How Language Began

Many attributes have been posited to distinguish humans from other animals. Tool making, complex social organisation, moral sensibility, ritual practice, self-conscious awareness. All are now known to be shared by other animals in some degree. Sophisticated communication is also known to be employed by other animals, although this also had been used as an absolute demarcation. If language is indeed co-terminus with the natural world in the animal kingdom, how did it arise in humans?


American psycho-linguist David McNeill ( offers us some answers here. McNeill argues that human language is not the same as human speech. We use gestures and signs to communicate alongside, or instead of, speaking. Yet gestures and speech are processed in the same areas of the human brain, and the study of how both have evolved is central to research on the origins of human communication. This book explains how speech and gesture evolved together into a system that all humans possess. Nearly all theorizing about the origins of language either ignores gesture, views it as an add-on or supposes that language began in gesture and was later replaced by speech. McNeill challenges the popular ‘gesture-first’ theory that language first emerged in a gesture-only form and proposes a groundbreaking theory of the evolution of language which explains how speech and gesture became unified. In doing so the author critically examines a wide range of accounts, from cognitive science, linguistics, neuroscience and the psychology of language. The book includes 50 illustrations depicting gestures and signs.


This is first class science, and a must read for all those interested in social psychology and psycho-linguistics.


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278 pages in Cambridge University Press

First published 2012

ISBN  978-0521499613


David McNeill

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