Proto-declaratives in the Lab and in Nature

David A. Leavens

Before we speak, we communicate with performative acts. In their classic paper,
Bates, Camaioni, and Volterra (1975) described proto-declaratives as developmental preverbal
precursors to linguistic comments. In this talk, I will lay out the developmental
sequence described by Bates et al. from exhibition of self, through showing objects, through
offering objects, to the final pre-verbal step, proto-declarative pointing, and demonstrate that
proto-declaratives are widespread in the animal kingdom. I will then situate protodeclaratives
against two other taxonomies of communicative motivations, that of Skinner
(1957; proto-declaratives as ‘tacts’) and Searle (1974; proto-declaratives as ‘expressives’),
drawing out commonalities and inconsistencies in these different schemes’ approaches to
proto-declaratives. I will then position in this framework the ‘declarative-expressives’ and
‘declarative-informatives’ that are the subjects of much contemporary research (e.g., Cochet
& Vauclair, 2010; Tomasello, Carpenter, & Liszkowski, 2007). I will conclude this
introduction with examples of proto-declarative communication by non-human animals,
including proto-declarative pointing, demonstrating that proto-declaratives are not humanunique
communicative signals.
It is characteristic of the contemporary literature that the experimental study of
proto-declarative pointing is situated outside children’s homes. I will discuss a range of
extant sampling and procedural approaches to eliciting proto-declarative points across
different laboratories. The key finding from this comparison is that the overwhelming
majority of laboratory-based techniques that are designed to elicit proto-declarative pointing–
which pointing is frequently interpreted as evidence of children’s pre-verbal psychological
reasoning–tends to use large, planometric eliciting stimuli presented at a relatively great
distance. In both target quality and target distance, laboratory studies of pointing differ
radically and systematically when the ambition is to elicit proto-declarative pointing,
compared to laboratory conditions designed to elicit proto-imperative pointing (pointing to
request object delivery). Thus, far from revealing anything unambiguous about children’s
reasoning processes, laboratory studies of the development of pointing support the more
modest conclusion that children eventually come to discriminate physically different eliciting
contexts, in their pointing behaviour.
Finally, with respect to terminology, I will note that, in the vocal domain, human
children display expressive vocal communication from at or near birth, whereas intentional
vocalisations appear much later in development (e.g., Harding and Golinkoff, 1979). Thus,
intentional communication is a more mature pattern of communicative behaviour in our
species than is expressive communication, which latter is both a developmental and
evolutionary primitive. In evolutionary terms, one of the central debates in the comparative
cognition of communication is whether our nearest living relatives, the great apes, have
volitional control of their vocal communication or whether it is merely expressive. Hence, it
is uncontroversial that great apes communicate expressively in the vocal domain, but
significantly controversial whether they are able to gesture expressively; that is, their ability
to display declarative-expressive points is widely disputed. I will argue that this is an
unfortunate terminological commitment, to identify ‘declarative-expressives’ as signifying
ostensive intentional signals implicating an allegedly advanced cognitive architecture, when
‘expressive’ is used in most other scientific contexts to signify developmentally and
evolutionarily primitive communicative acts. I propose ‘declarative-ostensive’ to replace the
problematic term.


Bates, E., Camaioni, L., & Volterra, V. (1975). Performatives prior to speech. Merrill-Palmer
Quarterly, 21, 205–226.
Cochet, H., & Vauclair, J. (2010). Pointing gestures produced by toddlers from 15 to 30
months: Different functions, hand shapes and laterality patterns. Infant Behaviour and
Development, 33, 431–441.
Harding, C. G., & Golinkoff, R. M. (1979). The origins of intentional vocalizations in
prelinguistic infants. Child Development, 50, 33–40.
Searle, J. R. (1975). A taxonomy of illocutionary acts. In K. Günderson (Ed.), Language,
mind, and knowledge, Minnesota studies in the philosophy of science (Vol. 7, pp.
344–369). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., & Liszkowski, U. (2007). A new look at infant pointing. Child
Development, 78, 705–722.