Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language

Rate this book
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 for the origins of human language. The book follows two intertwined narratives. The first is an account of how language developed, how the random and layered processes of evolution wound together to produce a talking animal: us. The second addresses why scientists are at last able to explore the subject. For more than a hundred years, language evolution was considered a scientific taboo. Kenneally focuses on figures like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, along with cognitive scientists, biologists, geneticists, and animal researchers, in order to answer the fundamental question: Is language a uniquely human phenomenon?

The First Word is the first book of its kind written for a general audience. Sure to appeal to fans of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, Kenneally's book is set to join them as a seminal account of human history.

368 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2007

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Christine Kenneally

6 books83 followers
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.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
240 (23%)
4 stars
372 (36%)
3 stars
308 (30%)
2 stars
80 (7%)
1 star
15 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 141 reviews
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
May 7, 2021
HAL Has Always Been A False Friend

Remember the opening scene of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? A hairy primate handles a thigh bone, presumably of a dead animal, and suddenly discovers it is a a tool, possibly a weapon. Cut to the inter-planetary research vehicle en route to a strange signal in the far reaches of the solar system. Thus, we are meant to understand, is the beginning of technological development, and eventually extra-terrestrial exploration. Obvious. A well thought out allegory for human progress, right?

Wrong. Seals and sea otters use rocks to open mollusks (so do some fish); chimpanzees use sticks to dig for termites; elephants manufacture fly-swatters from tree branches; dolphins make nose-protectors out of sponges. But none of these species have proliferated like Homo sapiens, much less indulged in space exploration. Kubrick’s allegory is flawed.

There is, though, an important technology which is fundamental to human development. But it isn’t the discovery of fire, or the usefulness of old bones, or the ability to live in social groups. Far more important is the technology that we take for granted and that has dominated us as completely as HAL, the computer, dominated Kubrick’s hapless astronauts: language.

Language is what enables us to be the dominant species on the planet. All the tools that we have used to subjugate the natural world and each other - spears, sailing ships, submarines and spaceships. These and almost everything else we consider part of normal human existence are embodied language. They all require not just plans, blueprints and instructions, but also a long history of thought and discussion (and therefore language) in their creation.

So it is the discovery of language not the usefulness of thigh bones that Kubrick should have used in his opening. But he couldn’t because the mystery of language is so profound that there really is no cinematic or any other way to represent its origins. Language ability depends on complex anatomical, neurological, and sociological interactions. Some researchers think the right conditions for language occurred as recently as 10,000 years ago; others suggest that it might be 100,000 years or more (still an eye-blink in evolutionary much less cosmic terms). The big linguistic bang of writing only occurred 6000 years ago. No one knows if the development was rapid, like the discovery by Kubrick’s primate, or incremental over hundreds, perhaps, thousands of generations.

Kenneally’s idea of ‘the first word’ is an attempt to remedy Kubrick’s misleading suggestion that technology is the engine of human progress. It isn’t. Language is the driver of our species-development. And our facility with language really hasn’t been going on long enough to justify the term ‘progress’ at all. Language, as Kubrick’s film implies, seems to have a life of its own. HAL is language which just happens to be in the form of a machine, a literal embodiment of the ‘no-thing’ that is language. It is revealed as a ‘thing’ controlling the astronauts only because it speaks to them and refuses to do what they ask. In everyday life we are unaware of HAL’s presence because language prefers to hide its existence, pretending that it is simply an obedient carrier of human intentions and an accurate expression of reality.

But language is neither obedient nor accurate. It is a kind of spirit which is nowhere and everywhere. It is in us, among us and beyond us simultaneously. As the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, quipped: “Language speaks Man.” That is, language is what we are as both a species and individuals. We don’t have an option to use it but are forced into it from the moment we are born. We are socialised in and through language; then educated in the intricacies and conventions of language; and eventually learn how to survive and make careers within some industrial, professional, or academic ‘bubble’ of language in which success is measured almost entirely by criteria established in and by language.

Of course language is useful. But we tend to confuse usefulness with reality. For example, Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity as a force acting instantaneously at a distance has proven very useful in, among other things, space exploration. But gravity as Newton thought of it simply doesn’t exist. There is no such force. Scientists now speak of gravity as a distortion of space-time. And, who knows, when the secrets of quantum gravity are eventually uncovered, there may well be further explanations that debunk today’s version of reality.

This point is at the heart of Kenneally’s very accessible little book. The world of language is quite separate from the physical world in which it, and we, operate. And the connection between these two world is tenuous. Even the pragmatic criterion of ‘if it works, it must be true,’ is profoundly unreliable. This is demonstrated by the advance of science itself as theories once held as approximations of reality are discarded as fundamentally misguided. Not only is there no way to verify the connections between words and things, but there is also no way to know if such a verification has even taken place. Language resists any attempt to tie it down, to be tested and evaluated for its connection to what is not language.

So language - in the form of concepts, words, propositions, arguments, theories - pretends to be reality. And we tend to go along with the deception because we really have no alternative. We can’t function without it. As Kenneally points out, “The creation of the net was an awesome leap in technological evolution. Yet for all that it offers, it is the merest shadow of something much larger and much older. Language is the real information highway, the first virtual world. Language is the worldwide web, and everyone is logged on.” And, one must add, we have been trapped in that web from the very first word uttered, perhaps, in a sort of shriek of triumph similar to Kubrick’s primate with his thigh bone.

I suggest that it is somewhat premature, even now, to recognise that ancient shriek as one of human triumph. It could well be one of cosmic despair.
Profile Image for Jay Bhattacharya.
30 reviews4 followers
November 10, 2009
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 grammar (and by implication human uniqueness), has led evolutionary linguistics into fruitless controversy and blind paths. I'm willing to be persuaded about this, but the evidence she presents doesn't establish her case. Her writing lacks the charm of Pinker's. In some spots, the material was too dumbed down. In (too many) others, it seemed a dry recitation of the literature. For non-linguists, I suggest waiting for Pinker's next book, despite his biases, rather than reading this one.
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,344 followers
December 30, 2007
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 intellectual faculty but a provocative consideration of what it means, finally, to be human”.

Well, it seems hardly fair to hold an author accountable for whatever silliness her publishers might assemble on a book’s exterior in the interest of boosting sales. Let’s just say that this book is ambitious in its scope and that the author is obviously academically well-qualified. My own formal qualifications in the field of linguistics are non-existent, so this review is from the point of view of a non-specialist with a keen amateur interest in the topic.

An obvious question: ‘is this a book for the non-specialist?’ I think that the publishers would like to market it as such, and that Dr. Kenneally possibly thinks of it that way. But, much as I wanted to like this book, if it is meant to be accessible to the general reader, I think it falls well short of the mark. This is not to say it’s not interesting – there are parts which I found fascinating. But it gives the distinct impression that the author did not have a well-defined audience in mind, or – if she meant it to be accessible to the general reader - she has not mastered the ability to write effectively for a non-specialist audience.

The problems manifest themselves in two main areas. First, the question of scope and organization. There is a definite sense that the author wants this to be a totally comprehensive account of the current state of knowledge. This is fine, but ultimately greatly increases the indigestibility of the book. The book’s structure is unwieldy to the point where one wonders whether Viking actually had an editor read it. A “prelude”, followed by an “introduction”, leading in to a “prologue”? What were they thinking??? The sixteen chapters of the book follow an equally awkward organizational structure. Four are devoted to specific linguists (Chomsky, Pinker & Bloom...). Seven discuss specific features of human language, such as words and syntax, but are clumsily titled. For example, grouped under the blanket heading “If you have human language...” are the “chapters”
• You have something to talk about
• You have words
• You have gestures
• You have a human brain
The next three chapters are grouped under the heading “What evolves?”, and are titled
• Species evolve
• Culture evolves
• Why things evolve
That the author finds it necessary to remind us that a human brain is a prerequisite for human language, or does not appear to recognize that “why things evolve” does not answer the question “what evolves?” are, of course, minor details. Nonetheless, these potentially distracting irritants could have been avoided, given a little more aggressive intervention by a professional editor.
Profile Image for Isa Chandra.
Author 24 books996 followers
August 16, 2007
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.
Profile Image for Lara Messersmith-Glavin.
Author 3 books69 followers
May 28, 2008
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 conflicts that so unscientifically go into shaping the collective knowledge of academia; she brings out the personal stories of individual researchers to lend depth and perspective to their work; and, she maps nicely both the path already traveled and the possible directions things can take in the future.

This is an ambitious, fascinating book, and I am grateful for the opportunity to read about so many different kinds of language study - from paleoarchaeology and animal communication systems to neurocognition and genetics - in one place. It starts with an interesting question, and then proceeds to wrap together an insightful and honest intellectual history of the various ways people, past and present, have tried to answer it.

If nothing else, I'd like to invite Prof. Kenneally over for tea to talk, and I'd give anything to browse in her library.
Profile Image for Alex.
Author 94 books14 followers
December 20, 2007
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 the laborious trial and error process of natural selection.

"Evolution doesn't give a damn about formal elegance," he bellows.

Between these two poles we find a smattering of other researchers—chiefly Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom—each of whom Kenneally presents with admirable thoroughness and clarity. She then proceeds to slug together a hypothetical time line of language evolution, drawing from a great range of disciplines—archaeology, anthropology, genetics, neuroscience, physiology, and comparative zoology.

Kenneally is especially keen at presenting the wide perspective, factoring in the influence of gesture, number sense and even music along with phonology and syntax. We learn, for instance, that some researchers see speech itself as a form of gesture. "Indeed," she writes, "our ability to perceive the speech of others is based in part on our knowledge of the motor movements we make when we produce it." One linguist speculates that gesture may have been "an ancient scaffolding on which language started to build."

We are also introduced to a host of stunning phenomena observed in the animal world. It had long been assumed (by Chomsky, among others) that humans were unique in their ability to use syntax; that is, a series of rules for combining words in meaningful ways. On closer inspection, however, it has become clear that structure and rhythmicity are essential to how certain animals comprehend strings of vocal cues.

So, what distinguishes human language? Is it volume alone, its sheer breadth of lexicon? Or perhaps its complexity, the staggering variety of syntactical operations? Is it marked by the presence of one very specific attribute like "recursion?" Or does it emerge through the interaction of many smaller features? If there is an answer, Kenneally suggests, the best clues are to be found deep in our evolutionary history.

The overall effect of The First Word is to begin thinking of language not as a single, monolithic phenomenon but, as Kenneally puts it, "a suite of abilities and predispositions, some recently evolved and some primitive."

Profile Image for Hiba⁷.
882 reviews384 followers
Shelved as 'unfinished'
September 14, 2018
I will not rate this, I will not mark it as read, because I couldn't possible force myself to finish it.
It is supposed to be about language, the search of its origin, but I did not find any of that in it.
I will start something else, more related to language and linguistics so I can read the more narrow ones about the different branches of linguistics
Profile Image for K. C. Smith.
10 reviews7 followers
January 13, 2012
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 amateur―“Is there such a thing as a professional linguist?” he asked) in the subject and often find myself buying, if not reading, books about linguistics. The First Word, as I say, seemed interesting, so I picked it up.

And it is interesting, I should make this clear, despite the poor rating I gave it. I learned many things I had not known, in particular that any discussion of the evolution of language―something which to me seems such an obvious thing to think about, I mean of course language is a product of evolution―was considered verboten until very recently because it seemed impossible to find any evidence of its origins prior to the written word. I was also interested in some of the research into animal language and cognition, as well as tool use by non-human primates and other animals (apparently orangutans like to play with mops and other cleaning implements, as well as being crafty escape artists, leading to one anecdote about a captive orangutan who used to hide pieces of metal in his mouth so he could pick the lock on his cage and escape at night for the sole purpose of grabbing a mop and cleaning his enclosure―while I undoubtedly have superior linguistic skills, the orangutans, it seems, are leaving me in the dust when it comes to good housekeeping), and the discussion of the possible genetic bases for linguistic ability in humans and non-humans. As I said, the subject is fascinating, but this book is held back by poor organization and structure, occasionally muddy or confusing passages (this book is obviously intended to be popular science, not a true academic work. It presents a synthesis of other researchers’ ideas rather than original ideas and deliberately uses less technical language. All of this is fine, as a non-scientist I can actually read popular science and understand. Unfortunately this book just misses the mark―it lacks the punch and engagement of a great popular science writer like Bill Bryson), and an uninspiring conclusion, which much like the state of research into the evolution of language, brings up more questions than it answers. It unfortunately does not inspire the reader to find out more, or provide any hope or direction in which this can be done. We are left with more information than we had at the outset to be sure (unless perhaps we are professional linguists) but we are not given any unified idea of the direction research in this field is taking. The First Word comes off more as a collection of loosely connected ideas than as a book with any ideas of its own ―that is its problem.
Profile Image for Connie.
207 reviews4 followers
September 11, 2016
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, an Australian-American journalist who trained as a linguist, describes the search for the origins.

In the 19th century, the question of how humans developed language was out of bounds, forbidden as a topic of research by language authorities in France and England. Kenneally traces the 20th century influence of linguist Noam Chomsky, who held that humans share an innate universal grammar, and psychologist-primatologist Sue Savage Rumbaugh, who bridged the species gap by teaching an ape to produce and understand aspects of language. Kenneally grounds humans’ language abilities in our content – we have something to say; in our words; gestures; speech; structured or patterned communications (sounds into meaningful words, words into syntactically meaningful phrases); in our human brain; and our mutating human genes. Both our human species and our language are evolving, she says.
Profile Image for Douglas Summers-Stay.
Author 1 book40 followers
September 26, 2014
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 language acquisition as people did as language was first invented? Children start with instinctive sounds like crying, sighing, laughing. Then they often pick up exclamations like Wow! and Ouch! Words like "yes" and "no" are not in any animal language. Then you get objects and pointing, and later grammar.
Like most popularizations of science I read, though, there is too much about the lives and personalities of the scientists and not enough about their ideas. Luckily there is always Google Scholar so you can go read the abstracts and look at the diagrams in the papers of anyone whose work sounds interesting.
Profile Image for Travis.
23 reviews2 followers
February 5, 2008
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 research is presented as anecdotes, the finer details glossed over or omitted. For example, some say language affects how we view in the world, that without words for things (numbers or colors, for example), we cannot see them. If this is true, someone must explain how language creeps into the eyes and selectively bends light there. This hardly seems possible.

The book is well-written and its bibliography is complete. Whatever questions the book fails to address, I can find their answers elsewhere.
Profile Image for Jimmy Ele.
234 reviews90 followers
December 20, 2015
“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 also very enlightening.

So why not 5 stars?

Well, I found that Christine Kenneally contradicts her statements throughout the book. I don't know if she does this to emphasize how uncertain the subject of language evolution is at the moment (being in it's infancy).

The following are some of her contradictions:

Christine Kenneally states in one chapter that "Meaning and linguistic structure simply arose out of interaction between bodies in space."

Yet we know that animals can't create a new sound for each new object or concept the way humans can.

Later on Christine Kenneally states that "Someone has to teach us how to use language in order for us to use it."

Yet later on she argues that language could just spontaneously evolve as shown through the language evolution studies with robots.

So which one is it? Can language just spontaneously evolve or does someone have to teach us to use it? This is never cleared up, because there are so many differing opinions throughout the book that it's basically a free for all between all of the language experts to see who can get The Last Word. <<<<< PUN INTENDED

If you can get over the fact that many things are not yet definitive on the subject of language evolution and that many experts have differing opinions then you will love this book. Just remember that Christine Kenneally never promised to give us any answers but only to take us on a journey through her search for the origins of language. I highly recommend this book and I am certainly appreciative of being able to find out that humans are still evolving and that they have discovered a gene called SIGLEC11 that is expressed in brain cells called microglia. Although they can't yet explain the effects of the gene, it is interesting because it is one of the very few found only in humans and not in apes. This could make it a candidate for explaining some of the differences between us and them.

I will now leave you with 2 of my favorite quotes from this great book.

“It's small wonder that humans dream in myth and in art about other worlds, because we all have the experience of inhabiting one world and, as we are taught language, of walking through a door into another. Even physicists are obsessed with the idea of a multiverse. But we already live in one.”

“The same linguistic structures that allow us to soar through time and space and model entire universes in our heads also enable us to foresee our own mortality. Language also permits us to imagine a self that isn't earthbound and a world beyond death. So far it hasn't offered a way to avoid it.”
Profile Image for Anne Van.
287 reviews2 followers
June 9, 2010
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 clearly presented and accessible.
Profile Image for Gerard Brown.
42 reviews5 followers
July 13, 2012
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...
Profile Image for Olin.
4 reviews
May 11, 2009
A good primer, and Kenneally is a good writer. I was tricked by the cover art into thinking about the origins of written language, but alas it is about speech only. Still real interesting, show how acrimonious scientists can really be.
Profile Image for Lexish.
206 reviews
December 1, 2014
I couldn't get all the way through it directly and ended up skimming a lot. It had some interesting points (if you're interested in language and linguistics), but those weren't enough to hold my interest.
Profile Image for David.
Author 26 books172 followers
April 15, 2016
Gossipy...not overly informative or instructive about the origins of language. Not recommended even as an introduction to this fascinating subject.
Profile Image for mwbham.
134 reviews
December 6, 2010
I loved this book. It reminded me of reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's The Woman That Never Evolved in 1982.
1 review
July 2, 2019
Amazing book! Great writing, interesting interviews, and thought provoking. I loved reading about the complex social dynamics going on in so many other species. Chomsky really is an idiot.
Profile Image for Richard Thompson.
1,973 reviews97 followers
February 6, 2022
This is the best linguistics book that I have read since Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct," which introduced me to academic thinking about how language has evolved, gave me the first explanation that I could understand of Noam Chomsky's theories and influence and showed how some of Mr. Chomsky's theories have come to be questioned. This book, which gives due credit to the contributions of Messrs. Chomsky and Pinker, shows how the state of thinking about the origins of language advanced in the next period after Mr. Pinker's book. But this book is already fifteen years old now, so I'm sure that there has been a further quantum leap in our understanding of language. I'll have to look for a more current book that I will be able to understand that will bring me fully up to date.

There is a lot of interesting background here on Chomsky, Pinker, animal language studies (particularly Sue Savage-Rumbaugh) and the work of Philip Lieberman. Then there is a section on all of the elements that go into language - the need of a social animal to communicate, vocabulary, structure, the ability to speak, the ways that the brain works, the role of culture, the role of genes, etc. The final section synthesizes all of this and discusses more recent scholarship and paths to the future.

I already came to this book with an understanding that language evolved, that it is enormously complex, that both genes and culture play a role in shaping language, that animal communications have many of the hallmarks of language once thought to be unique to humans, and that we probably have some sort of innate faculty for language, but that it can only be fully realized through interaction with others during childhood. But I learned a lot, though there were some things that didn't make sense or seemed incomplete to me. To be fair, Ms. Keneally acknowledges that the study of language evolution is in its infancy, with much work still to be done.

I was puzzled by the claim that recursion in language is something uniquely human. I think that that cannot be. I'm sure that there must be many examples of recursion in animal behavior, plus recursion is a fundamental concept in logic circuits and mathematics. Surely there are recursive structures in all brains that make it natural to build this characteristic into any developing system of thinking or communication.

The book ends with the author posing to a number of leading linguists whether a group of children put on an island with adequate provisions for survival but otherwise cut off from the world would develop language. There is a wide range of answers. But I was surprised that they didn't cite a theory that my father, who knew more than 20 languages, had told me about when I was young. Apparently, there is a huge disparity among certain native American languages so that they seem to be completely unrelated to each other though spoken by common descendants of people who migrated to North America over the Bering land bridge. My dad told me that one proposed explanation for this was the idea that some of the language groups had been developed by prelinguistic children who had been isolated from their parents and developed their own languages. It was a very Chomskian idea and maybe it has now been discredited, but I would have enjoyed seeing a consideration of this idea in the final section.
Profile Image for Zane Akers.
90 reviews1 follower
August 10, 2022
Picked off the shelf of the public library on a whim, this is a very good book covering a huge amount of territory, written in a clear and accessible style. Published in 2007, the year I graduated from college, many of the scientists Kenneally interviews and cites paint a very different picture of what language is and how it works from the picture I received in my dabbling in linguistics during my time in college. The author has here created at once a broad panorama of her subject as well as several meaningful deep dives in important and fast-changing areas of the subject. I'm curious what more has changed in the field in the time since 2007.

Now for the gripes: As other Goodreads users have noted, despite talking about symbol creation and manipulation (especially as it applies to language), despite even using the word "semiotics" on page 186, neither the author nor any of her sources bring up Saussure in this book. To be fair, this is not a history-of-linguistics book, but the complete omission strikes me as odd.
My only other criticism is that this book in my opinion requires a good bit of background knowledge to really engage with it: some linguistics, some history, some psychology, and a surprising amount of biology, from Darwin up to modern epigenetics. If I didn't know something about all those disciplines, this book may have proved much more opaque. Kenneally has a knack for bringing the reader up to speed in many instances, yet I frequently found myself relying on things I had brought to the book in order to make sense of what she was telling me.
Profile Image for Jodi Henderson.
7 reviews2 followers
Want to read
August 11, 2007

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 scientists who study the origins of language are a passionate, fractious bunch, and you don’t have to be an egghead to be tantalized by the questions that drive their research: how and when did we learn to speak, and to what extent is language a uniquely human attribute? Call the show “American Babble.”

In this field, physical evidence is scarce — language, except in its written form, leaves no trace — and scholarly clout depends on a capacity for ingenious inference and supposition. Christine Kenneally, a linguistics Ph.D. turned journalist, shrewdly begins “The First Word,” her account of this new science, with candid portraits of several of its most influential figures. Appropriately, the first chapter is devoted to Noam Chomsky, whose ideas have dominated linguistics since the late 1950s, and who, as Kenneally reports, has been hailed as a genius on a par with Einstein and disparaged as the leader of a “cult” with “evil side effects.”

According to Chomsky, humans are born with the principles of grammar hard-wired in their brains, enabling them, from an early age and without formal instruction, to construct an infinite variety of sentences from a finite number of words. Moreover, Chomsky has suggested, language is a peculiarly human phenomenon, a trait so remarkable that evolutionary theory is virtually helpless to explain it. “It surely cannot be assumed that every trait is specifically selected,” he wrote in 1988. “In the case of such systems as language ... it is not easy even to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them.” Chomsky’s impatience with the question of language’s origins effectively squelched inquiry into the subject for decades. (In a sense, Kenneally notes, such considerations had been taboo for much longer: although Darwin noted similarities between human speech and sounds made by monkeys and birds, and speculated that language “has been slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps,” by the mid-1870s the linguistic societies of Paris and London had formally banned all discussion of evolution.)

Lately, however, Chomsky’s grip on the field has loosened, thanks to half a dozen or so determined upstarts, among them his former student Philip Lieberman, who has mined the human brain for evidence that language evolved from organs, like the basal ganglia, that we share with many other species; the primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who taught a bonobo named Kanzi the comprehension skills of a toddler; and the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, an early champion of the notion that Chomskyan theory is compatible with Darwinian axioms.

Profile Image for Alessandro.
33 reviews24 followers
September 26, 2018
Turns out the first word was not a word, and you only had to go through 368 pages to find that out. I picked up this book hoping it would bring me up to date with the latest findings in the field of evolutionary linguistics, only to find out that almost nothing has quite changed over the past few decades. The first half of the book was in fact a recap of the linguistic war that has been going on for a while now. It gave me, however, a few interesting insights on the similarities between our species and the others concerning basic, primeval aptitude for communication. It was fun to discover that bonobos who have been taught a few English words combine them to create new ones, as in linking “water” and “bird” as “waterbird” to mean a duck, thus showing creativity and language acquisition capabilities up to the level of human children. Dolphins seem to carry on their communication under fixed syntactical structures that somehow mirror their social hierarchy, just like we do. The similarities between us and other species further strengthen if we take gestures into account, which were likely the first mean of communication and are still used nowadays both by humans and other animals, such as chimpanzees and gorillas. I now know that nervous baboons, for example, constantly put their hands to their faces, just like we do, under uncertain or uncomfortable situations. One clear fact that emerges from reading the essay is that research concerning the origins of language has been conducted in a rather anthropocentric fashion until very recently, on the possibly wrong assumption that language - or rather symbolic communication - is an exclusively human feature. The author seems to specifically aim at subverting this misleading trend. Despite her saying the contrary, in some sections the essay really does feel like a well-documented commentary against the chomskyan trope that language only belongs to the human species, which is supposed to possess an innate cerebral organ for that specific processing. In fact, Chomsky is so central to the book that every chapter seems to orbit around the love/hate relationship linguists had, and still have, with regard to him. One often gets the bad feeling that what there was to say could have been explained using at least half the pages: truth is linguists like language so much they often get carried away with it. Or it could just be that evolutionary linguistics has become one such multi-disciplinary field of research that it would be impossible to talk about it without also referencing to examples and achievements in other fields such as anthropology, biology, neurobiology and so forth. I would recommend this read to anyone interested in knowing what linguists have been up to in the last century, or those curious about how communication takes place in the animal world, but do not expect it to unravel the mysteries of the origins of human language as the rather misleading subtitle suggests. The bibliography section was rather rich, though, and leaves space for futher exploration for those who dare. Was this book necessary? Probably. Was this book enjoyable? Not much so.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
59 reviews8 followers
April 24, 2013
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, phonetics, etc. that made understanding the finer points of the text possible. I'm not sure that someone with no previous exposure to linguistics would have found some parts of the book comprehensible.

The author takes on the nearly Herculean task of documenting the major research and theories (and linguists responsible for those theories) around the topic of the origins of language as well as defining language, its constitute parts, and prerequisite skills for acquiring language. She includes a lot of fascinating evidence from research into animal communication that have helped us understand what does (or does NOT) "separate us from the animals". I also enjoyed reading about experiments and theories on evolution of language.

I think the author does a great job of tackling a wide array of topics that are necessarily intermingled when you try to discuss language, its origins, and its evolution. There are times when I felt the author gave me too much credit, expecting me to be able to remember names of linguists and what their theories were, from something she wrote about 100 pages earlier. With a text that is relatively dense and meaty like this, I would appreciate lots of reminders.

Overall a good geeky read that I would recommend!
Profile Image for Drew.
25 reviews1 follower
November 25, 2008
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, either through force of personality or direct academic edict, as well as the ramifications of Chomsky's Universal Grammar and the generative grammarians on whether evolution of language was even possible.

With various cross-disciplinary tales, Kenneally hints at the recursive structure of evolution and its power for explaining the development of complex biological structures including vision, language, etc. I especially enjoyed the discussion of Kirby's computational modeling of language evolution. These discussions seem to verify some of Hofstadter's intuitions on the nature of intelligence in Godel, Escher, Bach. It is curious that despite the wealth of this theoretical approach to the complexity problem within evolution, Kenneally clings to an absolute faith in the role of randomness as the sole determinant of genetic mutation. A much more interesting and robust driver of mutation is contained in her exhaustive research and yet she seems not to notice. Notwithstanding, this is a fabulous book, a must-read if you are at all interested in the topic.
50 reviews
April 2, 2010
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 Bloom, and Philip Lieberman. Their myriad influences and ideas interact pleasurable on the reader's mental palette. After familiarizing the reader with the leading ways language is conceived in the field she delves into the question of how the components of language evolved, which is currently an intellectual and theoretical wild west. Her final entrée is a holistic discussion of the evolution of language that treats its readers to the field's cutting-edge research and theories. The final section on the future of language feels appropriately like dessert on a full stomach, indulgent and not wholly necessary, but enjoyable none the less. The depth of the topic makes it impossible for Kenneally to thoroughly covers any of her subject matter. Experts, or those looking for a higher level of sophistication, are likely to be left with an unsatisfied appetite-- its components are tapas, not hearty meals. But for those interested in sampling the huge variety of fascinating ideas that comprise the study of language's origin "The First Word" will not disappoint.
Profile Image for Kelly.
60 reviews5 followers
November 1, 2008
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 was a lot more substance here than I was expecting which was a welcome surprise.

It's also great to see a complete layout of the debate between Pinker, Chomsky and others on the nature of language from the beginning up to now. Although a bit more objective than Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, it's still pretty clear that the author sides with Pinker so Chomsky takes a beating throughout the entire book.

The final sections of the book got me very excited that through genetics, computer modeling and increased study of animal language (particularly whale songs for me) we will unravel a lot of what we currently don't know to find out whether or not language is indeed an adaptation through natural selection.
Profile Image for Kirsten.
969 reviews6 followers
June 3, 2014
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 while covering such a broad range of research. The chapter headings and the three (!) introductions led me to believe it would be far less organized as a narrative. The entire book could use one more go through editing, however. Personally I'd prefer to see more academic sections, and more concise introductions and summaries.

While I have minor concerns with framing, elaboration, organization, overall I appreciate the work. It's too bad that missing last edit will keep it from reaching a wider audience. I'm most fascinated by the range of reviews either condemning this book for being anti-Chomsky (please, PLEASE can we let go of this binary) or pro-evolution (it's a science book, so...). I guess I'm glad to see people engaging with the topic, however that gets expressed.
229 reviews1 follower
September 9, 2013
I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to any audience interested in the field of linguistics. I came to the book with only a fundamental background in linguistic basics but was still able to follow as the book is geared to a general audience.

The author did a nice job with structuring the book. It begins with a fine introduction. It then proceeds with identifying the personalities and their respecitive positions who have made major contributions to this evolving field in recent years. These include Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, Philip Lieberman, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh among others. In addition, the book surveys a number of fascinating experiments led by other prominent linguists with rock star sounding names such as Tecumseh Fitch, a descendant of Gen. Sherman. Concepts such as Universal Grammar (UG)and generative linguistic play a significant role in the book. I was informed and fascinated by the information in the area of animal studies, protosign, and the inseparable link between language and physical gesture. The New York Times provides a more competent review than what I have provided here. However, I am very glad that I took the opportunity to read this book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 141 reviews

Join the discussion

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.