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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.


Review by Brian Clegg


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