Exaptation: acquiring the unacquirable

by Benjamin Lowell Sluckin (Humboldt University of Berlin, formerly University of Cambridge)

I was fortunate enough to receive a PhilSoc Masters Bursary in 2015/16, which has been of greater value to me than the £4000 awarded. It enabled me to study for an MPhil in Theoretical and Applied Linguistics at my institution of choice, the University of Cambridge. I’m happy to say it was worth it!  So before I get down to writing about my experiences of postgraduate study and research, I want to thank PhilSoc for their generosity and for seeing value in that hopeful letter of application penned in early Spring 2015.

First I’ll say a bit about my general experience and then I’ll get down to the linguistic meat. Cambridge is a weird and wonderful place. It is like stepping into a time machine and stepping out in 1870 where everyone has a MacBook. It is a bubble, as everyone says; the real world seems distant and at times one can feel claustrophobic. However, the bubble is good for doing research. It is quiet, there are talks almost every day and there was always the possibility of valuable academic discussion with my peers and seniors in the department, from whom I learnt a great deal.  Like any University, but perhaps especially, there is also the constant opportunity to have your assumptions about everything and anything challenged by those who know better, or at least pretend to do so. The Masters Bursary allowed me not only to learn some serious linguistics, but also to acquire the ability to power a very unstable boat with a very long stick. All in all, I learnt a great deal. I can now say with some confidence that I understand enough syntax to understand what people are disagreeing about most of the time, but not to always understand why they insist on disagreeing.

In my bursary application I said I wanted to specialise in diachronic morphosyntax in Germanic and I specifically “promised” to look at exaptive changes in language (my thanks to George Walkden whose support and lectures got me thinking about these things). In short, Lass (1990, 1997) said that when form-to-function mappings are eroded in language, we can be left with functionless linguistic “junk” which can then be co-opted for an unrelated function. The canonical example from Lass (1990) is the recycling of afrikaans gender marking from Dutch syntactic agreement marking for gender and definiteness (1a,b) to conditioning by the morphological character of the adjective itself (1c,d): simple vs complex.   I found Lass’ ideas interesting and I knew that David Willis in Cambridge had been working on this topic, so I was keen to get in on the action (for lack of a better term). Once arrived, he was always ready to challenge my ideas and encourage me to refine my arguments.

(1) Examples
a. Dutch common/neuter definite & common indefinite

de gevaarlijk-e muis/paard
the dangerous-e mouse.com/horse.neut

b. Dutch neuter, indefinite

een gevaarlijk-∅ paard
a dangerous-∅ horse.neut
(adapted from ex.23, Norde & Trousdale 2016:187)

c. Afrikaans simple adjective

die groot groep
the large-∅ group
([Lubbe & Plessis 2014:28] cf. Sluckin 2016:6)

d. Afrikaans complex adjective

die belangrik-e rol
the important-e role
([Lubbe & Plessis 2014:21] cf. Sluckin 2016:6)

Scholars have argued about exaptation for 25 years; so I will admit now that I approach this problem from a minimalist perspective. That means: I focus on Child Language Acquisition as the primary locus of morphosyntactic change, I reject junk, i.e. functionless material as impossible (like many but not all), and crucially my work assumes that the syntactic architecture is based on a hierarchical generation of formal features and projecting heads, and so on and so on….

This type of change is especially interesting because, in my mind, it shows the incredible capacity of the child acquiring language to regularise seemingly incoherent data. Research into exaptive reanalyses can tell us something about how humans can make good data from bad data.

So what is bad data? Well “junk” doesn’t work if we assume that every utterance is somehow a representation of linguistic units stored in the lexicon – or whatever we call it. Sadly,  I don’t have the space elaborate on all past approaches (see Vincent 1995; Willis 2010, 2016; Lass 1997, and Van de Velde & Norde 2016 for a review), but my hypothesis can be summed up as follows: breakdown in language can, over time, render structures increasingly difficult to acquire; this can reach a point where the target structure—dare I say parameter—is no longer acquirable from the input. The child is faced with the choice of losing the structure or finding any other possible analysis. What’s the difference between this and any other reanalysis, I hear you ask. Well, one standard view is that reanalysis works on the basis of ambiguity between possible analyses; so if there are two or more possible analyses, the child is more likely to choose the simpler one (2a). If the more economical analysis were not found, the original would still be available from the input. I argue that for exaptation what we instead find is that the original analysis is removed completely for the acquirer (2b). Therefore, any new analysis does not rely on ambiguity between the target and other analyses, as the target just doesn’t factor for the child making sense of the input.

I have tried to test this for syntax alone, whereas past work focused more on morphosyntax. The questions I am trying to answer is: how pervasive is exaptive reanalysis and what strategies do children use to find analyses when they can’t draw on strategies of economy. To these ends, I am looking for explanations orthogonal to Universal Grammar. My MPhil thesis research on the collapse of V2 and its reanalysis as Locative Inversion in Early Modern English involving the actuation of locative formal features, e.g. out of the woods came the bear, seems to suggest that phonologically silent syntactic heads might be especially vulnerable to this kind of change, as their acquisition is purely dictated by overt syntax (3a,b: trees for those who like them – click on the “Read more” button). Metaphorically speaking, we knew Pluto was there before we could see it because we could see things orbiting it. Syntax works similarly, the only difference is that if we change an orbit we change the planet, or rather syntactic head, too.  I am pursuing these ideas with larger case studies as part of my PhD project at the Humboldt University in Berlin, where I am now part of Artemis Alexiadou’s  research group.  I am also trying to see how grammar competition, language contact and exaptive reanalysis might go hand in hand in certain situations.

(2a) Middle English like V2 analysis (with key features added)
(3a) Middle English like V2 analysis (with key features added)
(2b) Modern English Locative Inversion analysis (with key features added)
(3b) Modern English Locative Inversion analysis (with key features added)

I have included examples for a schematic review; please contact me if you would like to read the expanded argument.


Lass, Roger. 1990. How to do things with junk: exaptation in language evolution. Journal of Linguistics 26, 79–102.

Lass, Roger. 1997. Historical linguistics and language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Norde, Muriel & Graeme Trousdale. 2016. Exaptation from the perspective of construction morphology. In Muriel Norde & Freek Van de Velde (eds.), Exaptation and Language Change, 163-196. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Sluckin, Benjamin P.L. 2016. Exaptation across grammatical domains: A generative account of source contexts, mechanisms, and outcomes;from verb second to locative inversion in the history of English. MPhil thesis, University of Cambridge.

Van de Velde, Freek & Muriel Norde. 2016. Exaptation: Taking stock of a controversial notion in linguistics. In Muriel Norde & Freek Van de Velde (eds.), Exaptation and Language Change, 1-36. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Vincent, Nigel. 1995. Exaptation and grammaticalization. In. Henning Andersen (ed.), Historical Linguistics 1993: Selected Papers from the 11th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Los Angeles, 16-20 August 1993, 433-446 Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Willis, David. 2010. Degrammaticalization and obsolescent morphology: evidence from Slavonic. In Katerina Stahti, Elke Gehweiler & Ekkehard Kӧnig (eds.), Grammaticalization: Current Views and Issues, 151-177. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Willis, David. 2016. Exaptation and degrammaticalization within an acquisition-based model of abductive reanalysis. In Muriel Norde & Freek Van de Velde (eds.), Exaptation in language change, 197-225. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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