Linguistics 320
The Origin and Evolution of Human Language
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer
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Books, Websites, and Other Sources


Language Evolution and Computation Bibliography


These can be explored to find articles relevant to the origins and evolution of language. Many of them can be accessed online if you log in from a Rice computer, because Rice holds institutional subscriptions to many journals that publish online.

Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Brain, Behavior and Evolution

Evolution of Communication 1997-2004.

Interaction Studies. Social Behaviour and Communication in Biological and Artificial Systems.

This is the successor journal to Evolution of Communication above. Its topic is somewhat broader but it still carries work on the evolution of language and its various aspects.

Language and Communication

Journal of Evolution

Journal of Human Evolution



Edited Collections

Christiansen, Morten, and Simon Kirby, eds. 2003. Language Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Chapters by Corballis; Lieberman; and others.) (Source of some of our Course Readings.)

Gibson, Kathleen R. and Ingold, Tim, eds. 1993. Tools, Language and Cognition in Human Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Givón, T. and B. F. Malle, eds. 2002. The Evolution of Language out of Pre-Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins (Chapters by Bybee; MacWhinney; Slobin; and others)

Hauser, Marc D., and Mark Konishi, eds. 1999. The Design of Animal Communication. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

This book is in Fondren library in the electronic resource collection at QL776 .D47 1999, as an E-book from . It is a collection of articles on animal communication in various species and a few chapters on neurological and cellular bases of communication in humans. Contains an article by Cheney and Seyfarth on vervet monkeys (I believe this article is a summary of their book referenced under Books, below.)

Parker, S. T. and Gibson, K. R. eds. 1990. Language and Intelligence In Monkeys and Apes: Comparative Developmental Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wray, Alison, ed. 2002. The Transition to Language. (Studies in the Evolution of Language.) Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Papers by Bickerton, Burling, Corballis, Fitch, Hurford, and others. )

Talk abstracts


Benson, James, Peter Fries, William Greaves, Kazuyoshi Iwamoto, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, and Jared Taglialatela. 2002. Confrontation and Support in Human-Bonobo Discourse. Functions of Language 9: 1-38.

Christiansen, Morten, and Simon Kirby. 2003. Language Evolution: Consensus and Controversies. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7(7), 300-307. Abstract and other links: Christiansen and Kirby survey article

Christiansen, Morten, and Simon Kirby. 2003. Language Evolution: The Hardest Problem in Science? In Christiansen and Kirby, eds. (2003), 1-15.

Corballis, Michael. 2002. Did language evolve from manual gestures? In Alison Wray, ed. The Transition to Language, 161-179. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Corballis, Michael. 2003. From Hand to Mouth: The Gestural Origins of Language. In Christiansen and Kirby, eds. 2003, 201-218. (Course Reading.)

Gibson, Kathleen R. 2002. Evolution of Human Intelligence: the roles of brain size and mental construction. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 59, 10-20.

Fitch, W. Tecumseh. 2002. Comparative vocal production and the evolution of speech: Reinterpreting the descent of the larynx. In Alison Wray, ed., The Transition to Language, 21-45. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hauser, Marc, Noam Chomsky, and Tecumseh Fitch 2002. The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve? Science 298, issue 5598, pp. 1569-157?, 22 November 2002)

This is a general "review article" laying out an approach to the study of the evolution of language, and not a full empirical article with a hypothesis and a testing of it. It started "The Great Debate" as some linguists call it. See under Pinker and Jackendoff 2005, below.

Hockett, Charles. 1960. The Origin of Speech. Scientific American 203: 88-111. (Course reading.)

Jackendoff, Ray. 1999. Possible stages in the evolution of the language capacity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3: 272-9.

Lieberman, Philip. 2007. The Evolution of Human Speech: Its Anatomical and Neural Bases. Current Anthropology 48(1), 39-66.

MacLeod, C. E., K. Zilles, A. Schleicher, J. K. Rilling, and Kathleen R. Gibson. 2003. Expansion of the neocerebellum in Hominoidea. Journal of Human Evolution 44, 401-29.

Pinker, Steven, and Paul Bloom. 1990. Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, 707-784.

This article by two psychologists, and the peer commentary that appeared with it, kick-started an intensive interdisciplinary interest in language evolution that has not slackened since. Linguists had pushed the subject of evolution of language to the lunatic fringe of their field for a hundred years. Chomsky had said, and repeated through the 1980s and 90s, that language did not evolve, but sprang up by sudden mutation, and that language origins was not a very interesting question anyway. Now it turns out he didn't actually mean "language" in remotely the same way as everybody else thinks of it. See my commentary for the next article.

Pinker, Steven, and Ray Jackendoff. 2005. The Faculty of Language: What's special about it? Cognition 95, 201-236.

A second groundbreaking article co-authored by Pinker. A short review article in Science by Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch 2002 (see the reference for that paper above, in this section) started a big controversy in cognitive science because Pinker and others took such strong exception to it. What seems to have happened is that Chomsky has an idea of the Human Language Capacity that excludes everything about language that he now admits is evolutionarily incremental. Aspects of language like semantic/symbolic ability, phonology, etc., he redefines as the "broad capacity for language" and he says they are NOT the interesting aspects of human language. For Chomsky the "real" human language capacity, called the "narrow capacity for language", is the crucial linguistic capacity that sets us apart from animals. This is only a very narrow syntactic ability, with particular mathematical properties, that he is interested in: recursion.

Chomsky had long maintained that "human language" did not evolve incrementally-it sprang up all at once by genetic mutation. But nobody really realized he didn't mean "language" the way everybody else meant it! Pinker and other psychologists and linguists were arguing FOR incrementality by showing all the evidence that shows evolutionary incrementality in all those other aspects of language BESIDES recursion!! For Chomsky this does not show that "language" evolved gradually, because his definition excludes all the stuff that we can see evolutionary progression in. Talk about a big mess caused by a very odd world view of an influential person.

Both the Pinker-Jackendoff article and the Hauser-Chomsky-Fitch article are uploaded to Owlspace Resources, in the Readings folder, inside the Extra Readings subfolder. The Pinker-Jackendoff article is very appropriate for review, if you are interested in these issues. The article co-authored by Chomsky is too short and is only a "review article" of a proposed research area, not a full scientific paper with empirical support. Plus, it has already been reviewed extensively all over the internet! (Have a look--there is a lot of talk on Cognitive Sciences blogs about this whole controversy.) So don't choose Hauser-Chomsky-Fitch as a single article review. If you do a review, you should either choose Pinker and Jackendoff or review both papers as a pair.

There are actually two more response articles in this back-and-forth argument which is in my opinion fundamentally between Chomsky and Pinker, who are both jockeying to get (in Pinker's case) or keep (in Chomsky's case) supremacy in their fields. See the summary on the Language Log blog at Jackendoff/Pinker vs. Hauser/Chomsky/Fitch (the order of authors is different on the two later articles). You can download the papers from there or look them up online.


Burling, Robbins. 2005. The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved. Oxford and London: Oxford University Press.

Cheney, D.L., and Seyfarth, R.M. 1990. How Monkeys See the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cheney and Seyfarth (1990) is a book length treatment of their classic research focusing on the communication system (predator warning vocalizations and other calls) of vervet monkeys as observed in the wild. Also contains useful summary of other studies of primate communication.

Clark, Andy. Being there: putting brain, body, and world together again. See especially Chapter 10: Language: The ultimate artifact. Fondren library electronic resource, BD418.3 .C53 1997.

Corballis, Michael. 2002. From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Language. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The book that forms the basis of the synopsis in Corballis (2002).

Deacon, Terrence. 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Human Brain. Penguin. Review of Deacon by James Hurford.

Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel. A Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 years. New York: W.W. Norton.

As stated in class, this is a book every educated person should read. It essentially picks up where this class leaves off. It goes beyond the following simple question and answer: "Why did Europeans conquer other areas of the globe--Africa, the Americas, Central and Southern Asia-- and amass so much wealth, in a huge imbalance that persists today, rather than vice versa? Three words: Guns, Germs, Steel". Diamond goes to the deeper question--how and why did westerners get those advantages to begin with? This story takes us back 13,000 years at a point where human cultures were more equal than they've ever been since. They all had language and culture and were all hunter-gatherers with similar technologies. But that was all about to change. This will be good for summer reading. It tells an absorbing story in an absorbing way.

Hurford, James. 2007. The Origins of Meaning. Vol. 1 of Language in the Light of Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Table of Contents: Hurford 2007 TOC

Johanson, Donald, Blake Edgar, and David Brill. 2006. From Lucy To Language. Revised, updated and expanded. New York: Simon and Schuster.

This book is a large, glossy book of photographs of hominid fossils, interspersed with text. The introductory text lays out the central issues of paleoanthropology, and the rest is largely commentary by the first two authors on the specific fossil finds of hominids. The third credited author on the book is the photographer, the same whose photos we saw online in class on Feb. 26.

Johansson, Sverker. 2005. Origins of Language: Constraints on Hypotheses. Amsterdam and Phildelphia: John Benjamins.

Kenneally, Christine. 2007. The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. Viking Adult.

Pepperberg, Irene. 2000. The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Gray Parrots. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

About the famous Alex The Parrot by his primary researcher. Still controversial among linguists and psychologists, many of whom say that Alex only showed the results of extensive stimulus-response training (called by psychologists classical conditioning). Others more impressed by the studies allow that evidence of real generalizing capacity is shown by Alex. (Or was: he died only last year). Pepperberg came to Rice and showed videos of her experiments. They look pretty convincing to me. Skeptics point out that videos might represent only the best results, of what might be thousands more episides that do not look so convincing. Or, they say that there might be an invisible "Clever Hans" effect in which the bird works out what responses lead to approval, regardless of whether it understands any of the categories tested for.

Renfrew, Colin, and P. Bahn. 2000. Archaeology. London: Thames and Hudson.

Savage Rumbaugh, Sue, and R. Lewin. 1994. Kanzi. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sawyer, G. J., Viktor Deak, Esteban Sarmiento, Richard Milner, and Donald C. Johanson, Maeve Leakey, and Ian Tattersall. 2007. The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans. New Haven: Yale University Press.

A quote from the publisher's site:
"This book tells the story of human evolution, the epic of Homo sapiens and its colorful precursors and relatives. The story begins in Africa, six to seven million years ago, and encompasses twenty known human species, of which Homo sapiens is the sole survivor. Illustrated with spectacular, three-dimensional scientific reconstructions portrayed in their natural habitat developed by a team of physical anthropologists at the American Museum of Natural History and in concert with experts from around the world, the book is both a guide to extinct human species and an astonishing hominid family photo album.

The Last Human presents a comprehensive account of each species with information on its emergence, chronology, geographic range, classification, physiology, lifestyle, habitat, environment, cultural achievements, co-existing species, and possible reasons for extinction. Also included are summaries of fossil discoveries, controversies, and publications. What emerges from the fossil story is a new understanding of Homo sapiens. No longer credible is the notion that our species is the end product of a single lineage, improved over generations by natural selection. Rather, the fossil record shows, we are a species with widely varied precursors, and our family tree is characterized by many branchings and repeated extinctions."

Sykes, Bryan. 2001. The Seven Daughters of Eve. London: Corgi Books. (Course reading-excerpt.)

Tomasello, Michael, and Josep Call. 1997. Primate Cognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilcox, Sherman, and David Armstrong. 2007. The Gestural Origin of Language. New York and London: Oxford University Press.

A somewhat different version of the hypothesis of the gestural origins of language, with different sources of evidence.

Reviews and commentary

Review by James Hurford of Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species (full reference under Books above)

Commentary by Mark Turner on Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species (full reference under Books above)

Imaginative work

These works are mentioned in the discussion of possible contact of the two subspecies of Homo Sapiens in Hominid Violence

Auel, Jean. Clan of the Cave Bear. 1980.

Imaginative fiction about a H. sapiens sapiens girl who is found and raised by a family of H. sapiens neanderthalensis. The author did considerable research to try to make her portrayal consistent with what is known about these early Homo species. But of course gaps in our knowledge are filled in with imaginative reconstruction. These passages from Clan of the Cave Bear describe some Neanderthals in the story. The passages are followed by commentary relating the contents to actual Neanderthal archeological findings.

Golding, William, The Inheritors. 1955. Course reading (excerpts)

Novel about the experiences of a small band of Neanderthals trying to survive despite dwindling numbers and consequent diminution of their pool of necessary cultural experience. The Neanderthals come back to their summer foraging area and cave shelter only to discover a large band of interlopers--Homo sapiens sapiens, probably the Cro Magnon settlers of Britain--who try to enslave and kill them. The points of view of both groups are represented, but mostly the story is told from the Neanderthal point of view. The irony is that the Cro Magnons think that the Neanderthals are savage subhumans, but the story shows that it is the Cro Magnons, with their more advanced weaponry, who are violent, vicious and drunken, belying their assumed cultural superiority. The Neanderthals are portrayed as the gentler and more humane creatures. Golding was the author of Lord of the Flies and his bleak view of human nature comes out here too. The Neanderthals all die out, leaving the world to the Inheritors of the title, the progenitors of modern people who have the same dark tendencies.

Other courses on the Evolution of Language

Institutes and organizations promoting the study of human origins

Institute of Human Origins

Conferences on Evolution of Language

Evolang 8, Utrecht 2010. Blog commentary on the conference: Babel's Dawn on Evolang 8 in Utrecht

Evolang 2008, conference on the Evolution of Language, March 11-15, 2008, Barcelona. Conference website: Evolang 2008

Workshop: Forty years of ape communication: What have we learned about the evolution of language? Part of Evolang 2008. Workshop participants include some of the most well-known researchers in ape communication experiments. Worskhop description: Workshop on ape communication

Evolution of Language, Sixth International Conference (Evolang 6). Took place 12-15 April, 2006 at the Conference Center of the University of Rome, Italy. The plenary speakers included Tecumseh Fitch, Leonard Talmy and Michael Tomasello. The papers are linked to the titles in the program schedule (scroll down to the detailed schedule on the lower part of the page). There is also a proceedings volume.

News Articles and Video News Reports On Line

Nature article on "evolution of languages".

Three Paleolithic ivory figurines

9,000 year old fossils in Britain: Cheddar Man.

Other Content Websites

Human cognitive capacities; humans vs. chimps
Mark Turner audio interview: "The Infinite Mind". See radio broadcast link on Turner Homepage.

Brain structure and implications for language
Interview with Michael Corballis: "The Sinister Hand". About handedness and its relation to language; reasons behind his gestural theory of language origins. Corballis

Resources on Human Evolution
Human Evolution Site. This is a collection of web resources coordinated on the PBS website covering many aspects of human evolution, including evolution of bipedalism, evolution of the human hand, and evolution of the mind and brain.

I. Hominid Evolution by Ken Reeser. An overview, with research citations.

II. Early Human Phylogeny. Site from the Smithsonian Institution. Graphic representation of hominid family tree with timeline. Click on the different species to see fossil pictures and up to date summaries of theories of how the species relate. The four links below are from this site are the best known on the hominid family tree.

Homo habilis. Pictures of Habilis skull remains and anatomical information.

More on Homo habilis. Picture of skull is from 1.9 million years ago (MYA).

Homo erectus. Erectus specimens. Erectus includes the famous "Java Man".

Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Specimens. Comparative anatomy of Neanderthalensis and Sapiens sapiens. Comments on cultural advance relevant to language.

Homo sapiens. Includes early sapiens and H. sapiens sapiens (early specimens of which are called Cro Magnon after the first specimens found in France). Skull specimens. Also discussion of monogenesis and polygenesis of Sapiens.

III. Hominid Species Timeline. From Washington State University. This timeline and its five links below tell a simpler story of a smooth progression from Habilis to Erectus to H. Sapiens. The Smithsonian's story above is the more authoritative. Nevertheless this site is pretty accurate and has a lot of interesting detail and illustration. Early human phylogeny time line.

Homo habilis.

Homo erectus.

Homo sapiens.

Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.

Homo sapiens sapiens.

IV. Another set of descriptions of hominid species, with timeline.

Milestone Technologies
The Atlatl

Paleolithic Art
The Lascaux Cave The "Discover" link has a link to a "Virtual Visit" where you can see a map of the cave with the different "galleries" pinpointed. Click on a point to take you to the pictures at that location in the cave complex.
The Chauvet Cave Click on "Visit the Cave" bottom right, which takes you to a map of the cave with the various "galleries" and drawings pinpointed. Click on a point to get to the picture(s) at that location.
More information on the Chauvet Cave
Three Paleolithic ivory figurines

Summaries for Reference and Course Project Ideas

Prepared by S. Kemmer for and from class discussions and other materials

Opposable digits
Mirror neurons (summary under construction)
Habilis and Erectus
Time line, under construction
Neanderthalensis and Sapiens sapiens (summary under construction)
Three Dimensions of Hominid Development: Neuro-Cognitive, Social, and Physical
Hominid Violence

Student Reviews of Articles or Books

Student Project Powerpoints