Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language” as Want to Read:
The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  815 Ratings  ·  114 Reviews
An accessible exploration of a burgeoning new field: the incredible evolution of language

The first popular book to recount the exciting, very recent developments in tracing the origins of language, The First Word is at the forefront of a controversial, compelling new field. Acclaimed science writer Christine Kenneally explains how a relatively small group of scientists th
Kindle Edition, 372 pages
Published (first published January 1st 2007)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.
This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
Rating details
Sort: Default
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
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 20, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 08, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“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
Jun 02, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 27, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 06, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Gossipy...not overly informative or instructive about the origins of language. Not recommended even as an introduction to this fascinating subject.
Sep 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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,
Anne Van
Jun 07, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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...
Aug 06, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 18, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Nov 22, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. It reminded me of reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's The Woman That Never Evolved in 1982.
Liliana Garza Saldívar
I found this book to be fascinating and fun, interesting and compelling me to research more. This is the kind of text that would have been very useful as I began university and I'd recommend it for anyone starting language acquisition, linguistics or literature studies. Sure, it's 10 years old now, but it presents different approaches to the problems of what is language and how did it happen.
It's not a super easy read, but it's also not terribly complicated, just a healthy challenge.

(A note of
Jun 05, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very wide ranging, from history of the linguistics field to animal studies to human evolution. Some parts were much stronger than others. The animal studies were particularly rough because they heavily referenced Hauser research that has since been revealed to be fraudulent.
Jodi Henderson
Aug 11, 2007 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
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
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 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 29, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 12, 2014 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 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 15, 2012 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
Feb 26, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 28, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 09, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages
  • The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages
  • In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language
  • Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World
  • The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language
  • The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park
  • The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention
  • Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages
  • You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity
  • Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language
  • Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts
  • The Story of French
  • The Stories of English
  • Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language
  • Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn't Know You Didn't Know about Language and Languages
  • The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English
  • The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue
  • When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse
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.
More about Christine Kenneally...

Nonfiction Deals

  • Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival
    $8.24 $1.99
  • A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf
    $27.00 $2.99
  • Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
    $9.99 $2.99
  • The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less
    $10.74 $1.99
  • Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
    $8.99 $1.99
  • A Room of One's Own
    $9.99 $2.99
  • Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield
    $8.24 $1.99
  • Life in a Medieval City
    $8.24 $1.99
  • Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
    $12.99 $1.99
  • The Only Thing Worth Dying For: How Eleven Green Berets Forged a New Afghanistan
    $8.99 $1.99
  • Too Close to Me: The Middle-Aged Consequences of Revealing A Child Called "It"
    $9.99 $1.99
  • The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen
    $9.99 $2.99
  • Inside the Criminal Mind: Revised and Updated Edition
    $11.99 $1.99
  • Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error
    $9.24 $1.99
  • Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison
    $13.99 $2.99
  • How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child
    $8.99 $1.99
  • Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect
    $11.99 $1.99
  • Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir
    $11.49 $1.99
  • Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon
    $11.99 $1.99
  • Evangelii Gaudium: The Joy of the Gospel
    $9.99 $1.99
  • The Heart of Christianity
    $9.74 $1.99
  • Hidden Figures
    $4.09 $1.99
  • Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui
    $9.99 $1.99
  • Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man
    $7.24 $1.99
  • Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures
    $11.99 $1.99
  • Decoded
    $9.99 $1.99
  • A Man Called Intrepid: The Incredible True Story of the Master Spy Who Helped Win World War II
    $14.99 $1.99
  • K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain
    $11.99 $1.99
  • Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967
    $12.99 $1.99
  • Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy
    $11.99 $1.99
  • The Art of Living: The Classical Mannual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness
    $10.49 $1.99
  • Beautiful Bodies
    $5.99 $1.99
  • Come to the Edge
    $6.99 $1.99
  • The Art of Communicating
    $9.49 $2.99
  • American Jezebel
    $8.24 $1.99
“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.”
More quotes…