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  • The nature and origin of language by Denis Bouchard
  • Kristin Melum Eide
The nature and origin of language. By Denis Bouchard. (Studies in the evolution of language 18.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 385. ISBN 9780199681631. $46.96.

Denis Bouchard has been at the center of linguistic theorizing for more than three decades, and unlike many other forceful critics of the generative enterprise, B has always kept on top of every important ongoing development of this research program, offered substantial and useful modifications, made seemingly radical suggestions (later to be adhered to by the mainstream), and pointed out ill-conceived notions and conceptual flaws in the current consensus. Thus one does well to listen when this author publishes a new book.

As suggested by the series title, the main topic of the book is on how language may have evolved in the human species, but as B points out, ‘before we can assume anything about how language emerged in humans, we have to determine what language is, and what those properties of language are whose origin we are trying to account for’ (7). Thus, a central concern is to advocate a different view on how the crucial properties of language should be characterized. Rather than putting emphasis on the formal apparatus describing the computational system, B advocates the view that all relevant properties of language follow from what Chomsky (2005) refers to as ‘third factor’ principles, that is, in B’s words, the design properties of the conceptual and perceptual properties of signs. This eliminates ‘the need to postulate an innate, language-specific set of conditions—Universal Grammar (UG), this residue of unexplained properties—thus finishing business that remains problematic in current generative theorizing’ (xiii). That means that there is no UG—which is a good thing, since UG is what remains to be explained in a theory of language, and even more so in a theory to explain the emergence of language.

B thoroughly discusses and mostly dismisses a range of recent and more classical works approaching the evolution of language (like recent publications by Marc Hauser, Noam Chomsky, and W. Tecumseh Fitch; Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff; William Calvin and Derek Bickerton; Bickerton; James Hurford; and Chomsky). In his own approach to the emergence of language, B arms himself with the recent discovery of so-called offline brain systems: ‘a system of neurons that can be activated in absentia: the individual does not have to see or hear an action for these neuronal systems to be activated. These Offline Brain Systems (OBS) are triggered by representations of events instead of the events themselves, and produce representations of events with no brain-external realization’ (107). These systems of neurons give rise to a range of properties (a cluster of characteristics dubbed ‘the human-specific adaptive suite’, encompassing cognitive, neurological, physiological, and behavioral traits), unique to humans, whereof language is but one aspect. Thus, language or, more specifically, the emergence of signs in the human brain is a by-product of an underlying change, an emergence of a particular type of neurons in the human brain. This change was not due to a rewiring of the brain that installed some kind of language-specific apparatus in our minds, since these OBS neurons have many different functions and effects besides language.

The book consists of a short introduction plus four parts partitioned into ten chapters. Part 1, ‘The emergence of language’, sets the scene for the central inquiries and outlines recent approaches (see above). Two broad approaches are particularly relevant: language is culturally evolved in response to communicative necessities, or language is biologically and genetically inscribed in the human brain. Here B quotes Tooby and Cosmides (1990:762) that ‘[i]t is magical thinking to believe that the “need” to solve a problem automatically endows one with the equipment to solve it’, and he sees ‘form before function’ as a premise in the discussion, since ‘our ancestors had to have the capacity to form Saussurean signs before they could use them for any communicative function’ (15). B discusses these previous theories thoroughly and then concludes this discussion with his diagnosis that all of these approaches...


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