On the mysterious emergence of language

Ironically, what makes it hard to discern how language evolved is a result of language having evolved (Christine Kenneally, The First Word)

In a short piece I wrote in January about a “talking” harbour seal, I mentioned Christine Kenneally’s book The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. More recently I watched a talk Kenneally gave, hence this reprise.

Her book delves into several of my pet interests: linguistics, natural history, psychology, evolution, animal behaviour and communication, and cognitive science. It’s an accessible and up-to-date work of popular evolutionary linguistics, exploring what language is and how it arose. It discusses what is known and accepted about these matters, and it assesses points of uncertainty and dispute.

Something very strange about evolutionary linguistics is that the subject was effectively off limits for so long. In 1866 the Société de Linguistique de Paris rejected all material concerning the origin of language; six years later the London Philological Society followed suit. This scholastic self-censorship helped make language evolution a discredited subject for decades, and it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that it began to gradually regain academic credibility.

In an author’s note to The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad wrote: “Man may smile and smile but he is not an investigating animal. He loves the obvious. He shrinks from explanation.” There is something to this observation. I’m reminded of the widespread aversion to studying consciousness when behaviourism dominated mainstream psychology, and the related reluctance to accept the phenomenon of neuroplasticity (and its significance to learning).

In late 2007 Christine Kenneally gave a talk about the origins of language and the development of its scientific study, as part of the Authors@Google programme. Her presentation covers much the same material as her book, though obviously in a more condensed and sketchy form, and with questions and answers from the audience:

Kenneally’s website has more information, including related articles and links and several reviews of The First Word. Erika Hoff’s review (PDF, 22 kB) for the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology is an especially interesting read; it includes what seems to be a fair assessment of the book’s shortcomings, which are easily outweighed by its merits.

[image source]

8 Responses to On the mysterious emergence of language

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    This is a topic which holds my interest too, Stan, as you know. I will pursue this Kenneally talk when back in Highspeed Heaven and out of Dialup Dementia.
    I am hoping, perhaps foolishly, of some changes to this sad outport status, when a column I wrote hits the papers tomorrow.
    XO
    WWW

  2. Stan says:

    I thought this might appeal to you, WWW. It has been years since I visited the internet by way of Dialup Dementia, but I’ll never forget its capacity to frustrate.

  3. Tim says:

    The evolution of language within itself is very interesting. Having studied a little Old English and Middle English for my English Lit. degree, I was fascinated by where our so-called Modern English came from.

    The roots of a culture are as intertwined with the markings and makings — the dawning and development — of its language as culture and language themselves are an inseparable conglomeration of communicative and experiential existence.

    The romantic in me sees language itself as an adventure to be pursued. XD

  4. Stan says:

    It’s a fascinating story all right, Tim, and like all stories it carries different shades, details and emphases in each telling and in the mind of every listener or reader. The romantic in you has it right, I think: an adventure is what it is, an unpredictable quest of exploration without a fixed destination, and with no end of intrigue and (mild) excitement along its winding way.

  5. Stewart says:

    I’m glad to see this post, Stan! Language evolution is, essentially, what I study these days.

    Have you looked at Terrence Deacon’s book (The Symbolic Species) yet? An older, but still surprisingly relevant book on the topic. One of the best.

    Also, I think you’ll enjoy this paper:
    http://cnl.psych.cornell.edu/pubs/2008-cc-BBS.pdf

  6. Stan says:

    Hi Stewart! Thanks very much for the link; I’ve downloaded the paper for later reading. Deacon’s book seems excellent (I quoted briefly from it here), but I’ve only dipped into it. Hopefully I’ll soon find time to read it through. The problem with my unread-book mountain is not so much its size as its fierce internal competitiveness…

  7. […] “what makes it hard to discern how language evolved is a result of language having evolved”. I blogged briefly before about this book and Kenneally’s talk on its […]

  8. […] One of these, you may have spotted, is a library book, while another appeared in an earlier bookmash and I still haven’t read it. I discussed Buñuel’s book in a recent post on curses and adjectives; Kenneally’s featured some years ago in a brief post on language evolution. […]

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