book reviews / communication / language / research

The Evolution of Language

The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention

The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention

by Guy Deutscher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Dr. Deutscher has done a scholarly, thorough discussion on the roots of language, but I believe he started too late in time. I’m of the persuasion that language involves more than the spoken word. I find body language (which proponents argue communicate half of what we speak), facial expressions (think FACS, FBI, microexpressions), movement to be as telling of a person’s intentions as words. Sometimes more so.

Yet, he argues language was born when we could prove it was born–”…for how can anyone presume to know what went on in prehistoric times without indulging in make-believe?” “…impressive range of theories circulating for how the first words emerged: from shouts and calls; from hand gestures and sign language; from the ability to imitate…The point is that as long as there is no evidence, all these scenarios remain ‘just so’ stories.” Or deductive reasoning. Something the modern brain excels at. This despite the fact that his cover includes the popular ape-man image.

Still, he adds humor and a highly intelligent discussion I thoroughly enjoyed.

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5 thoughts on “The Evolution of Language

  1. Hi, I think the book probably discounted discussing things such as body language as these don’t fall under the definition of language as a system of arbitrary symbols and grammatical signals. Body language is non-arbitrary by its very nature.

    With regards to just so stories I’m not sure to what extent Deutscher discusses current experimental methods but from where I’m sitting it seems that the study of the origins of language is tending much more towards using strategies of abductive reasoning to avoid the pit falls that deductive reasoning can cause.

    I’ve written a couple of blog post about laboratory experiments in language evolution and the use of abductive reasoning in linguistics here if you’re interested:

    http://szamitogepesnyelveszet.blogspot.com/2010/07/scientific-approaches-in-syntax.html

    http://www.replicatedtypo.com/science/research-blogging/language-evolution-in-the-laboratory/1544/

    Hannah

  2. Hi Hannah, thanks for the blog posts. I’m going to read them. I’m fascinated by language. As far as I can tell from research, we had the ability to speak before we used it to any significant extent, preferring I suppose the relative quiet of body language (due to our dangerous environ). As you say, I guess Deutscher excluded it because it wasn’t an organized system, where I’d include it because it’s communication.

    Thanks for dropping by. I love your blog. Great post about Nim Chimpsky. I’m going to backlink you on my science blog (http://delamagente.wordpress.com)

  3. Hi Jacqui. I liked this book a lot – more than Deutscher’s subsequent one on linguistic relativity (though I enjoyed that too). I understand where you’re coming from with body language and nonverbal communication, but I think it made practical sense for Deutscher to limit the scope of his book to the narrower interpretation of language which i believe is conventional among linguists.

    Along similar lines, Christine Kenneally’s The First Word might also appeal, if you’re taking recommendations.

    • Hey, Stan, I’m glad you brought that up. I’m an armchair linguist with a fascination for the topic. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m working on a historic fiction novel right now about the life of Homo erectus. Arguably, man’s first words were spoken by that species (depending upon the definition of the word ‘word’). I’ll look into Kenneally’s book.

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