Evolang 08 – More Plenary Speakers

Okay, more biased rambling commentary on Evolang 08…

On day two the proper conference began and we were treated to two excellent plenary speakers, Gary Marcus and Susan Goldin-Meadow.

I’d never heard of Gary Marcus before but he presented one of the most stimulating presentations of the whole week. The title of his talk, “Language as Kluge”, was intriguing, but sounded a bit too technical to really whet the appetite. As he got into his talk I was very pleasantly surprised by the broad brush approach he used, and the attention-to-detail he used to back it up.

In essence, he was arguing against a perceived bias in the language evolution literature towards assuming that language is an optimal adaptation. Pinker (his former professor) was one of those he singled out for particular criticism. The adaptive argument, whereby language is seen as the product of direct biological selection, often takes it a step further and implies that if language is selected for, then it must be somehow optimal at the task it has been selected for. Marcus’s response was to produce a wide range of evidence that evolution is rarely optimal, and even if individual aspects of a system are optimal, the wider system is often constrained by conflicting pressures. Language, he argued, was one such system, and one best understood as a ‘kluge’, a term he borrows from engineering to mean ‘a successful, but ultimately cobbled together and improvised solution’.

In his talk Marcus argued that the constraints imposed by our own cognition, and need to build upon existing systems, means that language must never be looked at as an optimal solution. In his opinion any evolutionary account, or even contemporary linguistic account of language, must take this into consideration.

Very interesting, very persuasive, I look forward to reading the book.

Next up was Susan Goldin-Meadow, world famous expert on sign language. She gave an engaging and interesting talk about the role of sign language in evolutionary linguistics. She firmly supported the gestural stage theory of language evolution (the idea that we went through a period of gestural communication before we began to use speech properly) but gave it an interesting new spin. A big question for gestural stage theorists has been to explain why we would evolve a gestural system first, if language is such a superior system? Goldin-Meadow spun this on its head by arguing that gestural communication is actually superior to spoken communication. She looked at three values of communication, visualisation, compositionality and representation, and concluded that spoken language is only good for compositionality and representation, whereas sign language is good for all three. She presented evidence from her wide range of studies to show that using sign language to communicate visually is naturally to both signers and non-signers and even has a natural subject/verb/object pattern (SOV apparently) regardless of the order in your spoken language.

Goldin-Meadow’s argument was that we moved into the spoken modality because it can’t perform visual communication. We still heavily use the visual/gestural modality in communication, but the spoken modality carries the part of the communicative burden which it can manage.

I really enjoyed the presentation and thought the information she is providing about sign language should now, finally, move the gestural modality into the mainstream. Linguistics has traditionally been very snobbish about sign language and from an evolutionary perspective the privileging of the gestural modality brings cognition more firmly into the evolutionary picture. However, I felt there were limitations to what she said. As one questioner asked her, ‘if gestural communication is so good, why did we ever move into a primarily vocal modality?’ Her answer was quite vague and drew in the usual presumed selective pressures for moving to language (addressing multiple people easily, addressing people in the dark etc…). It felt like that she had just inverted the prejudices of previous gestural stage theorists, and still not explained the subtle evolutionary relationships between the two different modalities. Also I feel that language can be adequate for visual communication. In many ways more effective that gesture. It would be very hard to communicate the visual imagery in say, a very visual poem, using gestural communication.

So overall, a great presentation with some stark and very important things to say about the importance of the gestural modality, but not really the unifying force it tried to be. I think the gestural stage debate is alive and well, and people like Corballis could do well to listen to genuine gestural communication experts, rather than just plucking their evolutionary pathways out of the air.

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1 Response to “Evolang 08 – More Plenary Speakers”


  1. 1 Watercat April 19, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    The usual presumed selective pressures you mention all fall out from language requiring the talkee to split their attention between the talker and the referent–a drawback that’s lessened considerably by choosing symbols that are acoustic.
    SGM’s argument is that speech is poor at representation because most of it is visual, so there are very few cases where acoustics can supply an iconic representation. Developmentally, the gesture-speech reorganization that occurs at 16-18 mo assigns the symbolic aspects to sound, and frees vision to do what it is good at.

    As far as visual poetry, you’ve obviously not seen Lou Fant sign ‘The Jaberwocky’ in ASL. 🙂


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