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The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language Hardcover

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (July 19, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670034908
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670034901
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #511,307 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This book grows out of Kenneally's conviction that investigating the evolution of language is a good and worthwhile pursuit—a stance that most in the field of linguistics disparaged until about 20 years ago. The result is a book that is as much about evolutionary biology as it is about linguistics. We read about work with chimpanzees, bonobos, parrots and even robots that are being programmed to develop language evolutionarily. Kenneally, who has written about language, science and culture for the New Yorker and Discover among others, has a breezily journalistic style that is occasionally witty but more often pragmatic, as she tries to distill academic and scientific discourses into terms the casual reader will understand. She introduces the major players in the field of linguistics and behavioral studies—Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Philip Lieberman—as well as countless other anthropologists, biologists and linguists. Kenneally's insistence upon seeing human capacity for speech on an evolutionary continuum of communication that includes all other animal species provides a respite from ideological declamations about human supremacy, but the book will appeal mainly to those who are drawn to the nuts and bolts of scientific inquiry into language. (July 23)
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“ A clear and splendidly written account of a new field of research on a central question about the human species.”
—Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate

“ A crash course on imitation, gesture, abstract thought, and speech. . . . It is eminently worthy of attention.”
—Psychology Today

“ Scientists who study the origins of language are a passionate, fractious bunch, and you don’t have to be an egghead to be tantalized by the questions that drive their research: how and when did we learn to speak, and to what extent is language a uniquely human attribute? What [Kenneally] describes is fascinating.”
—The New York Times Book Review --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and learned a great deal from it.
Ian Farbrother
Kenneally takes us through decades of language evolution debates in a captivating, readable way.
Helene Martin
Perhaps this result is due as much to my inabilities as to the writing skills of the author.
Tired Reader

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

84 of 87 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 13, 2007
Format: Hardcover
More than anything else, I came away from The First Word thinking that linguists love to argue. In fact, every few pages I found myself arguing with author Christine Kenneally and I'm not even a linguist. I disagreed with much of the book and wanted more evidence for many of her arguments. But when I find myself thinking about a book this much and discussing it with people at length, I have to give it five stars.

The subject is the origin of human language. How did it start? Obviously there's no way of knowing, but that doesn't (nor should it) keep linguists from looking for the answer. Since no one can prove or disprove any of the theories about language origin, it's a free-for-all. Linguists seem to enjoy knocking their colleagues' theories even more than they enjoy defending their own theories.

Kenneally is mostly even-handed in her presentation of the many interesting theories currently in debate. However, she chides Martin Gardner for a 1980 article he wrote debunking experiments claiming to have taught chimps, apes, and dolphins human language. Gardner acknowledged the popularity of such experiments, especially when they featured an attractive blonde scientist teaching an ape (evoking Beauty and the Beast) to "talk." Kenneally suspects that no one writes of Chomsky or other male scientists by describing their hair or appearance. Yet Kenneally thinks nothing of mentioning Steven Pinker's "flop of curls" or that Stephen Jay Gould is "short and remarkably loud."

Many of the theories about language origin seem to rest on isolated cases. Linguists cite the case of Genie, a girl who was raised by people who didn't speak to her. She didn't learn to speak and when she was removed from the abusive environment as a teenager, she couldn't learn to speak.
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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful By J. Grattan VINE VOICE on August 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover
As the title suggests, this book does not lay out a theory for the origins of language. It is a solid effort to capture the debate between linguistics and many other branches of science concerning the origin and development of language, more specifically human language. It is a highly controversial subject with great disagreements among many well known scientists, which is well captured by the author, a linguist as well as a journalist.

Noam Chomsky, longtime professor of linguistics at MIT, has been the giant of linguistic studies. It is his theories that are the starting point for the origins, even the definition, of language. But as the author shows, his basic view that humans possess a highly localized center of the brain that emerged due to some form of genetic mutation fairly complete in its ability for language is now largely unaccepted by a preponderance of the scientific community. Instead, language is seen to be a part of a general capability to communicate and has been evolving for millions of years with some periods more significant than others, in particular one about 200,000 years ago.

The Chomskian emphasis on language syntax has given way to the evolution of practical communication including the importance of gestures as a forerunner to spoken language. A variety of injuries and surgeries to the brain have discredited the notion that the center of language is located in a particular area of the brain. Perhaps most important are a number of studies that clearly demonstrate that animals have highly effective understanding and communication abilities that exist outside the bounds of Chomskian formalities, though admittedly at far less than human levels.
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39 of 43 people found the following review helpful By David M. Giltinan on December 29, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"The First Word", Christine Kenneally's "search for the origins of language" comes with its share of celebrity endorsements. The back cover contains laudatory blurbs from both Steven Pinker ("a clear and splendidly written account ...") and author of "The Ghost Map", Steven Johnson, ("a rare and delightful mix..."). Then there is the following gem on the inside jacket cover - "The First Word is not only a compelling historical account of our greatest intellectual faculty but a provocative consideration of what it means, finally, to be human".

Well, it seems hardly fair to hold an author accountable for whatever silliness her publishers might assemble on a book's exterior in the interest of boosting sales. Let's just say that this book is ambitious in its scope and that the author is obviously academically well-qualified. My own formal qualifications in the field of linguistics are non-existent, so this review is from the point of view of a non-specialist with a keen amateur interest in the topic.

An obvious question: `is this a book for the non-specialist?' I think that the publishers would like to market it as such, and that Dr. Kenneally possibly thinks of it that way. But, much as I wanted to like this book, if it is meant to be accessible to the general reader, I think it falls well short of the mark. This is not to say it's not interesting - there are parts which I found fascinating. But it gives the distinct impression that the author did not have a well-defined audience in mind, or - if she meant it to be accessible to the general reader - she has not mastered the ability to write effectively for a non-specialist audience.

The problems manifest themselves in two main areas. First, the question of scope and organization.
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