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 Kenneally introduces the unignorable presence in virtually every linguistic debate, Noam Chomsky. 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. Kenneally ushers onto the stage researchers who have discovered that many animal species possess language-like 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 proto-language 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 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.
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.