The Evolution of Language: Towards Gestural Hypotheses

by Przemysław Żywiczyński (Author) Sławomir Wacewicz (Author)
©2019 Monographs 286 Pages
Open Access
Series: Dis/Continuities, Volume 20


This book discusses the scope and development of the science of language evolution – a newly emergent field that investigates the origin of language. The book is addressed to audiences who are not professionally involved in science and presents the problems of language origins together with introductory information on such topics as the theory of evolution, elements of linguistic theory, the neural infrastructure of language or the signalling theory.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction to the Translation
  • Introduction
  • Structure of the book
  • Chapter 1 The Beginnings of Language and Language Origins
  • 1.1 Religious beginnings
  • 1.1.1 On the divinity of language, the forbidden experiment, and the Adamic language
  • 1.1.2 Language as the object of investigation
  • Jewish tradition
  • 1.1.3 Reflections on language in Indian philosophy
  • 1.1.4 Summary
  • 1.2 Glottogenetic thought: A naturalistic concept of language emergence
  • 1.2.1 How to recover from the state of nature?
  • Vico
  • The beginnings of comparative research
  • Monboddo
  • Mandeville
  • Condillac
  • Rousseau
  • Herder
  • Parisian ideologists
  • Comparative philology
  • 1.2.2 Darwin: The beginnings of the science on the evolutionary origin of language
  • Early Darwinism and the glottogenetic problem
  • Empirical advances
  • Anthropology and psychology on the beginnings of language
  • 1.3 Conclusion
  • Chapter 2 Evolution, Evolutionism, Evolutionary Thinking
  • 2.1 Evolution and natural selection
  • 2.1.1 Adaptation
  • 2.1.2 Gene’s eye view and inclusive fitness
  • 2.2 Universal Darwinism and cultural evolution
  • 2.3 Evolutionary psychology
  • 2.4 Popular reception and the sins of evolutionism
  • 2.5 Evolution: Myths and misconceptions
  • 2.5.1 Simplification: Evolution = natural selection
  • 2.5.2 Misconception: Panadaptationism (naïve selectionism)
  • 2.5.3 Misconception: Survival of the fittest
  • 2.5.4 Misconception: Preservation of the species/The good of the species
  • 2.5.5 Misconception: Lamarckism
  • 2.5.6 Misconception: Macromutation and saltationism
  • 2.5.7 Misconception: Evolution has a purpose (teleology)
  • 2.5.8 Misconception: Evolution means progress or going up in the great chain of beings
  • 2.5.9 Misconception: Recapitulationism (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”)
  • 2.5.10 Misconception: Confusing explanatory levels
  • 2.6 Summary
  • Chapter 3 The Evolution of Language:
  • 3.1 Road to the science of language evolution
  • 3.1.1 Renewed interest
  • 3.1.2 Chomsky, internalism and the biological foundations of language
  • 3.1.3 Advances in the neurosciences
  • Research on primates
  • Genetics
  • Palaeontology and archaeology
  • Neuroscience
  • 3.1.4 Evolutionism
  • 3.2 Contemporary evolution of language
  • 3.2.1 The evolution of language: A new research programme
  • 3.2.2 New research trends in the evolution of language
  • 3.3 Evolution – of what? The taxonomy of “language”
  • 3.3.1 Syntactic parser and the narrow sense of “language”
  • 3.3.2 Language in the broad sense
  • Language: Not only syntax
  • Language: Not only speech
  • Language: Not only innateness
  • 3.4 Stages
  • 3.4.1 Baseline
  • 3.4.2 Preadaptations
  • 3.4.3 Prelinguistic communication
  • 3.4.4 Protolanguage45
  • 3.4.5 From protolanguage to language
  • 3.5 Conclusions
  • Chapter 4 Preadaptations for Language
  • 4.1 Speech
  • 4.2 Speech reception
  • 4.3 The brain
  • 4.4 Cognitive preadaptations
  • 4.4.1 Mimesis
  • 4.4.2 Theory of Mind
  • 4.4.3 Metarepresentation
  • 4.4.4 Memory
  • 4.4.5 Executive functions
  • 4.5 Summary
  • Chapter 5 Cooperative Foundations: An Essential Requirement for Language
  • 5.1 Signalling theory52
  • 5.2 The evolutionary stability of communication
  • 5.3 How to ensure the honesty of communication?
  • 5.4 The sources of human cooperativeness
  • 5.5 Summary
  • Chapter 6 The Problem of Modality Transition in Gestural Primacy Hypothesis
  • 6.1 Gestural primacy hypotheses in language evolution
  • 6.2 Defining gestures
  • 6.2.1 Gestures in interpersonal communication
  • 6.2.2 Gestures in nonhuman primates’ communication
  • 6.3 Arguments in favour of the gestural primacy hypotheses
  • 6.3.1 Gesture and language origin – a brief historical background
  • 6.3.2 Hewes’s position and the revival of concern with gesture in language evolution
  • 6.3.3 Contemporary gestural hypotheses
  • Iconicity of gestures
  • Handedness and lateralisation
  • Broca’s area and mirror neurons
  • Mimesis and pantomime
  • Further arguments
  • 6.4 The problem of transition to speech
  • 6.4.1 Homo sapiens’s adaptations to speech
  • 6.4.2 Sign languages as fully-fledged languages
  • 6.5 Solutions
  • 6.5.1 Traditional arguments
  • 6.5.2 Information duality
  • 6.5.3 Acquisition of sign and spoken languages in children
  • 6.5.4 Natural connections between the hand and the mouth
  • 6.5.5 Articulatory movements as a type of gesture
  • Orofacial gestures
  • 6.6 Conclusion – Towards multimodal hypotheses?
  • Epilogue
  • References
  • List of Figures
  • Glossary
  • Index of Names
  • Subject Index

Introduction to the Translation

The Evolution of Language: Towards Gestural Hypotheses is an English translation of the first Polish book devoted the problems of language evolution, published in 2015. This context bears on the character of the book and its content. The Evolution of Language was written for general audiences, who are not professionally involved in science, including the science of language evolution. Hence, it offers introductory information on topics such as the theory of evolution, the discussion of which serves to bring out the basics of evolutionary thinking, including popular misconceptions about evolution, and stays away from more technical and detailed issues (Chapter 2), elements of linguistic theory (e.g. definitions of language (3.3), universal grammar (3.1.2) or the neural infrastructure of language (4.3) or the signalling theory (5.1)). To further help the reader, we provide a glossary of technical terms at the end of the book. Another limitation of the book has to do with the fact that it was (and still is) the first book on the science of language evolution for the Polish reader who has not had access to the English literature on the subject: excellent introductions by Sverker Johansson (2005) and Tecumseh Fitch (2010) and other forms of secondary and tertiary literature on language evolution, such as a handbook of language evolution by Maggie Tallerman and Kathleen Gibson (2011) or James Hurford’s broad-scope monographs – The Origins of Meaning (2007) and The Origins of Grammar (2011). Hence, our presentation is for the most part confined to sketching an outline of the problems of contemporary language evolution, and not an in-depth, extensive discussion of these problems.

Working on the English version, we have decided to reduce the number of supplementary texts, particularly in Chapters 2 and 3. We have also radically shortened the Chapter 1 on the historical context out of which the modern-day science of language evolution emerged. This area is certainly underexplored, but after the publication of Przemysław Żywiczyński’s book Language Origins: From Mythology to Science (2018), we felt there is no reason to repeat what can be found there, in a more extensive form.


The half-art, half-instinct of language still bears the stamp of its gradual evolution.

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)

For Darwin (1871), language was the greatest invention of humankind alongside fire. Maynard Smith and Szathmáry (1995) consider the emergence of language to be the last of the greatest evolutionary breakthroughs, and its explanation was called to be the most difficult problem in science (Christiansen and Kirby, 2003b).1 Language is a unique communication system in which symbolic units can be combined into larger wholes with the use of syntactic rules, and since it is human-specific, language also defines our uniqueness.

This book is the first monograph written originally in Polish on the evolution of language – a new field of science, which emerged at the end of the 20th century. As a field, it is developing dynamically, which should not be surprising, given that rapid development is an inherent aspect of youth. The evolution of language, by being a thoroughly interdisciplinary enterprise, derives its impetus from other sciences, such as modern evolutionary theory, genetics, linguistics, neuroscience, palaeoanthropology, comparative psychology, and primatology, to name only a few. Yet, the evolution of language, as a scientific project, is successful because of the questions which determine the direction of its investigations: “Where does language come from, and why do, out of all living forms, only humans have it?”

Language is the feature that unambiguously shows the difference between humans and other animals. Contemporary science provides a wealth of evidence that other traits, which traditionally were considered to be human-specific, are actually possessed by other species, mainly other apes. We can cite self-awareness, for example. Comparative psychologists have assumed the so-called “mirror test” (developed by Gordon Gallup, 1970) as a rough indicator, which showed self-awareness not only in all great apes – the chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla and orangutan – but also dolphins and ←13 | 14→elephants. At the beginning of the 20th century it seemed that the ability to use tools, as a non-instinctive, complex behaviour, might also be specific to humans. However, Jane Goodall’s pioneering research on chimpanzees in the 1960s put paid to this view. It turned out that the remaining great apes, as well as some Old World monkeys (macaques) and New World monkeys (capuchins), and numerous other species, including birds, can use tools. Chimpanzees do not cease to amaze us: in 1999, the existence of cultural traditions was confirmed in chimpanzee groups, and in 2007 it was established that they use tools in hunting. Even making stone tools can be a problematic criterion for humanness – if the marks on bones dating back to 3.4 million years ago are confirmed as resulting from cutting with stone tools, it would imply that lithic technology predates the emergence of the genus Homo.2

Similar research may soon point to language as the only unambiguous qualitative difference between humans and other animals. The evolution of language takes up the challenge of formulating hypotheses which seek to verify how this human-specific and extremely complex trait could have emerged in the history of our evolutionary line.

←14 | 15→

1 See the beginning of Chapter 3.

2 Gallup test and Great Apes – see, for example, Heyes (1998), in elephants: Plotnik et al. (2006), culture in chimpanzees: Whiten et al. (1999), hunting with tools: Prutez and Bertolani (2007); traces of using stone tools: McPherron et al. (2010).

Structure of the book

The first two chapters provide an introduction to our study. “The Beginnings of Language and Language Origins” report ideas on the genesis of language as it was cultivated in religion and philosophy, and which predate scientific inquiry into the evolution of language. The second chapter “Evolution, Evolutionism, Evolutionary Thinking” explains the notions and terms that are indispensable to understanding the later chapters. We then devote two chapters to the evolution of language itself. In Chapter 3, entitled “Evolution of Language: A Departure from Glottogenic Scenarios”, we discuss the historical and scientific background from which the science of language evolution and its research programme emerged; in the next chapter, “Preadaptations for Language”, we focus on reviewing the anatomical and cognitive dispositions which made the emergence of language possible. We devote the fifth chapter to the most important of these dispositions – cooperation. The concluding chapter of the book, “The Problem of Modality Transition in the Gestural Primacy Hypothesis”, focuses on a very specific issue which concerns one of the hypotheses of language emergence – the Gestural Primacy Hypothesis – and shows how arguments in language evolution are constructed and verified.

To make reading easier, we have compiled a glossary of the most important terms used in the text, and the main part of the monograph is supplemented with secondary texts, which constitute an extended illustration of the issues under discussion.

Chapter 1 The Beginnings of Language and Language Origins

The history of enquiry into language origins shows how the emergence of language was regarded as a key issue from the earliest times – one that is crucial for understanding of what makes us human. Interest in the genesis of language is universal – it appears in various cultural and historical periods, inspiring thinkers to construct scenarios of language creation based on contemporary evidence and ideas. In addition to emphasising the element of universality, this line of enquiry provides inspiration for contemporary researchers: questions posed in the distant past continue to attract the attention of scholars. These include, for example, whether in the initial phase of its development, language imitated the sounds of nature or what the original modality of language was. Our reconstruction also has another, equally important goal, which is to raise awareness of the qualitative difference between speculations about the beginnings of language in even the recent past, and the strictly scientific approach adopted by the contemporary research on language evolution, the modern field of knowledge that deals with the problem of language origins.

This chapter is divided into two parts. In Section 1.1, “Religious beginnings”, we discuss religious reflections on the beginnings of language, particularly the divine origin of language. Drawing on examples from both the occidental Christian and Jewish traditions, as well as that of India, we illustrate the universality of ideas about the origins of language and its diversification. Section 2.1, “Glottogenetic thought”, is devoted to naturalistic scenarios of the emergence of language, which were formulated by European thinkers with the advent of the modern era.

1.1 Religious beginnings

Reflection on the origin of language has always been present in thinking about what makes us human. The intellectual historian José Ignacio Cabezón notes that the problem of language is an important motif in religious discourse. Firstly, religious thinkers are interested in language as a medium of revelation, and the typical outlet of these investigations are the ←17 | 18→conceptions of its divine origin (Cabezón, 1994). The Vedic doctrine of the deification of language (Sanskrit: vāc) or the biblical story of language diversification (Genesis 11: 1–9) are perhaps the best-known attempts in the history of religions to reflect on the nature of language and its origin. The next stage of religious reflection on language, which Cabezón calls “the scholastic phase”, focuses primarily on language itself: scholars are gradually becoming aware of the complicated relationship between language and the reality, which leads to questions about the ontological and epistemological status of language description. Moving these considerations to a more theoretical plane enabled the formulation of more philosophically oriented views on language. In medieval thought, the dispute over universals, or general ideas, led to the demarcation of basic positions in reflections on meaning, such as realism, conceptualism, and nominalism. However, theories of meaning were also formulated in India, where the plane of debate was delimited on the one hand by the naturalistic concept of language created by Vedic orthodoxies from the mīmāṃsā school, and on the other, by the anti-essentialist (conventionalist) doctrine of apoha proposed by Buddhist scholars from the pramana school.

1.1.1 On the divinity of language, the forbidden experiment, and the Adamic language

When it comes to religious discussions that may be valuable to studying the origin of language, attention should be paid to the problem of the innateness of language and the nature of linguistic meaning. In a monograph on the evolution of language, Tecumseh Fitch (2010: 390) quotes the famous verses from Genesis (2: 18–20):

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (October)
Darwinism Evolution of the brain Signalling theory Biological foundations of language Gesture studies
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 286 pp., fig. col., 17 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Przemysław Żywiczyński (Author) Sławomir Wacewicz (Author)

Przemysław Żywiczyński is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at the Department of English, Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń, Poland. Sławomir Wacewicz is an Assistant Professor at the same department. The authors are the founders of NCU’s Center for Language Evolution Studies (CLES).


Title: The Evolution of Language: Towards Gestural Hypotheses
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