Daring to question Noam Chomsky’s “big bang” theory about language in humans.
In his latest book, Corballis (Emeritus, Psychology/Univ. of Auckland; The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You're Not Looking, 2015, etc.) expertly renders the inspired but inconclusive landscape of contemporary linguistic theory. According to Chomsky’s theory, writes Corballis, “language must have arisen uniquely, and suddenly, in our species.” While a large number of linguists ascribe to this belief, Corballis suspects biological and cultural influences may have something to do with the estimated 6,000 languages spoken in the world today. He attempts to “explain how language might have come about through the incremental processes of Darwinian evolution and not as some sudden gift that placed us beyond the reach of biological principles.” To do so, the author takes a calculated leap backward through evolutionary and philosophical history. Using a wealth of well-researched anecdotes about Neanderthals, cave paintings, gesturing apes, and well-trained border collies (to name a few), Corballis exemplifies moments of the human and animal minds fine-tuning their abilities to communicate. His journey into the written world is equally broad and insightful, incorporating such literary touchstones as the book of John’s first words, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and the British nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built.” These moments will compel readers to share their findings with others, but they don't always gel with other discoveries mentioned elsewhere in the book. This may be problematic to scholars looking for advancements in the field, but newcomers will find this diverse presentation to be exhilarating and illuminating. Corballis’ deluge of well-organized facts and ideas are a thrill to read, and they support his thesis that Chomsky is incorrect to define language in miraculous absolutes. The truth about language is that there's still so much to learn.
A fine, accessible introduction to a captivating, and still evolving, academic field.