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The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language

3.69  ·  Rating Details ·  727 Ratings  ·  110 Reviews
A compelling look at the quest for the origins of human language from an accomplished linguist

Language is a distinctly human gift. However, because it leaves no permanent trace, its evolution has long been a mystery, and it is only in the last fifteen years that we have begun to understand how language came into being.

The First Word is the compelling story of the quest
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published July 19th 2007 by Viking Adult (first published January 1st 2007)
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Dec 29, 2007 David rated it liked it
Split into two parts, because of length:

“The First Word”, Christine Kenneally’s “search for the origins of language” comes with its share of celebrity endorsements. The back cover contains laudatory blurbs from both Steven Pinker (“a clear and splendidly written account ...”) and author of “The Ghost Map”, Steven Johnson, (“a rare and delightful mix...”). Then there is the following gem on the inside jacket cover – “The First Word is not only a compelling historical account of our greatest intel
Jay Bhattacharya
Nov 10, 2009 Jay Bhattacharya rated it it was ok
I picked this up because I wanted to see what happened to evolutionary linguistics after Pinker's "Language Instinct." The main thing I learned from this book is that not all evolutionary linguists share Steven Pinker's disdain for chimpanzee sign-language experiments. Kenneally is strongly attached to the view that human language skills are not particularly unique in the animal world. Consequently, she paints Noam Chomsky as a villain who, with his focus on complex human syntax and universal gr ...more
Isa Chandra
Aug 15, 2007 Isa Chandra rated it it was amazing
If you've ever wondered how different you and your cat are or if Noam Chomsky might be an asshole, you should read this book. It doesn't actually say that Noam Chomsky is an asshole, quite the opposite actually, that's just me.

The author writes with great objectivity and keeps thing moving along with an interesting but unobtrusive voice.
Lara Messersmith-Glavin
May 27, 2008 Lara Messersmith-Glavin rated it really liked it
Recommended to Lara by: My mother-in-law gave it as a wonderful gift!
Shelves: linguistics, mind
Linguistic evolution doesn't grab you? Then read it purely for the sections on animal cognition - crows and dolphins and apes...all mind-blowing. Did you know that some orangutans kiss each other goodnight?

Christine Kenneally does a good job of balancing a number of tricky things in this book: she takes concepts that are generally not accessible to lay readers and renders them fresh, exciting, and lucid; she clearly and coolly maps the human interest and petty (or not-so-petty) intellectual co
Dec 20, 2007 Alex rated it really liked it
In much the way that modern scholars tend to pit Alan Turing against Ludwig Wiggenstein—smug and mechanical versus gruff and irreverent—Kenneally throws Noam Chomsky in the ring with Phillip Leiberman. Chomsky is Platonist at heart, a man who sees things in terms of formal systems, clean mathematical structures, innate capacities. Lieberman, conversely, has little use for pretty boxes and arrows. He sees language from the bottom up—a messy, soft-tissue affair that could only have emerged through ...more
K. C. Smith
Christine Kenneally’s The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language presents a fascinating subject. I picked it up at the library while there to get something entirely unrelated because it jumped off the shelf and into my hands. I have never actually studied linguistics―though sometimes I wonder if I should have―but I do have a keen amateur interest (someone in the office I am currently working in saw me reading this book the other day and asked if I was a linguist―I said I was an amate ...more
Jimmy Ele
Dec 20, 2015 Jimmy Ele rated it really liked it
“Language is the real information highway, the first virtual world. Language is the worldwide web, and everyone is logged on.”

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language is a great book filled with many opinions and facts on the topic of language evolution. I thoroughly enjoyed the chapters on animal communication and the chapters on the many differing opinions on whether the complexity of the human language is something truly unique. The chapter on the studies in human genetics were
Douglas Summers-Stay
Sep 26, 2014 Douglas Summers-Stay rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This was a summary of current research on the cultural, mental and genetic factors involved in the prehistoric origin of language. There is a lot of difference of opinion on even to what extent language is an invention (like writing was) and to what extent it is an instinct, like most animal noises are.
One of the most interesting parts was whether in language, metaphorically speaking, "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." That is, do children learning to speak follow roughly the same order of lan
Apr 14, 2016 David rated it did not like it
Gossipy...not overly informative or instructive about the origins of language. Not recommended even as an introduction to this fascinating subject.
Sep 10, 2016 Connie rated it it was amazing
A friend lent me The First Word – The Search for the Origins of Language 3 years ago. I read it with great interest, but of course did not underline a borrowed book. To really grasp the account, a few months ago, I got my own copy and underlined away. What a treat of a read!

A gorgeous book, beautifully written and carefully argued. We certainly don’t have all the answers on the origins of language among human beings. But we have many clues in evolutionary linguistics. Author Christine Kenneally,
Feb 04, 2008 Travis rated it liked it
Recommended to Travis by: steven caro
His theories accepted as gospel, Noam Chomsky dominates linguistics, for better or worse, and because Chomsky considers language evolution unimportant, most linguists ignore the subject reflexively. Christine Kenneally, however, goes where other linguists fear to tread: she ponders the evolution of language, its implications, and why it matters.

Kenneally introduces research I never learned in school, research I find fascinating now. Still, I would have liked more substantive data; much of the re
Anne Van
Jun 09, 2010 Anne Van rated it really liked it
A delightful book! The writer presents an intriguing and controversial question about how did human language evolve. Is it so uniquely human, with complexity and innateness, or could it have evolved slowly through gesture and protolanguage that we share with non-human species. The writer presents both sides, with just enough explanation about how Noam Chomsky's ideas about syntax and Universal Grammar to follow the story, with new research going in from ape language to computer modeling, all cle ...more
Gerard Brown
Jul 12, 2012 Gerard Brown rated it liked it
Flew through the first 100 pages of this, but have been slogging through the rest (maybe it was being tapped on a bus that made it easy to pack in that first 100 pages?). I like the way the book drew out some clear lines of argument between various theories of language and also how it gave some time to idea _not_ derived from Chomsky...brilliant though he may be, there are (amazingly!) other people who have thought about this stuff...and it's nice to finally find out who they are...
Dec 31, 2007 Don rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Jason, Dad, Scott, Torbin, qzed, jono, melissa, kristina
Wonderful book. Clearly written, nuanced in how it approaches endlessly complex problems, and facinating in it's ability to synthesize concepts into a presentable whole (as non-whole as the study -- and issues under study -- happen to be.

link to my published notes:

May 31, 2009 Whitaker rated it really liked it
Well-explained, informative, and entertaining. But I'm merely a lay reader in this field, so I'm just going to direct you to Alex Rose's review and David Giltinan's review both of which are excellent and do a far better job of explaining the book than I ever could.
Dec 06, 2010 mwbham rated it really liked it
I loved this book. It reminded me of reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's The Woman That Never Evolved in 1982.
Oct 14, 2016 Raymonds009 rated it really liked it
Excellent information on some of the latest findings in the area of language beginnings and development. Clear, if abundant, accounts from all of the parties researching and writing about this issue. You should find it helpful.
Jodi Henderson
Aug 11, 2007 Jodi Henderson marked it as to-read
Shelves: languages

August 12, 2007
Look Who’s Talking


The Search for the Origins of Language.

By Christine Kenneally.

357 pp. Viking. $26.95.

Academia, unlike every other sector of our culture, has apparently been considered too dull and esoteric to merit a reality show, but now there’s a natural vehicle: evolutionary linguistics, an emerging field awash in colorful personalities, wacky experiments and enough conflict to carry several seasons. Don’t let the name throw you; the
Apr 23, 2013 Jennifer rated it it was amazing
I picked up this book because although I have a bachelor's degree in Language Studies, I have not kept up in any serious way with current research in the field but the issue of the origin of human language fascinates me. In fact, writing a paper on it during my senior year of high school is what made me choose my major.

So I have some level of knowledge of linguistics but certainly have a lot to learn too. This book felt comfortable for me: I understood the foundational principles of syntax, phon
Nov 25, 2008 Drew rated it it was amazing
An immensely fascinating read. In addition to eloquently reasoning on the foundation of ample experimental data the strong likelihood of the evolution of language by biological and cultural means, Kenneally does a marvelous job of explaining the nuances and new understandings of the processes of evolution. For that alone, her book is worth reading.

Kenneally includes an appreciated and detailed recounting of the history within linguistics of avoiding the subject of the evolution of language, eith
Apr 02, 2010 Ben rated it really liked it
Christine Kenneally's tour of the origins of language spoils the amateur linguistic, serving them loads of interesting information that is both rich and digestible. But, her greatest accomplishment is her ability to organize a bevy of complex ideas with skillful coherence. Each of the book's sections feels like a course in a well-prepared four-course meal. She introduces the study of language's origin with landmark thinkers of the field-- Noam Chomsky, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Steven Pinker and Paul ...more
Feb 23, 2009 Andrew rated it did not like it
Shelves: didn-t-finish
I was very disappointed by this book, though I shouldn't be surprised by this. The author essentially undertakes an examination of the origin of language using an evolutionary framework. That is to say, her fundamental presupposition is that Darwinian evolution is true and can explain both biological development and traits that we have as humans. While I don't inherently disagree with the various research results she points to as evidence for the evolution of language, I disagree fundamentally w ...more
Nov 01, 2008 Kelly rated it really liked it
After digging up some of the debate on Chomsky's view of the origin of language in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, I found this book which is a very great up to date overview of the topic. Namely, whether humans (and other animals) develop language via natural selection.

Although I did not love the author's style, finally I got my hands on to greater research into the topic of animal language and intelligence. There are some great studies here with apes, birds, dolphins and several other animals. There
Jun 03, 2014 Kirsten rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Kenneally does an admirable job laying out the foundations of evolutionary linguistics and summarizing current research. It's pleasing to read someone with a background both in linguistics and in journalism, especially when exploring current debate.

I got my copy from a non-linguist. We both enjoyed it enough that I don't think jargon or oversimplification are problems, although an academic background probably helps. I actually think the layout and transitions are reasonably well done, especially
Stephen Murley
Sep 09, 2013 Stephen Murley rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 26, 2012 Kristina rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I bought this while "exiting through the gift shop" of the Pacific Science Center's Lucy Exhibit. Finally getting to see Lucy was a VERY big deal for me--I was as starstruck as most people would be upon meeting (insert living celebrity name here).

So, I knew I was asking for trouble buying a book that focuses on the topic I studied for a year in grad school. One of three things was bound happen:

1. The book would be a pleasant reminder of fond memories and would validate many of my opinions on th
Jun 18, 2008 Howard rated it really liked it
Didn't finish this because I had to return it to the library, and there was a hold on it, so I couldn't renew it. But the first half is pretty interesting.

There was a flurry of articles in the eighties about people working backwards from existing languages, trying to reconstruct the earliest human language, which was pretty iffy stuff, but it was always fascinating, and I thought that's what this was going to be about, but it was not. It's about the various schools of thought in academia on how
Aug 03, 2012 Trena rated it really liked it
The substance of this book, which explores the current state of science on how humans developed the capacity for language, is *fascinating.* The section on gesture alone was worth the price of admission, and then the animal studies just blow your mind. There are interesting sections on humanoid evolution and computer modeling of how language might originate and evolve, and a tangent on how language is like a virus. Super interesting, if dense and a bit of a slow read (it took me about 7 weeks, t ...more
FINALLY. I took ages to read this book. I struggle with reading book-length, general studies in language and linguistics these days; I keep expecting the book to organize itself like an academic article, briefly and bluntly stating its argument so I can decide whether to agree with it or not. That is probably why I found the sections on neuroscience, animal behavior, and evolution the most interesting and easy to read--because I know comparatively less about these subjects, so I bring fewer prec ...more
Edwin Battistella
Jul 21, 2013 Edwin Battistella rated it really liked it
Christine Kenneally’s The First Word: The search for the origins of language, is an excellent introduction to recent work on the evolution of language and on animal cognition. Based on recent scholarly work in linguistics, biology and psychology supplemented by interview with researchers working in the field, including Ray Jackendoff, Steven Pinker, Paul Bloom, Philip Lieberman, and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Tecumseh Fitch, and many others, Kenneally gives a lucid summary and contextualization of the ...more
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Christine Kenneally is Australian and received her Ph.D. in linguistics at Cambridge. She has written about language, science, and culture for publications such as the New Yorker, the New York Times, Scientific American, Discover, and Slate.
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“Music, like the visual arts, is rooted in our experience of the natural world," said Schwartz. "It emulates our sound environment in the way that visual arts emulate the visual environment." In music we hear the echo of our basic sound making instrument-the vocal tract. This explanation for human music is simpler still than Pythagoras's mathematical equations: we like the sounds that are familiar to us-specifically, we like sounds that remind us of us.” 5 likes
“Because the light of evolution is not instantaneous or blinding, it is difficult to visualize the immensely slow and gradual change that is brought about by mutation and natural selection. When you consider a protozoan cell or an amphibian, on the one hand, and dolphins or, say, commuters, on the other, there is no intuitive way to make sense of the line that runs from one form of life to the next.

The popular cartoon of evolution, where the ape slowly unbends, straightens up, starts walking, and mutates into some form of modern-day human, is probably the easiest way to think about it. But [...] this caricature is misleading. Evolution does not follow the course of a single line. The tree of life bristles with stems, boughs, and branches. Most lines from one form to another are densely surrounded by branches leading to different species or dead ends.”
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