Book Review: How Language Began

How Language Began:  The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention, by Daniel L. Everett

Do you like fairy tales?  I do too, but it is perhaps better if people are aware that they are writing fairy tales and not possessed of the belief that they actually know what they are talking about.  This author manages to accomplish something that I view as very difficult to manage, and that is making me agree at least somewhat with Noam Chomsky, whose belief in innate language structures this author mercilessly and unsuccessfully attempts to skewer throughout the book.  Indeed, the author seems to believe that his speculations about prehistory and his dogmatic opinions about human evolution amount to indisputable scientific truth, which makes him somewhat entertaining to read if you view this properly as a fictional and speculative account and somewhat less enjoyable if you only value books for their factual value.  On the one hand, the author’s idea that human language and speech began with grammarless languages in the early mists of prehistory going back to homo erectus is somewhat interesting of an idea, and the author’s interest in obscure Amazonian languages does give him at least some comparative linguistics interests to use in imagining a fairytale of early human language acquisition in the absence of linguistic artifacts that could verify such a story.

This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into 4 parts and 12 chapters.  The author begins with a list of figures, acknowledgments, and a preface and introduction.  After that the author spends four chapters discussing the first hominins (I), with chapters on the rise of early humans (1), fossil hunters (2) and their fossil hunting and occasional controversies, then the departure of the early humans from Africa (3), and the way that everyone speaks languages of signs (4).  After that the author discusses biological adaptations for language (II), including how humans got a bigger brain (5), what it is about the brain that makes language possible without the author believing in language-specific parts of the brain (6), what happens when the brain goes wrong (7), and a discussion of talking with tongues (8).  After that the author discusses the speculative evolution of language form (III), with chapters on the development of grammar (9), how one talks with one’s hands in addition to or in place of spoken language (10), as well as the way that languages are “just good enough” to convey what the speaker is thinking or feeling (11).  After that the fourth section of the book discusses the supposed cultural evolution of language (IV) with a chapter on communities and communication and the cultural context of language (12), after which the book ends with a conclusion, suggestions for further reading, notes, and an index.

Whether or not you enjoy this book will depend a great deal on your fondness for naturalistic imaginative works.  This book is clearly not on as sound an empirical bias as the author believes it to be, and while I have no trouble seeing the author’s creative writing as a novella about the past that one can take or leave depending on how it matches with one’s own religious and scientific worldview, it is clear that the author has very passionate ideas that he wishes to promote but which he cannot always defend very ably.  In some cases the author’s strident tone detracted from the enjoyment of the fairy tale I was reading, because it was clear that the author took his own writing far more seriously and far more literally than it was possible for me to take it.  Again, if your beliefs are similar to the author’s you may find this book to be quite interesting and even persuasive, but if your worldview differs drastically, then it is best to view this book as a diverting fictional speculation about paleolinguistics from the point of view of someone who does not know as much about what he is writing about than he thinks he does, a common affliction among those who write about subjects relating to the origin of man.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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