Commentary on Morten H. Christiansen & Nick Chater, "Language as shaped by the brain."

The Origin of Language as a Product of the Evolution of Double-Scope Blending

Gilles Fauconnier (Department of Cognitive Science, UC San Diego 92093;;
Mark Turner (corresponding author; Department of Cognitive Science, Case Western Reserve University, 10900 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland OH 44106; 216-368-4753;;

Abstract: Meaning construction through language requires advanced mental operations also necessary for other higher-order, specifically human behaviors. Biological evolution slowly improved conceptual mapping capacities until human beings reached the level of double-scope blending, perhaps 50 to 80 thousand years ago, at which point language, along with other higher-order human behaviors, became possible. Languages are optimized to be driven by the principles and powers of double-scope blending.

Christiansen and Chater (C&C) are correct in their claim that it is implausible that language as we know it is the product of biological evolution for a complex, language-specific endowment. As they point out, this is not in itself an unusual claim. For example, Hauser et al. (2002) argue that the sole language-specific capacity might be recursion and that even recursion might not be language-specific. However, our reasoning to this claim is quite different from C&C's. Language as we know it requires advanced capacities for meaning construction. Any view of language as having been active in quasi-advanced forms before about 50 thousand years ago, advancing further by refinements, runs up against the unlikelihood that human beings who enjoyed these near-modern capacities of meaning construction through language (blending, hypothetical and counterfactual thought, negatives, framing, mappings of many sorts, viewpoint and perspective, metaphor, speech acts, deixis, etc.) failed to use them to achieve even the rudiments of the other human higher-order cognitive achievements that we know require those very same mental resources: art, music, mathematical and scientific discovery, religious practices, representation, fashion, advanced social cognition, etc.

The archeological record (Klein 1999; Mithen 1996), genetic record (Cavalli-Sforza 2000), and modern understanding of the uniformity of conceptual mappings in multiple, superficially diverse areas of human behavior all converge to indicate that biological evolution slowly produced not language but, rather, capacities not specific to language, evolving along a cline of increasing power. Once those capacities reached a certain sine qua non stage on the gradient, language and other human singularities became possible (Fauconnier & Turner 2002; Fauconnier & Turner, in press; Turner 1996).

One (and perhaps the) mental operation whose evolution was crucial for language is conceptual blending (Coulson 2006; Coulson & Oakley 2000; 2005; Fauconnier & Turner 1998; 2002; Turner 1996). Conceptual blending is a fundamental mental operation whose rudimentary forms are evident in the mammalian line of descent. The most advanced form, double-scope blending, consists of integrating two or more conceptual arrays as inputs whose frame structures typically conflict in radical ways on vital conceptual relations, such as cause-effect, modality, participant structure, role-value, and so on, into a novel conceptual array whose frame structure draws selectively from the frame structures of the inputs and dynamically develops emergent structure not found in either of the inputs.

There is now massive evidence that double-scope blending is indeed a necessary feature of all the human singularities mentioned above, including language. Conceptual blending itself has been evolving since at least deep in the mammalian line. Once the stage of double-scope blending was achieved, the full range of human higher-order singularities became possible. They arose in concert, reinforcingly, in cultural time. The archeological record suggests that the stage of double-scope blending was reached not millions of years ago and not even at the stage of anatomical speciation for human beings (about 150 thousand years ago), but rather, more recently, perhaps 50 to 80 thousand years ago (Mithen 1996).

Grammatical constructions are products of conceptual mapping. Specifically, they are double-scope blends (Fauconnier & Turner 1996, Liddell 2003; Mandelblit 1997). Accordingly, the existence of language requires the capacity for double-scope blending. Because double-scope blending is necessary for these patterns of meaning construction, because grammatical constructions in general are not possible absent the capacity for double-scope blending, and because double-scope blending is necessary for equipotentiality – the amazing ability of language to be used effectively in any situation, not just those that fit a finite list of frames (Fauconnier & Turner 2002) – language (like other human higher-order conceptual singularities) appears only once mapping capacities have evolved to reach the stage of double-scope blending. Intermediate stages of the mapping capacities are useful and adaptive, but not for language, which demands equipotentiality. This explains the absence of intermediate stages of language as an observable product.

There is no evidence known to science of simple languages now or at any time during our phylogenetic descent, because there are no simple or rudimentary languages. Once the stage of double-scope blending is achieved, fully complex language comes on like a flood, in cultural time rather than in biological time. In the early twentieth century, scientists at last gave up the argument that the cave paintings of France and Spain could not date from the Upper Paleolithic. They had assumed that art must have gone through stages of increasing complexity and accomplishment, that it must have been simple at its birth. We argue that a century later, scientists must give up the same argument and the same mistaken assumptions about language.

There is evidence of simpler stages, not of language or art, but of the mental operation underlying these behaviors – conceptual integration. The more rudimentary forms of conceptual integration remain available to all human beings, who moreover use those simpler forms constantly. Arguably, the evolution of mapping capacities in human beings was adaptive, and took place in standard fashion, but left no "fossils" of the singularities (such fossils being "simpler" languages, simpler" religions, and "simpler" drawings and cave paintings).

There is a long tradition, inherited by generative grammar from structuralism, of studying languages as formal systems, divorced from their deeper purpose, which is to prompt for elaborate meaning construction (Lidell 2003; Dancygier & Sweetser 2005; Hougaard & Oakley in press). In contrast to this tradition, recent research offers very strong evidence for uniform conceptual mapping capacities that cut across domains. The cultural construction of classical mathematics through successive double-scope conceptual blends is demonstrated in detail in (Lakoff & Núñez 2000). Similar detailed research now exists for religion and magic (Slingerland in press; Sørensen 2006), design (Imaz & Benyon 2007), technology (Hutchins 2005; Williams 2005; Pereira 2007), poetry, fiction, and theater (Dancygier 2006), music (Zbikowski 2001), social cognition (Turner 2001), and of course grammar (Fauconnier & Turner 1996; Mandelblit 1997). Strikingly, none of these highly typical human domains of action and meaning are possible without double-scope conceptual blending, and their emergence takes place at the beginning of our own cultural time, circa 50 kyears ago (Klein 1999).

We concur with C&C's second principal claim, that language is shaped by the brain. But again, we reach this conclusion by a different route of reasoning. Once the brain, through evolutionary time, acquired the capacity for double-scope blending, language, along with other human singularities, became possible. Language is only one of the universal surface manifestations of the deeper unity of highly human-specific meaning construction, requiring double-scope capacity, and constrained by the constitutive and governing principles of integration (Fauconnier & Turner 2002). Languages can then change through cultural time subject to such constraints and the well-studied pressures and mechanisms of diachronic linguistics. It remains highly doubtful that such change makes languages better adapted, as C&C wish to think. However even if it did, the capacity for more or less adapted, but fully expressive, languages, attested only in recent cultural time, would remain on their account an unexplained singularity. Accordingly, we view C&C's speculations about linguistic change in cultural time as orthogonal to the central problem of how evolving mental capacities reached a critical point where human singularities, including language, became possible.


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