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Adam's Tongue

How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans

Derek Bickerton

Hill and Wang

Adam's Tongue Download image

ISBN10: 0809016478
ISBN13: 9780809016471

Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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How language evolved has been called "the hardest problem in science." In Adam's Tongue, Derek Bickerton—long a leading authority in this field—shows how and why previous attempts to solve that problem have fallen short. Taking cues from topics as diverse as the foraging strategies of ants, the distribution of large prehistoric herbivores, and the construction of ecological niches, Bickerton produces a new alternative to the conventional wisdom.

Written in Bickerton's lucid and irreverent style, this book is the first that thoroughly integrates the story of how language evolved with the story of how humans evolved. Intriguing and controversial, it is indispensable reading both for experts in the field and for every reader who has ever wondered how a species as remarkable as ours could have come into existence.


Praise for Adam's Tongue

"An intensely felt, sometimes very funny and occasionally deeply impolite take on what are fast becoming the classic case studies for language evolution."—Christine Kenneally, New Scientist

"Derek Bickerton has long been a leading thinker concerning the evolution of language. In his latest book, Adam's Tongue, Bickerton relishes his role as agent provocateur, offering witty demolitions of rival theories, admitting past errors, and providing an invigorating defense of the construction of ecological niches as the new grand truth for the theory of language evolution."—Michael A. Arbib, Director, USC Brain Project, University of Southern California

"Bickerton skewers linguists, paleontologists, and animal behaviorists alike, reviews some of the currently popular neurobiological theories on language evolution, provides some mea culpa moments, and openly throws in a few just-so stories—and from this somewhat improbable mix comes a well-thought-out book, one that takes the reader logically through his arguments with wit and verve. Whether the reader eventually agrees with Bickerton's thesis in its entirety or not, he or she will find the hours devoted to this book time well spent."—Irene Pepperberg, Professor of Psychology, Brandeis University, and author of Alex and Me

"The great puzzle of how human language evolved, and how it relates to animal communication, is tackled here with enthusiasm and directness by the always interesting Derek Bickerton. Being neither a complete gradualist nor a believer in Divine sparks, the author touches on all the issues and positions that are hotly debated today."—Frans de Waal, Professor of Psychology, Emory University, and author of Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are

"Why is it that humans—and only humans—acquired language? Nobody knows for sure, but nobody has thought longer or harder about such questions than Derek Bickerton. A tour de force!"—Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology, New York University, and author of Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind

"In Adam's Tongue, Bickerton proposes that human language developed about 2 million years ago as an evolutionary adaptation to hunting strategies. Bickerton's theory of language evolution is disparate from that of any other linguistic scholar's because he incorporates information from a range of disciplines instead of confining himself to one subject. Bickerton opens Adam's Tongue by slowly warming his novice audience to the long and confusing history of the scientific study of language evolution. The perspective Bickerton presents in Adam's Tongue is refreshing for an academic text . . . By far the most enthralling aspect of Bickerton's book is not his theory of language evolution, but rather the metaphysical deconstruction of human conceptions of our role in evolution. We think we are unique, but isn't every species? Isn't uniqueness what constitutes a species? These are but two of the challenging questions that Bickerton discusses in artful ways. Throughout Adam's Tongue, Bickerton reasserts the essence behind Darwinian evolution: There are no winners, and each species has adapted only insofar as evolutionary pressures have forced them. With that message looming in the background, Bickerton examines what forces caused humans to develop language. The answers found in Adam's Tongue are by no means definitive; however, the realizations this book brings to the forefront are startlingly important."—Mary Lingwall, The Daily Texan

"Linguist Bickerton argues that our remote ancestors' cooperation in large-animal scavenging laid the groundwork for the capacities that evolved into language. As he has in previous books, the author quarrels with colleagues, constructs a number of what he justifiably calls 'just-so stories' to imagine what might have been in prehistory, employs a sometimes discordant mixture of just-plain-folks diction and fairly dense professional jargon and chronicles the evolution of his own thinking, freely—almost gleefully—admitting his errors. In a discussion of one procedure, he offers a sample of sentence production by the 'Merge' process: '[[the [girl [you [met yesterday]]]] [speaks French]].' (Got it?) He declares that Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky and other notables have made grievous theoretical errors. He believes he has discovered the truth: Humans, like other animals, are active niche-builders, not just Nature's playthings. We alter our environments to suit us even as they work to alter us. We evolve to survive, of course, but we also evolve in ways that we need. Chimps developed no language because they didn't require one to thrive in their niche. Humans needed language. Out on the savannah, we were prey as well as predator; we needed to cooperate with one another to compete effectively. Bickerton argues that we would have lost the competition for scavenging large fauna if we had not developed sharp-edged tools that allowed us to cut away meat from the carcasses before other animals could beak open the tough hides. Accordingly, we would have needed ways to let one another know that a carcass had been found, where it lay and so on. As the need sharpened, nature selected for brains that could symbolize and picture something far away. Worlds of words eventually—slowly—followed. Combines the energy and enthusiasm of a frisky, curious critter with the erudition and professional competitiveness of a longtime denizen of academe."—Kirkus Reviews

"Bickerton has written an accessible and engaging book on a very complex topic: the evolution of language. Avoiding jargon, he grounds scientific detail in a conversational style that uses hypotheticals and illustrations to get the reader actively thinking. The text starts by pointing out both the difficulty of understanding the evolution of language and its being the basis of human progress. Bickerton looks at the development of thinking on the topic, from the acceptance that humans descended from primates to theories on how human communication differs from other animal systems. However, he does not just reference linguistic theory. He also draws on other disciplines, such as biology and paleoanthropology, to forward his own theory that humans, unlike other animals, developed the ability to create concepts and that the development of language is tied to this creative capacity. This book would be relevant to anyone studying linguistics but also those interested readers new to the topic."—Rebecca Bollen Manalac, Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads


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Chapter One


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About the author

Derek Bickerton

Derek Bickerton is professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Hawaii. His most recent book, Bastard Tongues, was published by Hill and Wang in 2008.

Yvonne Bickerton

Derek Bickerton