How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention Hardcover – 21 Sept. 2017
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How Language Began occupies a rare literary space that explains complex issues clearly to general readers while being an original contribution to scholarship...the arguments he marshals and insights he provides are impressive...anyone interested in language would gain from reading this book. (Oliver Kamm Times)
Ambitious...the subject-matter is completely enthralling...Everett is at the very top of his intellectual game. (Harry Ritchie Spectator)
Important and fascinating (Adrian Woolfson Prospect)
Everett is skilled at leavening an intellectually challenging treatise with humor ... A worthy book for general readers (Kirkus Reviews)
Praise for Language: The Cultural Tool:
'A book whose importance is almost impossible to overstate.
Revelatory. There is nothing about humans that is quite as astonishing as language. (Guardian)
Impressively modest and reasoned. (Economist)
The most important - and provocative - anthropological field work ever undertaken. (Tom Wolfe)
Praise for Don't Sleep, There are Snakes:
'A worldwide bestseller that finds no competition from linguistic researchers.
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It helps to put all missing parts of being a non-speaker and speaker together in order to master the languages you have learnt and continue mastering.
Highly recommended. Big thank you Daniel Everett!
Chomsky is nevertheless the linguist who inspired this scientific domain from 1955 to 2005 or so. He has now been severely questioned and challenged for something like twelve years. Against his innate approach, he had many other linguistic schools, most of them refusing to debate on the origin of language in conformity with the decision of the Paris Linguistic School at the end of the 19th century, a decision that reflected the anti-religious secular approach of life in the full process of establishing itself in France then. A few, alas, very few, accepted to speak of the evolution of language over a very long period of time, and subsequently of the geographical origin of our languages declared to be one in what is today Black Africa with the emergence of Homo Sapiens there from Homo Erectus or Homo Ergaster. Joseph Greenberg is the great master of this approach, though in his time it was only “out of Africa”. In today’s post-modern if not post-postmodern world we have to speak of “Out of Black Africa” and push the dates of the migrations from this vast base to something like 200,000 years BCE, if not even 250,000 years BCE, for the first migration to Northern Africa.
Note here that the standard European method invented in the 19th century to study old states of our modern European languages, the retrospective reconstruction of the more than famous Proto Indo-European could not go beyond a historical distance of about 15,000 years which means not even the peak of the last glaciation which is 21,000 years ago. Any retrospective method comes to a point when everything is either nil or infinite in mathematical calculations. The main shortcoming of this PIE retrospective chase is the fact that the simple triad of questions about who were these people, where did they come from, and what language did they speak before is not even considered. The present book rejects this method and this retrospective approach. And that is postmodern indeed whereas the PIE supporters are definitely pre-postmodern. What is surprising is that so many in Europe and the Western world are still sticking to this obvious blocking retrospective or backward reconstructive method. Daniel L. Everett does not fall in this trap.
Everett’s rejection of Chomsky’s theory is radical and systematic. He rejects the idea that language is a disembodied object (spoken by an ideal speaker in Chomsky’s own perspective and terms) along the line of a mathematical formula “[that] language is little more than a particular kind of grammar…, a hierarchical recursive grammar [that] is not found in a communication system, then [that] that form of communication is not language…, [that] that grammar ‘popped’ into being some 50-65,000 years ago via a mutation.” (p. 68) “Chomsky’s view that language is a recursive grammar, nothing more nothing less” (p. 68) is just rejected as unrealistic. And unrealistic is definitely a semantic and semiological understatement.
This sudden apparition of Universal Grammar or language, Everett calls it catastrophism and for him, Chomsky’s theory is based on such an approach: a sudden fully developed apparition of Universal Grammar’s recursive hierarchical system. I don’t think it is useful to go beyond this simple rejection of Chomsky’s innate genetic approach of the creation of language by man or in man, though this last trait is not solved, disambiguated by Chomsky himself and it may be considered as a mutation that created it or it may have been guided by the wisdom of some God, Biblical or not.
“And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam, there was not found a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:19-20)
But what is Everett’s approach?
“Language is not merely a synonym for grammar. It is a combination of meaning, form, gestures, and pitch. Grammar aids language. It is not itself language. Language, whatever its biological basis, is shaped by psychology, history, and culture.” (p. 69) Then on the same page, he gives a chart of what he calls “language is a nexus.”
His main point is that “language evolution can be explained without mutations, [and] based instead on gradual uniformitarianist assumptions, rendering superfluous proposals of language-specific genes or language-specific mutations.” P. 71)
Along that line, he heavily insists on the fact that Homo Erectus changed by acquiring, through natural selection, the bipedal position. He is right to speak of the necessary mutations that were selected and that made this evolution possible. Why did Hominins become bipedal is another question that Everett does not answer. Mutations being haphazard and natural selection being guided by the increased efficiency in the struggle for survival, it is difficult to know why these ‘bipedal’ mutations happened though it is clear that the upright position gave an advantage to Homo Erectus who could see over the savanna and in plains without forests.
But here it is what Everett misses: The radical change in lifestyle brought to Hominins when they became bipedal by the natural selection of a genetic accident. He also forgets to analyze the consequences of this change. Gathering new products. Hunting new animals. Homo Erectus’s food became more animal with the consequences it has on the physical development of the species and its brain. But it also narrowed the hips of women and it lengthened the dependence of the young on their mothers for breastfeeding, and then food and protection.
Homo Erectus gave rise to three species.
Neanderthals, massive individuals and well adapted to the climate of the Middle East and Europe. Denisovans of whom we know little but they covered the whole of Asia. And Homo Sapiens (via a first evolution from Homo Erectus to Homo Ergaster) in Africa, in fact, Black Africa. We know that Homo Sapiens was an agile bipedal long distance fast runner and this characteristic narrowed the hips of women some more and it lengthened the period during which the young had to be taken care of (breastfed, then fed and overlook, be it only for protection).
When we consider these species, including Homo Erectus, migrated over vast territories, we must state they produced more young ones than supported by local resources to be able to “fuel” that migration. This implies a great number of births at a time of a high level of infantile mortality increased by the narrowing of women’s hips and the lengthening of infantile dependency. To reach three or four children brought to adult age per woman the fertile ones who lived at least 29 years (life expectancy at the time) had to have, over fifteen to sixteen years of their life a good eight or ten children, a child every one year and a half. Everett never considers this fact, and note he is not the only one. In fact, I have hardly found nothing but a few side-remarks on the subject of women, pregnancies and children among Homo Sapiens from their emergence to the Ice Age, and even after it, in most of the research I have read on the subject. To the point that I think there is a male-bias in archaeology and anthropology. If we consider the breastfeeding of the young for twelve months, then the dependence in which they are going to live for three more years or even more, some social organization is necessary to do it on a regular basis. A woman hence always has a child in her womb, or at her breast or on her hip or back. Women then had a full schedule with this activity and that means they specialized in taking care of children. This implies a division of labor that sets women in a very clear position: they were the progenitors and propagators of the species. Note this has to be extended to Homo Erectus. If the organization was good, some women, on a rotating basis, could be freed every day for gathering and collecting various food items, or other activities (like painting the caves), while those taking care of the children shared their milk and care over several children, including some who were not their own.
Unluckily Everett does not consider these elements and I think he misses an essential point.
The shift of Homo Erectus from the African forests to the vast open plains of Northern Africa, Asia Minor, Europe, and Asia obliged them to devise hunting methods based on collective and coordinated work over vast areas with communication among the hunters. And that is the main point, for males at least. For women, they had to share their experience, their schedules and they had to speak to the children. There too communication is essential.
But that’s where phylogeny is essential for language, and that’s where Everett is right about Chomsky and the Universal Grammar approach: language cannot be reduced to grammar but has to be considered as the tool of communication, produced and developed by this communication. At the same time, we have to be very clear that language is not an ‘invention’ done by a few in some kind of laboratory, but it is the development of articulated human language within and from the communicational situation that requires this language to communicate and in the same dynamic as the mind itself. Both language and mind are constructs developed to enable communication, later conceptualization, within a communicational situation. The development of language that concerns us here has to follow some stages dictated by the raw materials used by Homo Sapiens, and before him by Homo Erectus, to generate our articulated language and the master word here is articulation. Chomsky states two articulations, an idea he got from André Martinet and standard post-1945 European linguistics and he is wrong. Our language has three articulations that are both in one particular order and hierarchically organized.
But Homo Sapiens, and before him, Homo Erectus inherited from previous Hominins and of course Hominids, monkeys and apes, some vocal articulated calls used to communicate along with gestures, intonations, repetitions and so on. Homo Erectus, let alone Homo Sapiens, started from this heritage. There are facts that cannot be avoided. Monkeys and apes have some ‘linguistic’ tools in the shape of calls that are clusters of vowels and consonants articulated into stable units. The cases I have studied show that these monkeys have about five consonants and three vowels and with these means they produce about six or seven calls that can be repeated for emphasis and some calls are ordered in a certain way to call for attention first and then to specify the danger menacing the community (lion, eagle, falling trees, etc.) Then they produce chains of calls but each call keeps its own meaning and two different calls together do not produce a specific and new meaning. They can articulate vowels and consonants but they can’t produce anything beyond except repetitive chains. Their only syntax is concatenation or repetition but with no specific semiologic development. Each call, each unit is holistic and they are only assembled in concatenated chains for emphasis and urgency, along with gestures, vocal level, intonation, etc.
what in this communicational situation provides a syntactic frame in which the lexical units get to a higher level of meaning?
But we have to consider why Homo Sapiens evolved and how. By becoming bipedal runners, later on long distance fast runners, they selected mutations that lowered the larynx (the pump of that type of breathing), that developed physiological and physical coordination between diaphragm, lungs, heart, laryngeal and glottal areas, breathing tracks (nose, mouth, tongue, sinuses, etc.) plus the whole body, particularly the limbs, and all that was under brain-control from, among others, the Broca area. The innervation of the subglottal area, mouth, and tongue had to be improved and increased. All that was done by natural selection of haphazard mutations improving these elements for the objective of running longer and faster. I calculated that Neanderthals had an 11% deficit as compared to Homo Sapiens in brain size and probably subglottal innervation in EQ (Encephalization Quotient) proportion. Everett does not seem to capture the importance of this ratio. He says Neanderthals had a bigger brain than Homo Sapiens but this bigger brain is in fact in proportion with their bigger body mass and when compared with Homo Sapiens the ratio shows an 11% deficit. And I assume here the brains of the three species (Homo Erectus, Neanderthals, and Homo Sapiens) are of the same architecture, which is absolutely not sure. The highly parallel and hierarchical brain of Homo Sapiens has no reason to be identical to Neanderthals’ brain. Actually, from Homo Erectus to Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens there might have been mutations at the level of the brain and Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens are not directly connected in descending order and Homo Sapiens could not inherit the eventual mutations of Neanderthals.
All this is considered by Everett but more or less on a back burner, though it is essential to evaluate where Homo Erectus stood.
Before dealing with communication, let me say that women have been proved to stand apart in Homo Sapiens society, to have a special role in these societies, all over the world, confirmed today both in Europe and Indonesia: 75% of the handprints found in caves there (and it has just been proved that these handprints are older in Indonesia than in Europe) are women’s. That, from my point of view, confirms the central role of women before the peak of the Ice Age as the progenitors and propagators of the species but also as the spiritual beings of their societies, hence as those who control spiritual language or communication. If we follow those who say that these caves were the locale of some initiation of the seers of these societies by crawling as deep as possible in the dark and with limited resources, apparently all coming back to the surface with visions that they may have painted onto the deepest and narrowest caves. These visions would have become some spiritual discourse, some bridge with the other side of this world, with the world of spirits. And once again 75% of these were women. Is that proportion the same for those who went through the initiation as for those who painted the main entrance caves? A lot of work is still to be done. Was Homo Erectus on the same line? No one can say, I guess, since they did not paint the caves they lived in. Is that true of Homo Sapiens only at a maximum of 70,000 years BCE? No one can say. But there is no reason not to think it is possible it went a long way farther back in time because of the element Everett did not consider, the procreational situation of women from 13 to 29, and because of what he does not study. He speaks of communication but never considers the communicational situation without which there is no communication.
If we speak of communication, and I would agree with Everett, we have to go back to Homo Erectus at least, we have to state a communicational situation that sets rules and functions, what I call the communicational syntax or discursive syntax. Note the communicational syntax of hunters is not the same as that of mothers taking care of children, but there is a basic situation which is true of all communication, at least Hominin communication based on calls.
Call-ER CALL CALL CALL-EE
Agent Relation Theme Goal
Then call-EE might answer the call vocally but the call-EE, when she is a mother, will answer materially and that action will be on the following pattern here specified as connected to hunger:
Feed-ER FEED FOOD Feed-EE
Agent Relation Theme Goal
This is the basic pattern of the syntax of human languages. According to the various circumstances or cultural circumstances it can be the basis of an active vision, a passive vision or an ergative vision. I call it communicational syntax. This syntax is also the basic discursive syntax. Everett is right on that point. We do not need to have a grammar gene or a syntax gene. Hominin society provides the mold and the melting pot that will bring and develop the basic syntactic architecture of human language. This communicational syntax is essential to lead to the second articulation of language, the distinction between spatial lexical units (what we call nouns in western linguistics) and temporal lexical units (what we call verbs in western linguistics). The first capture of time is not so much the inscription of the utterance in universe-time, which is by the way captured as duration by animals and hence by emerging Hominins, but the fact that some of these lexical items describe or name processes, relations that develop in duration. To be you have to become and once you are you have to go on becoming. To feed you have to start, do and then end the process, whereas food, feed-er, and feed-ee are static entities. They are and they only become due to their being attached to the process of feeding. These two dimensions will become in most languages nouns and verbs, though these names are derived from western linguistics and might not be the best and most proper descriptions.
The last element we have to consider is to associate the phylogeny of language and its three articulations in connection with the three vast migrations of Homo Sapiens out of Black Africa to understand that the three vast families of root languages, isolating languages and agglutinative-synthetic/analytical languages evolved from the same linguistic nest but then three migrations left the nest at three different moments along this phylogenic evolution in the nest. But that is another story and I would advise you to check what I have published on the subject, for example, my Kindle book: “Cro-Magnon's Language: Emergence of Homo Sapiens, Invention of Articulated Language, Migrations out of Africa” (English Edition) Format Kindle, B074DXJM5C.
This book by Daniel L. Everett is essential to finally step beyond the Chomskyan approach that is too narrow to be really effective. Language can only be understood within the human or Hominin communicational situation that produced it from genetic mutations naturally selected for reasons that had nothing to do with language. Language is a side effect of the evolution of Hominins to the bipedal long distance fast runner that Homo Sapiens became after Homo Erectus became bipedal and started migrating. Language is a side-effect of that bipedalism but it is the tool of this migration-oriented Hominin species that starts with Homo Erectus. And that has nothing to do with Chomsky’s black box of Universal Grammar.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
Another is that symbols may have emerged from visual associations such as wet tree roots with snakes - but this is just recognition of pattern similarity, which is what underlies iconic representations but not symbolic ones which are based on conventional connections and not on similarities. These are important examples because what's really lacking in this book is an engagement with the emergence of symbols as such.
There is a wide range of opinions about the antiquity of language. Some, notably those influenced by the theories of Noam Chomsky, think that it is quite recent, perhaps only 50,000 years old, and is due to a new brain adaptation to construct and understand grammar. Language is therefore confined to Homo sapiens, and recent Homo sapiens at that. Everett is at the other end of the scale; he finds that language is more than one million years old and arose in Homo erectus. No sudden mutation was required for this; it resulted from a progressive increase in brain power linked to more complex culture. Language is a cultural invention, not primarily a biological phenomenon.
The star in this story is Homo erectus. There is a temptation to think of this species as no more than a prelude to Homo sapiens, but Everett prefers to regard sapiens as simply an improved model of erectus. The appearance of erectus marked a decisive advance on the australopithecines, who were small in stature, with small brains, and made only simple tools. H. erectus, in contrast, was similar in size to us, with brains that were almost as big as ours, at least in the later phase of their career, and with an advanced culture that enabled them to spread over most of the Old World outside Africa. They even reached islands beyond the horizon, thanks to voyages that probably required the construction of sea-going craft.
Their impressive cultural development indicates to Everett that they must have had language.
"The evidence … strongly supports the claim that Homo erectus possessed language … Only language is able to explain the Homo erectus cognitive revolution."
The acquisition of language depended on an advanced brain, and in turn language stimulated brain development. But Everett insists that this does not mean the appearance of brain regions exclusively devoted to language, which almost certainly don't exist. The idea that brain structures specialised for language exist comes from over-emphasis on the role of grammar in the acquisition of language.
"Compared to the invention of symbols and the culture basis of their meaning … along with the knowledge of how to use symbols appropriately in telling stories, conversing and using language in its many forms, syntax is a helpful tool, but arguably non-essential. "
The language of H. erectus would have been simpler than that of H. sapiens but it was not a 'protolanguage'.
"It is expected that the first language would be inferior to our present languages. No invention begins at the top. All human inventions get better over time. And yet this does not mean that erectus spoke a subhuman language. What it does mean, however, is that they lacked fully modern speech, for physiological reasons, and that their information flow was slower—they hadn't as much to talk about as we do today, nor do they seem to have had sufficient brain power to process and produce information as quickly as modern sapiens."
This book seems to be intended for a non-professional audience but I didn't always find it easy to read. Everett mostly writes colloquially but he has an occasional tendency to produce long involved sentences that need to be read several times before their meaning is discerned. And although it's a long book, perhaps it should paradoxically have been even longer. The ideas, of which there are plenty, sometimes seem to need expansion.
For example, Everett draws on the influential but complex writings of C.S. Peirce, using his notion of semiotics to derive three types of language, designated G1, G2, and G3. I think this needed more explanation than it gets, especially as Everett modifies Peirce for his own purpose. Incidentally, comprehension of these difficult sections has not been helped by the publishers' choice of small print, which results in tired eyes as well as a tired brain.
Yet although some ideas are over-compressed, there is also a certain amount of repetition. Sometimes this seems to be simply a question of inadequate proof-reading. For instance, in a rather densely written chapter on "Where Grammar Came From" there is an allusion on p.216 to 'non-concatenation' (alteration of a vowel to change meaning) as a feature of Arabic. We are given an example of the same thing in English, with the plural of 'foot' being 'feet'. Exactly the same example is repeated in a footnote on the facing page!
If there is one theme that runs throughout the book it is gratitude to Homo erectus. The almost lyrical concluding paragraph reads as follows.
"Each human alive enjoys their grammar and society because of the work, the discoveries and the intelligence of Homo erectus. Natural selection took those things that were most effective for human survival and improved the species until today humans live in the Age of Innovation, the Era of Culture, in the Kingdom of Speech. "
There is a useful list of further reading, to which I'd like to add Terrence Deacon's book The Symbolic Species. Like Everett, Deacon disputes Chomksy's theory of language, and he too makes use of Peirce's semiotics. And Deacon's notion of language as evolving to be easily learned by children seems to be complementary to Everett's emphasis on the role of culture.
Top international reviews
El libro está escrito con el habitual tono ameno y didáctico que caracteriza al autor. Una lectura muy recomendable que complementa sus volúmenes anteriores: "No duermas, hay serpientes" y -otro igualmente recomendable- "Language as Cultural Tool". ("Dark Matter of the Mind" es un libro un poco más técnico, reservado a un público más centrado en el tema)
L'auteur a étudié les langues très primitives des tribus de l'Amazonie. C'est un linguiste averti avec lequel je partage les idées sur de Saussure, Chomsky et de bien d'autres dont il offre les explication avec rigueur. Mais c'est aussi un paléontologue très savant qui m'a poussé à lire ou à relire plusieurs ouvrages pour pouvoir le suivre. Surtout il m'a fait découvrir le très grand philosophe, astronome et mathématicien Charles Sanders Peirce qui a crée le Pargmatisme et la Sémiotique et dont la pensée est très profonde et pertinente. Depuis Kant je n'ai rien lu de pareil. Je me délecte de la lecture de ses oeuvre dont plusieurs sont très bien traduites en français par Gérard Deledalle.
Cela fait très longtemps que je n'ai pas lu un livre d'une telle valeur et qui ait modifié mes connaissances et mes opinions.
Controversial and revisionist are two words that came to my mind while reading this book.
I can't claim any deep specialty in this area but I've read a few books on the subject of linguistics and thought I was keeping abreast of the subject. I thought that Noam Chomsky was widely accepted as setting the benchmark for linguistic study and that the idea that language developed as a result of a genetic mutation in the last 50,000 years was equally accepted. Likewise, I read Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct" and I was sold on the notion that the human brain has a component for handling language.
Daniel L. Everett's book "How Language Began" challenges those complacent beliefs. Everett comes across as a one-man wrecking crew to set things straight. Everett sets forth his thesis in the preface:
"The story of how humans came to have language is a mostly untold one, full of invention and discovery, and the conclusions that I come to through that story have a long pedigree in the sciences related to language evolution – anthropology, linguistics, cognitive science, palaeoneurology, archaeology, biology, neuroscience and primatology. Like any scientist, however, my interpretations are informed by my background, which in this case are my forty years of field research on languages and cultures of North, Central and South America, especially with hunter-gatherers of the Brazilian Amazon. As in my latest monograph on the intersection of psychology and culture, Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious, I deny here that language is an instinct of any kind, as I also deny that it is innate, or inborn.
As far back as the work of psychologist Kurt Goldstein in the early twentieth century, researchers have denied that there are language-exclusive cognitive disorders. The absence of such disorders would seem to suggest that language emerges from the individual and not merely from language-specific regions of the brain. And this in turn supports the claim that language is not a relatively recent development, say 50–100,000 years old, possessed exclusively by Homo sapiens. My research suggests that language began with Homo erectus more than one million years ago, and has existed for 60,000 generations.
As such, the hero of this story is Homo erectus, upright man, the most intelligent creature that had ever existed until that time. Erectus was the pioneer of language, culture, human migration and adventure. Around three-quarters of a million years before Homo erectus transmogrified into Homo sapiens, their communities sailed almost two hundred miles (320 kilometres) across open ocean and walked nearly the entire world. Erectus communities invented symbols and language, the sort that wouldn’t seem out of place today. Although their languages differed from modern languages in the quantity of their grammatical tools, they were human languages.
Of course, as generations came and went, Homo sapiens unsurprisingly improved on what erectus had done, but there are languages still spoken today that are reminiscent of the first ever spoken, and they are not inferior to other modern languages."
Everett argues his thesis in great detail, which results in this book being a soup to nuts survey of linguistics, running from anthropology to historical linguistics to the mechanics of how words are formed by the human vocal apparatus.
Everett's position on Homo Erectus is both interesting and idiosyncratic. Everett argues cogently that H. Erectus must have had speech capabilities in order to accomplish the things that they accomplished, particularly building sea going vessels capable of taking their species to offshore islands beyond the site of land. Everett also discounts the trustworthiness of scholarship that identifies other homo species:
"According to some classifications, there were, soon after and before erectus, other species of Homo co-existing or existing in close succession – Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo rudolfensis among others. But, again, most of these various species of Homo are ignored here, with the focus kept on Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. Most other Homo species are murky, maybe nothing more than variants of Homo erectus. However, the story of human language evolution changes in no significant way, whether erectus and ergaster were the same or different species."
Homo Sapien is simply an improved model of Homo Erectus.
Everett offers this on the sophistication of Erectus:
"This view of human cooperation in erectus is strongly supported by the archaeological record. As erectus wandered through the Levant, near the Jordan between the Dead Sea to the south and the Hula Valley to the north, they came to stop at the site known today as Gesher Benot Ya’aqov. At this site, going back at least 790,000 years, there is evidence for Acheulean tools, Levallois tools, evidence of controlled fire, organised village life, huts that housed socially specialised tasks of different kinds and other evidence of culture among Homo erectus. Erectus may have stopped here on the way out of Africa. Erectus technology was impressive. They built villages that manifested what almost appears to be central planning, or at least gradual construction under social guidance, as in Gesher Benot Ya’aqov. This is clear evidence of cultural values, organised knowledge and social roles. But such villages are just one example of erectus’s technological and organisational innovation."
I didn't know that.
Communication exists in sub-homo species. Non-humans use indexes and icons, non-arbitrary referents that mean one thing only. Humans use symbols. For Everett, the human achievement was a brain capable of using symbols and engaging in recursive thinking. Language is not a product of the wiring of the brain any more than a hammer is; both language and a hammer are inventions or tools of the human mind. Everett notes:
"A startling conclusion emerges from deficits affecting language: There are no language-only hereditary disorders. And the reason for that is predicted by the theory of language evolution here – namely that there could not be such a deficit because there is no language-specific part of the brain. Language is an invention. The brain is no more specialised for language than for toolmaking, though over time both have affected the development of the brain in general ways that make it more supportive of these tasks."
This insight comes after a long discussion of the kinds of ways that things can go wrong in the human ability to talk. Everett's point is well-made. We don't say that a hammer must be "wired" into the brain because someone without thumbs can't use one. There is no genetic condition that effects language - no one is born without an ability to comprehend verbs except insofar as they can also not comprehend nouns and prepositions. Likewise, as a practicing Linguist, Everett has seen far too many grammars to accept the notion that there is a universal language.
For readers of anthropology and linguistics this is a very useful work because it shows how much is still open to debate. I think that for someone looking for a survey of linguistics this is a helpful and interesting book. If you are like me and are intrigued by the "gosh-wow!" ideas of "deep history" and "human evolution," this book is well-worth the investment.
On the other hand, it is not particularly written for the lay reader. Everett spins off idea after idea and the reader has to stay on his toes to keep up. Also, there is a lot of dense and dry material. For example, the chapters on the mechanics of language are important (and I found them interesting insofar as Everett shared his personal experiences in the field), but I found my enthusiasm for the subject lagging at times. I suspect that for others with less background, these are chapters that can and will be skipped.
Obviously, on the whole, I found Everett's thesis captivating and his arguments cogent.
Everett has a "thing" about Homo erectus. He's convinced that this is the first human species to have language, but uses circular reasoning all too often. That species spread out of Aftrica across Eurasia and into Java and islands that would have, at that time (1-1.3 million years ago) required the technology for "over the horizon" navigation. He infers (reasonably, I think) that boat-building probably requires language.