Book Review: The First Word

The First Word: The Search For The Origins Of Language, by Christine Kenneally

In many ways this book is a bit of a tease. The author demonstrates her lack of understanding about science by assuming that well-designed computer models offer an effective basis for judging supposed undirected evolution processes as well as expressing a belief in junk DNA. Indeed, contrary to the speculations of the author, the role of non-coding DNA in regulatory functions indicates that the greater differences in this type of DNA between species offers at least a good clue as to how it is that small differences in coding DNA result in massive differences between species, something that can be noted when one looks at the linguistic capacity of human beings relative to other species. Also, the author never answers the question (perhaps unanswerable) about the first word and indeed shows little idea to ponder linguistic development in that fashion, spending more time dealing with the internecine warfare between various thinkers and researchers and academics engaged in the study of comparative and evolutionary linguistics. As a result, this book offers at least some interesting insights about research but not nearly as many as the author believes she has understanding of, and the book is mainly of interest to those who care about the speculations of academics involved in the field and not those who actually desire to know about linguistics and communication as it relates to human beings and other species, which is a major missed opportunity.

This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into four parts and sixteen chapters. The author begins her work with a prelude and introduction that discuss her interest in linguistics and the legitimacy of studying the origins of speech, something which for about a century and a half or so was viewed with considerable disrepute by the scientific academy. The author begins the discussion with the claim that language is not a thing (I), which instead of being defined and explored directly becomes the means by which the author talks about various academics like Noam Chomsky (1), Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (2), Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom (3), and Philip Lieberman (4), who hold to various positions and argue among each other with various disciples. The author then explores what it means to have human language along various dimensions (II), including the need to have something to talk about (5), words to use when communicating (6), gestures to help comprehension and thinking (7), speech (8), structures of grammar (9), a human brain (10), and human mutations (11), although these are often vaguely understood. The author then talks about evolution (III), including species (12) and culture (13), as well as some speculations about why evolution occurs (14). Finally, the author becomes a bit of a would-be prophetess in speculating what is next for the field (IV), such as the debate over human language (15) and of the role of language in evolution (16), after which there is a debate about babies in the Galapagos, acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Ultimately speaking, this is not a book about linguistics per se but rather an intellectual history of the legitimacy of the study of ancient linguistics and various methodologies that have been used to seek to determine where it is that humanity’s distinct linguistic strengths and the means by which we share some linguistic capacity with a diverse group of other species that includes cats and dogs, dolphins and whales, and birds, to say nothing about (other) primates. It may be taken for granted by some readers that it is scientifically legitimate to follow any kind of knowledge but that has not always been taken for granted, and it is worthwhile to consider why it is that certain aspects of history and study have been viewed as off limits by the scientific establishment and on what grounds it may be considered legitimate to restrict inquiry, if indeed such grounds exist that can be defensible. The author approaches the scientific issues at stake, to say nothing about the cultural and philosophical ones, with a journalistic perspective, and as someone who has no great fondness for contemporary journalism, this book suffers accordingly. It is a shame the author is not as knowledgeable about the issue she is writing about as she thinks she is, as more humility would have made this book far more enjoyable.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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