David Deterding

The Seeds of Speech: Language Origin and Evolution. Jean Aitchison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 (Canto Edition 2000), 282 pp.

At 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).

So 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?  

Actually 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.

There 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.

Occasionally, 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 particle":

            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."

Surely 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.

In 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.

But 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.)