Oxford University Press just published the first issue of its new Journal of Language Evolution, seemingly a logical consequence of the increased popularity of evolution-oriented studies at least since the first Evolang conference in 1996. But what is “language evolution”?
One would think that the opening editorial of a new journal would say something about its scope, i.e. that it would tell us a bit more about what falls under “language evolution” in the sense of the new journal. But Dediu & de Boer (2016) are letting us down; it seems that they simply presuppose that everyone knows what “language evolution” is (though their prominent mention of the Société de Linguistique de Paris suggests that they are primarily thinking of the origin of language; on the other hand, they also use the expression “language origins and evolution”, as if these were different things).
But it is not difficult to see that the term language evolution has undergone a significant semantic change over the last twenty years. Until the mid-1990s, it referred almost exclusively the evolution of language as a human-specific trait, i.e. primarily the origin and development of its biological prerequisites. This was something that linguists were hardly interested in for a long time, and Pinker & Bloom’s (1990) paper on “the evolution of the language faculty” was the first to attract widespread attention of linguists with its attempt to link linguists’ hypotheses with a Darwinian perspective.
Around the same time, some linguists engaged in diachronic studies started making more ambitious claims about general principles of language change, especially grammaticalization, and in 1994, Bybee et al.’s book The evolution of grammar appeared, the first book dealing with diachrony that talked about “evolution” instead of “diachrony”. Bybee and her colleagues had been using the old terms “grammaticization” and “language change” (cf. also Bybee 2015) for quite some time in the 1980s, and I had been following their work closely, so it came as a real surprise to me that the book title contained the sexy term “evolution” when it came out in 1994. Maybe this was due to the publisher’s recommendation (when publishers get their income from selling books, they are tempted to use misleading titles, in a way that is apt to confuse readers and thus harms rather than advances knowledge)?
Be that as it may, around a decade later, three ambitious book-length studies were published that drew detailed analogies between biological (Darwinian) evolution and linguistic diachrony: Croft (2000), Blevins (2004), and Ritt (2004). All three contained the word evolution in their titles, but for good reasons: They were inspired by the biological theories of selection and adaptation. To my mind, at the time, the change in the meaning of evolution, compared to Pinker & Bloom, was fairly mild: We were talking about developments governed by a pattern of replication and selection, whether of genes (creating the biological foundations of language) or of linguistic memes (linguemes, in Croft’s terms). It seemed very clear to me that these two kinds of “evolutionary” approaches to language (the biological and the diachronic) were asking completely different questions, even though their proposed answers shared some intriguing aspects.
Now in 2016, we have a Journal of Language Evolution, and confusingly, the first issue is primarily about none of the three uses of evolution that have been familiar to linguists; instead, it is about what linguists call (world-wide) areal typology, as well as the question of whether there is a causal effect of the natural environment on the form of languages, specifically on the existence and the complexity of tonal systems. (There is a target article by Everett et al. (2016) which claims that complex tone systems tend to occur in humid climates, because ambient desiccation reduces the performance of the vocal cords; plus a wide range of commentaries, cf. Collins’s (2016) blog post.)
To be sure, the question whether languages are adapted to climate is related to the endeavors of Croft, Blevins and Ritt, in that it takes one key concept from biology (adaptation), but it does not talk about replication, selection or change at all. Even though these are of course present in the background, the paper is really about a functional relationship, of the sort that has long been widely studied in functionally oriented typology and universals research (e.g. Givón 2010). The issue addressed thus combines observations of world-wide areal typology (as first seriously studied by Dryer 1989 and Nichols 1992) with a proposed functional explanation of the observed patterns.
In addition to Dediu & de Boer’s introduction to the journal, there is also an introduction by Greenhill (2016) to the theme of an “effect of the environment on language”. This paper actually does mention variation, replication and selection, so it seems to put the discussion in a true evolutionary context, but sadly, without mentioning the important work by Croft, Blevins and Ritt. And when Greenhill says that “languages evolve”, one gets the impression that it is not much different from saying that “languages change”.
Indeed, it is my impression that “language evolution”, in addition to being used in the sense of “origin and evolution of language as a human-specific trait”, has simply come mean “language variation and change at a global (or large-scale) level”. Linguists studying change in Old Russian or in lower-class Newcastle English are not likely to use the term “evolution”, but not because their questions are essentially different.
Thus, we now have three senses of the term “evolution” in the context of the study of languages:
(1) origin of language as a human-specific trait (Pinker & Bloom, and also most of McMahon & McMahon 2012)
(2) language change studied from the perspective of variation and selection (Croft 2000, etc.)
(3) language patterns and language change at a global level (Everett et al. and related work)
And this does not even include grammaticalization (Bybee et al. 1994).
As usual, this semantic change of “evolution” has happened because different communities are interested in different concepts, and people (including scientists) are reluctant to coin new terms for new concepts, preferring to adopt old terms from neighbouring communities. Moreover, even linguists tend to be unaware of semantic changes and thus sloppy about terminological use.
It seems quite possible that the new Journal of Language Evolution is actually interested in studies in all the senses of “evolution”; after all, they are not totally untrelated to each other. But one strong desideratum at least from my perspective would be a paper (maybe in that very journal) that discusses how the various senses of “evolution” relate to each other, and the editors should say what the scope of their journal is (can I submit a paper on grammaticalization in Old Russian?). And for those who use the term “evolutionary linguistics” (or even “Evolutionary Linguistics”, as in Seán Roberts’s recent blog post about the paper by Everett, Blasi and Roberts), it would be good to say what it is (the Wikipedia article seems to include everything, rather naively.)
Blevins, Juliette. 2004. Evolutionary phonology: The emergence of sound patterns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bybee, Joan L. 2015. Language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bybee, Joan L., Revere Perkins & William Pagliuca. 1994. The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect and modality in the languages of the world. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Collins, Chris. 2016. Climate does not affect the way you speak. Post on Humans Who Read Grammars blog.
Croft, William. 2000. Explaining language change: An evolutionary approach. London: Longman.
Dediu, Dan & Bart de Boer. 2016. Language evolution needs its own journal. Journal of Language Evolution 1(1). 1–6. doi:10.1093/jole/lzv001.
Everett, Caleb, Damián E. Blasí & Seán G. Roberts. 2016. Language evolution and climate: The case of desiccation and tone. Journal of Language Evolution 1(1). 33–46. doi:10.1093/jole/lzv004.
Greenhill, Simon J. 2016. Overview: Debating the effect of environment on language. Journal of Language Evolution 1(1). 30–32. doi:10.1093/jole/lzv007.
McMahon, April & Robert McMahon. 2012. Evolutionary linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pinker, Steven & Paul Bloom. 1990. Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13(04). 707–727.
Ritt, Nikolaus. 2004. Selfish sounds and linguistic evolution: A Darwinian approach to language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Roberts, Seán. 2016. 1st issue of The Journal of Language Evolution: discussion on tone and humidity. Post on Replicatedtypo blog