Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants and the Origins of Language
by Dean Falk. Basic Books, 2009
As far as we know, language is unique to humans. How and why it evolved has been debated fiercely for centuries. Now anthropologist Dean Falk presents a new theory: it was the tightening of our ancient ancestors’ birth canals when they began to walk upright that ultimately triggered the development of language.
As incredible as this hypothesis sounds, Finding Our Tongues builds a plausible case for it. Fossil evidence shows that as prehistoric moms began to live a vertical lifestyle, the anatomical rearrangement that accompanied it turned childbirth from a more or less breezy exercise into a risky ordeal that frequently ended in death. As a result, evolution favored smaller and more immature babies, Falk says. These little newborns were too weak and tiny to cling to their mother’s tummy as all other primates did. That is why mothers instead had to carry their little ones to maintain physical contact, which, much research shows, is what all babies want more than anything.
But this carrying posed a dilemma, because to gather food women had no choice but to lay their babies down. Deprived of the protection and comfort of their mother’s body, babies start to fuss. That fact, according to Falk, sowed the seeds for language because to maintain contact and soothe their kids, mothers invented the precursor to language: baby talk. “These vocalizations would have been the best way to sustain mother-infant bonds,” Falks says. Over millions of years the singsong babbling turned into full-fledged language, she claims.
Finding Our Tongues, though at times repetitive, ultimately provides a fresh and different perspective on language and its mysterious origins. Nevertheless, because Falk’s theory—like other theories on the origins of language—is based mainly on conjecture, the jury is still out on whether it actually was our ancestors’ changing anatomy that eventually compelled them to speak.