel at some particular juncture, in some particular location. As Charles Darwin noted, primates suffer from neophilia (love of novelty), and the human species is certainly guilty of that (Darwin, 1872, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals).

Featured image credit: ‘2100 year old human footprints preserved in volcanic mud near the lake in Managua, Nicaragua’ by Dr d12. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. M Clyde

    In the Scottish and Irish Gaelic languages the verbal noun is used extensively (fish-eating). This gives rise to the concept of continuous time, which has transited from Gaelic to English. ‘I was thinking’, ‘He will be going’, etc. Not a simple past, present, or future, but one which is continuous and indeterminate. The use of the verbal noun in this way is first found in medieval English, ‘When I was a-walking one day’. This is a shortened from of ‘at walking’, which is exactly how the verbal noun is used in Gaelic. It raises some complex issues of subject and object, with verbs, or rather verbal nouns, assuming a certain independence of both subject and object. Thus, if you wanted to say, ‘I must wash the stairs’ you would have to say, ‘It is at me (= ‘must’) to be at the washing of the stairs’.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *