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Kenneally, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language

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  • Steve Farmer
    NY Times review out today of interest. It doesn t really cover what is in the book very well. Steve http://tinyurl.com/223zhs Another review from the San
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2007
      NY Times review out today of interest. It doesn't really
      cover what is in the book very well.

      Steve

      http://tinyurl.com/223zhs

      Another review from the San Francisco Chronicle the
      other day:

      http://tinyurl.com/2zyfdl

      ******************

      August 1, 2007
      BOOKS OF THE TIMES
      Language Evolution’s Slippery Tropes

      By WILLIAM GRIMES

      THE FIRST WORD: The Search for the Origins of Language

      By Christine Kenneally

      357 pages. Viking. $26.95.

      All branches of science search for origins. Biologists want to know
      how life on earth began. Astronomers want to know how the universe
      got started. Even in mathematics, questions about how different
      numerical systems came to be constitute a legitimate line of inquiry.

      Linguists are different. In the middle of the 19th century, the main
      professional bodies governing linguistic research formally banned any
      investigation into the origins of language, regarding it as
      pointless. The topic remained disreputable for more than a century,
      but in the last decade or so, language evolution has eased toward the
      front burner, attracting the attention of linguists, neuroscientists,
      psychologists and geneticists. Their search is the subject of “The
      First Word,” Christine Kenneally’s lucid survey of this expanding
      field, dedicated to solving what she calls “the hardest problem in
      science today.”

      One nut to crack is the nature of language itself, and here Ms.
      Kenneally introduces the unignorable presence in virtually every
      linguistic debate, Noam Chomsky. Mr. Chomsky and his many adherents
      regard language as a uniquely human endowment, centered in a specific
      area of the brain. It gives every living person the ability,
      unsought, to generate infinite strings of sentences in infinite
      combinations. Animals, in this view, do not have language, nor do
      they think. The reasons that humans speak, or how language might have
      made its way to the human brain, do not matter. It may simply be that
      in a linguistic version of the big bang, a language mutation suddenly
      appeared, and that was that.

      This view now faces many rivals. The big-bang theory has been
      countered by linguists who believe that just as the eye evolved to
      meet a need for vision, language evolved to meet the need for
      communication. Ms. Kenneally ushers onto the stage researchers who
      have discovered that many animal species possess languagelike skills
      previously unimagined and, without benefit of syntax or words, have a
      complicated inner life. They believe that the study of animal
      language and gestures could shed light on a possible protolanguage
      stage in human development.

      The idea that language is restricted to a specific area of the brain
      has been more or less discarded. Brain researchers now believe that
      language tasks are assigned throughout the brain. Moreover, some
      linguists now believe that language is a two-way street. It’s not
      something emanating from the brain of a communicating human. It
      actually changes the processes of the brain. Stroke victims suffering
      from aphasia, a condition involving language loss, do not simply find
      it difficult to communicate, they also find it more difficult to
      categorize, remember and organize information.

      One of Ms. Kenneally’s most intriguing scientists, Simon Kirby, a
      linguist at the University of Edinburgh who works with computer
      models, has proposed the idea that language might be a self-evolving
      phenomenon. Somewhat like a computer virus, it changes and adapts to
      survive.

      Ms. Kenneally, a linguist trained at the University of Cambridge,
      covers an enormous expanse of ground as she brings the reader up to
      date on developments in a wide variety of disciplines touching on
      language evolution. At times, she lapses into a somewhat mechanical
      recitation of experiments, papers and positions, which she tries to
      enliven, in vain, by inserting long, unedited quotations from her
      interview subjects that could just as well have been paraphrased.

      On the plus side, she explains difficult ideas concisely and clearly,
      and she maintains a firm grip on the steering wheel, moving the
      overall argument along in a straight line. Above all, she is
      scrupulously fair-minded. Although obviously taken with the idea of
      language evolution and language acquisition as a continuum seen in
      primitive form in other species, she gives Mr. Chomsky his due,
      despite his withering scorn for most of the ideas she presents, and
      defends him from his most vehement detractors.

      Best of all, Ms. Kenneally zeroes in on a host of fascinating
      experiments. What happens when one ape trained in sign language meets
      another equally proficient ape for the first time? Not communication,
      it turns out. “What resulted was a sign-shouting match; neither ape
      was willing to listen,” Ms. Kenneally reports.

      Mr. Kirby, the computer modeler, devised an experiment in which
      subjects were shown objects on a screen along with words describing
      the objects in what was represented as an invented alien language.
      The subjects were asked to learn the language. In testing one student
      after the other, however, Mr. Kirby added new objects to the ones
      already shown, whereupon the subjects unthinkingly generated new
      words and combinations. These changes were added to the core list and
      passed along to successive subjects who, trying to master the
      language created, in part, by each of their predecessors, made their
      own additions and changes.

      “Except for the initial random language given to the first subject,
      there was no alien language, only the contributions of each
      individual, which were culturally transmitted from generation to
      generation,” Ms. Kenneally writes. “Each subject in the experiment
      believed that he was simply giving back what he had learned, but
      instead the language was evolving.”

      In similar fashion, researchers have been looking at Internet sites
      that generate their own protolanguages and linguistic structures.

      Ms. Kenneally concludes with a little experiment of her own. She asks
      many of the subjects she interviewed to imagine a group of infants
      stranded on the Galapagos Islands, provided with all the necessities
      of life but no access to speech. Would they create a language? How
      many babies would it take, what might their language be like, and how
      would it change over the generations?

      The answers range from no language to sign language to a full-fledged
      language in three generations. The real point is that Ms. Kenneally
      could gather 15 linguists willing to think about the problem. Onward
      to the first Neanderthal dictionary.
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