Born in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Education: Melbourne University, B.A.; Cambridge University, Ph.D.
Home—Brooklyn, NY. E-mail—[email protected]
Journalist and writer.
The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, Viking (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals, including the New Yorker, New York Times, Discover, Slate and Salon.com.
A freelance writer with a degree in linguistics from Cambridge University, Christine Kenneally is the author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. As indicated by the title, the book recounts the origins and evolution of human language. The author tells the story via two intertwined narratives. The first narrative focuses on how the random and layered process of evolution wound together to produce a talking animal, namely the human being. The second narrative explores why language evolution was long considered a taboo area of research among scientists, even being banned as a topic of discussion by the Linguistic Society of Paris in 1866 and the London Philological Society in 1872. According to the author, although scientists rejected these bans, it took approximately a hundred years before they would actually begin earnest investigations into this important area of scientific inquiry.
As the author explores the search for the origins of language, she relates the role of genetics and evolution and delves into the process of defining language itself. Gathering information from a wide variety of sources, including a 2005 symposium held at Stony Brook, New York, the author explains how it has been only over the past fifteen years that scientists have begun to really understand how language came into being. She explores the work of notable scientists and thinkers such as the linguist Noam Chomsky and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, as well as other scientists in the fields of biology, genetics, and animal research. One of the issues the author seeks to answer is why language is a uniquely human phenomenon and whether or not the theory, as espoused by Chomsky and others, that language developed in humans as the result of a sudden mutation is true. For example, Kenneally writes about a growing opposing view among scientists "who have discovered that many animal species possess languagelike skills previously unimagined and, without benefit of syntax or words, have a complicated inner life," as noted by William Grimes in the New York Times. Grimes added: "They believe that the study of animal language and gestures could shed light on a possible protolanguage stage in human development."
Written for a general audience, the book includes a discussion of research concerning language in chimpanzees and parrots and also explores modern efforts to program robots to develop language in an evolutionarily manner. In the process she recounts numerous experiments, from one showing why apes who know sign language cannot really communicate with each other using sign language to a research project in which an artificial "alien" language is taught to people who then seem to spontaneously create new words for objects previously unnamed in the new language.
In a review of The First Word in the American Scientist, Michael C. Corballis noted that the author "writes in an engaging, chatty style, and readers will gain a broad understanding of what language is about and how it might have evolved." A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that the author's "book features a steady stream of brilliant, opinionated people expressing [contradictory] ideas …, but she channels this flood of frequently technical arguments into a comprehensible and stimulating narrative."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Scientist, January-February, 2008, Michael C. Corballis, "Not the Last Word," review of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2007, review of The First Word.
Library Journal, June 15, 2007, Marianne Orme, review of The First Word, p. 70.
New York Times, August 1, 2007, William Grimes, "Language Evolution's Slippery Tropes," review of The First Word.
New York Times Book Review, August 12, 2007, Emily Eakin, "Look Who's Talking," review of The First Word.
Publishers Weekly, May 14, 2007, review of The First Word, p. 42.
Science News, September 15, 2007, review of The First Word, p. 175.
Christine Kenneally Home Page,http://www.christinekenneally.com (February 22, 2008).