A noted linguist explores “the evolutionary history of language as a human invention—from the emergence of our species to the more than 7,000 languages spoken today.”
Everett (Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious, 2016, etc.), the dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University, mixes esoteric scholarly inquiry with approachable anecdotal interludes to surmise how humans developed written and spoken language and why it became vital for survival and dominance. As in his previous books, Everett energetically attacks the long-accepted theory of Noam Chomsky that humans are born with the language instinct, including innate rules of structure. Everett believes that communication with other humans is a learned activity involving multiple parts of the brain. The author began to formulate his overarching theories of language while studying contemporary hunter-gatherers in the Amazon region of Brazil. His research led him backward through the millennia to the dawning of Homo erectus. Because these early humans formed communities rather than living in isolation, Everett emphasizes that the culture helped develop language and that language in turn advanced culture. In Everett’s schematic, language and culture are inseparable, although he states without qualification that language is the “handmaiden” of culture. A major draw of this book is the author’s extensive theorizing about not only the origins of human language, but also why something akin to the Tower of Babel developed, with clans living in proximity unable to easily understand one another. Many books about the origin of language aimed at nonexperts tend to skim over the Tower of Babel conundrum. That Everett is skilled at leavening an intellectually challenging treatise with humor is evident on the first page of the introduction: he follows the biblical phrase “In the beginning was the word,” attributed to John 1:1, with the quotation “No, it wasn’t,” attributed to Dan Everett.
A worthy book for general readers not well-versed in anthropology, neurology, linguistics, and other technical sciences.