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The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
By Christine Kenneally
Viking $26.95, 368 pages

The earliest of our endless speculations about the origins of language comes from the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus. He believed an innate ur-language to be the source of all languages. So he had two babies isolated in a hut with a shepherd who was forbidden to speak. Eventually, the children uttered the Phrygian word for bread. Centuries later, in similar experiments by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and King James IV of Scotland, the children respectively died without speaking and apparently burst into Hebrew.

In the mid-19th century, the philological societies of France and Britain banned discussion of origins. Darwin, too, avoided it, suggesting that language had been “slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps”. For more than a century, the subject remained largely off limits.

Then, in The Language Instinct (1994), Steven Pinker popularised a reviving debate about whether evolutionary theory could be applied to language. Now we have an admirably serious update on the debate, The First Word.

Christine Kenneally, an Australian journalist with a PhD in linguistics, seems to have interviewed every significant researcher in this fascinating field. Her intellectual profiles of four key players – Noam Chomsky, Pinker, and the primate researchers Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Philip Lieberman – form the first four chapters of the book. They disagree strongly, and their disagreements inform the rest of the book. This covers a huge range in a sometimes bewildering attempt to explain the existence of grammar and syntax. The chapter on gesture is especially well written. “If you have ever seen a baby sit and whack his high chair table imperiously, demanding his lunch, you have witnessed the origins of language in the individual.”

Chomsky is a brooding presence throughout. His theories and terminology have changed many times since the 1960s, “and there are no complete and reliable road maps to these shifts” – a fact which “drives academics as crazy as it does writers”.

In a clever epilogue, Kenneally replays Psammetichus’s experiment by asking her interviewees if a boatload of babies shipwrecked on an uninhabited island would produce language. Pinker thinks they would; Lieberman writes only “No”; while Chomsky and Savage-Rumbaugh decline to participate.

Andrew Robinson is author of ‘The Story of Measurement’ (Thames & Hudson)

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