Adam's Tongue

A look at how language makes the man

Adam’s Tongue / Adam’s Tongue

Derek Bickerton

Straus and Giroux, New York, 2009. 249 pages

Chimps don’t debate the existence of God. They don’t even talk about what they did yesterday. Yet somehow, we humans–who see so much of ourselves in them–can’t help but imagine that our relationship with language evolved from something that was once akin to a monkey call. This is a mistake. Or so says Derek Bickerton, author of the wildly compelling linguistic exploration Adam’s Tongue, anyway. And he’s pretty convincing.

Bickerton’s central goal is to convince the reader that language is what it means to be human, that language actually caused us to be what we are today and that linguistic evolution and human evolution are inextricably linked.

The University of Hawaii at Manoa linguist writes about rich and complex subject matter with passion, and in a way that’s not only accessible but often downright funny. He parenthetically apologizes for overusing acronyms and peppers his writing with plenty of playful self-deprecation. In some ways, reading Adam’s Tongue feels more like a conversation with Bickerton than anything else–but you’ll still learn as much from him as you would from a textbook.

Bickerton argues that it’s inaccurate and homocentric (that is, human-biased) to assume that animal communications systems–the way apes grunt, dolphins whistle or lightning bugs flash–are in some way inferior to human language. But he also reminds readers that we’re more like insects than we’d often like to admit. He provides examples from across species to make this point–from discussion of how bees measure distance to the way ants trail one another to a food source.

Bickerton offers insight into how human language is a tool of social control and emphasizes the importance of seeking the roots of language not in the behavior of apes today but in the behavior that our ancestors took part in–that today’s apes don’t. He also flirts with areas of metaphysics, neurology and logic and in one section of the book lays out his linguistic theory against Noam Chomsky’s.

Bickerton explores the nature and extent of animal thought and successfully highlights the staggering scope of human history–or at least insofar as we’re able to conceive of it. He thus reminds us of how little about our species over time we actually know: “We don’t, unfortunately, know what was the last common ancestor of us and the chimps,” he writes. “More to the point, we don’t even know what that ancestor was like.”

Bickerton addresses common misconceptions in the debate over human evolution and delves comprehensively, though not exhaustively, into the realm of syntactic structures. Adam’s Tongue is an exploration of biology, anthropology and the intersection of the two. Bickerton makes clear the problems inherent in trying to study the history of something that leaves no remnants from its past and discusses the effect on language of the artifacts–hand axes from our ancestral forerunners, for example–that did remain.

He both challenges and praises linguistic studies from across disciplines. He even admits when he has been wrong–a quality all too rare in academia–updating once-defended positions from his earlier works.

Bickerton offers a meaningful look at the role of language in our species’ development and the ways–some of them frightening–in which it may shape our future. At the very least it’s a bit of a meta thrill to read such a beautifully written work about how humans came to use such a dynamic and diverse communications system. At its best, Adam’s Tongue is a reminder that human culture–from masterpieces in art and literature, to symphonies and colossal achievements in architecture–is merely a record of how we adapt ourselves to our environment in order to suit ourselves, often without explicitly realizing it.