Blabber, blubber and Babel

A History of Language
February 11, 2000

Steven Roger Fischer's new book is one of two volumes in a new series entitled Globalities, which the publisher bills as offering reinterpretations of world history, "looking at major issues over large time spans and political spaces". Fischer's project is nothing if not wide-ranging, touching every continent and covering millions of years, but it is curious that the most compelling sections of his account deal with the extra-linguistic, with kinds of communication that linguists cannot do justice to: the pre-history of human language, and the staggering repertoire of means that animals employ to signal to one another (infrasound, ultrasound, body language, pheromones, food exchange).

The first chapter begins by exploring the language equivalents used by ants, bees, moths, birds and elephants, before moving on to the more familiar activities of cetaceans and great apes. Apart from virtuosity, the most extraordinary aspect of communicating whales is their adherence to language universals and dialects, or something like these things. Humpbacks apparently change the songs they sing from one mating season to the next, retaining certain structural elements, or principles of composition, while allowing the song "content" to evolve freely. Successive generations of the same group, or pod, of humpbacks, and geographically diverse pods, demonstrate the use of different dialects while observing the same basic linguistic rules.

The value of research into cetacean communication, the reason why its findings have potentially more significance than most of the work focused on the great apes, despite all the publicity that has surrounded the language coaching of gorillas and chimpanzees, is that exchanges between whales are not interfered with, or governed by, human criteria of intelligibility, whereas the greater part of research into language acquisition among the apes has been determined by exchanges between apes and humans. This lends a certain perspective to the achievements of Koko the gorilla, whose sign-language vocabulary of 500 active and 500 passive signs is used occasionally for the purposes of deliberate deception, a linguistic skill otherwise regarded as exclusively human.

The most fascinating chapter of Fischer's book deals with linguistic palaeontology. He is not concerned with the development of specific proto-languages, despite an intense personal interest in early European tongues and their scripts (one of his previous publications is an interpretation of the intriguing Phaistos Disk of Minoan Crete). He draws the line at attempts to reconstruct prehistoric speech; this is disappointing and renders his account slightly uninformative. There is no mention, for instance, of Aharon Dolgopolsky's recently well-publicised efforts to compile a glossary of Nostratic, the hypothetical macro-family from which Indo-European, Hamito-Semitic, Kartvelian, Uralic, Altaic and Dravidian might all have derived. But what is novel in this context is Fischer's examination of the anatomical basis for speech in early humans. Fossil remains are now numerous enough to allow a fairly detailed projection of language capacity in Homo habilis , erectus , neanderthalensis and early sapiens . Control of exhalation, tongue versatility and a properly functioning larynx were all crucial factors; they were all absent in H. habilis , emerging patchily in H. erectus and well advanced in H. neanderthalensis . Archaeological evidence supports this profile; the pattern of sea migrations demonstrating forward planning and sophisticated social organisation for some specimens of H. erectus suggests an impressive command of syntax. The most tantalising scenario is that of H. neanderthalensis : capable of art, music, religion and outstanding technical skill (tailoring and flint working), the Neanderthals possessed even larger brains than H. sapiens . The two species lived side by side for hundreds of thousands of years, but H. neanderthalensis was doomed to extinction, perhaps even extermination, by his rival's gift of the gab. The evolutionary jump of settlement, which changed irrevocably the social relations in and between species, altered the conceptual universe and required a more complex articulation.

From the Neolithic onwards, language became increasingly enmeshed in constructions of possession and power. Fischer regards this shift as truly momentous: "Human language was now bound to the land." Subsequent chapters are concerned with the historical development of the major language families, with the history of writing, the history of linguistics, the scope of sociolinguistics and the significance of computer-generated and computer-influenced forms of language. It is in his reflections on the genesis (soon after the last Ice Age) of modern language families that Fischer establishes perhaps the most prominent theme of his analysis: the threat to linguistic diversity. Population increase leads paradoxically to language death: "Increasing economic and political power in human society as a rule generates ever larger homogeneous linguistic units, which then suppress all smaller ones. This synergistic system grows exponentially until, in the end, only a very limited number of languages and language families survive." There has been steady erosion of diversity over the past 10,000 years, but the 20th century has meant a drastic acceleration of this process. Equally emphatic in Fischer's account is his retraction of the idea that the geographical distribution of languages should be equated with the movement of peoples. He draws on recent research to make the point that the genetic profile of Europeans has not changed radically in the past 50,000 years despite the fluctuations of language and culture.

The first half of the book is the more challenging; the second half is at once more crowded and more perfunctory. The potted history of linguistics is too congested and even slightly hectic, while the discussion of language and society gives very short shrift to issues of nationality, gender, and education. These sections have a limited use as digests of information. But the heart of the book, where it is able to engage readers more generally, deals with languages unknown.

Rod Mengham is director of studies in English, Jesus College, Cambridge, and author of The Descent of Language .

A History of Language

Author - Steven Roger Fischer
ISBN - 1 86189 051 6
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £19.95
Pages - 240

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