Burling, Robbins. 2005. The talking ape: How language evolved. Oxford University Press.

The author is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Michigan. Many of the chapters are drawn from his earlier works and fieldwork, which has spanned over 50 years, mainly in Bangladesh and northeastern India.

Burling believes that “our primate cousins” are set apart from humans by the “evolution of the human capacity for language” (p. 1). Although there is no evidence that such “early ancestors” had language, Burling contends that over several millions of years of evolution “our bodies diverged from those of chimpanzees”, although there is no indication of when people began to talk (p. 1).

“Reams of nonsense have been written on the subject” (p.4) of when and how language originated, but it is during “the last hundred thousand years” that the technological changes were in place to provide a cultural context for language.

For Burling “[t]he central argument of this book is that comprehension rather than production was the driving force for the evolution of the human ability to use language” (p. 4) because “comprehension always surpasses the ability to produce” (p. 6).

It is important to understand, but not necessarily accept, Burling’s positive claims about evolution. All the arguments in his book are based on his clear cut faith in evolution. Any question, any problem, is solved by evolution and along the way there are a couple of swipes at “creationism”. For example, “Creationists have always argued that organisms are so complex and have so many independent parts that they could not have been built gradually by natural selection” (p. 152). Burling’s answer is to provide a simpler explanation and “That is what this book is all about.” Another conclusion is that science is a self–correcting discipline but that religion holds to their doctrines (like creation) even when the evidence is embarrassing or contradictory (p. 230).

The chapters in Burling’s book are held together by evolution, imagination, and observation. Evolution can do anything, even when least expected, and it is only by imagining the scenes on the basis of observing our ape cousins than we can understand language. With this in mind we can see how “Smiles, winks, and words” (chapter 2) are precursors to a fully developed language. “It is our minds that changed most profoundly as our ability to use language evolved” (p. 47).

Chapter 3, on “Truths and lies” illustrates more of Burling’s convictions. A Dutch linguist wrote about smiles and laugher and how they corresponded to similar gesture–calls of the apes. Burling follows this conclusion, saying “at least some human and ape gesture–calls have been inherited from the common ancestors that we share”. Burling is searching for the cognitive features–the new features of language–that distinguish us “from other primates”. How did they emerge in the mind of a chimpanzee? “The rest of the book is a search for answers to these questions.”

Chapter 4, “The mind and language”, begins with a recount of how Pike (a colleague of Burling’s at Michigan) would do his monolingual demonstrations. “It was a startling demonstration of just how accessible a previously unknown language can be” (p. 65) and “reveals with great clarity just how much we already know before we start to learn a language” (p. 67). Burling believes that it was not “language” that was “in our heads before we began to exchange ideas”, but was some sort of a conceptual system that was refined as features of language were “selected” to help us communicate (p.91).

Burling begins Chapter 5, “Signs and symbols” with a reiteration of Peirce’s classification of signs. Signs are arbitrary or motivated. If arbitrary the typology leads to symbols, but if motivated there is a two way branching, leading to indices and icons. Icons, in turn, branch to diagrams, metaphors and images and it is icons that reflect how we understand the world around us. These ideas are followed up in Chapter 6, “Icons gained and icons lost” by examining human and animal signs. Signs were conventionalized and became a part of the writing system. In fact “Conventionalization is ubiquitous in human language” (p. 118) and motivated signs are advantageous over arbitrary ones. Burling summarizes with the point that, although linguists see arbitrariness as the norm, motivation may represent the remnant of a much earlier form of language (p.121).

Chapter 7, “From a few sounds to many words” grapples with the problem of how audible language became dominant over visual languages. Here he follows the assumed evolutionary starting point that, because chimpanzees control their hands better than their vocal tracts, language began with gestures. It follows that “Getting the ability to use words may have been the single most important step in the evolution of language” (p.128). Burling, following other linguists, suggests that language speakers began with “content words” and that “function words” are derived from them. But the “earliest word–like vocalizations surely lacked the organized and contrastive phonology of modern languages” (p. 137). However, the fact that human speakers can handle thousands of words suggests some sort of built–in capacity and, according to Burling, “The only conceivable way, within a few million years” that our ancestors could have learned to use them is with some sort of built–in storehouse.

Such a conclusion leads to Chapter 8, “Syntax: wired and learned” in which Burling speculates on how syntax came about, disclaiming any late and sudden appearance for it. He believes that the way children develop syntax “would have been possible in evolution too” (p. 145). He dismisses Chomsky’s observation that language may not have arisen due to a specific adaption and follows Pinker and Bloom who say that language is too complex to come about except by linguistic adaptation due to selection. He also dismisses Gould, who postulated a sudden development of language (“punctuated equilibrium”). He examines several other arguments (DNA mutation; a language gene; cranial capacity; the Universal Grammar hypothesis) suggesting a late development of language, but wants none of them. His solution is to combine natural and linguistic selection, satisfying both Chomsky’s innate hypothesis and Pinker and Blooms’ adaptation process that rewards the language learner.

Chapter 9, “Step–by–step grammar” continues Burling’s quest for a simple beginning to language. First, there had to be enough words to make syntax useful; then words and phrases had to be contracted (“grammaticalization”), where “through hundreds of millennia and thousands of generations, natural selection surely favored listeners who were increasingly adroit at understanding ever more compacted speech” (p. 166). Further evidence of long term development are random changes, from the simple to the more complex, the grammaticalization cycle, linguistic selection, and finally, natural and sexual selection. Therefore “The very first language users would have had nothing except single words” (p. 169) and users would have relied on grouping their signs to reflect thoughts. These users “would also contribute to increasingly consistent word order” (p.173) Burling follows Jackendoff’s language development of classes; semantic roles and grammatical functions; affixes and compounds; and finally, reduction and loss of affixes. urling admits this view of language evolution is speculative but does not want to look for an abrupt step where it all started. Instead there are “forces” (his word) working together that have “resulted in human beings who are capable of the kind of intricacies that we find in the languages that we use today” (p. 180).

“Power, gossip, and seduction”, Chapter 10, is Burling’s examination of what “selective advantages” there were for language to appear as it is today. He looks, for example, at the human remains from the European Upper Paleolithic period (beginning 35,000 years ago), who had a “certain robustness” of bone structure and concludes that such people would “have been able to handle language of the same type and the same degree of complexity” as languages have today (p.182). This is because their intelligence evolved as a means of dealing with other individuals and it did so when the trait under selection was heritable. This conclusion violates the “egalitarian assumptions that linguists usually hold about language” (p. 185). Language competence developed on the basis of the best talkers, usually those who were or are in charge. Burling also takes on the matter of “sexual selection”, attributed to Darwin, as a means to adapt males and females to each other (p. 197). His main illustration comes from the tail of the peacock, with the male dominating, but as Burling notes “Evolution is not always politically correct” (p. 202).

So, if language evolved and developed over such a long period of time, “What has language done to us?” is the title of Chapter 11. According to Burling, it has allowed us to form personal relationships, map social divisions in our society, cooperate, as well as compete, encourage loyalty, and even “organize our violence” (p.214). In addition, language gives us names for things, allows new ways of thinking through puzzles, develop consciousness about who we are, describe space, and infer causality. Burling acknowledges, but does not pursue, how cultural differences have impacted language use (Whorf is mentioned, but dismissed). Burling’s conclusion is that “Language is far too complex and far to well designed to have developed in any way except by a long period of selection” (p.225). This process, he claims, follows scientific theory and if it did not accord with the facts, it would be abandoned–unlike religious theories. We don’t need to know the details of how language got started or how it developed in the human species, “but the better we can guess, the better will be our understanding of the talking ape” (p. 233).

There are many interesting details about language development in Burling’s book, and those who believe the theory of evolution explains human language capacity will find it interesting and entertaining. Others may find the whole theory so speculative that it is more satisfying to believe that the Creator gave us language–and, if so, apes have never “talked”.

Karl Franklin, April 2010

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