The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
by Christine Kenneally

Language and Linguistics books

Chapters of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language

A fascinating and readable popularizing book by linguist Christine Kenneally.

Part 1: Language is not a thing.

Traces the historical arc of interest in the origins of language and language evolution, culminating with four recent "figures that bear much of the responsibility for the current state of the art" in the study of language evolution. Chapters:

  1. Noam Chomsky:

    His view was that "language is a uniquely human phenomenon, distinct from the adaptations of all other organisms on the planet ... Not only does language differentiate us from all other animal life; it also exists separate from other cognitive abilities like memory, perception, and even the act of speech itself. Researchers in this tradition have searched for ... a part of the brain devoted solely to linguistic skills ... [and for] the roots of language in the fine grain of the human genome, maintaining, in some cases, that certain genes may exist for the soul purpose of encoding grammar." [p.9] The Chomskyan view dominated from the mid-20th century till 1990s.

  2. Sue Savage-Rambaugh "has taught a nonhuman [the ape Kanzi] how to use language" [p.8] and views language as "interdependent and interconnected with other human abilities and other cognitive tasks" [p.9]. Since the 1990s, this view has led many linguists to move away from hard-core Chomskyanism.

  3. Steven Pinker (Harvard cognitive scientist and popularizing author) and Paul Bloom: "All we argue is that language is no different from other complex abilities, such as echolocation ... and that they only way to explain the origin of such abilities is through the theory of natural selection" [p.57].

  4. Philip Lieberman (Brown University, though originally at MIT under Chomsky). in his 1984 The Biology and Evolution of Language he was one of the first to oppose the Chomskyan view, by his argument that:

Part 2: If you Have Human Language ...

This Part is full of experimental results, exploring how "the language suite — what abilities you have if you have human language" [p. 10] evolved. Chapters:

  1. You have something to talk about. See [p.108] Lupyan's experiment with teaching people which aliens were 'friendly' and 'unfriendly' and how the addition of a word to label each type of alien led to: 'The group that had words to label them learned to distinguish them much faster than the non-word group. He [Lupyan] concluded that language, specifically the act of naming something with a word, helps categorize.'

  2. You have words. See [p.116] Chris Code's point: 'That it is possible neurobiologically to separate swearwords from other words in language. Swearing actually uses parts of the brain that support language and also parts of the brain that are used when laughing and crying. Often people with severe brain damage remain able to swear even when they are unable to produce other language.'

  3. You have gestures. See [p.124]: 'Most primates, humans included, gesture communicatively with their right hands, suggesting that the dominance of one side of the brain for vocal and gestural communication could be as old a thirty million years. Just as with humans, ape gestures can involve touch, noise, and vision.' Also see [p.129] Kenneally's interpretation of Tomasello that: 'What we have evolved into now is a species for whom an experience means little if it's not shared.'

    Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's observed two apes that had some use of sign language engage in

  4. You have speech. See [p.143]: In the 1940s, linguist George Zipf

    When Doyle and McCowan applied Zipf's law to the sounds of dolphins and plotted sound frequency:

    Also see the application of entropy to information as [p.143-4]:

  5. You have structure. See [p.164]: the approach of Chomskyists like Mark Baker who 'deduced a hierarchical list of fourteen parameters that he believes reflect rules that are hardwired into the human brain. He thinks there may be about thirty rules overall.'

    In contrast,

  6. You have a human brain.

    The brain is very plastic, with parts of the brain taking over for parts that are removed. One of its hemispheres can be removed (in a 'hemisperectomy') to avoid seizures. In the case of at least one 9-year-old, a first spoken language was aquired after such surgery.

    Also discusses mirror neurons and the importance of the cerebellum in coordination of movement and language.

  7. Your genes have human mutations. As on p.202:

Part 3: What Evolves?

How did the language of our parents get here in the first place? Includes computer modeling by Kirby and Christiansen viewing language "as a virus, one that grows and evolves symbiotically with human beings ... language shifts around and adapts itself in order to develop and survive" [p.11]


  1. Species evolve

  2. Culture evolves

  3. Why things evolve

Part 4: Where Next?


  1. The future of the debate

  2. The future of language and evolution

Concludes with:

A terrific book for thoughtful students of language.