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  • Origins of human communication
  • Adele E. Goldberg
Origins of human communication. By Michael Tomasello. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. Pp. 400. ISBN 0262201771. $36.

Where does language come from? Why don’t other primates have it? Drawing on decades of experimental work with children and chimps, Origins of human communication offers nuanced and rich answers to these questions.

Ch. 1, ‘A focus on infrastructure’, provides a brief overview of what is to come. The main thesis of the book is that pointing and gesture are the ‘primordial form of uniquely human communication’ (3), both phylogenetically and ontogenetically. Tomasello notes that rich intentions [End Page 953] can be conveyed by simple gestures because of our uniquely human ability to share common ground, and our uniquely human inclination to share information.

Ch. 2, ‘Primate intentional communication’, argues that many primate gestures, carefully analyzed by T, show evidence of being learned signals that are used intentionally to garner attention or to elicit behavior in another. By contrast, primate vocalizations are not relevant precursors to human language, since they are strikingly fixed and largely involuntary. ‘How could such mechanical reflexes be a direct precursor to any of the complexities of human communication and language, beyond simple cries of “Ouch!”?’ (54).

In Ch. 3, ‘Human cooperative communication’, T unravels the complex psychological ‘infrastructure’ revealed by even the seemingly simple act of pointing. Pointing, and also pantomime, require joint attention and shared common ground and they can be performed for cooperative goals, namely to inform and share information. T argues that these aspects of human communication are uniquely human. It is these traits that underlie our impressive ability to form social institutions and build real and metaphorical bridges. Without these special social-cognitive abilities and prosocial motivations, other species are unable and unmotivated to (create and) learn human-like languages.

The psychological infrastructure presupposed by language is in place by a child’s first birthday. One-year-old children have begun to point and pantomime, not only in order to request another cookie, but also simply to share the excitement of seeing a plane overhead. These gestures require that children understand others to be intentional agents with whom they can engage in joint attentional interactions. Not coincidentally, in Ch. 4, ‘Ontogenetic origins’, T argues that children begin to use language shortly after gesturing begins. That is, our ability to intuit another’s intentions and understanding of the world underlies our skill at using both communicative gestures, and words or phrases.

T observes in Ch. 5, ‘Phylogenetic origins’, that modern great apes have rudimentary versions of some of humans’ key abilities. Apes are able to use gestures flexibly and sequentially, understand the intentional actions of others, display social intentions, and engage in group activities and occasional helping behaviors. But apes’ communicative gestures fall short of shared intentionality: recipients do not attempt to relate a gesture to another’s inferred intention in a social context; that is, unlike humans, apes do not share common ground with others. There are also no normative conventions governing apes’ gestures; they do not spread through a community the way our conventional signs do.

Primates do not point to one another, and while they can learn to point for their human caregivers, they only point to make requests (often for food). Primates laboriously trained to use American Sign Language or other sign systems likewise almost always use the signs to make requests. They very rarely use learned signs in order to simply share information.

In Ch. 6, ‘The grammatical dimension’, T argues that requests, insofar as they tend to be more deictically grounded, require less syntactic marking to determine who did what to whom. That is, direct requests most commonly involve my asking you to perform some specific action. T suggests that (most) requests therefore require only ‘simple syntax’. As soon as we attempt to convey nondeictically representable information, the linguistic forms that are needed become more complex, particularly if we want to convey information about multiple events involving multiple participants.

This chapter includes a whirlwind visit with home-signing deaf children, Nigaruaguan sign language communities, ‘linguistic’ apes, and processes of grammaticalization. Although speculative, the idea that different sorts of speech...


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