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  • Language evolution and syntactic theory
  • Frederick J. Newmeyer
Language evolution and syntactic theory. By Anna R. Kinsella. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 222. ISBN 9780521895309. $99 (Hb).

Language evolution and syntactic theory (LEST) is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the biological evolution of grammars. LEST is a revision of Kinsella’s 2006 University of Edinburgh Ph.D. thesis, which was written under her former name of Anna R. Parker. Despite the title of the book, only one syntactic theory is given much attention—namely the minimalist program (MP). LEST argues that the MP, as developed by Noam Chomsky and his co-thinkers, violates numerous properties that any biological faculty needs in order to be evolvable. But in a sense that turns out not to matter, since K argues that the MP, when the full set of its devices is taken into account, is far less ‘minimalist’ than its supporters envisage. On the whole, I feel that K is successful in accomplishing her goals, though, as I note below, one might argue that she somewhat overstates her case.

Ch. 1, ‘Constraining our theory of language’ (1–38), assumes a basic knowledge of both evolutionary theory and syntactic theory. It begins with a quick overview of the MP and points out that this approach differs from its predecessor nativist theories in reducing (or appearing to reduce) the amount of innate knowledge. After outlining different classes of evolutionary accounts that might be applied to language evolution (adaptationist theories, exaptationist theories, spandrel theories, saltational theories, and self-organization theories), K observes that ‘[a] saltational account fits well with the minimalist style of argument for language, as a more minimal, more economical language faculty leaves less for evolution to have to explain, a single genetic mutation looking more reasonable as a consequence’ (14). The remainder of the chapter traces the roots of the MP in prior ‘Chomskyan’ approaches and discusses the dynamics of an MP derivation, at least insofar as they were understood in the first few years of the twenty-first century.

I found Ch. 2, ‘Language as a perfect system’ (39–69), to be the most interesting in LEST. The defining feature of the MP research program is to be ‘concerned with…determining the answers to … the question “How ‘perfect’ is language” ’ (Chomsky 1995:221). K remarks on the difficulty of determining what Chomsky might have in mind by ‘perfection’, since there are various (incompatible) ways that the mapping between phonetic and logical form might be carried out in the most economical or efficient way possible. But whatever alternative is chosen:

[t]he minimalist view of language is interesting from an evolutionary perspective for a number of reasons. It is unclear how a perfect system might arise in the course of evolution, or indeed, how a system might begin as imperfect and be fashioned in the course of evolution to become perfect. The perfection of the minimalist language faculty makes it appear unlike other biological systems, which are typically not considered perfect in any sense.


But as K emphasizes here and later in LEST, the more economical character of the MP with respect to antecedent models is more apparent than real: ‘In the MP, all of the considerations which fall outside of issues of economy are simply reformulated and appear as a complex inventory of features to be checked’ (49). And even if an MP theory were perfect, optimal, or economical (K highlights the differences between the three), how could ‘any of the three characteristics … possibly emerge on an evolutionary timescale through gradual adaptive processes. Does adaptive evolution give us perfect systems, optimal systems, or economic systems?’ (58). K, of course, answers [End Page 960] in the negative. Biological systems are full of redundancy (the two human kidneys, even though only one is needed), with unnecessary vestiges (male mammalian nipples), and inefficiency (the recurrent laryngeal nerve). Chomsky, however, as is well known, has no commitment to an adaptationist account of language; in fact, he has compared language to snow crystals, whose form is determined by the laws of physics (Chomsky 2004:150ff.). As K notes, ‘if language really is perfect, then there is no call for...


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