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An Entertaining Read on the Complexities of Language

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. By Christine Kenneally. 357 pages. Viking. 2007

In 1861, Paul Broca, a surgeon, presented evidence that human language had an underlying brain structure located in the left posterior inferior frontal lobe. Broca was lecturing to the Paris Anthropological Society, which had been intensely debating the origins of language, as topical then as now.

Although this important historical event is not mentioned in linguist Christine Kenneally's book, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, there is plenty else to delight the reader. This book is well written, and comprehensive, with a plethora of information on many aspects of anthropology, archeology, linguistics, neuroscience, genetics, computer modeling, biology, and philosophy.

Beyond Baby Talk

The origins of language have been of interest since the dawn of history. There is a record of an Egyptian pharaoh who sent a newborn into isolation, forbidding his caregiver to speak to him in order to observe what language the child would speak first. The pharaoh opined that his first word was “bread” in a foreign language, Phrygian. These legendary experiments have been repeated even by modern observers.

Studies by Susan Curtiss on the language acquisition of a girl named Genie, who was kept by her parents in a prison of silence until she was 14, are classic. Genie did not develop language on her own, but Curtiss reported that twins or small hearing-impaired groups, when isolated, develop an idiosyncratic oral or sign language.

In the epilogue to her book, Kenneally again proposes just such an experiment. The author asks several scientists what would happen if infants aboard a boat were isolated in the Galapagos Islands. The answers are instructively divergent. Linguistic opinions continue to be widely controversial and based on theory and speculation. Aphasia research, in contrast, is more empirical and biologically grounded.

Kenneally provides a partial history of the search for the origins of language and describes the contemporary effort. She recounts Darwin's theory of the origins of language, detailed in his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, and based on the same theory of slow evolution and natural selection described in The Origin of the Species first published in 1859. Philologists at Darwin's time had widely ranging speculations on the origins of language, so much so that the Paris Linguistic Society forbade papers on the topic. It was in limbo to some extent until a modern resurrection by symposia and the views of prominent linguists, among them Noam Chomsky; although he did not deal with it initially, he eventually entered the fray on the side opposing evolution by natural selection.


Dr. Andrew Kertesz writes: “For neurologists, who should have specialized knowledge on the subject of language, this book is strongly recommended.”

Chomsky has suggested that language capacity is innate and children develop it with minimal exposure. What language it will be, of course, will depend on what is spoken to them. However, he has theorized about a universal grammar that is the basic structure of all languages upon which an infinite number of sentences can be generated; the theory is known as generative grammar. Brains come equipped with this capacity, although he has never explained how it came to be in terms evolution or physiology other than a lucky mutation somewhere in the past.

Fellow linguist Philip Lieberman also earns a chapter by researching the anatomical basis of motor aspects of language, particularly phonology and syntax in Parkinson disease patients in whom subcortically based motor impairment leads to linguistic changes similar to climbers of Mount Everest. Kenneally explains that both groups of people have damage to the basal ganglia by disease or anoxia. This motor control theory of syntax attempts to find an anatomical basis of universal grammar, and to link language to basic structures even animals have.

Animal Studies

Kenneally also describes the debates surrounding animal language. Darwin, for instance, believed that animal communication is an evolutionary precursor of human language. Parrots can be taught to use language to express wishes and be conditioned to respond to certain questions and identify objects. A few chapters of this book summarize animal language studies, some well popularized in the lay press, such as Koko the gorilla, Kanzi the bonobo, and other apes who were taught lexigrams (symbols standing for words) put together to form sentences. However, in one case, when a chimp called Nim Chimpsky was videotaped, he seemed to be responding to subtle cues from his handler.

Kenneally summarizes the extensive literature on animal studies involving comparative anatomy and behavior, including the areas of animal cognition that are often considered “uniquely” human.

In entertaining and clear prose, she describes classic and current experiments and scientific concepts of tool use, gestures, recognition of self, comprehension, communication, creativity, culture, and play found in the animal kingdom. Anthropocentrists, beware! These chapters will assault your cherished beliefs. Even having a larynx is not uniquely human. Parrots, for example, can talk without one. We may have more slow fibers for graded resonance of our vocal cords and to shape our tongue, but the difference is subtle. Even categorical perception of sounds, the basis of capacity to perceive speech, present in newborns can be also found in chinchillas.

Nevertheless, the book demonstrates that we did evolve and we are different. A chapter discusses the elements of sounds, the phonemes, or meaningful output called morphemes, or the combination of these forming syntax. Although analogies of these structures were found in birdsongs and marine mammals, they do not have the range, number, and combinatory complexity of human language.

A chapter on neuroscience begins with a dramatic description of a hemispherectomy and the discussion of plasticity in the brain. Then it takes an unjustified stab at traditional localizationist aphasiology to replace it on the pedestal with the modern phrenology of functional activation. An example of this is how the left language areas process regular past tense verbs (loved) while the right side deals with irregular past tense verbs (ate) as unique words. It deals with encephalization (the ratio of brain to body size). We come out winners by far, but predictably we are warned that dolphins may catch up. Some recent research found a larger Broca's area in apes, so again we are left to wonder: What is the difference between animals' and humans' language abilities?

A Genetic Basis?

Genetics is the new hope to solve the conundrum of the origins of language. The FOXp2 mutation on chromosome 7 in a family with congenital articulatory problems is called the language gene. It is postulated that one of our ancestors 200,000 years ago somewhere in East Africa may have had a mutation enabling language to evolve.

Another archeologist suggested that mutation was there only 50,000 years ago because symbolic artifacts appear around that time in greater number. This “miracle of mutation” is not much different from a gift from God and is usually considered in that category, creationist, rather than evolutionary. The other explanation that bipedal posture, freeing the hands for communication by gesture or symbol, is more commonly advanced.

Language is considered polygenic and multiple genetic and environmental factors have likely contributed to its evolution. Even Chomsky has appeared to have switched sides, or at least to sit on the fence between evolution and innate “suddenly just there” language capacity in a recent position paper, while leaving the issue of a core grammar for continued debate for years to come.

In addition to its astonishing breadth, this book is up to date, educational, and entertaining. Christine Kenneally joins the group of science writers and popularizers worth reading. For neurologists, who should have specialized knowledge on the subject of language, this book is strongly recommended. Aphasic stroke and language deterioration with dementia and tumors are much too common for any neurologist not to have thorough knowledge of most aspects of language, not the least its evolution.