A Word in the Hand: The Gestural Origins of Language

  • Michael C. Corballis
Part of the Innovations in Cognitive Neuroscience book series (Innovations Cogn.Neuroscience)


It is commonly held that language evolved de novo in our own species, within the past 100,000 years. This is at odds with Darwinian theory which implies that language, like other complex systems, must have evolved incrementally. One approach to such a theory is to suppose that language evolved from manual gestures. Several lines support this. These include the nature of the primate mirror system and its homology with the language circuits in the human brain, the superiority of manual over vocal intentionality in great apes, the ready invention of sophisticated signed languages by the deaf, the correlation between handedness and cerebral asymmetry for language, and the critical role of pointing in the way young children learn language. A gradual switch from manual to facial and vocal expression may have occurred late in hominin evolution, with speech reaching its present level of autonomy only in our own species, Homo sapiens.


Cerebral asymmetry Evolution Gesture Great apes Handedness Mirror neurons Pointing Sign language 



I owe thanks to many people, including (but not restricted to) Michael Arbib, Giovanni Berlucchi, Louis-Jean Boë, Tecumseh Fitch, Greg Hickok, William Hopkins, Nicholas Humphrey, James Hurford, Adam Kendon, Maurizio Gentilucci, Russell Gray, Susan Goldin-Meadow, David Leavens, Giacomo Rizzolatti, Thomas Suddendorf, and Virginia Volterra.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of PsychologyUniversity of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand

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