Peter Heinegg
Of all the dizzying questions devised, “How did language begin?” has to rank near the top. Humans plainly learn to speak by imitation, but back in the beginning who was there to imitate? We can’t talk without a vocabulary and syntax—but where did they come from? All the earlier hominids have long since disappeared, and writing is only 6,000 years old; so how can we ever get a handle on the way Homo sapiens pulled off the most electrifying trick in history? The bad news is we will never fully fathom this mysterious process (and some scholars would even now deny that it was a process, as opposed to a fabulous one-time quantum leap). The good news, thanks to the labors of myriad researchers in linguistics, anthropology, genetics, comparative biology, animal behavior, paleontology, etc., is that we now know far more than we did a few decades ago; and the stream of information, however roiled by controversy, is getting richer every day.

This complex but absorbing story is wonderfully told by Christine Kenneally, a Ph.D. by training (linguistics, Cambridge University) but a journalist by trade. She has also interviewed many of its protagonists, which adds some personal color to what might otherwise have been dry sections on the learned-journal fisticuffs between Noam Chomsky and the evolutionists. Actually, those parts still are a bit dry; but the irreducibly fascinating big issues remain.

First of all, what is language anyway? Is it a sort of computer program hardwired into us? Do we have a “universal grammar” (Chomsky), with rules that “can generate the syntax of every human language”? Does it have a “core”? Or is it a messy accumulation of motor skills and acquired habits that developed, like practically everything else in the human repertoire, by accident? Is it less like an operating system and more like a virus (“a non-conscious life form that evolves independently of the animals infected by it”—we’ll admit, won’t we, that language is “infectious”?)

Despite long resistance by the Chomskyites, more or less everyone now acknowledges that language has evolved (some hard-liners insist that lately it has stopped evolving). But from what? Gestures would seem to be a sensible starting point, and we can study them as well as the stunning variety of vocalizations in our simian cousins and more distant animal and avian relatives. Kenneally reviews a whole batch of discoveries about a number of prodigious non-human “talkers,” from the garrulous Alex, an African gray parrot (recently deceased) to Koko, the gorilla, Kanzi, the bonobo, and Hoover, the snarky harbor seal who greets visitors to the New England Aquarium with the equivalent of “Hey, hey you, get outta there!”

Earlier critics tended to dismiss such achievements as a combination of rote mimicry by the animals and unconscious cues from their handlers; but a growing body of evidence shows that beasts can indeed learn to play language games—and do some thinking while they’re at it. Scientists are now revising the hitherto demeaning concept of the bird-brain as they observe, for instance, a “languageless” New Caledonian crow named Betty snatch up and engineer a strip of wire into a hook with which she can pull up a bucket of sliced meat. No animal, either in the lab or the wild, has ever managed to perform the human feat of taking chunks of language and using them to fashion truly novel statements. But at least animal studies are shedding light on how the pressure to survive promotes a kind of communication that is “indexical,” if not yet symbolic (like various monkey or meerkat cries warning of nearby predators).

The questions just keep piling up. Human speech is impossible without a closely integrated network of vocal and cortical structures; but how exactly did they come into being? (Fossilized remains are a help here.) And how do we trace the “co-evolution” of brain and language (or other constructs)? When our ancestors, the australopithecines, for example, began using flaked stone tools, that leap forward helped to make their environment far more promising for such tool-making behavior and for the brainier tool-makers, who then got to pass on their genes more than the competition. Throw a practically unlimited amount of time into the mix, and you’re cooking. Text-messaging, here we come.

Reading about a science, or a family of sciences, still in its youth (we knew next to nothing about the life of the wild apes until Jane Goodall came along) is bound to have its frustrations. One has barely latched on to a new notion—that Broca’s area is the supreme “word processor” in the brain—than one has to revise it radically (language is much more diffusely controlled). But you could hardly ask for a livelier or better-informed guide than Kenneally, who has taken her extraordinary teaching talent out of the classroom and into the world. She writes clearly and cogently; she does justice to competing theories; and she supplies a plethora of delicious details. Who knew that dolphins began all their “conversations” with unique signature whistles that identify themselves?

For all the fresh data, the uncanniness persists. We can—and must—multiply descriptions and metaphors (it is all we have); but we cannot nail language down. As Nietzsche said in Human, All Too Human, in language “humans placed a world all their own next to the other one, a place they took to be so solid that they could brace themselves on it, lift the other world off its hinges, and be lords over it.” What this meant in fact, Kenneally reminds us, is that we inhabit a multiverse, as we live simultaneously in at least two worlds. It is more than a little irritating that our Archimedean ground is not so solid after all, but it’s also deeply enigmatic and exciting.

Peter Heinegg is a professor of English at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.