Sunday, April 5, 2009

Dean Falk's "Finding Our Tongues"

Dean Falk is Hale G. Smith Professor of Anthropology at Florida State University. She is the author of Braindance and Primate Diversity, and co-author of The Face in the Mirror. Her “putting the baby down” theory, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Scientific American, New Scientist, National Geographic, and Newsweek.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Language, and reported the following:
My ideas about language origins started to take shape when I first realized that motherese, or baby talk, is used all over the world and that it helps infants learn to speak (support for both assertions, which have been challenged, is provided in Finding Our Tongues). Because apes do not engage in baby talk, I wondered how it evolved in the first place. My “putting the baby down” hypothesis is that vocal communication between mothers and infants ratcheted-up when our ancestors’ infants lost the apelike ability to cling unaided to their mothers. For the first time in prehistory, moms had to carry babies in their arms, and must have put them down next to them when they needed to use both hands for various tasks such as collecting food. I believe that little ones began to protest vociferously when they were put down, and that mothers responded voice-to-voice by inventing the first lullabies and soothing motherese as part-time replacements for cradling arms. This, I think, is how motherese got going. Although this idea focused on the behaviors that preceded the evolution of language, as discussed on page 99, some linguists were skeptical and demanded to know how symbolic words and the ability to link them together into an infinite number of meaningful phrases and sentences (in other words, language) could have emerged from such a background. My book attempts to rise to this challenge, and also explores the origins of music and art. One approach is to take a look at the development of linguistic, musical, and artistic skills in children, which have surprising similarities; another is to examine relevant evidence from nonhuman primates and the fossil record for our early ancestors. Natural selection is about who lives and who dies. As with our nearest cousins, the great apes, it would have been prehistoric mothers who had the primary responsibility for keeping their infants alive. This, alone, is reason enough to explore the roles of mothers and infants as lightning rods for evolutionary change. Christine Kenneally recently reviewed Finding Our Tongues along with Adam’s Tongue, by Derek Bickerton. Coincidentally, he is the linguist who raised the challenge on page 99, to which my book responds. I wonder what is on p. 99 of his book.
Read more about Finding Our Tongues at the publisher's website.

Learn more about Dean Falk's research and writing at her faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue