#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews THE DAWN OF LANGUAGE: HOW WE CAME TO TALK by Sverker Johansson

Nearly a century ago, when even the threat of Nazi Germany failed to dent the general optimism that mankind had a bright future, the publishers Allen & Unwin produced a series of books called Primers for the Age of Plenty, one of which was Frederick Bodmer’s The Loom of Language. Bodmer was not, apparently, a trained linguist; his book included (amongst much else) a brave attempt to outline the history and development of language, but was littered with errors and unproven assertions. Not least of which, as I recall, was the claim that language was a relatively modern development, something that had happened in the last fifty to a hundred thousand years. However attractive this hypothesis may have seemed back then, it has been thoroughly exploded now by Sverker Johansson’s painstaking and highly readable analysis of where language came from and when. Johansson asserts, with a wealth of evidence to back this up, that Homo, of one species or another, must have been communicating with words, if in a most basic way, for probably a million years before the forerunners of today’s complex speech systems began to coalesce out of this primeval linguistic swamp. The entire timeline is, he believes, closer to two million years.

Not that this is without its controversies and challengers. Johansson essentially propounds a Darwinist theory of the development of language and its essential component, grammar: a lengthy evolutionary process, something that happened alongside and intertwined with the intellectual growth and physical changes in the body and brain of Homo. This approach has been under constant pressure from Noam Chomsky and his acolytes, who claim that language was the result of a single mutation, a kind of linguistic ‘big bang’ that delivered a ‘language module’ in the brain. And indeed, there are several other theories about how the language / grammar complex developed and operates. All are discussed and dissected fairly and with admirable good humour by Johansson.

But what is so fascinating about this book, as the author explains, is that linguists had somehow pottered along for years making assumptions about language that didn’t take into account pioneering research in other disciplines – archaeology, neurology, genetics, anthropology and more – which, when taken together as they now have been over the past twenty-five years or so, offer a much clearer and deeper analysis of how ‘talk’ could have arisen. The need to communicate, Johansson asserts, was a pre-requisite for ‘being helpful’: co-operating on the basics of survival for the earliest human species, if not initially in words, then certainly with signs, which are a form of language. However, the complexities of agreeing not just, for example, how and what to hunt, but also the need to develop and improve tools for hunting, was all underpinned by the growth of what Johansson calls ‘“the language-ready brain”’; and the resultant changes in the anatomy of the head, which this larger brain needed, coincidentally allowed Homo to articulate sounds in a way denied to even our closest relatives amongst the great apes, and thus to ‘speak’ co-operation. Note the use of ‘Homo’ rather than ‘human’: there were several different species and modern genetics have shown that, to take one example, all variants of ourselves, Homo sapiens, that spread outside our original home in Africa retain fragments of Neandertal DNA in their genome. This, says Johansson, shows that the two species must have met and fraternised and ‘intermarried’ – and for this to have worked and for our offspring to have been successful, we must have been able to talk to each other. And so another assumption, that of the wordless, grunting Neandertal, exits stage left. 

Indeed, Johansson’s detailed analysis of how language developed, based on archaeological and anthropological evidence in particular, suggests that a sequence of message > thought > action is what made language the critical survival faculty for early man. His analysis also explores the social developments in one particular human species, Homo erectus, which created the conditions for it to be the only animal to have a functioning protolanguage a million years ago: 

‘The combination of trust and helpfulness … a language-ready mind and an ecological niche in which co-operation was an advantage [all] turn out to be unique to Homo erectus, and explain why no other animal possesses language.’

Bodmer’s Loom of Language, mistaken though it was in many of its assertions and quite outdated though it now certainly is, was highly popular in its time because it was written for the layman, not the specialist. Sverker Johansson has written The Dawn of Language with just the same readership in mind. You don’t need to understand more than the basics of the many study areas he draws on to enjoy this totally absorbing journey through the seven ages of linguistic man – a continuing journey in which, let’s face it, the glories of Homer, Machiavelli and Shakespeare are but the merest blip of perfection. It’s surely the best £25 you’ll spend this year!

Reviewed by Max Easterman

THE DAWN OF LANGUAGE: HOW WE CAME TO TALK

by Sverker Johansson

Translated by Frank Perry

Published by MacLehose Press (2021)

September 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 35 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.

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Category: ReviewsSeptember 2021

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