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Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans
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Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans

3.97 of 5 stars 3.97  ·  rating details  ·  152 ratings  ·  31 reviews
How language evolved has been called “the hardest problem in science.” In Adam’s Tongue, Derek Bickerton—long a leading authority in this field—shows how and why previous attempts to solve that problem have fallen short. Taking cues from topics as diverse as the foraging strategies of ants, the distribution of large prehistoric herbivores, and the construction of ecologica ...more
Hardcover, 286 pages
Published March 17th 2009 by Hill and Wang (first published 2009)
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I first heard about Derek Bickerton in Language: A Social Mirror. I think the book I'd heard of was Bastard Tongues, or perhaps another of his books, but upon going to GoodReads this was the one that looked most interesting at that moment, and the one I spent my Dad's money on.

The reason it interested me was because I'm interested in evolution and language, but not as a scientist— more like a fiction writer. So I was looking for more a plausible scenario for how language started than the other i
Mikael Lind
This book was a big disappointment for me. I've had my eyes on it for a long time, and I finally decided to order a cheap copy of it (an old library copy) and read it. It covers about everything that I think is interesting about language and evolution: comparisons between music and language, studies on human language and animal communication systems, the presence or absence of recursion in human and animal thought, and other topics related to theories about why language emerged.

Bickerton does a
This book takes its cue from some of the ideas in Bickerton's earlier books, Language and Species and his memoir/travelogue Bastard Tongues (a FUN read) to take another crack at "the hardest problem in science". Well, in some ways it's an intractable problem (for now at least) and I always wonder at some point after I read books like this why I expected some substantial new insight.

With this book I've come to realize I'll read anything by Bickerton. Language and Species was sort of formative for
“Adam’s Tongue” is a significant departure from the previous book by Derek Bickerton (“Bastard Tongues”), which indulged in intellectual autobiography at the expense of rigor in narrative and presentation. Though no less entertainingly written (as a matter of fact, the superior structure is less distracting), this book stands head and shoulders above the other one as a work of popular science.
The first part of the book is a coherent survey of the current theories in the evolution of language am
Lee Ellen
I purchased this book expecting an exciting history of the co-evolution of language and the human mind; however, the author seems to have bitten off more than he can chew. His thesis runs all over the place in his attempt to pull together linguistics, early human history, anthropology, cognitive science and social science.

Especially galling is the author’s habit of refuting the hypotheses of some of his most esteemed colleagues, especially Steven Pinker, yet the points he refutes seem to be tak
Jeremy Begley
A lackluster presentation of other theorists' ideas. It should have been edited down to a one line blurb on the back of the book that it promoted as its central theme; Niche Construction: the Neglected Process of Evolution by Odling-Smee, Laland, and Feldman. A book I might read in the future if I can get over the vile taste of bile that Bickerton's tone left me with every time I think of it.
Phylogenetically, humans are African apes, close kin to chimpanzees and gorillas. Ecologically, however, we are more like eusocial insects such as bees, ants and termites. Our numbers are huge, many of us live in large cities, and our labor is specialized. We are not there yet, of course, but it took ants millions of years to become what they are now. Reproduction is not centralized among us the way it is among them, but our political structures pay close attention to it. We breed conformists: r ...more
This is a fascinating book written by one of the most amusing and irreverent linguists out there, Derek Bickerton. In an approachable, conversational style, Bickerton gives his argument for how language evolved alongside the human species, and in fact played a major role in triggering the transition from pre-human ancestors like Homo habilis and Homo erectus to modern Homo sapiens sapiens.

His explanatory tool is niche construction, the idea that organisms shape and are shaped by their environme
This book is just about the most perfect match of brilliant insights and frustrating authorial personality I've encountered---much has been made, even in the book's own blurbs, of Bickerton's often snarky dismemberment of competing theories and ideas, but, despite this, the array of fascinating tidbits and flawlessly argued rhetoric in regards to the evolution of language make this a dynamo for anyone who fancies his/herself a person of linguistic and/or anthropological curiosity. Included withi ...more
Nicholas Wang
How did language and advanced thought evolve? Is one the prerequisite for the other? Bickerton gives his take, upending conventional wisdom (or at least, his take on conventional wisdom - I don't actually know).

The pace undulates throughout, at times getting mired in what appear to be personal battles against the "language elite". And that's my main beef: the apparent vendetta detracts and distracts from the thesis. My other dislike is the abrupt ending. The book spends the bulk of its pages bui
Seth Kolloen
One of the best-written science books I can remember reading; Bickerton has this accessible and frequently funny voice that's a pleasure to read...most books about language, ironically, make very poor use of it!

The book is Bickerton's argument for how he thinks human language evolved...which has to come *after* he assures us that human language *did* evolve (apparently many linguists think it just sprang into being at some point). The best parts of the book come when he speculates about early hu
Thought-provoking. I don't read many philosophical books anymore, because I'm burnt out by philosophers. Bickerton might not consider himself as Philosopher as his degree is in Linguistics, but I do. Philosophy was the first to ask the question: which came first? language or the human mind? As with many of the questions Philosophy posed, eventually another field was birthed from Philosophy's questions and answers, and thus we have persons such as Bickerton and Faust commenting on language, drawi ...more
This book was not as interesting as I wanted it to be... more dry than I expected given the cover description and blurbs, and a relatively slow slog for me to finish it. Also, maybe I just didn't get it, but I felt that it didn't deliver on the promise of the subtitle. He was great at picking apart everyone else's theories of language evolution and explaining why those don't hold up, and his early steps in advancing his own theory made sense, but in the end I still didn't see how he jumps from a ...more
Matt Kimball
I've got a soft spot for books about evolutionary biology and human prehistory. Adam's Tongue combines both, and presents a plausible and detailed theory about the evolutionary pressures which might have caused humans to acquire language during humanity's period as savanna scavengers two million years ago. Bickerton is at his best when he paints a vivid picture of pre-human savanna life and how a very simple proto-language might have contributed directly to survival. Overall, it is a compelling ...more
Jul 27, 2010 Ubik added it
"What I learned from this book"? Some guy's stoned coffee-shop-worthy opinions. Yes, lets just throw out what everyone else says completely arbitrarily and then turn right around and tout these crazy theories (which might not seem AS crazy if they werent presented the way they were) and not give ANY scientific evidence to back them up while at the same time dismissing every other theory which has had at least *some* science (or at least general agreement amongst linguists) behind it. Really logi ...more
Mirko Montanari
The book analyses the problem of how language could have been born during the evolution of humans. The author characterizes the requirements for a theory that explains the evolution of language, and then proposes a theory of the origin of language based on niche evolution theory.

Apart from addressing language, the book provides a nice introduction to niche evolution theory. I didn't know about this theory, but it looks like a very compelling explanation for the existence of the punctuated equil
An interesting book about language evolution. Bickerton's theories seem plausible and he takes one through his logical argument that language made humans. He focused on evolutionary "niche" theory and talks about how this idea has changed his perceptions of language. However, his pugnacious tone wore me down - there's no other theory about language evolution that isn't held up for view and then shot down and seems to have a personal vendetta against a few of his rivals. Still, I found the book i ...more
Matthew Showman
Intriguing stories. Intriguing linguistic possibilities.
I read the turkish translation which seems superb and very fluent. congrat to the translator Mehmet Dogan. niche construction is an interesting theory and author gave a nice argument about his approach on the origin of language. but at the and to much speculations he seemed to add to his proposed thoughts and i got lost in that tract
Tom Griffith
Not sure if I agree with what Bickerton says, but gee he says it well! A very well-argued case for how humans developed language. Got lost in the linguistic stuff at the end, but overall this was a very enjoyable introduction to the topic.
İskender Öksüz
Made me more confident in my understanding of human evolution- evolution of the 'homo'. A must read. Although a bit wordy in places.

Loved a quip he makes about a past mistake: "I was too young at the time, I was only 65."
Good Zack
My personal favorite book on the evolution of language, written by an old curmudgeon (older than Chomsky!) who takes no nonsense, but is fully aware of nonsense or or speculation as he writes it.
Christine Thomas
Like being in a lecture hall with a funny, earnest professor of language. Read more here:
Really interesting and easy to read account of how humans acquired language. The author asserts that it was language which made our big brains possible, not the other way around.
Mark Flowers
Bickerton has a way of writing as if disagreeing with him is either impossible or incredibly wrong-headed, but on the other hand, he makes a good argument.
A cranky linguist explores the origins of language. An interesting, if slightly pompous look at one theory of where language comes from.
I thought this book was very engaging and readable. The find the author's theory on the development of language convincing.
Grumpy academic writes book about how smart he is! (Also addresses issue of evolution and language.)
Reviewing an advance copy of this for Publishers Weekly. The book comes out on March 24, 2009.
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Derek Bickerton (born March 25, 1926) is a linguist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Based on his work in creole languages in Guyana and Hawaii, he has proposed that the features of creole languages provide powerful insights into the development of language both by individuals and as a feature of the human species. He is the originator and main proponent of the language b ...more
More about Derek Bickerton...
Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages Language and Species Language and Human Behavior More Than Nature Needs: Language, Mind, and Evolution King of the Sea

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