ADAM’S TONGUE by Derek Bickerton


How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans
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Linguist Bickerton (Bastard Tongues, 2008, etc.) argues that our remote ancestors’ cooperation in large-animal scavenging laid the groundwork for the capacities that evolved into language.

As he has in previous books, the author quarrels with colleagues, constructs a number of what he justifiably calls “just-so stories” to imagine what might have been in prehistory, employs a sometimes discordant mixture of just-plain-folks diction and fairly dense professional jargon and chronicles the evolution of his own thinking, freely—almost gleefully—admitting his errors. In a discussion of one procedure, he offers a sample of sentence production by the “Merge” process: “[[the [girl [you [met yesterday]]]] [speaks French]].” (Got it?) He declares that Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky and other notables have made grievous theoretical errors. He believes he has discovered the truth: Humans, like other animals, are active niche-builders, not just Nature’s playthings. We alter our environments to suit us even as they work to alter us. We evolve to survive, of course, but we also evolve in ways that we need. Chimps developed no language because they didn’t require one to thrive in their niche. Humans needed language. Out on the savannah, we were prey as well as predator; we needed to cooperate with one another to compete effectively. Bickerton argues that we would have lost the competition for scavenging large fauna if we had not developed sharp-edged tools that allowed us to cut away meat from the carcasses before other animals could beak open the tough hides. Accordingly, we would have needed ways to let one another know that a carcass had been found, where it lay and so on. As the need sharpened, nature selected for brains that could symbolize and picture something far away. Worlds of words eventually—slowly—followed.

Combines the energy and enthusiasm of a frisky, curious critter with the erudition and professional competitiveness of a longtime denizen of academe.

Pub Date: March 24th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8090-2281-6
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2008