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164LANGUAGE, VOLUME 75, NUMBER 1 (1999) The inheritance and innateness of grammars. Ed. by Myrna Gopnik. (Vancouver studies in cognitive science, 6.) New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. 232. Reviewed by Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy, University of Canterbury, New Zealand Linguistic theorists are accustomed to thinking of grammar as, in some sense, innate. But, although innateness implies inheritance, they are less accustomed to thinking of grammar as inherited. Probably this is because inheritance is a crucial factor in natural selection—yet (it is widely believed) Chomsky has shown that natural selection cannot account for universal grammar. I recommend this book to readers who share that widespread belief but are also uneasily aware that Lieberman (1984), Bickerton (1990), and Pinker (1994) have put the evolution of grammar back on the linguistic agenda and that the work of Gopnik and others on familial language impairment has led to excited talk in the general media about the discovery of a 'grammar gene'. How much attention does the ordinary linguist need to pay to these biological explorations? Quite a lot, it is argued here—and I agree. The core of the book consists of five chapters by various authors on aspects and varieties of specific language impairment (SLI). In addition, there is a chapter by Steven Pinker entitled 'Evolutionary biology and the evolution of language', and three other chapters which also have evolutionary implications: one by Laura Ann Petitto comparing language acquisition by deaf and hearing children, one by Patricia Kuhl and Andrew Meltzoff on categorial perception, and one by Harvey Sussman on the perceptual identification of stop consonants. Adapted from the language evolution material of The language instinct (1994), Pinker's chapter retains the author's droll comparison between the uniqueness of human language and that of the elephant's trunk, and his refutation of the complaint that 'survival of the fittest' is tautological. It is illuminating to read this chapter alongside Dennett's puzzled reaction to Chomsky's antievolutionary views (1995:384-93) and Newmeyer's merciless dissection ofthem (1998). I would argue, however, that in one respect Pinker errs in the opposite direction from Chomsky. Chomsky is keen to emphasize the aspects of language which are maladaptive, or at any rate nonadaptive, being allegedly mere byproducts of structures serving other functions, as the spandrels of San Marco in Venice are merely the interstices between the arches whose function is to hold up the dome (Gould and Lewontin 1979). Pinker, on the other hand, argues that even a little grammar is adaptive, making for more reliable and consistent interpretation. But one does not have to be a disciple of Gould in order to believe that not everything in nature is the way it is through adaptation to its present function. The biologist George C. Williams, whom Pinker mentions approvingly as a counterweight to Gould, points out that 'we have two pairs of limbs not for functional reasons but for historical ones; the first lungfish that crawled from the water and pushed its way through the mud did so with the help of two pairs of appendages' (1996:177). Moreover, some of these historical residues are positively dysfunctional, like the structure of the mammalian eye, where nerve fibers and blood vessels obstruct light on its way to the retina (Williams 1996:12-14). So could not some aspects of language be nonfunctional for similar reasons? Pinker does not seem to acknowledge the possibility. Yet it is such historical residues, if they exist, that will be most revealing of the course which language evolution took, precisely because they cannot be explained in adaptive terms. This is a gap in current language origin research that is crying out to be filled. An aspect of language which is certainly very old is categorical perception—the propensity to hear sounds as clearcut representatives of one category (e.g. one phoneme) or another rather than as hybrids. As Kuhl and Meltzoff remind us, this propensity does not distinguish us from chinchillas and is presumably part of our mammalian inheritance. Paradoxically, infants have to learn to recognize fewer phonological categories in the course of acquiring their mother tongue. And Sussman, if I understand him right, argues for a subtle...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-0665
Print ISSN
0097-8507
Pages
pp. 164-166
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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