The Talking Ape: How language evolved

by Robbins Burling (Oxford University Press, new ed. 2007): 304pp, £12.50 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 19 921403 7.

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

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When reading, did you ever wonder how to pronounce 'Ahem!' or 'Tut, tut, tut' or 'Aaaarrrgggh!!'?

Have you ever, when listening to foreigners speaking, found it hard to work out what they're saying – and then found, when they use precisely the same words but in a different way, that you understand easily?

Have you ever wondered why these things happen?

Evolutionary advantage

The answers are in this book. Robbins Burling explains the difference between language and the numerous (and tricky to spell!) types of noises that we utter – as do so many other animals – in order to communicate.

The author also dips into the way that the working of the human mind and language are interlinked, and explains how language, once started, would have developed – lexicon, grammar, syntax. And he investigates not just what we have done to language, but also what it has done to us as a species – the evolutionary advantage that has been conferred on us by our ability to use it.

Intriguing thoughts

But what he can't do – for me, maddeningly! – is give much more than a very hazy idea or two of how we might have moved on from communicating via sounds and body language to using words. He includes some intriguing thoughts in connection with music and chanting, and explains (oh joy!) the bow-wow, pooh-pooh, tra-la-la and yo-heave-ho theories. But he is frank in admitting that he doesn't know how it happened: 'The scenario is too speculative to be regarded as a solution to the problem of just how audible language became dominant [over visual], so … I will have to finesse the problem. … This is considerably less than satisfactory, but is the best that seems possible just now.'

There we go. Despite this, if you're interested in finding out more about not just the evolution of language itself but also the 85% of human communication that underlies our words, you're likely to enjoy this book a lot.

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