Monday, October 15, 2018

How Language Began: The Story of Humanitiy's Greatest Invention, by Daniel L. Everett (author), Jonathan Yen (narrator)

Tantor Audio, March

This is such a frustrating book.

Everett has a lot to say, that's of interest, about the history of human language, and makes an interesting, and to me persuasive, case that language goes back to Homo erectus, if not further. One thing he points to, hardly the only one, is the H. erectus population on the the island of Flores. They must at some point have arrived in numbers sufficient to establish a viable population, which would mean a minimum of fifty men, women, and children arriving together or in close succession. This isn't likely with accidental rafting. It suggests more sophisticated skills, to build craft capable of crossing that distance in sufficient numbers intentionally--which would probably require language.

He's also quite, quite certain that language is an invention, not an instinct. If you think otherwise, you are wrong. Completely wrong. Oh, and he really thinks Noam Chomsky is completely wrong, and doesn't seem to concede him any significant contributions on the subject of language at all.

Chomsky in 1957 published Syntactic Structures, arguing that human language flows from an innate instinct, a universal grammar at the base of how humans think. An important part of his argument is that since only humans have language, it must have emerged fairly recently, due to a single mutation, perhaps 50,000 years ago. There's more to his theory, including the  idea that universal grammar didn't develop for the purpose of communication, but instead was originally used to facilitate complex human thought, with language a later effect.

That's not remotely a complete explanation of Chomsky's theory, but it's a good-enough starting point for a review of Everett's book. Everett says, not quite in so many words, that Chomsky is an ignorant fool. Language is obviously an invention, not an instinct, not a mutation, and he has demonstrated this far as I can tell, by asserting it repeatedly.

That's very sad, because there are some obvious weaknesses to Chomsky's theory, starting with the fact that complex features are essentially never the result of a single mutation. This involves a far greater knowledge of genetics than we had in 1957, of course, but it's not surprising that sixty years of research result in some significant damage to a theory grounded in areas we had not yet made major progress in.

It seems far more likely, in light of what we now know, that language emerged more gradually, as mutations, and natural and sexual selection among the natural variations in genus homo, led to the development of language.

Unfortunately, Everett rejects that, too.

Language, he says, is just a straight-up brilliant invention, coming straight from the clever brains of Homo erectus, or Homo habilis, or Homo ergaster, or possibly even Australopithecus afarensis, whoever came up with it first. Also, there was never any proto-language. The very first language was fully functional, able to do everything its users might need language to do.

Because every brilliant invention is perfect when first invented, right? That's normal, isn't it?

Everett also says there are no inherited language defects, which there ought to be if language is an instinct, written in the genes, rather than an invention. This would be persuasive, if true. Alas, other scientists seem to disagree, finding genetics-based language impairment not common, but nevertheless real. Here's a link to one example of a scientific paper discussing it. Full text is pricey, but if interested, your public library may be able to help you.
Genetics of Speech and Language Disorders Changsoo Kang and Dennis Drayna Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics 2011 12:1, 145-164

There's also the awkward fact that every human population, no matter how isolated, has language. Why is this awkward? Because things invented in one place, don't automatically spread to other populations the inventors' population isn't in contact with. Every culture has language. Not every culture invented written language, even though it's incredibly useful, once you have spoken language and a moderately complex culture. Invention of an alphabetic-style written language is even rarer.

And the wheel appears to have been invented once, in Sumeria, and spread from there. There's one exception; ancient Mexicans, but no other New World cultures, did invent wheels--and use them only in what appear to have been either toys or cult objects. Yet these were advanced, complex, sophisticated cultures, arguably more complex and advanced than the Spanish who arrived to conquer them. It wasn't lack of brains or sophistication that kept wheels as a useful concept from being invented in the New World.

So, why does everyone have language?

Why do two children, kept in isolation from anyone who speaks to them during the entire period they should be acquiring language, invariably emerge from that abuse speaking their own language? Why do twins not kept in that kind of extreme isolation not uncommonly develop their own "secret" language, separate from the one they use with adults around them?

Humans in contact with other humans develop language. It doesn't matter how sophisticated or complex their culture is otherwise. Humans speak to each other. If they're deaf, if there's more than one deaf child even if there's no one around who teaches them sign language, they create their own sign language. It's universal. It's how humans in contact with other humans behave.

It's innate.

It's also quite obviously  for communication, another way Chomsky appears to be wrong, so one would think Everett wouldn't need to pound so incoherently on Chomsky rather than more calmly discussing the specifics.

This is an interesting book. I find I've not touched nearly enough on the aspects that I like, or that I found persuasive. Yet the weaknesses are important, and also interesting.

If interested in the topic, I recommend giving it a try.

I bought this audiobook.