Skip to main content

How Language Began - Daniel Everett ***

As someone with an interest in both science and language, How Language Began seemed an ideal combination - which managed to intrigue and disappoint me in equal measures.

Let's get that disappointment out the way first, as it's hardly the fault of Daniel Everett. This isn't really science (and so the title of the book is rather misleading, but I suppose 'One possibility for how language began' wouldn't be as punchy). It's hard to see how this could be science. Our ideas on the exact detail of hominin/hominid development aren't 100 percent clear - how much more vague are we inevitably about something that leaves no direct traces whatsoever: the beginnings of language? 

Because there is so little evidence to base arguments on, what we end up with is far more like a philosophical debate than modern science. Ancient Greek philosophers would have been totally comfortable with this battle of ideas with very limited recourse to data (and would also have been very familiar with the feel of Everett's barbed attacks on Noam Chomsky). I shouldn't have expected anything different - but it was still a disappointment.

Given that proviso, there is a lot to like. Everett does make very impressive arguments for the early nature of language, gives those of us not familiar with the field a strong introduction to the likes of indexes (not the familiar meaning), icons (ditto to some extent) and symbols and makes it feel very likely that language was not a sudden genetic switch-on, but a gradual accretion. He also seems very convincing when telling us that the primary role of language is communication. This probably seems a common sense observation, but contrasts sharply with the strongly held hypothesis that it emerged as a tool for thinking, leaving communication as a secondary use.

Best of all is when Everett gives us examples from his experience of working in the Amazonian jungles of Brazil, using the different approaches to spoken language there to try to tease out truths about the development of language in general. Both Everett's writing style and the reader interest spring to life during these segments. He is also good at showing how language is more than words - gesture, for example, playing an important part.

Elsewhere in How Language Began there is a degree of repetition - the book doesn't seem ideally structured, and covers some secondary topics at too great a length. And given the philosophical cut and thrust that is clearly present in the field, I would rather have seen a neutral bringing together and comparison of the different viewpoints, rather than a very one-sided view that gives us the opposition's position only in order to pull it apart, without giving the opposing arguments any substance.

Overall, then, an interesting venture into a fascinating topic, but one that left me feeling a little frustrated.


Hardback:  

Kindle:  



Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…