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the first word

5 june 2008

Christine Kenneally's First Word is a highly readable, energetic synthesis of two decades of recent academic work on the origins of human language. Ranging widely into primatology, ethology, computer modeling, paleoanthropology, and genetics, Kenneally assembles research on the question of how the human species developed language. Her thesis is that we don't know precisely how we got language, but we have a pretty good notion that it was selected for in the ordinary course of evolution, much like other things we're proud of (our opposable thumbs and bipedal locomotion). Language neither descended from the skies nor just showed up randomly one day.

The First Word is cast as a scientific-revolution narrative. Till about 20 years ago, the story goes, the world of linguistics was dominated by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky had pared away all sorts of material from language – pragmatics (how people actually talk, what Chomsky called "performance"), gesture, social and speech-act contexts, writing, speech pathologies – in a desire to focus attention on pure syntax. Syntax, Chomskyans argued, reflects a universal underlying pattern in all human brains. There was no room for speculations about how human beings evolved the capacity for that syntax. Linguistic investigation resided in the eternal now, its only data the hermetic diagrams of transformational linguistics.

Around twenty years ago, Kenneally says, the paradigm began to shift. Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom published an article in 1990 called "Natural Language and Natural Selection," in which they argued that more attention needed to be paid to the biological matrix within which this astringent syntactic ability developed.

Noam Chomsky himself didn't necessarily disagree.

[Chomsky] said that he was not at all opposed to the idea that language evolved – of course it did – and that many parts of it were adaptive for communication. But he had great reservations about whether what he and serious linguists called language – the unique mental syntactic component – originated in the act of communication. (57)
At first, that may seem a bizarre position to take: language didn't originate in communication? That's like saying that sex didn't originate in reproduction, or that eyes didn't originate in sight.

But the big struggle here was not over evolution itself. Everything bodily about us has "evolved" from our ancestors. As Kenneally points out, the debate is over the mechanism of evolution. Is language an adaptation (allowing its possessors to reproduce more successfully and avoid the extinction of their genetic material)? Or is it what biologists call an "exaptation": something that just happened (whether by genetic "drift" or as a side consequence of some other adaptation) and was then was turned to use by its possessors (think of music, which seems adaptively useless but is universal to the human species).

The surplus, often rococo features of language seem to point to it as an exaptation. Opposable thumbs and upright stance had easily imaginable benefits: make stone weapon, hit beast, live to reproduce some more. Basic communication cries like those of some monkey species would be highly adaptive: "Beast there! Hit beast!" But it is very hard to imagine an adaptive scenario that could have produced the ability to compose the epic of Gilgamesh. (And in fact, that was Chomsky's position: natural selection for language was simply "hard to imagine." His acolytes took that to mean that it was impossible; if Chomsky can't imagine something, who could?)

Since Pinker & Bloom's 1990 article, research has discovered that primates are much more linguistic than we'd previously imagined. Researchers have discovered genes that encode certain precise aspects of language (or at least, when they don't function optimally, produce amazingly specific deficits in language). Language seems to consist of much more than Chomskyan syntax, and includes gestures that we share with apes, cognition that we share with dolphins, phonology that we share with birds, and a social capacity that we share with baboons. It could well have evolved bit by bit; even syntax seems more and more like a general cognitive capacity, not some marvelous near-supernatural endowment.

But there was long resistance to this evolutionary research, in part, as Pinker explains, because "Chomsky was a well-known left politician, and people perceived sociobiology, as it was then called, as right-wing" (56-57). In a nutshell, that's the ideological context of the whole debate, little explored here by Kenneally.

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