Book Review: The Talking Ape. How Language Evolved.

The book reviewed here is ‘The Talking Ape. How Language Evolved’ by Robbins Birling. This is a paperback version of the book with a cover illustration of the Monkeys by Henry Rousseau (1906). The book runs to 286 pages with notes to each chapter, a bibliography, a glossary and an index. There are a few tables and diagrams to accompany the text. The author Robbins Burling has taught anthropology and the aim of the book as suggested in the title is to examine the possible origins of human language. In the process, Burling takes us through many domains of knowledge and describes the generous support he has received from experts in different fields. The question of how language began is a difficult one to answer with any degree of certainty and evolutionary psychology has been criticised for attempting to answer questions which cannot be verified experimentally or are not supported with historical records.  It is important not to give up however and Burling takes us through a very sensible approach to solving this difficulty by triangulating his central hypothesis with indirect evidence.

Burling argues that in the development of language, interpretation is an important first step:-

The only innovations in signal production that can be successful and so consolidated by natural selection, are those that conform to the pre-existing receptive competence of other individuals

Some of the central chapters that I thought were most important were ‘The Mind and Language’, ‘Signs and Symbols’ and ‘Icons gained and Icons lost’. In Chapter 4, ‘Mind and Language’, Burling tells us about the ‘nonlingual demonstration’ given by Kenneth Pike in which he takes a previously unfamiliar language in the space of 2 hours and would with the help of a speaker of the language learn as much as possible. Then he

moved from single words to short phrases and then to sentences of increasingly complexity

Burling himself has reproduced these monolingual demonstrations and takes us through some simple assumptions that he says help to explain his model of how this process works. For instance, he notes the importance of gesturing in communication as well as mimicry and ‘shared rich conceptual understanding of the world around us’. He goes on to look at the importance of classification and notes that

Chimpanzees are better at classifying that dogs

the significance of which may be that classification may be one of the key features of primate evolution. Burling relates this ability to classify to the existence of concepts in the chimpanzee’s brain (This relationship between concepts and classification has been covered variously elsewhere e.g. see this review). Quite early in the book Burling produces a classification of mechanisms for communication which offers a useful template for considering the work in the remainder of the book. In the chapter on signs and symbols he uses philosopher Charles Peirce’s typology of signs to structure his discussion of the relationship between signs and symbols, form and content. I found his description of prosody (which features as a standard part of the mental state examination in the assessment of speech).

Linguists use the words in a related sense to refer to the pitch, volume, tempo and rhythm of ordinary spoken language. At the heart of prosody is intonation, but prosody extneds in one direction toward the core of language and in the other direction towards our gesture-calls

In the chapter ‘Icons gained and Icons lost’ Burling gives a fascinating explanation of how a shared language might have developed originally, contrasting ‘phylogenic ritualisation’ (signals of communication that have arisen through natural selection) with ontogenic conventionalisation (gestures that are interpreted in terms of their learnt associations) and mimicry. This is another key part of the book and one that repays close study.

In subsequent chapters, he looks at various theories of the origins of language, including the possible shared origins of music and language, motherese, syntax (which includes a brief look at changes in brain volume in evolution, the development of grammar and the possible role of sexual selection (as opposed to natural selection).

Burling’s work is a tour de force of the study of language evolution that shows a thorough grasp of many different domains of relevant knowledge in a journey that is as interesting as it is informative and thought provoking.


Robbins Burling. The Talking Ape. How Language Evolved. Oxford University Press. 2007 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-19-921403-7.


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The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


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  2. […] The researchers in one study concluded that Orang-Utans are capable of using pantomiming to communicate with other Orang-Utans or with humans. The researchers watched 7000 hours of footage of Orang-Utans in Borneo filmed over 20 years and identified 18 examples where pantomiming was used including the clip shown below. The use of gesturing has been suggested as an important stage in the evolution of human language (see here). […]


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