book reviews / Born in a Treacherous Time / words

Book Review: The Unfolding of Language

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

by Guy Deutscher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

I love studying how man became who he is–living in communities, farming the land (rather than hunter-gatherers), believing in a god, decorating our bodies, creating unique cultures. Many believe our most human characteristic is the development of language.

All living things communicate in some way, often with methods we can’t identify or articulate, but they’re there. Not the way we’d do it, which BTW describes so many inter- and intra-cultural relationships. I would have done it differently… Interestingly, many paleoanthropologic researchers define ‘language’ as spoken words and phrases, sentences, the development of syntax, use of symbols to represent ideas (like written numbers and a hill that’s too far away to see but is there). This seems to be Dr. Deutscher’s approach, and to that end, he’s done a scholarly, thorough discussion on the roots of language.

But I have a different take on ‘language’. I think it involves more than the spoken word. I find body language (which proponents argue communicates 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. This is certainly true with other primates. Monkeys and Great Apes communicate with screeches, thumps, dances, chest beating–and more. They seem to express everything they need to, which doesn’t include how many chimps live in their group or how far away the blooming fruit tree is. We shouldn’t be surprised. Even as late as the early 1900’s (late 1800’s), many primitive tribespeople lived their entire lives without the need to count past five (which just happens to nicely tick off on one hand of fingers).

Yet, Deutscher 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.

More on language:

I love Words

Words Lie, Body Language Doesn’t

Born on a Blue Day–Insight into Learning

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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20 thoughts on “Book Review: The Unfolding of Language

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Law of Primitive Man | WordDreams...

  2. To a degree, all evidence not written and formally documented is anecdotal. But you know that isn’t really true. There is plenty of anthropological evidence for all kinds of ideas about how things human have developed. Sounds like this is a pretty good read though maybe a bit presumptuous.
    Have you seen the Allen Alda documentary about the brain? He suggests that what defines us as uniquely human is our ability to emphasize. Babies who don’t yet speak (or don’t speak much) will help another person by opening doors or reaching for what they think you want. They will choose items that appear to have positive aspects, like if given by a puppet with a smiley face. I saw it about a year ago on a PBS channel.
    Thanks for another great review. You’re killing my budget, you know.


    • I hadn’t thought of that one–the ability to emphasize. There are so many traits like that which we see in no animal but man. Sometimes, because we’re not looking (as Goodall and Galdikas showed). Sometimes, another reason.

      Interesting, isn’t it?


  3. I’ve always found the Genesis account interesting…God bringing the animals before Adam and letting him name them. Also the account of the Tower of Babel where human language was divided (to keep people out of more mischief.)-Yours, Grant


  4. Language is an amazing thing, as a child I was jealous of anyone who spoke two or three languages. My daughter has a passion to make her own, she watches the world news and enjoys the tones and sounds of different languages. She says one day she will write a book where they speak a language she has made up…..I never discourage such a wild imagination.


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