Speaking Our Minds is a short-ish book about the origins and evolution of human communication and language. It’s been called “the most important and the best book ever written on the evolution of language” and “The best linguistics book I’ve read in 10 years” (full reviews below).
I’ve been asked often whether Speaking Our Minds is comprehensible to the non-specialist. The answer is a qualified yes. This is a very interdisciplinary book: it draws on and contributes to linguistics, anthropology, psychology, philosophy and biology. I was mindful of the need to ensure readers from any of these areas would be able to appreciate the insights of other disciplines, so Speaking Our Minds assumes no prior expertise. Having said that, it is still an academic book. I didn’t dilute or simplify the key ideas and arguments but I did work hard to present them in a concise and accessible way.
Here’s an extended précis of the book, for the International Cognition & Culture Institute. There you can also find 16 commentaries from experts on various aspects of the book’s thesis, and my responses.
There are Italian and Japanese translations: Di’ quello che hai in mente and なぜヒトだけが言葉を話せるのか: コミュニケーションから探る言語の起源と進化. Here’s a short interview in Italian, and here’s a video lecture about the book delivered by a sky-blue hand puppet speaking Japanese. Yes really.
“This I believe is the most important and the best book ever written on the evolution of language. It is the most important because it integrates like never before the different perspectives of linguistics, psychology, primatology, evolutionary biology, and anthropology into a novel and compelling explanation of how language emerged and evolved. It is the best because, moreover, it achieves this level of integration with great simplicity and clarity. A must-read.”
Dan Sperber, Professor of Cognitive Science and of Philosophy, Central European University, Budapest; and Emeritus Research Professor, Institut Nicod, CNRS, Paris
“The best linguistics book I’ve read in 10 years.”
John McWhorter, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, New York (on twitter)
“Scott-Phillips has done an amazing job, combining approaches from fields as disparate as linguistics, cognition and evolutionary theory, to bring clarity to our understanding of human language. He explains what is special about human language, where it came from, and why it mattered for evolution. He has cut through the jargon to produce a highly readable book that will appeal to all users and students of communication, from Humpty Dumpty to eminent linguists.”
Stu West, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, University of Oxford
“Clear, engaging, both serious and yet fun to read, this book offers a fresh perspective on what often seems to be a well-worn topic. It will reinvigorate debate, and encourage new ways of thinking.”
Louise Barrett, Professor of Psychology & Canada Research Chair in Cognition, Evolution and Behaviour, University of Lethbridge
“Excellent… important… stimulating… everyone who is interested in the biology and evolution of human language should read it.”
W. Tecumseh Fitch, Professor of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna (review in Current Biology)
“Both ambitious and concise… Speaking Our Minds is an engagingly written and convincingly argued work that promises to stimulate much new research in the field.”
Catriona Silvey, novelist (review in Journal of Language Evolution)
“Succeeds admirably in synthesizing the progress that has been made in this interdisciplinary field.”
Richard Moore, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy, University of Warwick (review in Times Literary Supplement)
“A highly accessible account of the nature of human language that challenges many common assumptions, and makes a compelling argument for how we should approach language evolution.”
Katie Slocombe, Professor of Psychology, University of York
“Scott-Phillips provides arguments, theory and data to support the claim that intention-reading (or mindreading) has been primary to the evolution of linguistic communication. He describes… in Pinkeresque prose… how ostensive-inferential systems work and how one can account for their existence in language. These concepts can appear complicated to the uninitiated but in his hands they are clear and his arguments convincing. Highly recommended.”
Ira Noveck, Directeur de Recherche, CNRS, Lyon (at amazon.com)
“This book is very impressive. The spirit of scientific endeavour and the excitement of understanding a complex topic come across strongly.”
Andrew Wells, Emeritus Senior Lecturer in Psychology, London School of Economics
1. Two Approaches to Communication
2. The Emergence of Communication Systems
3. Cognition and Communication
4. The Evolution of Ostensive Communication
5. Building a Language
6. Evolutionary Adaptation
Epilogue: The Big Questions Answered