Review: Story of Human Language, by John McWhorter

I had, for a long time, heard a lot of good things about The Teaching Company’s The Great Courses. The format sounded interesting, as many many of the topics, so one day I decided to check them out. I did, and was favourably impressed with everything, with one small exception – the price!

I do understand that these things costs an awful lot of money to produce. Unfortunately buying a course for something between US$200 and 400 is not within my ordinary book-buying budget. I was still interested enough to find different options so one day I started to search the national Swedish library catalogue. No luck.

The case was laid to rest. Until one day when I heard about Story of Human Language. I was piqued enough to search for it and found it at a staggering discount – “only” about US$50! A 36-lecture course on language, for the price of a non-fiction hardback. I just HAD to get it.

So get it I did. And was rewarded.

There’s no way a layman like me can look at a course like this and judge its content from a scientific viewpoint. But to me McWhorter did his very best to try to present and represent the differences and disputes that necessarily exist when theories are built on assumptions rather than facts. But whichever way this is it is still a delightful lecture series to listen to because McWhorter has a good voice and is clearly enthusiastic about his topic, generously telling stories about himself coming up short when trying to make himself understood, or showcasing misconceptions he has held.

He starts out easy, laying out the basis by means a layman can understand, before taking off discussing more complex issues. As a Scandinavian I thought it especially interesting to think on his discussion on how Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are treated as distinct and separate languages while some English dialects are even more separated from each other… while still being perceived to be one language.

So – fun, educational, and a pleasure. I actually found myself trying to conserve the experience, to make it last longer, feeling a bit disturbed over the fact that there would be one day when I had no more lectures of his to listen to.

Highly recommended.

Embassytown, by China Miéville

Even as the basic premise of Miéville’s Embassytown is unbelievable I am glad that I decided to read the book, because one of the things that can make science fiction a rewarding genre to read is how exploration of a totally off concept can result in something fascinating.

In Embassytown Miéville takes the common sciencefictional idea of a humanity evolved so far out in space and time that the planet Earth is but an idea, so far way to be lost, spatially. He then takes a shard of this humanity and places it on a distant border, holed up in a precious balancing act with a species that doesn’t communicate in any way that makes sense to this humanity.

Can a species evolve and become advanced while at the same time lack the ability to talk about and imagine future? Isn’t the idea of “future” predicated on an ability to understand there’s a “past”? Can a species that can’t imagine or talk about what doesn’t exist even develop in any meaningful way? Isn’t that one of the things that has made humanity kings of this planet (excepting weather and other natural forces, but please don’t get picky here, OK)?

And what happens when such a people encounter a species who do talk about and imagine the unbelievable?

Highly imaginative, evoking thought, Embassytown is a book I would recommend to anyone who enjoy intellectual acrobatics, challenging set ideas. Even if it took about a month to et to the point where this review could actually get written ;-)

Review: The search for the perfect language, by Umberto Eco

I enjoyed this book. There’s only one problem with it – I’m not erudite enough to make it the fast read it should be; it’s so stuffed with information I had to stop every fourth page or so to digest what I’ve read.

Eco states in the preface that it is written with the layperson in mind, but his idea of a layperson knows way much more about linguistics and the history thereof than I do. Apparently. Even if he also states that this is not a book on linguistics but on the history of ideas, which it is, in part – he sketches a history of European thought during the most recent 1000 of the years that led us to be where we are today, using the search for the perfect language and how the idea changed and evolved throughout that millennia as a method for dissemination. This gets especially interesting when he links it with the industrial revolution, the evolution from alchemy to science, and the formation of the nation states and colonisation.

In the conclusion he tells the reader that the discussion could had been even more interesting if he’d included extra-European though and efforts on the topic. I cannot but agree and I’m sure I’m going to seek out some book elaborating on this.

As for now I’m glad I pressed through and actually read the book through, but I’m also glad it’s over. Recommended reading for everyone with an interest in linguistics and European history of ideas. Everyone else is allowed to spend their time on something else.

Review: The Talking Ape – How Language Evolved, by Robbins Burling

What is language? And how came it to be what it is? Language is so central to us as as human beings that most of us never even stop to wonder how it came to be that way. True, linguists works hard to dismantle language, to isolate the parts and to put labels on those parts, working away like physicists trying to find the smallest possible building blocks of the known universe and beyond. But the question of how language came to be have largely been left untouched, largely because spoken language do not leave archaeological finds as a physical track so whatever theory have been issued it have been founded largely on guesswork and wishful thinking.

In The Talking Ape linguist and anthropologist Robbins Burling tries not to dismantle language but to look at language and in a bid to understand how it evolved. He piece by piece pick apart prevailing ideas about the origins of language, scrutinizing them for contents and useful bits and then present the idea that language, while the common theory has been we evolved it because it gave us an upper hand in doing things like hunting, is that it has facilitated social interaction and that social interaction, planning and learning is what has set us apart form other animals.
The topic touches at a lot of sensitive and uncharted areas, like that of consciousness, and Burling is careful to underline that what he poses is a hypothesis, nothing more, but at the same time at least I think at the core looking at language and ask “why did it evolve, why did people who had language win the race for prevalence” is a sound method.

While me makes a good case against creationist linguistics (we woke up one morning and behold, there was language in our heads!) I do think he misses the impact culture and economics has had on humans and therefore on our language. Yes, we need language to sustain a city-dwelling society, but why came cities to be? The author is an anthropologist, and as such refers to his own field studies in agrarian communities. Based on is own observations and present knowledge of how human civilisation has evolved his theories are valid, but they fall somewhat short when he lacks them means to validate them against a city culture. Not that they would not hold together (a double negation! what a sacrilege!) but with the holistic take he has chosen this lack shows clearly.

Never the less I think this book is very much worth the effort and I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.

The book has also been reviewed on the blog Popular Science.