The First Word | Christine Kenneally

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


Embark on an insightful journey exploring the origins of human language with Christine Kenneally’s ‘The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language.’ This thought-provoking book delves into numerous theories surrounding human language acquisition, combining elements of psychology, biology, and linguistics. Gain a deeper understanding of how children learn language, Chomsky’s inherited language system theory, and the potential of animal language capabilities. Be captivated by breakthrough theories on the evolution of language and ponder the question of how human language evolved.

Chomsky’s Revolutionary Critique

In 1959, Noam Chomsky shocked the world of psychology by criticizing B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism theory on language-learning. Skinner’s stimulus-response model didn’t explain how children not only quickly learned a huge number of words but also the rules for how words could be combined to form new sentences. Chomsky argued that language was a perfect, inherited system pre-existing in the human brain and that only humans possessed this component, enabling them to develop languages of their own.

Language Acquisition in Primates

Studies show primates can learn and understand language, posing a challenge to Chomsky’s theory that language is unique to humans.

Chomsky’s theory of the human language being based on a component specific to the human brain may be challenged by primates’ ability to learn, communicate, and understand language. In an effort to understand the language capabilities of primates, scientists conducted experiments where they gave apes keyboards with images printed on the keys to communicate. One of the most significant results was obtained by researcher Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who taught an ape named Kanzi to produce and comprehend aspects of language. Initially, Kanzi had only observed his mother’s lessons on how to communicate using the picture keyboard. However, he was later able to combine multiple symbols to communicate his desires and even comprehend spoken English. These results raise questions about the uniqueness of human language acquisition and its origins. The studies pose a challenge to Chomsky’s theory and suggest that language acquisition may not be exclusive to humans.

Evolution of Language

The idea that language has evolved over time is not a new one. However, it was only after the groundbreaking work of psychologists Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker that it became widely accepted in the scientific community. Prior to their work, scholars like Chomsky believed that language was a preconfigured system in our brains. Pinker and Bloom argued that language is no different than other complex abilities that have evolved over time, such as echolocation and depth perception. Their argument combined linguistics with evolutionary biology and highlighted how language gives a substantial advantage to any species that communicates with one another. As a result, people started focusing on how language evolved rather than wondering whether it did. Pinker and Bloom’s work was a significant shakeup in the traditional thinking about language, providing a more comprehensive understanding of the origins and development of language.

Evolutionary Biology and Language

In his 1984 Ph.D. thesis, Philip Lieberman presented an opposing view to Chomsky’s idealized opinion of language. Lieberman believed that to truly understand language, you must start with biology, and biology only makes sense if looked at from an evolutionary standpoint. His research indicated that there could be no specific, independent language center in the brain, as the language system was connected to the motor system. This was based on a study where Lieberman compared patients with Parkinson’s disease to neurologically healthy patients. He found that the patients whose brains had degenerated due to the disease not only suffered from motor problems but also had trouble understanding and producing syntactically correct language. Lieberman’s view conflicted even more with Chomsky’s idea than Pinker and Bloom’s did, as he believed that no such “organ” could have evolved.

Human vs. Animal Language

Human language requires more than just words, it needs grammar and meaning. Animal communication is genetically anchored to each species, while the emergence and spread of new terms in human language wouldn’t be possible through mere evolution.

To understand how language evolved, we first need to define what human language is and how it differs from animal language. Human language requires the ability to talk about something, which can also be seen in a thirty-year-old parrot named Alex who can name different objects and answer questions when asked. However, a crucial aspect of human language that separates it from animal communication is that it requires words. While animals like African vervet monkeys and chickens make meaningful sounds, these alarm calls are genetically anchored to each species and cannot be interpreted as words with grammar and meaning.

Human language also involves the emergence and spread of new terms like “computer” and “internet” that cannot be attributed to mere evolution. Words contain information about sound, grammar, and meaning. For example, the word “dog” doesn’t just refer to a four-legged animal, but it’s a noun and can also be used as the subject of a sentence. In contrast, animal communication lacks the structural complexity and potential for evolution that human language has. The fundamental gap between human and animal language lies in how language is designed and how it can evolve.

Gestures and Infant Language Development

From baboon muzzle wipes to infant pointing, gestures play a crucial role in human language development. George H.W. Bush’s scratch on the bridge of his nose during a press conference is an example of how humans also use these gestures. Infants learn to point and form sentences with gestures and words. Additionally, infants babble and produce speech-like sounds as a way to learn the sounds native to their species before constructing meaningful speech. It turns out that dolphin infants also go through a babbling phase. Thus, gestures are not only essential in human language development but in animal communication as well.

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