Seeds of Speech: Language Origin and Evolution. Jean Aitchison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 (Canto
Edition 2000), 282 pp.
the start of this lively and authoritative overview of recent findings on the
origins and evolution of language, Aitchison admits (p.15) that this area
"has long been a disreputable study", and in the past it has attracted
some truly wacky speculation. One
star performer mentioned in this respect (p.4) is a certain James Burnett Lord
Monboddo who in 1773 wrote a book claiming that, just as humans learned how to
spin and weave from spiders and how to build dams from beavers, we learned how
to sing and speak from birds; and apparently, in the early twentieth century,
even the otherwise well-respected Otto Jesperson was not above groundless
guesswork in hypothesizing that early speech was something between the nocturnal
mating calls of cats and the song of nightingales (p.102).
how do we know that today's seemingly erudite research on the origins of
language will not similarly be ridiculed as baseless speculation by future
generations? Aitchison suggests that language probably originated about 100,000
years ago in the arid plains of East Africa after the formation of the Great
Rift Valley cut our ancestors off from the lush forests of West Africa, but will
this claim one day evoke guffaws of hilarious derision?
this seems unlikely, as Aitchison introduces all kinds of solid evidence,
ranging from archeological research to DNA profiling, and this has established a
substantial foundation for modern theories on the origins of language.
Furthermore, investigations on the developments currently taking place in
pidgins and creoles such as Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea provide many valuable
clues about the process of language evolution.
are, of course, many competing theories about both the origin and evolution of
language, and Aitchison takes great pains to present and explain them in clear,
non-specialist language. To this
end, she delights in the use of analogies to illustrate the different
hypotheses, so that on page 13 she introduces an amoeba to illustrate the idea
language was originally simple and then became progressively elaborated, and
then she uses spaghetti junction (a complicated road intersection near
Birmingham in England) to illustrate the opposing view that various alternative
routes were open for the development of language until speakers tended to choose
one set of options rather than another. On
the following page, she uses the rabbit-out-of-a-hat image to illustrate the
possibility that language emerged quite suddenly, and then she further develops
this idea with the Roman myth of Minerva springing forth from the head of
Jupiter. Sometimes the multiple
analogies can get a bit overwhelming, but they certainly keep the text lively
and entertaining, and on the whole they are highly successful in explaining
complicated opposing viewpoints in a very accessible manner.
the effort to keep the text accessible for a non-specialist readership can lead
to a frustrating omission of details. For
example, we are told twice (p. 141 & 151) that the word i
in Tok Pisin in such a sentence as the following is an "untranslatable
dok bilong yu i longlong, dok bilong mi i gutpela
dog of you mad dog of me good
"Your dog is mad, my dog is good."
the meaning of this particle could have been explained?
Presumably Aitchison has decided that such explanation is an irrelevant
detail and so has skipped over it to prevent it interfering with the smooth flow
of the text. And on page 146 we are
told that that the creoles described by Derek Bickerton "may not have
developed as suddenly as he assumes" – I would really like to have
learned a bit more about this.
connection with the effort to keep the text suitable for non-specialists, and
presumably consistent with the rationale from Cambridge University Press for the
popularisation of books such as this in a Canto edition, all references have
been relegated to end-notes. While
this may succeed in avoiding the cluttering up of the clear presentation of the
text, I found myself constantly flipping to the back of the book to look up
these end-notes, and this can get really irritating.
Surely incorporating the occasional reference into the text can't
interfere that severely with its readability?
And when we spend so much time and effort trying to persuade our students
to use proper referencing in their assignments, I just wish that Cambridge
University Press would help by encouraging its authors to follow suit.
these are minor quibbles. Aitchison
has written a delightfully entertaining and exceptionally informative book that
is certain to become a widely-read authority on how language started out and
developed into the complex system that we know today.
(from SAAL Quarterly 52 November 2000 pp.12-14.)