Friday, January 1, 2010

The First Word

Any Good Books
January 2010

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
Christine Kenneally (2007, Viking)

In The First Word, Christine Kenneally is on the trail of a mystery: “Where, in (pre-)human history, did language come from?” It is a daunting question, to be sure: because words are made of breath, which leaves no fossil record, (when you probe beyond the advent of writing, only about six thousand years ago) it’s hard to see how to tackle it. It’s tempting to invoke the Garden of Eden, or the Tower of Babel, and be done with it.
By way of prologue, Kenneally also tackles an interesting question about the history of her primary question. Although Charles Darwin was curious about the matter, and included some philological speculation in The Descent of Man, major linguistic bodies of his day explicitly declined to countenance papers or talks on the origin of language. That philosophical embargo continued into the twentieth century: the field of Linguistics itself, to the considerable degree that it was dominated by Noam Chomsky, mostly left the question alone. Kenneally says, “Having stripped away all of the untidy bits of language as ‘performance,’ Chomsky defined language as an idealized, perfect, and elegant system. The brain, on the other hand, he said, was messy. How did something so messy develop something so perfect? It was a mystery, he said, one that was, for the time being, insoluble.”
How do you go from an insoluble mystery to an answerable question? It helps to rethink what sort of a thing ‘language’ might be. Of the other linguists Kenneally writes about (having narrowed her cast of characters for the sake of intelligibility,) Philip Lieberman is the most critical of Chomskyan ideas about the uniqueness and perfection of human language. He writes of language “as not so much a new thing that humans have as a new thing we do, and we do it with a collection of neural parts that has long been available to us. Moreover, when you think about language this way, it is not really a ‘thing’ at all but a suite of abilities and predispositions, some recently evolved and some primitive.”
Broken down, that suite of abilities yields to a variety of approaches. Studying apes in the wild gives scientists insight into the way our ancestors may have understood relationships of kinship and reciprocal benevolence. Parrots, dolphins, and chimpanzees have learned to use symbol systems to generate novel expressions. Preverbal human babies, and adults with deficits caused by brain injuries, have also shed light on how the parts of our language apparatus depend on one another.
The recent explosion of genetic data has contributed to the picture; I’m quite thrilled to know that humans have a gene, a bad copy of which inhibits the ability to speak, that is 98% similar to one in birds that allows them to learn how to sing; the current human version is roughly as old as language. All that tells us, though, is that FOXP2 is a necessary but not sufficient condition for human speech; that’s a long way from really understanding how even this one gene is expressed. Kenneally says, “Language evolution research has illuminated a complicated geometry of species, traits, and relationships, and in the face of this newly defined space words like ‘uniqueness,’ ‘innateness,’ and ‘instinct’ have come to mean everything and nothing.”
The First Word contains multitudes, far beyond what I can do justice to in this space. Kenneally writes well, folding the science smoothly into her narrative. While it’s early days for evolutionary linguistics, the good news is that students are coming along who embrace the insights of biology, anthropology, cognitive science, and computer modelling. More good news, says Kenneally: “At the time I wrote this introduction, pretty much every one of the main characters in this book, and a slew of others, was writing his own book to present at greater length his particular version of how language evolved.”
I can’t wait.

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