Function, Selection, and Innateness: The Emergence of Language Universals

Function, Selection, and Innateness: The Emergence of Language Universals

Function, Selection, and Innateness: The Emergence of Language Universals

Function, Selection, and Innateness: The Emergence of Language Universals


This book is a powerful demonstration of the value of looking at language as an adaptive system, which reaches the heart of debates in linguistics and cognitive science on the evolution and nature of language. Simon Kirby combines functional and formal theories in order to develop a way of treating language as an adaptive system in which its communicative and formal roles have crucial and complimentary roles.


A striking feature of the natural world is the existence of organisms whose occurrence is improbable simply by virtue of their complexity. Matter seems to arrange itself into highly organized bundles whenever life intervenes. The examples of this improbable order extend to the artefacts of life as well as to living things themselves: for example, the buildings, roads, and pavements that make up towns and, more abstractly, the cultural patterns that give rise to these artefacts. All these things are improbable in the sense that they inhabit a small, organized area in the much larger space of logical possibility.

This book looks at another phenomenon in the natural world: human language. The range of variation among languages is constrained in various interesting ways. ‘Language universals’ are statements which describe these constraints on variation. These universals map the boundaries of a small area in the space of logically possible languages, within which the actual languages of the world are found. In other words, languages do not randomly vary from instance to instance, but rather embody a kind of pattern and ordered complexity similar to that found in life and its other artefacts.

The origin of this order is in itself interesting, but I shall be exploring a particular aspect of these constraints on variation which are shared by others in the natural world. This aspect can be termed ‘fit’ or ‘the appearance of design’. For example, trees appear to be designed for the purpose of surviving in the world and producing more trees—looking deeper, we can say they appear to be designed for converting carbon dioxide and sunlight into more tree, and so on. Buildings appear to be designed efficiently to contain people and their possessions without harm from the weather (in fact, we know they are designed for this purpose). As Cziko (1995) (from whom this chapter title is borrowed) points out, this ‘fit’ of form to function pervades the world of living organisms and their products.

As we shall see, this appearance of design is also a striking feature of language universals. Many attempts at explaining universals have pointed out the fit of these constraints of variation to the functions of language. Although these observations are important and insightful, I believe they

No definition of this type of complexity is given here. Algorithmic complexity is not a good definition, since some organized, complex distributions (e.g. fractal sets) can be defined quite simply. See e.g. Gell-Mann 1992 for some discussion.

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