Robbins Burling (2000) Early Language Evolution. Psycoloquy: 11(030) Language Prerequisites (6)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 11(030): Early Language Evolution

Reply to Gomila on Burling on Language-Prerequisites

Robbins Burling
Department of Anthropology
1020 LSA Building
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109 USA


Gomila (2000) appears to wish that I had not limited myself to as narrow a range of questions as I did. I suggest that we are more likely to make progress if we can refrain from getting tangled in everything at once.


cognition; evolution; iconicity; imitation; language; names; theory-of-mind; words.
1. I find it difficult to extract central themes from Gomila's (2000) commentary on Burling (1999). He criticizes my target article from several quite different directions, and this makes it difficult for me to offer a coherent response.

2. A large part of Gomila's dissatisfaction seems to stem from a wish that I had dealt with different problems or with a wider range of problems. In paragraph 3, for example, he expresses the wish that I had dealt with more than just words, and he points to the importance of "social as well as the neuroanatomical transformation." He also suggests that language itself could have cognitive effects, so that my questions about the cognitive prerequisites form only one part of the story. In paragraph 5 he wishes that I had asked about the selective pressures that could favor language instead of those that would favor the prerequisites for language. In paragraph 13 he writes: "It is not just the question of language origin that must be answered, but also the question of its proliferation." I would never deny that there is far more to the evolution of language than a few cognitive prerequisites, but I would rather pursue a few narrow questions than to imagine that I could do everything at once.

3. In places I am just puzzled. At various points Gomila suggests that I rely too much on parallels with ontogeny, but in paragraph 8 he puts more weight on ontogeny than I ever would. In paragraph 2 he seems to object to my "linear" and "step by step" view of evolution. How else could evolution proceed? In paragraph 14 he wonders "what came first, words or syntax." Does he seriously suppose that syntax could have developed before there were words for syntax to organize?

4. In his last paragraph, Gomila says that he missed any consideration of pointing in my article. He seems to have missed my paragraph 8 where I include "indices" (along with icons) as one kind of motivated sign. I point out explicitly that "Indices are signs that point to their referent." Since Gomila apparently agrees with me that pointing gestures could have been important, I would have been interested in what sorts of selective pressures he would propose that might have increased the ability of our prelinguistic ancestors to use pointing gestures along with other kinds of motivated signs.

5. Finally, there are parts of Gomila's commentary which I simply fail to understand. In paragraph 5, for example, he worries that the prerequisites I propose are not "homogeneous concepts." It is not clear to me what he means by "homogeneous concepts," nor why a lack of homogeneity would be bad. In paragraph 9 he wishes that I had extended my approach to "bridge the gap between 'motivated signs' and signs of institution'," but I am unable to figure out what he means by "signs of institution."

6. If Gomila feels that my questions are bad ones, he does not make it clear to me just where they go wrong, except that they look at only one part of the story. I suggest that questions with a narrow focus are more likely to be answerable than questions that are broader and vaguer.


Burling, Robbins (1999) The cognitive prerequisites for language. PSYCOLOQUY 10 (32). psyc.99.10.032.language-prerequisites.1.burling

Gomila, Antoni (2000) What is special about language evolution. psyc.00.11.010.language-prerequisites.5.gomila

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