by Guy Deutscher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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.
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 Examiner.com 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.