Ljiljana Progovac

Meet Ljiljana Progovac

The legendary academic Noam Chomsky has often been described as the father of modern linguistics.Since the late 1950s, his work has revolutionized the field and changed the way we think about language. While massively influential, however, not all of Chomsky’s ideas have gone unchallenged. Wayne State’s own Ljiljana Progovac, a linguistics professor, has argued against Chomsky’s views on the evolution of language. Her book with the Oxford University Press, Evolutionary Syntax (2015), makes a strong case for a gradualist view, the idea that that the evolution of human language was a Darwinian procession of different stages. Combining fields as diverse as genetics and theoretical syntax, and drawing on her native Serbian and other languages, Professor Progovac’s work uses a novel, interdisciplinary approach to linguistics. For her amazing work, Professor Progovac will be a visiting scholar at MIT next year, where she will work with Professor Chomsky and other members of the university’s linguistic faculty. What follows is a transcript of a conversation with Professor Progovac, lightly edited for clarity and concision. 

How did you get interested in studying linguistics and syntax? 

Like you, I was an English major when I was back in Serbia. That was in ‘77, and I finished in ‘81. And then I got a Fulbright grant to come here to the U.S. as an exchange student. I joined the PhD program in linguistics at the University of Southern California, and that was in ‘85. That’s where I really got interested in linguistics. Before that, it was kind of a vague interest. But when I joined and took some courses, then I became really hooked, and syntax was immediately my favorite subject. It’s very logical, and very precise. I could bring my native language into the picture too, so we were looking at patterns across languages, comparing languages, and trying to analyze them very precisely by using theoretical tools. That just appealed to me, and I thought I was good at it. I thought that was my field, and I still do. 


In your work, and your book “Evolutionary Syntax,” you adopt a gradualist approach to the evolution of language. How does this contrast to the saltationist approach favored by linguists like Noam Chomsky?  

In the saltationist view, syntax and language in general sprung into existence suddenly, in their full complexity. In the evolution of language, there were no intermediary stages, or no simpler languages which led to more complex languages. So saltationists don’t believe in the gradualist view of evolution. Rather, they believe that language is somehow exempt from evolutionary processes, and it just sprung into existence in one single event. Typically, it is claimed that it was a single minor mutation. 


I was kinda surprised by these claims, and they didn’t sound right to me, so I decided to look into it. Initially, I wasn’t doing language evolution, just synchronic syntax, and looking at how syntax works across languages. Claims like these, however, were coming from some of the most influential people in the field, like Noam Chomsky, the most famous linguist of all time. The more I was reading about the arguments they made for this view, the more I realized they weren’t really good arguments. 


Adopting a Chomskyan framework for syntax- his theoretical framework for syntax- I made a proposal that you can actually decompose syntax or grammar and their complexities into steps, and you can combine and recombine them. If you sort of decompose syntax this way, you can then look for structures in present day languages that resemble or approximate those simple structures. And that’s what I did, I found a lot of these “living fossils,” structures that are simple but were integrated into more complex structures. So they’re still there, maybe slightly changed, maybe not, it depends from construction to construction.


These living fossils are very useful because they can be manipulated. We’ve actually been doing experiments- fMRI experiments- with a team here at Wayne State, testing how these structures are processed. We make very specific hypotheses. The advantage for this proposal is that you can actually test it. Saltationist approaches don’t tell you how to test proposals. They’re just basically claims, that that’s how something happened, and there’s no way to prove it or disprove it. In that sense, that’s not a good scientific approach. But just to clarify, Chomsky has done a great deal of good work in syntax. People who have followed him in this approach have done some amazing work, and have made some amazing discoveries. It’s really just his work on evolution that I have challenged.


Could you give any examples of these living fossils in English? 

Yeah, compounds are one type of example. There’s a specific type of compound that I’ve analyzed in English. They consist of a verb and a noun. I looked at such combinations in various languages too, like Serbian, which is my native language. Anyway, in English, some examples would be “kill-joy,” “hunch-back,” “turn-coat,” and a similar phrase, “turn-skin.” Some of them are archaic, you can only find them in grammar books or dictionaries. In fact, I don’t know if your generation knows what a turncoat is? 


Some of those do sound old-fashioned. I’ve heard “kill-joy” before, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard “turn-coat” or “turn-skin.” 

A turn-coat is a traitor. An even older word for that is “turn-skin.” So you turn your skin, you’re a traitor. There’s also “wag-tail,” “tattle-tail,” “scatter-brain,” “cut-throat,” “cry-baby,” and “busy-body.” There’s a lot of them. If you go through textbooks, and people who have worked on this, you’ll find a lot of examples. Very often, people aren’t aware that these are verb-noun combinations, they don’t think about it. But what is fascinating about them, is that they seem to specialize for insults. They’re derogatory ways to refer to people.


Is that the same case in other languages? 

Both in English and Serbian, and in other languages I’ve looked at, many of them are obscene. Because of that, they usually don’t make it into dictionaries, or they’re censored out of grammar books. In order to find them, I had to look at more obscure references. But I was able to find a lot of them, enough to make a case for a structure that is the simplest possible kind of syntactic structure. As I have argued, this structure only has a verb and a noun, and the noun is not really specified as a subject or an object. 


So that’s one of the claims, that this initial grammar- this proto-grammar- could not distinguish subjects from objects. It was only a two-slot frame, in which you could fit a verb and a single noun. You didn’t know if this noun was subject-like, or object-like, it depended on the context. Even in those compounds that are preserved in English, you can see that something like “cry-baby” is a baby who is crying, so the “baby” is subject-like. But something like “kill-joy,” that’s somebody who kills joy, so joy is like an object. So the grammar itself, this grammar which only has one verb and one noun, doesn’t dictate if this noun is more like a subject, or more like an object. It gives rise to these vague creations, which I have argued are the most basic grammar. And that’s how sentences were like in the beginning. They were vague, but could be interpreted in the context. 


Later, there were further steps, where you could differentiate subject from object. You could add tense later, so you could say something like, “The baby will cry.” But in the beginning, the argument is, that you just had these verbs, verb-like and noun-like words, and you could only put two of them together. That was it. 


When might transitivity have been added to this proto-grammar? Any approximate guesses? 

Well, there’s a huge controversy surrounding the beginning of language. There are proposals that it only started with humans, and very recently, maybe 100,000 years ago. That’s typically the view taken by saltationists, that it was very recent. But there are other views that it could have started with our common ancestors with the Neanderthals. If so, then it would have been much longer ago, maybe 500,000 years ago or more. There’s also no clear consensus on whether other species, other than humans, had some rudimentary language. If they did, this is something that can be looked at through genetics, and doing neuroscientific experiments. We could hypothesize how and when, and which species might have had language. 


What I have proposed, is that, if indeed our common ancestor with the Neanderthals had some language, or even before that, then this would have been the simplest type of syntax. Very simple and very rudimentary. And if that’s the case, then this could have been something that was happening 500,000 years ago. Bu if this simplest stage emerged only with humans, then it would have emerged 200,000 years ago.


But then there’s the idea that, because languages differ, different languages diverged once people moved out of Africa. As people dispersed out of Africa, and as they moved in different groups to different locations, they developed their own transitive ways of expressing subjects. They invented these in different ways, so not every language expresses subjects and objects in the same way. In some languages, this can remain optional. 


Really, there is no clear date of when this might have happened. But having a specific analysis allows you to test how transitive structures are processed by the brain, versus intransitive structures. If we can determine what additional brainpower is needed for the transitive structures, then we can try to sort of go back in time and see what kinds of brains were needed for evolving transitive structures. Then, perhaps, we can reconstruct the timing. But for now, we don’t really know. The only way we can really try to test this or ask questions about it is if we have a specific hypothesis. Without a specific hypothesis, you can just sit back and say, “Oh, it just happened that way.” 


Is it challenging to draw on neuroscience for your kind of work? 

Yes, it can be super challenging, because it brings these different things together. And that’s another argument of mine, that you have to bring together linguistics and other sciences. But then linguists, of course, aren’t trained necessarily in neuroscience or evolutionary biology. If you do this kind of work, you have to teach yourself and stay current and read.  


That’s fascinating, the way you’re combining linguistics with other fields. I never would have imagined applying something like evolutionary biology to a social science like linguistics. 

It’s very exciting, because language really hasn’t been subjected to this kind of scrutiny. Only recently, maybe twenty-five years ago, this field took off. Before that, it was just not done. The argument is- and still is among many people- you shouldn’t do it because you can’t prove it. You can’t bring a human from 100,000 or 200,000 years ago and hear him speak. But, of course, like in history, we can try to reconstruct things. Now, there is certainly a momentum toward trying to hypothesize and use everything we have, such as genetics and neuroscience, to make reasonable guesses. 


Next year, you’re going to MIT as a visiting scholar. Will be that part of a research project, or will you be teaching there? 

No, I’m not teaching, it’s more like a research project. I will be discussing things with the faculty there. There are three faculty members who will directly engage in this study, an evolutionary syntax study. Chomsky’s one of them, and his co-author Robert Berwick. Previously, they had published some articles together, and a book called Why Only Us: Language and Evolution. They defend the saltationist view, and I earlier reviewed their book for Language, the official journal of the Linguistics Society of America. 


Then there’s another person at MIT, Shigeru Miyagawa, who has also done work on evolution of language. He has a saltationist view too, but with a twist. He proposes that language comes when somehow the systems that are responsible for bird-song, and the systems that are responsible for animal calls, come together in the human brain in a single event. Somehow, this then led to human language. 


Anyway, I’m looking forward to discussing things with them. These compounds and other fossils that I’ve proposed are a very strong argument for the evolutionary approach, and Miyazawa and other saltationists usually criticize those points. He’s been writing about them, so that’s one point of contact that we can explore and try to discuss. I hope I better understand their view, and I hope they better understand mine. It’s an attempt to advance this kind of approach, and maybe find something more out of this controversy. 



By Tristan Shaw