Author of The Invisible History of the Human Race and The First Word, Christine Kenneally is an award-winning journalist who has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Slate, Time, New Scientist, The Monthly, and other publications. Before becoming a reporter, she received a PhD in linguistics from Cambridge University and a BA (with honors) in English and linguistics from Melbourne University. She was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, and has lived in England, Iowa, and Brooklyn, New York.
Linguist and journalist Kenneally synthesizes linguistic scholarship regarding the evolution of language, namely, scholarship's development and current conclusions. She shares intriguing accounts of research not just about humans but about primates, dolphins, and parrots as well. She also discusses genes specifically identified as impacting language and the computer modeling of language development. Kenneally organizes the various research projects as they relate to a specific scholar's work (e.g., that of primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh) or aspect of language (e.g., sound or gesture), or as they illumine the earliest linguistic evolution. Using her "insider" status as a linguistics scholar, Kenneally augments the narrative through interviews with other scholars, representing a wide variety of views she supports with endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. Her work stands out among numerous recent publications for its presentation of so many aspects of linguistic research. Its systematic explanation of large amounts of scholarship throughout makes it most appropriate for students and other scholars. Recommended for academic libraries.-Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
This book grows out of Kenneally's conviction that "investigating the evolution of language is a good and worthwhile pursuit"-a stance that most in the field of linguistics disparaged until about 20 years ago. The result is a book that is as much about evolutionary biology as it is about linguistics. We read about work with chimpanzees, bonobos, parrots and even robots that are being programmed to develop language evolutionarily. Kenneally, who has written about language, science and culture for the New Yorker and Discover among others, has a breezily journalistic style that is occasionally witty but more often pragmatic, as she tries to distill academic and scientific discourses into terms the casual reader will understand. She introduces the major players in the field of linguistics and behavioral studies-Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Philip Lieberman-as well as countless other anthropologists, biologists and linguists. Kenneally's insistence upon seeing human capacity for speech on an evolutionary continuum of communication that includes all other animal species provides a respite from ideological declamations about human supremacy, but the book will appeal mainly to those who are drawn to the nuts and bolts of scientific inquiry into language. (July 23) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
It never hurts to begin with a genius, so the author opens by
declaring, "the story of language evolution studies is unavoidably
the story of the intellectual reign of Noam Chomsky." Before
Chomsky, linguists searched for new languages, wrote down
vocabulary and grammar and compared them to other languages. They
never addressed questions about the origin of language because
conventional wisdom declared such questions could not be answered.
Sixty years ago, Chomsky pointed out that infants learn to talk
merely by interacting with those around them for a few years. Since
conversation contains too little information to provide rules for
this incredibly complex skill, humans must be born with the unique
ability to learn to speak. This assertion galvanized a generation
of researchers who turned their attention to the roots of language.
Since Chomsky asserted that language is a uniquely human
phenomenon, he doubted evolution played a role in its origin. So
great was his influence that scientists have only recently overcome
their inhibitions and turned up fascinating evidence to the
contrary. Readers will blink as the author describes studies
demonstrating that animals use language and can be taught more.
Early, highly publicized experiments with apes gave the field a bad
reputation because the animals seemed to be responding to trainers'
cues, but careful studies make it clear that many animals can
employ syntax and vocabulary at the level of a three-year-old
human. Despite our vastly superior language abilities, researchers
have yet to find any speech areas in the human brain that are not
present elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Kenneally's book features
a steady stream of brilliant, opinionated people expressing ideas
that often contradict those of other brilliant people, but she
channels this flood of frequently technical arguments into a
comprehensible and stimulating narrative.
Lively portrait of a fascinating new scientific field.
All branches of science search for origins. Biologists want to know how life on earth began. Astronomers want to know how the universe got started. Even in mathematics, questions about how different numerical systems came to be constitute a legitimate line of inquiry.
Linguists are different. In the middle of the 19th century, the main professional bodies governing linguistic research formally banned any investigation into the origins of language, regarding it as pointless. The topic remained disreputable for more than a century, but in the last decade or so, language evolution has eased toward the front burner, attracting the attention of linguists, neuroscientists, psychologists and geneticists. Their search is the subject of The First Word, Christine Kenneallys lucid survey of this expanding field, dedicated to solving what she calls the hardest problem in science today.
One nut to crack is the nature of language itself, and here Ms. Kenneally introduces the unignorable presence in virtually every linguistic debate, Noam Chomsky. Mr. Chomsky and his many adherents regard language as a uniquely human endowment, centered in a specific area of the brain. It gives every living person the ability, unsought, to generate infinite strings of sentences in infinite combinations. Animals, in this view, do not have language, nor do they think. The reasons that humans speak, or how language might have made itsway to the human brain, do not matter. It may simply be that in a linguistic version of the big bang, a language mutation suddenly appeared, and that was that.
This view now faces many rivals. The big-bang theory has been countered by linguists who believe that just as the eye evolved to meet a need for vision, language evolved to meet the need for communication. Ms. Kenneally ushers onto the stage researchers who have discovered that many animal species possess languagelike skills previously unimagined and, without benefit of syntax or words, have a complicated inner life. They believe that the study of animal language and gestures could shed light on a possible protolanguage stage in human development.
The idea that language is restricted to a specific area of the brain has been more or less discarded. Brain researchers now believe that language tasks are assigned throughout the brain. Moreover, some linguists now believe that language is a two-way street. Its not something emanating from the brain of a communicating human. It actually changes the processes of the brain. Stroke victims suffering from aphasia, a condition involving language loss, do not simply find it difficult to communicate, they also find it more difficult to categorize, remember and organize information.
One of Ms. Kenneallys most intriguing scientists, Simon Kirby, a linguist at the University of Edinburgh who works with computer models, has proposed the idea that language might be a self-evolving phenomenon. Somewhat like a computer virus, it changes and adapts to survive.
Ms. Kenneally, a linguist trained at the University of Cambridge, covers an enormous expanse of ground as she brings thereader up to date on developments in a wide variety of disciplines touching on language evolution. At times, she lapses into a somewhat mechanical recitation of experiments, papers and positions, which she tries to enliven, in vain, by inserting long, unedited quotations from her interview subjects that could just as well have been paraphrased.
On the plus side, she explains difficult ideas concisely and clearly, and she maintains a firm grip on the steering wheel, moving the overall argument along in a straight line. Above all, she is scrupulously fair-minded. Although obviously taken with the idea of language evolution and language acquisition as a continuum seen in primitive form in other species, she gives Mr. Chomsky his due, despite his withering scorn for most of the ideas she presents, and defends him from his most vehement detractors.
Best of all, Ms. Kenneally zeroes in on a host of fascinating experiments. What happens when one ape trained in sign language meets another equally proficient ape for the first time? Not communication, it turns out. What resulted was a sign-shouting match; neither ape was willing to listen, Ms. Kenneally reports.
Mr. Kirby, the computer modeler, devised an experiment in which subjects were shown objects on a screen along with words describing the objects in what was represented as an invented alien language. The subjects were asked to learn the language. In testing one student after the other, however, Mr. Kirby added new objects to the ones already shown, whereupon the subjects unthinkingly generated new words and combinations. These changes were added to the core list and passed along to successive subjects who, trying to master the language created, in part, by each of their predecessors, made their own additions and changes.
Except for the initial random language given to the first subject, there was no alien language, only the contributions of each individual, which were culturally transmitted from generation to generation, Ms. Kenneally writes. Each subject in the experiment believed that he was simply giving back what he had learned, but instead the language was evolving.
In similar fashion, researchers have been looking at Internet sites that generate their own protolanguages and linguistic structures.
Ms. Kenneally concludes with a little experiment of her own. She asks many of the subjects she interviewed to imagine a group of infants stranded on the Galapagos Islands, provided with all the necessities of life but no access to speech. Would they create a language? How many babies would it take, what might their language be like, and how would it change over the generations?
The answers range from no language to sign language to a full-fledged language in three generations. The real point is that Ms. Kenneally could gather 15 linguists willing to think about the problem. Onward to the first Neanderthal dictionary.
"The New York Times" (daily)
a A clear and splendidly written account of a new field of research on a central question about the human species.a
aSteven Pinker, author of "The Blank Slate"
a A crash course on imitation, gesture, abstract thought, and speech. . . . It is eminently worthy of attention.a
a Scientists who study the origins of language are a passionate, fractious bunch, and you donat have to be an egghead to be tantalized by the questions that drive their research: how and when did we learn to speak, and to what extent is language a uniquely human attribute? What [Kenneally] describes is fascinating.a
a"The New York Times Book Review"
A clear and splendidly written account of a new field of research on a central question about the human species.
Steven Pinker, author of "The Blank Slate"
A crash course on imitation, gesture, abstract thought, and speech. . . . It is eminently worthy of attention.
Scientists who study the origins of language are a passionate, fractious bunch, and you don t have to be an egghead to be tantalized by the questions that drive their research: how and when did we learn to speak, and to what extent is language a uniquely human attribute? What [Kenneally] describes is fascinating.
"The New York Times Book Review"
? A clear and splendidly written account of a new field of research on a central question about the human species.?
?Steven Pinker, author of "The Blank Slate"
? A crash course on imitation, gesture, abstract thought, and speech. . . . It is eminently worthy of attention.?
? Scientists who study the origins of language are a passionate, fractious bunch, and you don?t have to be an egghead to be tantalized by the questions that drive their research: how and when did we learn to speak, and to what extent is language a uniquely human attribute? What [Kenneally] describes is fascinating.?
?"The New York Times Book Review"