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Reviewed by:
  • New perspectives on the origins of language ed. by Claire Lefebvre, Bernard Comrie, and Henri Cohen
  • Umberto Ansaldo and Tao Gong
New perspectives on the origins of language. Ed. by Claire Lefebvre, Bernard Comrie, and Henri Cohen. (Studies in language companion series 144.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2013. Pp. xvi, 582. ISBN 9789027206114. $165 (Hb).

Investigating the origins of language is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating quests of modern science. There are a number of reasons why this is so. First, language may not be the only thing that makes us humans, but it is surely one of a few salient traits of our humanity. Then, consider the mindboggling range of exciting questions that we ask when trying to deepen our understanding of what human language is: When did humans start speaking? Was it a gradual development? And if so, were there stages of protolanguage leading up to its modern form? Or did modern language emerge abruptly? What kind of cognitive and social dynamics would have been in place to facilitate its development? Is there only one origin or are we contemplating multiple origins in different locations? What does this tell us about the evolution of diversity and human dispersal? We could go on. What is obvious, as clearly shown in New perspectives on the origins of language, is that, in order to tackle these questions properly, linguistics cannot go at it alone, at least not in its traditional or ‘core’ sense. If linguistics wants to have a go at these highly significant questions for an understanding of humanity, it needs to evolve into a highly interdisciplinary science, intimately connected with the fields of anthropology, paleontology, primatology, zoology, neuroscience, and genetics (among others). The book under review makes a strong case for a new interdisciplinary field devoted to the study of language origins, and shows us that the field has already made some significant advances. We may never be able to positively answer all of the questions, but we are developing methodologies and refining tools that can shed a lot of clarity about our human origins, including language. Besides offering a brief insight into some of the developments reported in the book, this review also focuses in particular on the role that the discipline of linguistics specifically can play in this growing field of inquiry.

Lefebvre, Comrie, and Cohen present us with twenty-one chapters expanded from the invited lectures of the Summer Institute in Cognitive Sciences 2010. The chapters are organized into five parts. Part 1 gives an overview of the historical and philosophical perspectives on language origins from ancient times till the last century. Through addressing critical questions of language origins and adopting various methodologies from a number of nonlinguistic fields, the other parts reveal two distinct features of modern research on language origins: first, the scope and complexity of the topics concerning language origins vastly exceed what linguistic theories and methods typically cover; and second, the specificity and limitation of relevant disciplines make it difficult to obtain a comprehensive understanding of language origins based solely on a single discipline (cf. Gong, Shuai, & Wu 2013, Gong, Shuai, & Comrie 2014). Both features lead to the uniqueness of this line of research, compared with other traditional fields. In order to discuss the physiological, biological, and sociocultural prerequisites for language origins, fields such as anthropology and archaeology need to play a role in the discussion. As shown in Part 2 of the anthology, these disciplines examine the anatomy, products, and sociocultural relics of early humans. In this way we can gather evidence of the presence or absence of certain bony conformations in humans that are associated with speech and syntax, reconstruct the socioecological niches in which language originated and was used, and approximate the cognitive and social complexity of extinct language users. A systematic comparison between language and other forms of communication systems can further reflect the characteristics of language as a communication system, and studies in evolutionary biology and animal behaviors do fulfill this purpose. This is illustrated in Part 3 where, through a comparison of language with birdsongs, primate calls, and gestures, we learn about common and distinct features of animal...


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