Emily Eakin reviews The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language By Christine Kenneally in The New York Times.
In this field, physical evidence is scarce — language, except in its written form, leaves no trace — and scholarly clout depends on a capacity for ingenious inference and supposition. Christine Kenneally, a linguistics Ph.D. turned journalist, shrewdly begins “The First Word,” her account of this new science, with candid portraits of several of its most influential figures. Appropriately, the first chapter is devoted to Noam Chomsky, whose ideas have dominated linguistics since the late 1950s, and who, as Kenneally reports, has been hailed as a genius on a par with Einstein and disparaged as the leader of a “cult” with “evil side effects.”
According to Chomsky, humans are born with the principles of grammar hard-wired in their brains, enabling them, from an early age and without formal instruction, to construct an infinite variety of sentences from a finite number of words. Moreover, Chomsky has suggested, language is a peculiarly human phenomenon, a trait so remarkable that evolutionary theory is virtually helpless to explain it. “It surely cannot be assumed that every trait is specifically selected,” he wrote in 1988. “In the case of such systems as language … it is not easy even to imagine a course of selection that might have given rise to them.” Chomsky’s impatience with the question of language’s origins effectively squelched inquiry into the subject for decades. (In a sense, Kenneally notes, such considerations had been taboo for much longer: although Darwin noted similarities between human speech and sounds made by monkeys and birds, and speculated that language “has been slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps,” by the mid-1870s the linguistic societies of Paris and London had formally banned all discussion of evolution.)