Working backwards from modern language to proto grammar
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WORKING BACKWARDS FROM MODERN LANGUAGE TO PROTO-GRAMMAR. Sverker Johansson School of Education & Communication University of Jönköping, Sweden. Our early ancestors lacked syntax – today we have it. Somehow it emerged during our evolution. How?.

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Sverker Johansson

School of Education & Communication

University of Jönköping, Sweden

Our early ancestors lacked syntax – today we have it.Somehow it emerged during our evolution.


Plenty of proposed precursors, from social scripts to navigation. May provide cognitive tools for syntax – but what came next?

Start at the other end of the problem!

  • Possible proto-languages can be identified by disentangling modern language, removing one component at a time.

  • Which aspects of modern language can be removed, without the whole system becoming non-functional?

  • Removability from modern language entails addability to a proto-language.

What are the components of modern language?

  • Imprudent to assume the truth of any particular grammar theory – too many of them out there.

  • Better to start with a few fundamental properties of language, on which there is consensus across different theories of grammar.

Universal properties of modern language

1. Structured. Not just a random bunch of words – relations between words somehow indicated.

2. Hierarchical. Levels of structures within structures.

3a. Flexible, in the transformational sense that structures can be moved around.

3b. Recursive. The same structure may recur “inside itself” at different hierarchical levels.

Properties ordered with least removable first.


  • Without Structured, there is no grammar.

  • All the other properties require Structured in order to be meaningful.

  • Language with Structured but none of the other properties is conceivable – e.g. child language at the two-word stage.

    Necessary early addition to proto-language.


  • Hierarchical requires Structured, obviously, as Hierarchical operates on structures.

  • Grouping words into headed units, and having structural rules operating on units as a whole, may be the main point with Hierarchical.

  • Having headed units works fine without units containing the same kind of units as substructure – Recursive not needed for Hierarchical.

  • Having headed units works fine without having the option to move around units – Flexible not needed for Hierarchical.

    Intermediate-level addition to proto-language.


  • Flexible may add spice and expressivity to language, but nothing fatal happens if it’s removed.

  • Flexible requires Hierarchical, as entire headed units are typically moved around.

  • Flexible is pointless without Structured.

    Candidate late addition to proto-language


  • Recursive likewise can be removed, without the rest of the grammar collapsing. A recursion-less language is simpler, without subordinate clauses and stuff, but still functional.

  • Recursive requires Hierarchical, with multiple levels of structure within structure.

    Candidate late addition to proto-language

Recursive II

  • Recursive key feature in the model of Hauser & Chomsky & Fitch (2002) – but see also Pinker & Jackendoff (2005), as well as Parker’s talk here.

  • A modern language apparently without recursion actually exists: Pirahã (see Parker’s talk here) – proof positive that Recursive is a removable feature.

Recursion in theory and in practice

  • In linguistic theory:

    • Structures may be recursively nested an arbitrary number of levels.

    • Analysed top-down.

    • Theoretically unlearnable.

    • Either you have recursion or you don’t.

  • In practice:

    • Rarely more than 2-3 nested levels in natural speech.

    • More levels difficult to process.

    • Commonly built bottom-up.

    • Different types of recursion.

Types of recursion

  • Central-embedded “true recursion”:

    “The rat the cat the dog the man owned chased bit squeaked.”

    • Grammatical in theory – but who would ever say anything like that? And who’d understand it?

    • We do use true recursion – but sparingly.

  • Edge-attached “tail recursion”:

    “The man owned the dog that chased the cat that bit the rat that squeaked.”

    • Easier to process, and more common.

  • [ Iteration – repetition without embedding.]

    “Round and round and round she goes.”

    • Not really recursion, even though it may be described by recursive phrase structure rules. (cf. Parker’s talk)

      Any reason to believe that these all emerged together?

Possible sequence of proto-languages

  • Non-structured. Isolated “words”. Relations between words from semantics only.

  • Structured. “Sentences” with a few words, but without substructure. Relations between words indicated by grammatical markers (most likely word order).

  • Hierarchical structure. Words grouped in headed units, but no recursive embedding.

  • Recursive syntax (possibly in several substeps).

  • Flexible may be added either before or after 4.

  • Grammaticalization processes will become operative at some stage, adding morphology and function words. (cf. Hurford (2003) & Deutscher (2005)

    7.Modern human language.

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