The Origins of Meaning: Language in the light of evolution

 by James R Hurford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): 406pp, £37 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 199 20785 5.

Reviewed by Sue Browning

Buy this book

In this, the first of two closely linked but self-contained books, James Hurford tries to trace an evolutionary path between non-speaking apes and their human descendants. While the second book (to be published in 2008) will concentrate on how the structures – phonetics, phonology, morphosyntax – of modern languages developed, in this first volume he explores the more fundamental question of why humans, and only humans, evolved their highly structured and varied languages.

Conceptual representations of the world

The book is divided into two parts. Using fascinating accounts of experiments that investigated the cognitive abilities of various animals (principally primates, but also other mammals and birds), Hurford shows in the first part – 'Meaning before Communication' – that many animals do construct conceptual representations of the world, and are capable of manipulating somewhat abstract relationships and properties, although these, of course, fall far short of what humans can do. But animals' pre-linguistic mental representations are private and not shared with others.

Having shown that our pre-linguistic ancestors had something to communicate about, in part two – 'Communication: What and why?' – Hurford turns his attention to the issues around having someone to communicate with and a reason to do so. He looks at how social arrangements conducive to the exchange of information might have arisen in early humans and discusses the evolutionary advantages of communicating, including co-operating in tasks (such as hunting) and group cohesion.

Accessible yet non-simplistic

Hurford himself suggests that a flip subtitle for his work might have been What animals know and why they don't tell. This epitomizes for me the tone of his book. It covers a lot of biological/genetic/neuro-scientific/anthropological ground (and surprisingly little linguistics) in an accessible yet non-simplistic way, and shows that, unique though it is, language emerges from known aspects of animal behaviour, although there are still gaps in our knowledge about how, of course. Anyone who is interested in the foundations of human language is likely to find this a fascinating read.

Reviews of other literary criticism and books on language All book reviews