Although I’ve never pursued the subject seriously, I’ve always been a casual fan of linguistics; coming as I do from a background of reading and writing, I’ve developed a love, if nothing else, for language. I expected Christine Kenneally’s The First Word to be a bit more anthropological, like John Man’s excellent Alpha Beta. It actually ended up being more like Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, which isn’t bad, but merely different.
The First Word is composed of three parts. The first is a brief introduction of linguistics, mostly since the latter half of the 21st century. It sets up Noam Chomsky as the king of linguists, whose pioneering work in deep structure essentially set the tone of linguistic research for the next 30 or 40 years. Enter Steven Pinker, who, along with cohort Bloom, begin to insist that language is fundamentally tied to our evolution. This raises a ruckus: for a long time, the study of linguistics had concerned itself with the what of language—that is, grammars and vocabularies and etymologies—and asking the why had been deeply unfashionable. Kenneally introduces additional linguistics who seemed to come into the limelight once the Pinker/Bloom/Chomsky debate had blown the doors on evolutionary linguistics wide open.
Part Two talks about the nature of language, culturally and biologically. In discussing these characterics, Kenneally cites which is essentially a long list of scientific studies of language, protolanguage, or language-like behavior in animals. Apes, yes, but also birds and dolphins and &c. I admit that this tack got old after a while. I give Kenneally credit for her diligent research, but I got the point pretty early on. Her goal is to frame each of those vital characteristics to language in discrete memes which can be seen and studied in animals as well, in some fundamental way.
Part three talks much more about evolution, including culturally evolution. I recall Pinker’s book, and much of his arguments for the evolution of language, and this made a lot of sense, if somewhat redundant sense.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book, besides the beginning that talks about the linguistic catfights of the 80s and 90s, is the epilogue, which takes a single question (basically, would language arise independently in a group of isolated children?) and lists the response from each one of the linguists that the author interviewed. It gives a broad sense of the schools of thought, and was in fact a lot more interesting than the bulk of animal studies that comprised much of the book.
I feel as though The First Word is a good book that would have been a lot better with some more editing: its focus is a little blurry, its body a bit dry, and its ultimate conclusion a bit empty. Let me point out that this is not a book for etymologists; you’ll probably like it if you’re a Pinker fan, however.