Biological Metaphors in the Study of Languages

How well do concepts from genetic inheritance explain the relationships and competition among human languages?

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Adelaar, Willem F.H. The languages of the Andes, by Willem F.H. Adelaar with Pieter C. Muysken. Cambridge, 2004. 718p ISBN 052136275X, $150.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2005

In South America, the Andean region paralleling the Pacific coast from north to south is home to an exceptional variety of Native cultures and languages. There are 118 separate language families and language isolates, making it one of the most complex linguistic areas in the Americas. Linguists Adelaar (Univ. of Leiden) and Muysken (Univ. of Nijmegen) assemble a wealth of information on most of these languages. They assess a large historical and contemporary literature on genetic relations and describe the composition, history, and current status of each language family, and provide sketches of the grammar and lexicon of representative languages, including illustrative bilingual texts. A concluding chapter details the influence of Spanish on the Native languages and summarizes attempts to maintain and even revive many. In short, this large volume, which is an encyclopedia of Andean languages, is an exceptional resource for the languages of this region and for the Americas generally. Written for professionals in linguistics, anthropology, and related fields, the book is the most authoritative of its kind. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Undergraduate and graduate libraries that serve departments and subject areas in the social and earth sciences, and for reference collections.—D. R. Parks, Indiana University-Bloomington

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Bilaniuk, Laada. Contested tongues: language politics and cultural correction in Ukraine. Cornell, 2006 (c2005). 230p ISBN 0801443490, $59.95; ISBN 0801472792 pbk, $24.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE February 2007

This book is a powerful illustration of the major ethnological thesis that language is one of the most important building blocks of ethnicity. Anthropologist Bilaniuk (Univ. of Washington) proves with many examples of contesting linguistic patterns in modern Ukraine that in times of social instability, the struggle over symbolic values becomes more vivid. In 1991, the Ukrainian nation abruptly appeared, but the ideology of a national language was fragmented and poorly institutionalized. The author illustrates that the definition of the modern language of the independent Ukrainian nation is intertwined with political, economic, and social interests, continually recreated in the linguistic patterns of contesting parties. Debates over the roles of the Ukrainian and Russian languages and their respective weights in Ukrainian society are aggravated by the existence of a mixed Ukrainian-Russian surzhyk language. Bilaniuk demonstrates that a certain form of nonreciprocal bilingualism–a different level of mixing–traditionally resolved tensions between Ukrainian and Russian. This result of the two languages’ close genetic relationship does not prevent an individual ethnolinguistic identity from developing. However, it creates difficulties for Ukrainian nationalists, who argue that Ukrainization of all citizens is the single path to a desired cultural and linguistic Ukrainian identity. Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students/faculty. —A. V. Isaenko, Appalachian State University

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Cloud, Daniel. The domestication of language: cultural evolution and the uniqueness of the human animal. Columbia, 2015. 275p bibl index afp ISBN 9780231167925, $35.00; ISBN 9780231538282 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2015

Philosophers have always been both fascinated and bewitched by language.  In this work, Cloud (Princeton) carries on the naturalized, quasi-empirical approach to the philosophical analysis of language, with an emphasis on the evolution of language.  Using accessible examples and analogies while wrestling with difficult material, he argues that one’s understanding of the development of human language is best framed along evolutionary lines—but lines that follow “unconscious artificial selection” rather than “natural selection.”  That is, he argues that people collectively and deliberately reconstruct—or domesticate—language largely in terms of desired outcomes, much as people have domesticated plants and other animals.  As with animal husbandry, the domestication of language continues today.  Cloud focuses on the development of semantics and explicitly acknowledges that his analysis applies less obviously (if at all) to syntax.  For some readers, this might seem to lessen the significance of the analysis and the author’s conclusions, suggesting that empirical questions about the nature and development of language should be left to empirical investigation, not philosophical model building.  Nonetheless, Cloud offers what could be a “road less traveled” approach that could prove to be fecund for generating future empirical research.  A bold hypothesis and a book worth reading. Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students through professionals/practitioners. —D. B. Boersema, Pacific University

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Durham, William H. Coevolution: genes, culture, and human diversity. Stanford, 1991. 629p ISBN 0804715378, $65.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 1992

Durham tackles the thorny problem of cultural evolution in as thought-provoking and insightful a way as a reader is likely to find anywhere. He argues that the basics of Darwinian evolution–descent with modification and selection–can be adapted to show how cultural evolution has taken place under a variety of conditions. He argues that cultural selection has been a primary force of cultural change, and that this process leads to a number of different patterns of relationships between genes and culture. Using detailed case studies–Tibetan marriage patterns, sickle-cell anemia, adult lactose absorption, incest taboos, and kuru from cannibalism–he demonstrates the existence of these gene-culture patterns, and predicts their importance in the dynamics of culture change. Although he provides detailed citations and notes, he presents enough of the cultural or biological background to each case that his writing is intelligible even to one new to the field. Destined to be a very important book for anthropology as a whole. It easily eclipses in scope such classics as D. Campbell’s chapter in A Handbook of Method in Cultural Anthropology, ed. by R. Naroll and R. Cohen (2nd ed., 1973) and more recent additions to the field such as Donald E. Brown’s Human Universals (CH, Jan’92). Summing Up: A must for undergraduate academic and research libraries. —S. A. Quandt, University of Kentucky

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Girard, Jeffrey S. Caddo connections: cultural interactions within and beyond the Caddo world, by Jeffrey S. Girard, Timothy K. Perttula, and Mary Beth Trubitt. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. 172p bibl index afp ISBN 9780759122871, $85.00; ISBN 9780759122888 ebook, $84.99.
Reviewed in CHOICE December 2014

This five-chapter book is an excellent, deep summary of what scholars know about Caddo archaeology and ethnohistory.  Chapter 1 notes that Caddo refers to a historical ethnic group, a geographic area, a collection of archaeological traits, and a language family.  The authors examine the history of Caddo archaeology, including how it was defined as a culture area; the individuals involved in its definition, via “Caddo conferences”; its various foci, complexes, and phases; and problems of chronology and dating.  The second chapter examines the origins of Caddo remains out of Late Woodland complexes in the regions of eastern Oklahoma, western Arkansas, eastern Texas, and western Louisiana—the core of the Caddo heartland.  Chapter 3 deals with cultural elaborations as expressed in various archaeological phases, focusing on ceramics, subsistence practices, settlement models, and trade among the Caddo themselves as well as with peoples of the Southeast and Southwest.  Chapter 4 outlines in detail the relations between the historical Caddo peoples and the various European and, ultimately, American peoples, starting with the de Soto entrada.  The final chapter is a three-page summary of the book. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.—P. J. O’Brien, Kansas State University

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Golla, Victor. California Indian languages. California, 2011. 380p ISBN 0520266676, $90.00; ISBN 9780520266674, $90.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE April 2012

In his introduction, anthropologist Golla (Humboldt State Univ.) states that he intends this book to be a reference of first choice for a broad range of scholars with interest in California Indian languages. It certainly is and will be that, but it is much more. This book is a fascinating read from cover to cover; it is not only detailed but also accessible and far-reaching, and includes historical, cultural, and linguistic material. A number of maps, tables, photographs, informative boxes, and topics such as a list of the various extinct, recently extinct, and endangered languages enhance the book. After the introduction, Golla thoroughly describes the history of the study of these languages, then discusses each language family or isolate in detail. He gives a masterful presentation of the linguistic features of the California linguistic area; it will be understandable to nonlinguists, even though it includes some structures unfamiliar to most nonlinguists (e.g., switch reference). The last section concerns the prehistory of each of the language families. Finally, there are five informative appendixes on various aspects of California Indian languages. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. —C. L. Thompson, Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne

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Markoš, Anton. Epigenetic processes and the evolution of life, by Anton Markoš and Jana Švorcová. CRC Press, 2019. 230p bibl index ISBN 9781138541924, $199.95; ISBN 9781351009966 ebook, $57.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE October 2019

Markoš and Švorcová (Charles Univ., Czech Republic) offer a highly engaging exploration of phenotypic and developmental patterns across diverse biological lineages. Rejecting the view that any one information source—DNA sequence, for example—can fully shape an organism, the authors frame phenotype as the product of complex interplay among evolutionary history, genetic factors, and environment. From this perspective, species diversity is at once impressive and fundamentally constrained by ecological interactions. This strong focus on identifying patterns across biological lineages often comes at the expense of mechanistic detail, making the book readily readable for readers of diverse academic backgrounds but potentially disappointing for those with specific interests in molecular processes. Moreover, a few chapters end quite abruptly without explanation for how a particular set of findings or citations is connected to a chapter’s broader theme. Schematics throughout the book help mitigate these limitations somewhat and clarify core concepts. The volume’s extensive sets of citations will be useful for readers who wish to read more about specific biological examples. Summing Up: Recommended. Advanced undergraduates and graduate students. —D. P. Genereux, Broad Institute of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Native languages of the southeastern United States, ed. by Heather K. Hardy and Janine Scancarelli. Nebraska/American Indian Studies Research Institute, 2005. 556p ISBN 0803242352, $70.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2005

This excellent resource on the Native American languages of the southeastern US provides illustrative and informative chapters about the linguistic structures of several languages formerly spoken in the region. Written by well-known, well-respected linguists specializing in these languages, the book includes a chapter discussing the history of work on languages in this area and two chapters on the historical development of the Muskogean language family, the only family located solely in the Southeast. Because of the Muskogean family’s position among all language families with branches in the Southeast, it is no surprise that the majority of chapters deal with this family. The linguistic chapters are understandable and present the current state of knowledge about each language. The authors are very clear about questions that remain about the structure of the languages, offering answers and recommending further research. Overall, the work will be useful for scholars and advanced students interested in pursuing linguistic or anthropological work with Native American peoples from the region. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. —P. J. Innes, University of Wyoming

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Norman, Jerry. Chinese. Cambridge, 1988. 292p ISBN 0521228093, $54.50; ISBN 0521296536, $17.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 1988

In ten informative chapters, Norman (University of Washington) gives a general introduction to Chinese, its historical phonology, the script, the classical, literary, and written vernacular language. He treats modern standard Chinese plus several major dialects, and even deals with sociolinguistic aspects of the language. As one of the “Cambridge Language Surveys,” this book certainly addresses and fulfills the series function of providing general accounts of a major language family. Norman has succeeded in bringing into a single volume as much important and reliable information as possible, and as a result has produced the only book of this kind to date on Chinese. It must be considered a major English-language contribution to the field of Chinese-language studies. Summing Up: It will well serve both the general linguist and the specialist in Chinese language. The book may perform the dual role of a good reference for scholars in general linguistics and a good survey for students of Chinese linguistics. —Y. L. Walls, University of British Columbia