Review: The Talking Ape – How Language Evolved, by Robbins Burling

What is language? And how came it to be what it is? Language is so central to us as as human beings that most of us never even stop to wonder how it came to be that way. True, linguists works hard to dismantle language, to isolate the parts and to put labels on those parts, working away like physicists trying to find the smallest possible building blocks of the known universe and beyond. But the question of how language came to be have largely been left untouched, largely because spoken language do not leave archaeological finds as a physical track so whatever theory have been issued it have been founded largely on guesswork and wishful thinking.

In The Talking Ape linguist and anthropologist Robbins Burling tries not to dismantle language but to look at language and in a bid to understand how it evolved. He piece by piece pick apart prevailing ideas about the origins of language, scrutinizing them for contents and useful bits and then present the idea that language, while the common theory has been we evolved it because it gave us an upper hand in doing things like hunting, is that it has facilitated social interaction and that social interaction, planning and learning is what has set us apart form other animals.
The topic touches at a lot of sensitive and uncharted areas, like that of consciousness, and Burling is careful to underline that what he poses is a hypothesis, nothing more, but at the same time at least I think at the core looking at language and ask “why did it evolve, why did people who had language win the race for prevalence” is a sound method.

While me makes a good case against creationist linguistics (we woke up one morning and behold, there was language in our heads!) I do think he misses the impact culture and economics has had on humans and therefore on our language. Yes, we need language to sustain a city-dwelling society, but why came cities to be? The author is an anthropologist, and as such refers to his own field studies in agrarian communities. Based on is own observations and present knowledge of how human civilisation has evolved his theories are valid, but they fall somewhat short when he lacks them means to validate them against a city culture. Not that they would not hold together (a double negation! what a sacrilege!) but with the holistic take he has chosen this lack shows clearly.

Never the less I think this book is very much worth the effort and I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.

The book has also been reviewed on the blog Popular Science.

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