Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans
By Derek Bickerton
Hill and Wang; 286 pages; $27.50

“Language is what makes us human. Maybe it’s the only thing that makes us human,” asserts Hawai`i linguist Derek Bickerton in his new book “Adam’s Tongue.” Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Hawai`i and author of “Bastard Tongues,” an exploration of pidgin and creole languages, Bickerton is certainly au fait on this topic, and shares his experience with the confidence that anyone undertaking a thought experiment as grand as the origin of language would have to maintain. Reading “Adam’s Tongue” is like stepping back into the classroom of a quirky, vibrant, impassioned thinker engaging in a most perplexing problem: How did language arise, and which came first: language or complex thought?

Central to Bickerton’s theory is that both the human-centric research approach, which deems humans superior beings, and the primate-centric view that we only need look to primates for answers to language origin are both red herrings, erroneously placing humans at the center of evolution study. Instead, Bickerton’s foundation is “niche construction theory” (species evolve by adapting their environment to their use), and this and other complicated topics—such as can apes really talk, communication systems of bees and ants (our closest linguistic cousins, he says), how scavenging habits may have opened the door to protolanguages, and language merge—are simplified just enough for the layperson to grasp and digest.

First Bickerton methodically sets out the groundwork for his theory, establishing a clear test that his must pass. Then he’s off—acting as his own devil’s advocate, laying out counterpoints and refuting them, impaling his previous assumptions and those of well known behaviorists, biologists, religions and non-religions like intelligent design, and other linguists, including part of Noam Chomsky’s standpoint on language evolution, because Bickerton boldly claims that “on the subject of how language evolved, if on nothing else, [Chomsky is] completely wrong.” At the same time Bickerton continually evokes visual scenarios to help us imagine the world of early humans, building suspense by ending chapters with a cliffhanger, as if to keep us coming back to next week’s lecture.

Throughout, his tone remains conversational, asking the reader to remember caveats and keep points in mind for later, noting when he’s digressing and always exercising complete control over material. The ride through serious debates and scientific issues is lighting-quick and informal, though supported with extensive notes and research. He acts as a personal tour guide through early history of language, always having fun, employing humorous subsection titles, metaphors and stories, speaking with the joy of his life’s work in his trademark provocative style.

Only during his final point, his belief that “language came first and enabled human thinking,” does the book get a bit dense and technical, yet it doesn’t compromise the sturdiness of his argument, or his clever case that his theory should be the cornerstone of “the opening of a new field of inquiry.” After reading this basic version of his theory, readers can as he intended “get at least the skeleton of a full human language up and running.” And that is more than enough to cause a stir in his field and most readers to never think of language in quite the same way again.

–Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Special to the Honolulu Advertiser: Friday, March 27, 2009