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Daniel Everett


The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Everett is an anthropological linguist who has lived for extended periods with the Pirahãs, a small group of Amazonian natives (see Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes). His new book presents his view of how language has developed in the course of human evolution.

There is a wide range of opinions about the antiquity of language. Some, notably those influenced by the theories of Noam Chomsky, think that it is quite recent, perhaps only 50,000 years old, and is due to a new brain adaptation to construct and understand grammar. Language is therefore confined to Homo sapiens, and recent Homo sapiens at that. Everett is at the other end of the scale; he finds that language is more than one million years old and arose in Homo erectus. No sudden mutation was required for this; it resulted from a progressive increase in brain power linked to more complex culture. Language is a cultural invention, not primarily a biological phenomenon.

The star in this story is Homo erectus. There is a temptation to think of this species as no more than a prelude to Homo sapiens, but Everett prefers to regard sapiens as simply an improved model of erectus. The appearance of erectus marked a decisive advance on the australopithecines, who were small in stature, with small brains, and made only simple tools. H. erectus, in contrast, was similar in size to us, with brains that were almost as big as ours, at least in the later phase of their career, and with an advanced culture that enabled them to spread over most of the Old World outside Africa. They even reached islands beyond the horizon, thanks to voyages that probably required the construction of sea-going craft.

Their impressive cultural development indicates to Everett that they must have had language.

The evidence … strongly supports the claim that Homo erectus possessed language … Only language is able to explain the Homo erectus cognitive revolution.
The acquisition of language depended on an advanced brain, and in turn language stimulated brain development. But Everett insists that this does not mean the appearance of brain regions exclusively devoted to language, which almost certainly don't exist. The idea that brain structures specialised for language exist comes from over-emphasis on the role of grammar in the acquisition of language.
Compared to the invention of symbols and the culture basis of their meaning … along with the knowledge of how to use symbols appropriately in telling stories, conversing and using language in its many forms, syntax is a helpful tool, but arguably non-essential.
The language of H. erectus would have been simpler than that of H. sapiens but it was not a 'protolanguage'.
It is expected that the first language would be inferior to our present languages. No invention begins at the top. All human inventions get better over time. And yet this does not mean that erectus spoke a subhuman language. What it does mean, however, is that they lacked fully modern speech, for physiological reasons, and that their information flow was slower—they hadn't as much to talk about as we do today, nor do they seem to have had sufficient brain power to process and produce information as quickly as modern sapiens.
This book seems to be intended for a non-professional audience but I didn't always find it easy to read. Everett mostly writes colloquially but he has an occasional tendency to produce long involved sentences that need to be read several times before their meaning is discerned. And although it's a long book, perhaps it should paradoxically have been even longer. The ideas, of which there are plenty, sometimes seem to need expansion.

For example, Everett draws on the influential but complex writings of C.S. Peirce, using his notion of semiotics to derive three types of language, designated G1, G2, and G3. I think this needed more explanation than it gets, especially as Everett modifies Peirce for his own purpose. Incidentally, comprehension of these difficult sections has not been helped by the publishers' choice of small print, which results in tired eyes as well as a tired brain.

Yet although some ideas are over-compressed, there is also a certain amount of repetition. Sometimes this seems to be simply a question of inadequate proof-reading. For instance, in a rather densely written chapter on "Where Grammar Came From" there is an allusion on p.216 to 'non-concatenation' (alteration of a vowel to change meaning) as a feature of Arabic. We are given an example of the same thing in English, with the plural of 'foot' being 'feet'. Exactly the same example is repeated in a footnote on the facing page!

If there is one theme that runs throughout the book it is gratitude to Homo erectus. The almost lyrical concluding paragraph reads as follows.

Each human alive enjoys their grammar and society because of the work, the discoveries and the intelligence of Homo erectus. Natural selection took those things that were most effective for human survival and improved the species until today humans live in the Age of Innovation, the Era of Culture, in the Kingdom of Speech.
There is a useful list of further reading, to which I'd like to add Terrence Deacon's book The Symbolic Species. Like Everett, Deacon disputes Chomksy's theory of language, and he too makes use of Peirce's semiotics. And Deacon's notion of language as evolving to be easily learned by children seems to be complementary to Everett's emphasis on the role of culture.


%T How Language Began
%S The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention
%A Everett, Daniel
%I Profile Books
%C London
%D 2017
%G ISBN 978 1 78125 292 2
%P xviii+330pp
%K language

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