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The Talking Ape – Robbins Burling ****

Language – surely one of the key factors to making us human – and Robbins Burling does a superb job of explaining just what language is and how it might have originated.
This one of those popular science books that just reads itself – although Burling does use a little jargon, he employs it sparingly, and with careful explanation. The text along the way is easy to follow and the arguments are absolutely fascinating.
Though Burling has clear ideas of just how language developed (including the remarkable thought that it may have originated as a form of proto-music), he is careful to put across the opposing views that crop up throughout the field. This is a book that can be read easily by anyone with an interest, but it doesn’t fall into the trap of oversimplifying. Equally fascinating for the non-linguist is discovering some of the complexities of our communications channels – how, for example, gestures form part of our language, or how the genetically programmed “calls” like laughter and sobbing are analogue, while language is digital.
There are a couple of quibbles. It’s a real shame Burling seems to have overlooked the highly impressive content of Clive Bramhall’s The Eternal Child, which powerfully argues that much that makes us human is a side effect of the need to cooperate when our ancestors moved onto the savannah, pushing us into a more cooperative infantile development. For example, Burling wonders why language always seems to have developed in spoken, rather than gestured form – could it be because the most infantile communication is vocal; crying comes before hand signals? Any book on human origins that ignores Bramhall’s thesis these days is one sandwich short of a picnic.
The only other mild irritation is Burling’s tendency to repeat himself. This is a very readable book, but some of the points he makes come up over and over in different chapters. It’s true they say “tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, then tell them what you told them,” but it’s overdone here.
These quibbles apart, though, this is a delightful book for anyone interested in language or the development of the human mind. Unlike so many attempts at popular science by academics, this is more like a witty, accessible chat from an enthusiast than yet another lecture, boring droned out by someone who teaches because he has to. Recommended.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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