Speaking Our Minds

Speaking Our Minds is a short(ish) book that describes and explains the origins and evolution of human communication and language. It argues in particular that human communication is a cognitively rich activity, dependent upon capacities of social cognition that have evolved only in humans. The subtitle summarises the thesis: Why human communication is different, and how language evolved to make it special.

final cover

There is an extended (3,000 word) précis of the book on the website of the International Cognition and Culture Institute. There you can also find 16 commentaries, from experts on various aspects of the book’s thesis, and my responses.

I have been asked by many people 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, cognitive anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, animal communication, primatology, and other disciplines. I was therefore very mindful of the need to ensure that experts in any one of these areas would be able to comprehend and appreciate the insights of any of the other disciplines. Consequently, Speaking Our Minds assumes no prior expertise. Having said that, this is still a serious book. I have not diluted or simplified the key ideas and arguments. I have, however, worked hard to present them in a concise and accessible way. The result is, I believe and hope, a book that will appeal to a wide audience.

Buy: at amazon.com, at amazon.co.uk, at Palgrave Macmillan.

An Italian translation was recently published by Carocci: Di’ quello che hai in mente.


“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, Associate 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

“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, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Chicago (review in Journal of Language Evolution)

“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)

“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

“This is 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, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of York

“Succeeds admirably in synthesizing the progress that has been made in this interdisciplinary field.”
Richard Moore, Postdoctoral Researcher, Berlin School of Mind & Brain (review in Times Literary Supplement)

“This book is very impressive. The spirit of scientific endeavour and the excitement of understanding a complex topic come across strongly.”
– Andrew Wells, Senior Lecturer in Psychology (Emeritus), London School of Economics




1. Two Approaches to Communication
“A good old fiddle”
The code model
The expression and recognition of intentions
The ostensive-inferential model
Natural codes and conventional codes
Two meanings of meaning

2. The Emergence of Communication Systems
Combinatorial communication
The functional interdependence of signals and responses
A chicken-and-egg problem
The improbability of combinatorial communication
Ostension and inference: A third route to communication
The creation of combinatorial communication
Continuity and discontinuity in the origins of language

3. Cognition and Communication
Pragmatic competence
The maxims of conversation
A paradigm for pragmatics
Recursive mindreading and ostensive communication: the theory
Recursive mindreading and ostensive communication: the data
Cooperation and communication

4. The Evolution of Ostensive Communication
Communication and the comparative method
The difference between intentional and ostensive communication
Do great apes communicate with ostension and inference?
Do great apes communicate with natural codes?
Mindreading in non-human primates
The social brain
The advent of ostensive communication

5. Building a Language
Evolutionary linguistics
Early ostensive communication
The first symbols
A pragmatic perspective on protolanguage
A short note on grammaticalization
Cultural attraction, and the naturalness of languages
The role of communication in language evolution

6. Evolutionary Adaptation
Language and adaptation
Linguistic communication as social navigation
Vigilance and argumentation
The boy who cried ‘Wolf!’, and how he might be stopped
The evolutionary stability of human communication
A major transition in the evolution of life?

Epilogue: The Big Questions Answered