Tuesday, October 26, 2010

ISFC Plenary - Christian Matthiessen

Here is the next in the series of Plenary talks from the 37th ISFC in UBC, Vancouver. The conference theme, Language Evolving, is explored in phylogenetic terms, here, by Christian Matthiessen.

Rather than me attempting to explain, let Christan do so. This is the abstract for the talk.

Language evolving: Notes towards a semiotic history of humanity

The theme of this International Systemic Functional Congress is "language evolving". This can be interpreted either very generally or more technically.

(1) Taken very generally, this could mean language changing in any of the three time-frames that have been explored in systemic functional linguistics (see e.g. Halliday & Matthiessen, 1999) - phylogenetic change (language changing in the human species, or in human societies, over a long period of time ranging from generations to history of the human species), ontogenetic change (language changing in human individuals [seen as organisms or as persons] in the course of a lifetime, or logogenetic change (language changing in the course of the unfolding of text).

(2) Taken more technically (i.e. with "evolution" in the technical sense introduced by Darwin), this means language changing phylogenetically (cf. Halliday, 1995; Matthiessen, 2004) - language evolving as part of the evolution of the human species (in biological terms) and as part of the evolution of human groups (in social terms), these two being complementary aspects of human evolution.

Here I will focus on the narrower, technical sense of "language evolving". More specifically, I will explore the "big history" of humans (cf. Christian, 2004) - a deep time view of human evolution in linguistic, or more generally in semiotic terms, starting with the emergence of the human line and moving up to the present.

This will mean combining accounts of different time frames in the evolution of language (cf. Figure 1) that have tended to be treated in isolation from one another by different groups of scholars - e.g. the evolution of modern language is explored by linguists, anthropologists, palaeontologists and neuroscientists, but the much more recent evolution of our current language families is studied by historical linguists using comparative methods and the even more recent evolution of particular languages by historical linguists using the methods of philology and (nowadays) of corpus linguistics, although studies based on texts selected to show the emergence of new registers (e.g. Halliday, 1988; Gunnarson, 1993; Nanri, 1993) are still fairly rare.

At the same time, it will also mean supplementing historical accounts that are based on social considerations (including economic factors) but which background human semo-history. A sweeping history such as Christian's (2004) account is a very important contribution but while he recognizes the significance of the emergence of language, he does not build an account of the evolution of language into his history. There have of course been linguistic histories of important periods of human evolution. One recent valuable contribution is Ostler (2005), but he focuses on "major" languages such as Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, English and Spanish - major in the sense of languages seen as important in world history (languages of "empires"), and "minor" languages are a crucial part of the picture even though (or especially because) many of them are now in danger of disappearing together with their speech communities (see e.g. Nettle & Romaine, 2002; Harrison, 2007). In other words, we have to focus not only on language growth but also on language shrinkage; both are key aspects of human history.


Figure 1: Time frames in the evolution of language and humans

In trying to work towards a holistic history of human evolution, I can obviously only make certain observations that will guide the development of a more detailed account. One key principle is that human evolution must be investigated multi-systemically, using an ordered typology of systems - physically (1st order systems), biologically (2nd order systems), socially (3rd order systems) and semiotically (4th order systems; cf. Halliday & Matthiessen, 1999). In the course of human evolution, the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens was almost surely a key transition. Homo sapiens sapiens has been called Anatomically Modern Humans (AMHs), but I believe that they were also Linguistically (or Semiotically) Modern Humans (LMHs, or SMHs). Some time - up to 100 K years before the present - after the emergence of AMHs, we see clear evidence of the acceleration of human evolution (common associated with the Upper Paleolithic). This acceleration can be interpreted as a shift from lower orders of evolution to higher orders - from primarily biological evolution to primarily socio-semiotic evolution. This is obviously a matter of degree; but the point is that once AMHs / LMHs had emerged, the scene was set for social and semiotic evolution to take over as the primary levels of evolution, and socio-semiotic evolution is much faster than biological evolution, so the evolution gradually accelerated to today's dizzying pace (cf. Delsemme, 1998).

Drawing on Hallliday's (e.g. 1975) account of ontogenesis, we can postulate a model of the evolution of language in three phases, as shown in Figure 1:

  • Phase I - evolution of protolanguage: this phase must have started many millions of years ago, long before the emergence of the hominid line;
  • Phase II -evolution of pre-modern language: this phase will have started with the first "burst" in the evolution of the human brain, probably around 2.2 million years ago (Homo habilis);
  • Phase III - evolution of modern language: this phase will have begun with the emergence of modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens.

Since around 200 to 150 K years before the present, all linguistic evolution has been Phase III evolution. During this period, there is thus a huge gap between the emergence of modern language (metafunctional and multistratal in organization) and time around 8 K to 10 K years ago when the methods of historical linguistics enable us to identify the protolanguages of the language families currently accepted in historical linguistics (thus excluding putative more ancient groupings such as Nostratic; cf. Ruhlen, 1994). Phase III evolution can be interpreted in registerial terms as an ongoing evolution of the registerial make-up of particular languages together with the ongoing evolution of the contexts in which registers operate (cf. Halliday, 1988; Rose, 2005; Nanri, 1993).


Christian, David. 2004. Maps of time: an introduction to big history. Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press.

Delsemme, Armand. 1998. Our cosmic origins: from the Big Bang to the emergence of life and intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gunnarsson, Britt-Louise. 1993. "Pragmatic and macrothematic patterns in science and popular science: A diachronic study of articles from three fields." In Mohsen Ghadessy (ed.): Register Analysis: Theory and Practice. London & New York: Pinter. 165-179.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1975. Learning how to mean. London: Edward Arnold. Reprinted in M.A.K. Halliday (2003), The language of early childhood, Volume 4 of The collected works of M.A.K. Halliday edited by Jonathan J. Webster. London & New York: Continuum.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1988. "On the language of physical science." In Mohsen Ghadessy (ed.), Registers of Written English: situational factors and linguistic features. London & New York: Pinter Publishers. 162-178.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1995. "On language in relation to the evolution of human consciousness." In Sture Allén (ed.), Of thoughts and words: proceedings of Nobel Symposium 92 "The relation between language and mind", Stockholm, 8-12 August 1994. Singapore, River Edge N.J. & London: Imperial College Press. 45-84.

Halliday, M.A.K. & Christian M.I.M. Matthiessen. 1999. Construing experience through meaning: a language-based approach to cognition. London: Cassell.

Harrison, K. David. 2007. When languages die: the extinction of the world's languages and the erosion of human knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Matthiessen, Christian M.I.M. 2004. "The evolution of language: a systemic functional exploration of phylogenetic phases." In Geoff Williams & Annabelle Lukin (eds.), Language development: functional perspectives on evolution and ontogenesis. London: Continuum. 45-90.

Nanri, Keizo. 1993. An attempt to synthesize two systemic contextual theories through the investigation of the process of the evolution of the discourse semantic structure of the newspaper reporting article. University of Sydney: Ph.D. thesis.

Nettle, Daniel & Suzanne Romaine. 2000. Vanishing voices: the extinction of the world's languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ostler, Nicholas. 2005. Empires of the word: a language history of the world. London: HarperCollins.

Rose, David. 2005. "Narrative and the origins of discourse: construing experience in stories around the world." Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 19: 151-173.

Ruhlen, Merritt. 1994. On the origin of languages: studies in linguistic taxonomy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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