From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Language Review

From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Language
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From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Language ReviewIt may seem unusual for a psychologist to publish a book on linguistics and the origins of human language, but Michael Corballis has produced an intriguing work full of speculation and theory. The author asks an essential question--why did it take modern humans ("modern" meaning the last 150,000 years or so) such a long time to develop a fully spoken language? He theorizes that we may have had the potential for spoken language for as long as a million years (hardwired into our brains) but we only began significant utilization of that ability around 50,000 years ago. What was the catalyst that pushed ancient man from a mostly manual language to a spoken one? According to the author, it was a largely cultural development spurred on by numerous factors, including (but not limited to) increased socialization among early humans. Spoken language is a far more effective medium than a manual one, and early man quickly discovered that in the highly competitive world of Ice-Age Europe, vocal socialization, with its easy exchange of ideas and new technologies, may have been the difference between survival and extinction. Another point of interest: there may have been a prehistoric "Renaissance" in art and early technology at this time, perhaps resulting from our newfound linguistic abilities. Also, genetic evidence from that time period suggests divergence in the human genome; could our newborn use of language have been a factor?
However, recent evidence may undermine (or significantly alter) the socialization/culture theory. The discovery of the FOXP2 gene, which seems to control the articulation of words and grammar, may have appeared in humans as far back as 2.5 to 3 million years ago. (Interestingly, Neanderthals may also have possessed this mutation, meaning that they, too may have been capable of speech--adding fuel to the debate over how they died out). I believe this book was published before this discovery was revealed. Yet there may still be room for Corballis' theory and similar ideas, even with this new information. Perhaps the mutation gave us the potential, but maybe it took the pressures of survival coupled with the increased social interactions of people living in close proximity to fully trigger it. Of course, we haven't completely lost our manual tendencies; think about how much hand gestures factor into conversations.
His narrow focus--on European humans--limits the scope of his argument, ignoring both trans-European people and those still dwelling in Africa. The culture/socialization-as-language-catalyst is not a new argument, but what makes Corballis' approach unique is his incorporation of some unusual factors, such as lateralization and handedness (i.e. left or right, and his ideas about the origin of left-handedness are quite interesting). His writing style, full of sharp, dry wit, clever analogies, and innumerable references from related fields (such as neurology and linguistics) makes his approach more engaging that similar accounts I've read, and although he sometimes covers familiar ground, he does so with energy and enthusiasm. There's as much of interest here for the anthropologist as for the linguist.From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Language Overview

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