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23 August 2007

First Thoughts on the First Word

While waiting for Steve Pinker's new book to come out, I have at least made a new acquisition: Christine Kenneally's The First Word, which is all about linguistic evolution (or evolutionary linguistics, depending on your perspective). I first read about the book in Wired back in July ("Breakthroughs — babbling dolphins, talking chimps, freshly discovered language genes — are coming so quickly now that Chomsky recently deigned to utter the dreaded "e" word"; the Chomsky bashing made me realise I was onto a winner) but due to various publishing delays and Amazon being a bit special, I only received my copy last week. Thus far, though, I'm really enjoying it, not least because the author earned her Linguistics PhD from Cambridge and profusely thanks her advisor, Peter Matthews, who is the former head of the department and a fellow of my college (most famous for the "desserts" (fruit and port) he hosts each year in his rooms in college for the linguistics students in college (usually about six in total, including grads)). The chapter on Steve P. doesn't hurt either!

I haven't read very much linguistics since I graduated, despite my best intentions, although to be fair I had been planning to apply to do a linguistics PhD at Stanford (or possibly UPenn), which have the best departments in for the areas in which I was interested, although I was, in the end, put off by the finality of it all. I was also put off, in part, at least, by the Cambridge linguistics course, which is ironic given how much I enjoyed my studies there. The problem with Cambridge is that although everyone says that it's not all about Chomsky, this didn't seem to be reflected in the way we were taught.

I was most interested in psycholinguistics (particularly language evolution), cognitive linguistics (especially the work of Steve P.), sociolinguistics (mainly regional variations with special reference to U.S. English) and pragmatics (what people mean by the phrases they utter). The first three of those areas formed two thirds of one paper (and I was doing six papers in my final year). Pragmatics, at least, counted for half a paper (shared with the oh-so-philosophical and formal logicky semantics). The problem was that the department didn't really have any sociolinguists or psycho-/cognitive linguists: there were phoneticians (including the current department head who, among many other accolades, can profess to being the inventor of parseltongue) and there were syntacticians (who were all very heavy on their generative linguistics).

I hated studying syntax. I found it outstandingly boring and I didn't really see the point. I wasn't really interested in the architecture itself but in how it was used. I guess I should really have gone to the psychology department. Except that at Cambridge to do psychology, you had to study natural sciences and to do that I needed A-level maths when I had already renounced maths at age 16, having had the same awful, awful maths teacher for five years (this was in the top set of one of the top schools in the country). By the time I realised I liked this whole cognitive science deal, it was far too late. Of course, with a top degree from one of the world's top universities and supervisors willing to support me, I probably could have got into a graduate program in psychology or cognitive science or linguistics at a good university in the U.S. but by then I had already relegated it to a hobby.

Over the past year or so, my non-fiction reading efforts have largely been focused around the sphere of evolutionary biology - evolutionary psychology, in particular - so it really is the perfect time for me to be reading Kenneally's book, which certainly isn't an introductory work but which is still very interesting for me to read, not least because it integrates my previous linguistic studies into the evolutionary bio context about which I have read quite a lot, of late.

So far I've only read the first chapters, each of which focuses on the contribution made by a significant linguist.

1. Chomsky. Of course. I'm not his greatest fan but no one can deny that he revolutionised the field and the way in which it is studied or his influence.

2. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. She worked on the acquisition and use of language in bonobos and made arguably the most progress to date in teaching apes to communicate using a human-like language.

3. Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom. I extol the virtues of SP far too often but I'm a big fan of Bloom's too. He is most famous for the way he and SP, back when the former was a young grad student and the latter was a young professor, took on Stephen Jay Gould in debate and did admirably well (Chomsky was also supposed to participate but couldn't make it in the end; they have both argued extensively that, contrary to Chomsky and Gould, it is entirely plausible that language evolved by natural selection.

4. Philip Lieberman. I hadn't actually heard of Lieberman before reading this book but he mainly works on the biophysics of speech and the evolution of the vocal tract (this is probably why I hadn't heard of him).

In the rest of the book, Kenneally looks as the aspects of human language that differentiate it from animal communication systems and the potential rationales behind the evolution of language in humans before broadening out to look at how linguistic evolution fits into the evolutionary framework as a whole.

I'm sure I'll have more to say when I've actually read the whole book but for now I'm just glad that there is such an accessible text integrating many of the things in which I'm interested into one place. Keep up the good work, Christine!

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