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The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language

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An accessible exploration of a burgeoning new field: the incredible evolution of language

The first popular book to recount the exciting, very recent developments in tracing the origins of language, The First Word is at the forefront of a controversial, compelling new field. Acclaimed science writer Christine Kenneally explains how a relatively small group of scientists that include Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker assembled the astounding narrative of how the fundamental process ...

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The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language

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An accessible exploration of a burgeoning new field: the incredible evolution of language

The first popular book to recount the exciting, very recent developments in tracing the origins of language, The First Word is at the forefront of a controversial, compelling new field. Acclaimed science writer Christine Kenneally explains how a relatively small group of scientists that include Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker assembled the astounding narrative of how the fundamental process of evolution produced a linguistic ape-in other words, us. Infused with the wonder of discovery, this vital and engrossing book offers us all a better understanding of the story of humankind.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The search for the origin of human language has finally come of age. In bygone days, authorities pursued "research" by imprisoning and totally isolating toddlers to discover what language they would eventually speak "naturally." For centuries, progress in Ur-language research was slow and spasmodic; many scientists came to believe that there was no definitive way to answer its central questions. Then, in the past 20 years, everything changed. Christine Kenneally's The First Word shows how linguists, cognitive scientists, animal researchers, biologists, and geneticists have all contributed valuable new insights into language evolution. The author is superbly equipped to render this story with clarity: She holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from Cambridge and has written about scientific topics for The New Yorker, Scientific American, and other publications.
William Girmes
…in the last decade or so, language evolution has eased toward the front burner, attracting the attention of linguists, neuroscientists, psychologists and geneticists. Their search is the subject of The First Word, Christine Kenneally's lucid survey of this expanding field…she explains difficult ideas concisely and clearly, and she maintains a firm grip on the steering wheel, moving the overall argument along in a straight line. Above all, she is scrupulously fair-minded.
—The New York Times
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 Yorkerand Discoveramong 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)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Linguist and journalist Kenneally synthesizes linguistic scholarship regarding the evolution of language, namely, scholarship's development and current conclusions. She shares intriguing accounts of research not just about humans but about primates, dolphins, and parrots as well. She also discusses genes specifically identified as impacting language and the computer modeling of language development. Kenneally organizes the various research projects as they relate to a specific scholar's work (e.g., that of primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh) or aspect of language (e.g., sound or gesture), or as they illumine the earliest linguistic evolution. Using her "insider" status as a linguistics scholar, Kenneally augments the narrative through interviews with other scholars, representing a wide variety of views she supports with endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. Her work stands out among numerous recent publications for its presentation of so many aspects of linguistic research. Its systematic explanation of large amounts of scholarship throughout makes it most appropriate for students and other scholars. Recommended for academic libraries.
—Marianne Orme

Kirkus Reviews
Linguist and popular-science journalist Kenneally lucidly explains how scientists explore language. It never hurts to begin with a genius, so the author opens by declaring, "the story of language evolution studies is unavoidably the story of the intellectual reign of Noam Chomsky." Before Chomsky, linguists searched for new languages, wrote down vocabulary and grammar and compared them to other languages. They never addressed questions about the origin of language because conventional wisdom declared such questions could not be answered. Sixty years ago, Chomsky pointed out that infants learn to talk merely by interacting with those around them for a few years. Since conversation contains too little information to provide rules for this incredibly complex skill, humans must be born with the unique ability to learn to speak. This assertion galvanized a generation of researchers who turned their attention to the roots of language. Since Chomsky asserted that language is a uniquely human phenomenon, he doubted evolution played a role in its origin. So great was his influence that scientists have only recently overcome their inhibitions and turned up fascinating evidence to the contrary. Readers will blink as the author describes studies demonstrating that animals use language and can be taught more. Early, highly publicized experiments with apes gave the field a bad reputation because the animals seemed to be responding to trainers' cues, but careful studies make it clear that many animals can employ syntax and vocabulary at the level of a three-year-old human. Despite our vastly superior language abilities, researchers have yet to find any speech areas in the human brain that are notpresent elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Kenneally's book features a steady stream of brilliant, opinionated people expressing ideas that often contradict those of other brilliant people, but she channels this flood of frequently technical arguments into a comprehensible and stimulating narrative. Lively portrait of a fascinating new scientific field. Agent: Jay Mandel/William Morris Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641918384
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 7/19/2007
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Christine Kenneally is Australian and received her Ph.D. in linguistics at Cambridge. She has written about language, science, and culture for publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, Scientific American, Discover, and Slate.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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