Some readings on language evolution

In response to queries (from two non-linguist friends) about Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky, Why Only Us: Language and Evolution (2015), I briefly critiqued universal grammar / innatist positions and the argument that language acquisition would be impossble to explain without them. My friends asked for some sources on the origins and evolution of language that would be accessible for general readers like them (beyond my first suggestion, Dan Everett’s book, listed below). After consultation with knowledgeable colleagues (listed below) – language origins / evolution is not a field that I know much about, so I fell back on asking colleagues – I assembled a list of some readings they suggested (sometimes with reservations). (To reiterate: I am not a language origins guy.)

My consultants (in their enthusiasm for the topic) were inclined to slip into recommending more technical literature and journal articles, and some cited books now in press or at the writing stage (notably Dan Everett’s How Language Began), but I resisted the impulse to list those here.

The topic of language origins / evolution is obviously closely tied to the origins / evolution of human beings (something I am very far from an expert in), and also to two topics I know something about, but as an outsider rather than a specialist: the development of language in children (given Chomskyan innatist arguments based on claims about the “poverty of the stimulus”) and the communication systems of other animals (given the claim that only human beings have language).

Daniel L. Everett, Language: The Cultural Tool (2012)
– review by John McWhorter in the New York Times

James R. Hurford:
The Origins of Language: A Slim Guide (2014)
The Origins of Grammar: Language in the Light of Evolution (2011)
The Origins of Meaning: Language in the Light of Evolution (2007)

Simon M. Kirby:
Function, Selection, and Innateness: The Emergence of Language Universals (1999)
Morton H. Christiansen & SMK, Language Evolution (2003)

Christine Keneally:
The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language (2008)

Thom Scott-Phillips:
Speaking Our Minds: Why human communication is different, and how language evolved to make it special (2014)

Michael Tomasello:
Origins of Human Communication (2008)

Thanks to Dan Everett, Geoff Pullum, Simon Kirby, and Kenny Smith.

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