The Representation of Language Evolution Research in Introductory Linguistics Textbooks

Aleksandra Poniewierska, Aleksandra Szczepańska, Sławomir Wacewicz, Przemysław Żywiczyński and Michael Pleyer

The question of the origins and evolution of language is undoubtedly fundamental to the study of linguistics. The field of language evolution has developed significantly through the past years and now comprises a vast theoretical background as well as numerous empirical studies. Nowadays, their results can be found not only in dedicated handbooks (Tallerman & Gibson 2011; Gontier, Sinha & Lock, forthcoming) but also textbooks (Fitch 2010, McMahon & McMahon 2012). However, it is often much less well-represented in introductory textbooks to linguistics. In addition, it should be noted how the knowledge about language evolution is presented in these publications. In this paper, we present an analysis and assessment of how language evolution research is presented in these textbooks.
Wacewicz, Żywiczyński and Jasiński (2016) performed a preliminary analysis in which they looked at popular textbooks for introductory linguistics courses. They found that topics related to language origins either lacked coverage or that the coverage was superficial and frequently appealed to outdated theories or empirical data. Building on the study by Wacewicz et al. (2016), here we look at the most recent editions of introductory textbooks to linguistics and assess whether there was noticeable improvement in more recent editions of these textbooks. We also use a more rigorous methodology than Wacewicz et al. (2016) and cover a broader dataset of textbooks. Our extended selection of textbooks is based on the global popularity ratings of introductory textbooks in linguistics courses found at We then adopted a mixed methods approach, combining qualitative and quantitative measures. Textbooks were coded in NVivo by two researchers for topics that were the most prominent and topics which were not mentioned at all. Finally, the information found in textbooks was annotated for accuracy, and whether it reflected the current state of research in language evolution as opposed to outdated information.
Our preliminary results suggest that there has been little improvement in terms of representation of the topic. In addition, only very few textbooks offer systematic discussions of the research area of language evolution. Many instead only offer cursory comments on the topic or mention the topic only in passing, if at all. Overall, in contrast to more traditional topics such as language acquisition and language change, language evolution generally is not represented consistently in introductory textbooks to linguistics. There are some elements that are covered relatively frequently in textbooks, such as symbol-trained animals or references to some classic examples of animal communication, such as honeybee dance and vervet monkey alarm calls. However, especially discussions of more recent research are often very inconsistent.
Following from this analysis, our goal is to suggest the aspects of language evolution that should be featured in introductory texts, provide guidelines on how to incorporate the topic of language evolution in linguistics textbooks as well as make it attractive to the potential reader and as relevant as possible to the linguistic audience.


Fitch, W. T. (2010). The evolution of language. Cambridge University Press.
Gontier, N., Sinha, C. & Lock, A. Handbook of Human Symbolic Evolution, 2nd edn. McMahon, A., & McMahon, R. (2012). Evolutionary linguistics (Vol. 223). Cambridge University Press.
Tallerman, M., & Gibson, K. R. (Eds.). (2011). The Oxford handbook of language evolution. Oxford University Press.
Wacewicz, Sławomir, Żywiczyński, P. & Jasiński, A. (2016). Language evolution and language origins in teaching linguistics at the university level. In The evolution of language: proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANGX11).