Christine Kenneally, author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, is actually no stranger to me. She has linked up Anthropology.net before, and ever seen then I’ve subscribed to her site’s RSS feeds.
When I caught news that the New York Times is running a book review of her new title, I was intrigued. The book seems more expansive than just a run down on current lingustic studies. It integrates anthropology, genetics, neuroscience, and much more. Here’s some excerpts that should spark some interest,
“…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 Kenneally’s 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…. Animals, in this view, do not have language, nor do they think. The reasons that humans speak, or how language might have made its way 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… language evolved to meet the need for communication. Ms. Kenneally ushers onto the stage researchers who have discovered that many animal species possess language like 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. It’s not something emanating from the brain of a communicating human. It actually changes the processes of the brain.”
The New York Times favorably reviews her book, but I must disclaim that she is a freelancer who frequents the publication so it maybe a bit biased. Much more objective reviews, such as the two on Amazon.com currently, also favorable review it. I for one will try and get my hands on the book soon, I’ve queued it up on my wishlist.
Related Anthropology.net content, EHL Linguists try to identify a time where there was only one language.