Skip to main content Accessibility help

With diversity in mind: Freeing the language sciences from Universal Grammar

  • Nicholas Evans (a1) and Stephen C. Levinson (a2)

Our response takes advantage of the wide-ranging commentary to clarify some aspects of our original proposal and augment others. We argue against the generative critics of our coevolutionary program for the language sciences, defend the use of close-to-surface models as minimizing cross-linguistic data distortion, and stress the growing role of stochastic simulations in making generalized historical accounts testable. These methods lead the search for general principles away from idealized representations and towards selective processes. Putting cultural evolution central in understanding language diversity makes learning fundamental in the cognition of language: increasingly powerful models of general learning, paired with channelled caregiver input, seem set to manage language acquisition without recourse to any innate “universal grammar.” Understanding why human language has no clear parallels in the animal world requires a cross-species perspective: crucial ingredients are vocal learning (for which there are clear non-primate parallels) and an intention-attributing cognitive infrastructure that provides a universal base for language evolution. We conclude by situating linguistic diversity within a broader trend towards understanding human cognition through the study of variation in, for example, human genetics, neurocognition, and psycholinguistic processing.

Hide All
Anderson, G. D. S. (2007) The Munda verb. Typological perspectives. Mouton de Gruyter.
Bateman, J. (1986a) Tone morphemes and aspect in Iau. Nusa 26:150.
Bateman, J. (1986b) Tone morphemes and status in Iau. Nusa 26:5176.
Bateman, J. (1990a) Iau segmental and tone phonology. Nusa 32:2942.
Bateman, J. (1990b) Pragmatic functions of the tone morphemes and illocutionary force particles in Iau. Nusa 32:128.
Bickel, B. (2009) Typological patterns and hidden diversity. Plenary Talk, 8th Association for Linguistic Typology Conference, Berkeley, CA, July 24, 2009.
Blake, B. J. (1979) Pitta-Pitta. In: Handbook of Australian languages, vol. 1, ed. Dixon, R. M. W. & Blake, B. J., pp. 182242. Australian National University (ANU) Press.
Butcher, A. (2006) Australian Aboriginal languages: Consonant-salient phonologies and the “place-of-articulation imperative”. In: Speech production: Models, phonetics processes and techniques, ed. Harrington, J. M. & Tabain, M., pp. 187210. Psychology Press.
Butt, M., Dalrymple, M. & Holloway King, T., eds. (2006) Intelligent linguistic architectures: Variations on themes by Ronald M. Kaplan. CSLI.
Chomsky, N. (2007) Of minds and language. Biolinguistics 1:1009–27.
Christiansen, M. H., Collins, C. & Edelman, S., eds. (2009) Language universals. Oxford University Press.
Darwin, C. (1871) The descent of man and selection in relation to sex. John Murray.
Dryer, M. (2009) On the order of demonstrative, numeral, adjective and noun: An alternative to Cinque. Public Lecture, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Department of Linguistics, and University of Leipzig, Institute of Linguistics, May 19, 2009.
Dunn, M., Greenhill, S. J., Levinson, S. C. & Gray, R. D. (in preparation) Phylogenetic trees reveal lineage specific trends in the evolved structure of language.
Edelman, S. & Christiansen, M. H. (2003) How seriously should we take minimalist syntax? Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7.2:6061.
Evans, N. (1995b) Current Issues in Australian phonology. In: Handbook of phonological theory, ed. Goldsmith, J., pp. 723–61. Blackwell.
Evans, N. (2004) Experiencer objects in Iwaidjan languages. In: Non-nominative subjects, vol. 1, ed. Peri, B. & Karumuri Venkata, S., pp. 169–92. John Benjamins.
Fisher, S. & Scharff, C. (2009) FOXP2 as a molecular window into speech and language. Trends in Genetics 25(4):166–77.
Fitch, W. T. (2006) The biology and evolution of music: A comparative perspective. Cognition 100(1):173215.
Gentner, D. (2003) Why we are so smart. In: Language in mind, ed. Gentner, D. & Goldin-Meadow, S., pp. 195236. MIT Press.
Goddard, C. & Wierzbicka, A., eds. (2002) Meaning and universal grammar – theory and empirical findings. 2 volumes. John Benjamins.
Hale, K. L. (1982) The logic of Damin kinship terminology. In: Languages of kinship in Aboriginal Australia, ed. Heath, J., Merlan, F. & Rumsey, A., pp. 3137. Oceania Linguistic Monographs.
Haun, D. & Call, J. (2009) Great apes' capacities to recognize relational similarity. Cognition 110:147–59.
Haviland, J. B. (1988) “It's my own invention: A comparative grammatical sketch of colonial Tzotzil” and grammatical annotations. In: The great Tzotzil dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán, with grammatical analysis and historical commentary, ed. Laughlin, R. M. & Haviland, J. B., pp. 79121. (Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, No. 31). Smithsonian Institution Press.
Haviland, J. B. (1994) “Te xa setel xulem” [The buzzards were circling]: Categories of verbal roots in (Zinacantec) Tzotzil. Linguistics 32:691741.
Haviland, J. B. (submitted) “White-blossomed on bended knee”: Linguistic mediations of nature and culture. Book chapter for Festschrift for Terry Kaufman, ed. Zavala, R. M. & Smith-Stark, T.. Available at:
Hawkins, J. A. (1999) Processing complexity and filler-gap dependencies across grammars. Language 75:244–85.
Hewitt, B. G. (1979) Aspects of verbal affixation in Abkhaz (Abžui dialect). Transactions of the Philological Society 77(1): 211–38.
Hockett, C. F. (1960) The origin of speech. Scientific American 203:8996.
Huang, C.-R. (1993) Reverse long-distance dependency and functional uncertainty: The interpretation of Mandarin questions. In: Language, information, and computing, ed. Lee, C. & Kang, B. M., pp. 111–20. Thaehaksa.
Hyman, L. (2008) Universals in phonology? The Linguistic Review 25:83187.
Idsardi, W. J. (2006) A simple proof that optimality theory is computationally intractable. Linguistic Inquiry 37:271–75.
Jacobsen, W. H. (1979) Noun and verb in Nootkan. In: The Victoria Conference on northwestern languages, Victoria, British Columbia, November 4/5, 1976, ed. Efrat, B. S., pp. 83155. British Columbia Provincial Museum.
Kluender, R. (1992) Deriving island constraints from principles of predication. In: Island constraints, ed. Goodluck, H. & Rochmont, M., pp. 223–58. Kluwer.
Kluender, R. (1998) On the distinction between strong and weak islands: A processing perspective. In: Syntax and semantics, ed. Culicover, P. & McNally, L., pp. 241–79. Academic Press.
Kratochvíl, F. (2007) A grammar of Abui. Doctoral dissertation, Leiden University.
Kruspe, N. (2004) A grammar of Semelai. Cambridge University Press.
Laland, K. N., Odling-Smee, J. & Feldman, M. W. (1999) Evolutionary consequences of niche construction and their implications for ecology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 96:10242–47.
Levinson, S. C. (1987) Pragmatics and the grammar of anaphora. Journal of Linguistics 23:379434.
Lieberman, P. (2006) Toward an evolutionary biology of language. Belknap/Harvard.
Liljencrants, J. & Lindblom, B. (1972) Numerical simulations of vowel quality systems: The role of perceptual contrast. Language 48:839–62.
McCarthy, J. J. (2002) A thematic guide to optimality theory (Research Surveys in Linguistics). Cambridge University Press.
Molotsi, K. J. (1993) The characteristics of Southern Sotho ideophones. Master's thesis, University of Stellenbosch.
Müller, R.-A. (2009) Language universals in the brain: How linguistic are they? In: Language universals, ed. Christiansen, M., Collins, C. & Edelman, S., pp. 224–52. Oxford University Press.
Mycock, L. (2006) The typology of constituent questions: A lexical-functional grammar analysis of “Wh”-questions. Unpublished Dissertation. University of Manchester.
Papassotiropoulos, A., Stephan, D. A., Huentelman, M. J., Hoerndli, F. J., Craig, D. W., Pearson, J. V., Huynh, K.-D., Brunner, F., Corneveaux, J., Osborne, D., Wollmer, M. A., Aerni, A., Coluccia, D., Hänggi, J., Mondadori, C. R. A., Buchmann, A., Reiman, E. M., Caselli, R. J., Henke, K. & de Quervain, D. J.-F. (2006) Common Kibra alleles are associated with human memory performance. Science 314(5798):475–78.
Pawley, A., Gi, S. P., Majnep, I. S. & Kias, J. (2000) Hunger acts on me: The grammar and semantics of bodily and mental process expressions in Kalam. In: Grammatical analysis: Morphology, syntax and semantics: Studies in honor of Stan Starosta, ed. De Guzman, V. P. & Bender, B. W., pp. 153–85. University of Hawaii Press.
Ramamurti, G. V. (1931) A manual of the So:ra (or Savara) language. Government Press.
Reuer, V. (2004) Book review of Falk, Yehuda N., Lexical-functional grammar – an introduction to parallel constraint-based syntax. Lecture Notes No. 126 (CSLI-LN). Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford, 2001, xv+237 pages. Machine Translation 18.4:359–64.
Sag, I., Hofmeister, P. & Snider, N. (2007) Processing complexity in subjacency violations: The complex noun phrase constraint. Chicago Linguistics Society 43(1):219–29.
Sandler, W., Aronoff, M., Meir, I. & Padden, C. (2009) The gradual emergence of phonological form in a new language. Master's thesis, University of Haifa, State University of New York at Stony Brook, and University of California, San Diego.
Sandler, W. & Lillo-Martin, D. C. (2006) Sign language and linguistic universals. Cambridge University Press.
Schachter, P. (1985) Parts-of-speech systems. In: Language typology and syntactic description, vol. 1: Clause structure, ed. Shopen, T., pp. 361. Cambridge University Press.
Stivers, T., Enfield, N., Brown, P., Englert, C., Hayashi, M., Heinemann, T., Hoymann, G., Rossano, F., de Ruiter, J. P., Yoon, K.-E. & Levinson, S. C. (2009) Universals and cultural variation in turn taking in conversation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 106(26):10587–92.
Van Valin, R. D. (1998) The acquisition of WH-questions and the mechanisms of language acquisition. In: The new psychology of language: Cognitive and functional approaches to language structure, ed. Tomasello, M., pp. 221–49. Erlbaum.
West-Eberhard, M. J. (2003) Developmental plasticity and evolution. Oxford University Press.
Zuidema, W. & De Boer, B. (2009) The evolution of combinatorial phonology. Journal of Phonetics 37(2):125–44.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • ISSN: 0140-525X
  • EISSN: 1469-1825
  • URL: /core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed