Section 1


Outline of Human Phylogeny

Evolutionary Trees
and DNA

Brain Evolution

Hand and Bipedality

Section 2
Social and socio-
cultural systems

Primate societies

Social relations and the evolution of culture

Social relations, communication and cognition

Human socio-cultural patterns

Tools and symbolic behaviour

Palaeolithic Art

Contemporary hunter-gatherer art

Section 3
Ontogeny and symbolism

Editorial Introduction: Ontogeny & Phylogeny

The role of ontogenesis

Brain, cognition, and language

Early interaction and cognitive skills

Language and thought

Theories of symbolization
and development

Children's drawings and the evolution of art

Section 4
Language systems

Spoken language and
sign language

The gestural primacy hypothesis

Comparative cognition

Animal language and cognition

Language acquisition


The prehistory of grammar

Writing systems


Links Policy

Relevant Links

Theoretical stages in the prehistory of grammar

Leonard Rolfe

This chapter conjectures that the hierarchical structure of present-day grammars might be the result of an evolutionary process. Grammar is taken to be a communicative device patterned to cater for various communicative intentions such as asking questions, making statements, and expressing comments. These intentions are themselves elaborated in the course of an evolving dialogic system. Each communicative intention might be thought of as having a corresponding pattern for its expression. If so, this would lead to a non-integrated grammatical system. Hence the notion of 'recency dominance' is introduced here, whereby a newly-emerged pattern becomes dominant and 'reworks' older patterns into conformity with it. Eight stages of elaboration are proposed. These are probably not discrete; rather, language evolution should be viewed as proceeding in a more mosaic pattern.

The first stage - necessarily without any prior pattern to build on - concerns getting is motivated by the seeking of some obligement: termed here 'solicitation'. Granting these obligements constitutes 'compliance'. Finally, a 'close-out' indicates the exchange is finished. This sequence constitutes a 'frame of dialogue' that represents the source of later grammatical functions, which become necessary to handle communicative functions as they become more elaborated - vocative from address; imperative and interrogative moods of the verb from solicitation; affirmative (and negative) from compliance (and refusal); and various markers for turn-taking. This frame also contributes to the provision of first and second persons of the verb when they are later grammaticalized

A minor complexification of these abilities yields the next stage, ostension pointing at a visible item with one's index finger. Ostension has three important facets: it is for another (and is hence situated in the earlier dialogic frame); it implies the addressee understands what is being pointed at; and it is oriented on the speaker - that is, it is 'deictic'. Ostension primarily concerns visible items, and distinguishes between those within and beyond reach, but can be extended to indicate non-visible phenomena. In this instance, however, ostension can no longer be contextually supported, but needs a new form, 'identification', which is secured by 'naming'. This builds on ostention, but extends it to constitute a new stage.

Identification can be secured by gestural imitation of shape or activity. Vocal units may have taken the first step towards being words by reformulating some of this gestural inventory, or by iconic representation. The notion of referential symbolism via words may not have been fully perceived at their creation, and they may well have arisen and been worked into the communicative system in an ad hoc manner. One method of securing referential symbolism is 'thematization' and this is proposed as the next stage.
'Thematic roots' are an organisational principle exploited in some language systems whereby a set of phonological alternances around a vowel allow the expression of particular aspects of the notion contained in the root. Verbs and nouns are not distinguished, but are implicit in the particular semantic features expressed by members of a theme. Thematic clusters constitute a semantic route towards grammar, in that their semantic features are sorted out in modern languages into the basic noun/verb distinction and grammaticalized into syntax.

Topic-comment structures are proposed as the first stage in the transition toward syntax. Initial topic-comment structures are asyntactic, since their relations are purely pragmatically based. These motivate the possibility of expressing third-person action, and the realization of this enables a speaker to depict scenes, which itself leads to a forefronting of implicit case relations, and moves topic/comment structures toward the realm of 'narrative' which requires considerable grammatical support for its effective handling. Narrativity begins to shift the relating of events from the intersubjective realm of the dialogic participants towards the objectification of events, yielding an 'epistemic' patterning of discourse, and motivating syntactic devices that handle the hitherto implicit features of narrative. This last, epistemic, stage may be relatively recent, and characteristic of a level of social organisation that produces the state [Eds].

Preconditions for the evolution of protolanguages by Merlin Donald.
Carstairs-McCarthy, A. (1999) The origins of complex language: An enquiry into the evolutionary beginnings of sentences, syllables and truth. Oxford: Oxford University Press