Sunday, August 12, 2007

Pg. 99: Christine Kenneally's "The First Word"

Today's feature at the Page 99 Test: Christine Kenneally's The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language.

About the book, from the publisher:
A compelling look at the quest for the origins of human language from an accomplished linguist

Language is a distinctly human gift. However, because it leaves no permanent trace, its evolution has long been a mystery, and it is only in the last fifteen years that we have begun to understand how language came into being.

The First Word is the compelling story of the quest for the origins of human language. The book follows two intertwined narratives. The first is an account of how language developed — how the random and layered processes of evolution wound together to produce a talking animal: us. The second addresses why scientists are at last able to explore the subject. For more than a hundred years, language evolution was considered a scientific taboo. Kenneally focuses on figures like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, along with cognitive scientists, biologists, geneticists, and animal researchers, in order to answer the fundamental question: Is language a uniquely human phenomenon?

The First Word is the first book of its kind written for a general audience. Sure to appeal to fans of Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Kenneally’s book is set to join them as a seminal account of human history.
Among the praise for The First Word:
"[A] lucid survey of this expanding field... covers an enormous expanse of ground as she brings the reader up to date on developments in a wide variety of disciplines touching on language evolution... explains difficult ideas concisely and clearly... scrupulously fair-minded... zeroes in on a host of fascinating experiments."
--New York Times

"The book's wit and sophistication will appeal to anyone interested in talking about talk."

" elegant parcel that makes the abstract concrete -- and, like an imperative, it is eminently worthy of attention."
--Psychology Today

"...deftly traces [an] ideological shift, weaving history with hard science, to provide an expansive account of what we know about the beginnings of language and how we came to know it."
--Seed Magazine

"...a useful introduction to the exciting new field of evolutionary linguistics."

"...lucidly explains how scientists explore language... Lively portrait of a fascinating new scientific field."

"...intriguing accounts of research not just about humans but about primates, dolphins, and parrots as well. ...stands out among numerous recent publications."
--Library Journal

"...seeing the human capacity for speech on an evolutionary continuum of communication that includes all other animal species provides a respite from ideological declamations about human supremacy..."
--Publishers Weekly

"A clear and splendidly written account of a new field of research on a central question about the human species."
--Steven Pinker

"The First Word is a rare and delightful mix: both a probing exploration of one of the great remaining mysteries of life, and a riveting story of the battles and breakthroughs that drive scientific progress."
--Steven Johnson
Christine Kenneally is a freelance journalist and author who has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Discover, Slate and Salon, as well as other publications.

Read more about Kenneally's journalism and The First Word at her website.

The Page 99 Test: The First Word.

--Marshal Zeringue