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.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Constructivist Foundations

I have to recommend the journal Constructivist Foundations, edited and maintained by Alex Riegler.

You will find contributions from von Glaserfield, Varela and many others discussing (radical) constructivism, practical realism, pedagogical constructivism, similarities and differences with other philosophical perspectives, among many others.

These approaches offer an alternative philosophical foundation to the cartesian representationist approaches that underpin many cognitivist models of consciousness. A lot of the contributors have a deep interest in the role that language plays in construing our understanding of the world.

The journal is peer-reviewed and of a very high standard, but FREE! All you need to do is register with an email address to gain access to pdf versions of individual papers as well as whole issues.

Click on the cover (Vol.5 No.3) to go to the homepage, and subscribe for free to access current & archived issues and sign up for email alerts for new issues.

ISFC Plenary - Michael Halliday

The 37th International Systemic Functional Congress was hosted by Geoff Williams at The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada in July 2010.

Thanks to Geoff and the team at UBC, we can all see the videos of the plenary sessions, as well as downloading the presentations slides. (During the conference, they also set up chat rooms for remote participation in the sessions.)

This talk is by the 'father' of systemic functional linguistics (SFL) - Michael Halliday (see de Beaugrande's extensive description). Halliday focuses on the way that SFL includes, quite naturally, an evolutionary perspective.

Michael Halliday - Language Evolving: Some systemic functional reflections on the history of meaning
Talk given at 37th ISFC, UBC, Vancouver, 19 July 2010

This talk is fascinating in that it covers not only major aspects of SFL theory and application to evolutionary theory, including language viewed from ontogenetic, phylogenetic and logogenetic perspectives, but also anecdotes, asides and insights from Halliday himself.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

ISFC Plenary - Terrance Deacon

The 37th International Systemic Functional Congress was hosted by Geoff Williams at The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada in July 2010.

Unfortunately I was not able to attend the conference, as I was working. However, thanks to Geoff and the team at UBC, we can all see the videos of the plenary sessions, as well as downloading the presentations slides. (During the conference, they also set up chat rooms for remote participation in the sessions.)

I will add the plenary videos to this blog, one by one. The first is by a non-linguist (he's an anthropologist), and so a non-systemicist. However, what Terrance Deacon had to say about the evolution of language was music to the ears of people involved in systemic functional linguistics.

Terrance Deacon - Language and complexity: Evolution inside out
Talk given at 37th ISFC, UBC, Vancouver, 20 July 2010

In this fascinating talk, Deacon develops his thesis that humans are a Symbolic Species by noting that all species are effected genetically as they become domesticated. Domestication produces genetic 'degradation' in that many of the functions previously carried out instinctively become transmitted through our social ecosystems rather than through genetic transmission - what was instinctive becomes learned. He concludes by saying that even if God had come down and given homo erectus an innate language gene - or Universal Grammar - by now, as a result of domestication, that gene would have degraded.


Who likes to read - for fun, or pleasure? Who likes to learn a foreign language while reading - for fun or pleasure - in that language? It seems not many of us, and the numbers are dwindling. That is why the Extensive Reading Foundation has been set up.

Headed by ESL luminaries such as Richard R Day, Rob Waring, Anne Burns, Averil Coxhead, Alan Maley, Paul Nation, David R Hill and many others, "The Extensive Reading Foundation is a not-for-profit, charitable organization whose purpose is to support and promote extensive reading. One Foundation initiative is the annual Language Learner Literature Award for the best new works in English. Another is maintaining a bibliography of research on extensive reading. The Foundation is also interested in helping educational institutions set up extensive reading programs through grants that fund the purchase of books and other reading material." (from the ERF homepage)

ERF has just announced its First World Congress for September 2011, and you can follow their blog for all the latest developments in helping the world to read.