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The Origins of Meanings – James R. Hurford ***

This is unquestionably an academic book, more useful to the layperson as a reference than a bedtime read. But it is saved from 2 stars by the down-to-earth style of the author, which means that non-scientists can come to grips with its fascinating subject matter without too much effort.
The grand-sounding title shows just how ambitious is the task that Hurford sets himself in this volume. His aim is nothing less than to show how the ‘semantic’ and ‘pragmatic’ sides of human language – roughly, concepts and conversations – grew out of the non-linguistic abilities of our distant ancestors. But anyone who expects a blow-by-blow narrative of how this happened, with the dates of each key development, will be disappointed. Instead Hurford describes the cognitive and behavioral abilities of non-humans that stand out as precursors to language, and then describes the evolutionary mechanisms that could have transformed these primitive capacities into the rich array of concepts and conversational skills that humans have today.
The result is more flow-chart than timeline, a schematic account of how psychology, biology, and ecology combined to give modern-day linguistic meaning.
Hurford, Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, cuts no corners in surveying the theory and evidence that decades of scientific research have brought to bear on his topic.
This makes the writing dense at times, as Hurford runs through studies, counter-studies, and rival interpretations of data. But it also makes the book an excellent starting point for anyone interested in exploring the topic further. Also, Hurford’s comprehensiveness means he covers not just the evolution of language but also some large areas of general interest, like animal cognition and the evolution of cooperation.
The book is driven by academic rather than popular aims, but Hurford’s prose makes it much more accessible than it could have been. The book covers an impressive range of specialty fields, from philosophy of mind to kin selection theory, so Hurford can’t afford to lapse into the jargon of any one of these specialities. And he does a good job of keeping all readers in the loop, spelling out the meanings of technical terms and describing in plain language how each chapter fits into the bigger picture.
While readable, the book will be dry to anyone used to popular science writing. But the reward for the patient reader is a steady flow of probing questions, clever experiments, and curious findings. In what way is language a cooperative exercise? If language evolved by sexual selection, why are human males and females equally competent at language? What happens in a monkey’s mind when it responds to an alarm call from a fellow monkey by running away? Is this behaviour hard-wired, or does the monkey form a concept of ‘predator’ in its mind and respond to that concept? What came first: pure speech acts that expressed sentences like ‘hello’ or ‘I’m here’, or descriptive statements like ‘That plant is poisonous?’ Scattered among the answers to these and many other questions are quirky phenomena such as mice who dream, humans who understand lip-pointing but not finger-pointing, and pigeons who can distinguish between works from the Picasso and Monet schools of painting.
The argument running through the book is that non-human animals have more mental capacities than previously thought, and hence that the gap between the language abilities of humans and non-humans is smaller than previously thought. For a lay reader this is probably the most engaging and surprising aspect of the book: from the multiple alarm calls of the ververt monkey to the idea of ‘opposite’ possessed by great apes, animal concepts and conversations are richer than we usually give them credit for. More rarely, examples of the limits of non-human communication in the book remind us of how special human language is – for example, even a basic communication device such as pointing to refer to an object is very rare among our closest relatives in the wild.
This book is gristly and unsweetened, not recommended as light reading. But digested slowly, over many sittings, it is a feast of insights into the nature of language, animal cognition, the social role of communication, and the evolution of all three.

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Review by Matt Chorley


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