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The Ascent of Babel: An Exploration of Language, Mind, and Understanding Paperback – 6 May 1999
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... fascinating... an extraordinarily accessible introduction to psycholinguistics, equally valuable to students of the subject, to linguists, psychologists and the general reader. Altmann's use of humorous examples makes it a pleasure to read. (New Scientist)
Using language fills most of our day, most of our life. Gerry Altmann seduces us with a surprisingly light touch in a witty, refreshing account of the intricacies of this most human of all skills. its feats and its failures. It is a masterful, state-of-the-art reflection of psycholinguistic science. (Willem Levelt, Max Planck Institute)
Language is one of the faculties that sets humans apart from animals, the crucial thing which makes our complex social interactions possible. The Ascent of Babel explores the ways in which the mind produces and understands language: the ways in which the sounds of language evoke meaning, and the ways in which the desire to communicate causes us to produce those sounds to begin with. The 'ascent' symbolises different things: the progression from sound to meaning, the ascent that we each undergo, from birth onwards, as we learn our mother tongue, and the quest to understand the mental processes which underlie our use of language. Gerry Altmann leads the reader on this ascent - a fascinating tour which takes us from babies learning to say words to the production of spoken and written language, the effects of brain damage on language, and the ways in which computer simulations of interconnecting nerve cells can learn language. The Ascent of Babel is a journey of discovery, written in an engaging and witty style, at the end of which it becomes clear that Babel's summit - the secret of language - may actually lie at its foundations, where babies play and language is learned.See all Product description
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The flow of the text is awkward: the transitions between chapters were okay, but within some chapters Altmann seems to ramble on somewhat. The book is quite readable if you don't do it all at one sitting, in which case this sort of thing might get annoying, but rather a chapter or two at a time, which fits well with the author's page vi suggestion that "the reader of this book should also skip [passages of the book] as necessary." This is not any less so for the fact that Altmann includes a preface, a pre-chapter called "In the beginning," and a chapter-one introduction to psycholinguistics. Altmann is also plagued the unfortunate "ascent of Babel" metaphor and feels obliged to waxing poetic on it between chapters.
It seems to me that Altmann glosses over controversy, for example as to the origins of the human race and human languages. I was a little surprised that there was no elaboration on what others tell me is not an open-shut case. I get the feeling that Altmann has a limited background on the topic, giving only 7 references in the bibliography for this chapter. Other chapters with sparse bibliography showings note that Altmann couldn't find further general reading, etc., and on average chapters 2 through 13 still have twice that many references, even though they cover much less academic terrain.