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The genesis of syntactic complexity: Diachrony, ontogeny, neuro-cognition, evolution (review)

From: Language
Volume 85, Number 4, December 2009
pp. 930-933 | 10.1353/lan.0.0157

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The origin of language or languages has been a nonissue for most linguists since the nineteenth century, being widely considered to be a domain of conjecture and guesswork. In the course of the last two decades the situation has changed: language evolution is now a fairly popular topic in various schools of contemporary linguistics, and a plethora of books and hundreds of articles have been published on it, some of them written by highly influential linguists. A major question figuring in these publications is how human languages came to acquire the kind of complexity that they have, and this is also the question that The genesis of syntactic complexity is concerned with.

The book is divided into twelve chapters: four are devoted to paradigm issues of syntactic analysis (Chs. 2–5); three cover first language acquisition, or ontogeny, as the author refers to it (Chs. 6–8); one discusses pidgin languages (Ch. 9); two have a focus on neurocognition (Chs. 10 and 11); and the first and the last chapters relate the different research fields surveyed to one another in search of cross-disciplinary regularities on how syntactic complexity arises and may have arisen in human languages.

The conceptual and methodological framework used in the book is outlined in the first two chapters, where Givón also deals with the hypothesis of Hauser et al. 2002 of a faculty of language in the narrow sense. He argues that the features distinguishing human communication from that of nonhuman animals cannot be reduced to one phenomenon, that is, recursion, since such features relate to a range of different phenomena, in particular to spatiotemporally displaced reference, declarative speech acts, and multipropositional discourse (34–36).

Ch. 3 discusses diachronic reconstruction in general and grammaticalization work in particular. The examples presented concern most of all the growth of passive constructions, where different pathways are reconstructed. The focus of Ch. 4 is on how clause union arises, where two main diachronic pathways are distinguished: one of them leading via the embedding of a clause into the verb phrase as a verb complement, while the other involves what G calls the condensation of a clause chain into a single serial verb clause. Ch. 5 is devoted to the rise and development of relative clauses. Building on his earlier work where he had distinguished eight strategies of relativization, G arrives at a new typology of main pathways leading from paratactic structures to embedded relative clauses, namely a clause-chaining, a nonrestrictive parenthetical, and a wh-question paratactic pathway.

Chs. 6, 7, and 8 all deal with first language acquisition. G argues that the early two-word stage of ontogeny, which is the subject of the very short Ch. 6, is suggestive of ‘pre-pidgin communication’. The next step, leading to the rise of more complex structures in the verb phrase, is the subject of Ch. 7. In this chapter the major lines of development highlighted concern the rise of displaced reference and the development from manipulative to informative speech acts, from deontic to epistemic modality, and from mental models of one’s own mind to models of other minds. Ch. 7 is followed by three appendices containing a rich data collection of child and adult communication. The development of relative-clause formation in first language acquisition is the topic of Ch. 8. G comes to the same general conclusion as in preceding chapters, namely that language ontogeny and language diachrony are overall suggestive of the same kind of evolution, and in both of them the rise of recursivity can be interpreted as a by-product of the process from less to more complex communication systems (see pp. 239–40 for more details).

In Ch. 9, the structure of pidgins at the jargon stage (‘second language pidgin’) is analyzed. G concludes that pidgin communication shows striking parallels not only to the earlier stages of first language acquisition but also to the discourse of Broca’s aphasia patients, which is suggestive of a ‘pre-language’ or ‘proto-language’ stage in the evolution of human languages.

An interesting subject matter is discussed in Ch. 10, namely predications without an explicit predicate. Once again, G finds striking parallels in the different forms...

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