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The First Word

The Search for the Origins of Language

Christine Kenneally
Paperback edition 2008

Linguist and science writer Christine Kenneally traces the development of evolutionary linguistics from its early speculative history to its modern emphasis on genetics and computational modeling.

Along the way she enthusiastically spins narratives of the fractious professional debates between prominent individuals in the field, outlines major steps in human evolution, describes the anatomy of the human brain, details the cognitive difficulties of oxygen-deprived mountain climbers, and explains similarities and difference between human anatomy and that of other great apes.

How Animals Illuminate Our Past

Kenneally is most ardent when she describes research into animal cognition, and the efforts to teach various species some form of human language. She finds the human capacity for language not so remarkable in light of a new appreciation of the abilities and behaviors shared by many kinds of animals, and less extraordinary also because humanity has an inflated view of its own linguistic and cognitive potential. She favors the view that language ability evolved as an adaptation, involving many parts of the human brain and body, and that evidence of this adaptation can be found throughout the animal kingdom.

Many researchers believe that for language to have evolved, there first had to be a need to speak, as opposed to having language evolve suddenly and then finding there was a lot to talk about. In this view, language ability was not an accident, nor was it brought about by a sudden enabling mutation for grammar. If language ability evolved in the same adaptive way as most other abilities, then the search for the origins of language includes a search to uncover what was so advantageous to communicate. It is helpful in this search to study what goes on in the minds of nonlinguistic creatures.

Bottlenose Dolphin

Dolphins use distinct clicks and whistles
to say their name, greet other dolphins,
and say good-bye.

Animals that demonstrate relatively advanced cognitive abilities suggest what the minds of our prelinguistic ancestors may have been like. Many species that demonstrate complicated thinking have a fair amount in common with humans – dolphins, elephants, and crows all have long lives, extended infancy, complicated systems of communication, and societies where individuals have distinct roles. Female elephants, for example, live years beyond their reproductive age and pass on learning to youngsters, such as how to interact with other elephants, as well as information about water holes or fruit trees.

Asian Elephant

“Elder” female elephants use distinct sounds like words to teach youngsters how to find water and food and interact with other elephants.

Elephants also appear to use sounds like words. Researchers found that individual elephants produce distinct sounds for different purposes, like greeting a fellow member of the clan they haven’t seen for a while. Similarly, dolphins use echolocation clicks and purposeful types of whistles, and appear to name themselves with a “signature whistle.” Whenever they meet another dolphin they produce a distinct, individual sound, which develops in their first year of life. And there is evidence that dolphins exchange signature whistles when separating. A team of researchers in Scotland found that wild dolphins recognized that a signature whistle referred to a particular dolphin even when its voice was completely distorted.

Vervet monkeys make three different word-like alarm calls when they see a threat from ground, tree, or air, warning their group to take appropriate defense. Some researchers think that these alarm calls may be “protowords,” a primitive form of language. When animals make alarm calls, they are connecting a particular sound to a referent in the world. Every species of animal that researchers have studied so far can link sound and a referent. Humans have built on this ability by using this ancient platform for sound and referent to evolve human language.

Chimp eating fruit in a tree

Chimps “Talk” to Each Other About Their Favorite Fruit Trees


Researchers studying wild chimpanzees have discovered that our closest living relatives convey information about different foods and the size of fruit trees to each other.


Organizing Our Experience
Symbolic Language
Oral Culture
External Symbols
Thought and Language
Human Universals: Traits all Humans Share

Further Reading

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