The Making of Language

The Making of Language

The Making of Language

The Making of Language


The Making of Language presents an alternative to the prevalent view of language as the product of human genetics. It argues instead that language originated in the cooperative activity of early humans: "We made language, as we made pots and pans." Author Mike Beaken shows how early forms of communication developed in step with technology, culture, and social organization. Thoroughly revised, this second edition also considers the significance of music in relation to other forms of communication. It covers a wide range of disciplines and reflects relevant published research since the first edition appeared in 1996. Clearly written, it will be welcomed by anyone interested in the evolution and origin of language.


Neglect and rediscovery

Over the last thirty or so years, and after a long period of neglect, the origin of human language has become a popular topic of study. It was not always so. This chapter traces briefly the way the topic has been studied at different periods and in different parts of the world.

Interest in the topic was intense in the first half of the nineteenth century, stimulated by discoveries such as the relation of Sanskrit to Greek and other Indo-European languages, and the sound laws that linked modern European languages to their ancestors. For quite a long time it was thought possible that the question of the ultimate origin of all languages could be solved. This supposition was not too unreasonable in the context of the belief at that time that the world was less than 6,000 years old.

The first identifiable Neanderthal fossil was unearthed in 1856; Darwin's Origins of Species was published in 1859; Lewis Henry Morgan's Ancient Society in 1877. You might suppose that the great interest in human origins that these developments stimulated would further promote the study of language origins. Strangely, however, just the opposite started to happen. Linguistics in the 1870s and 1880s turned away more and more from the general questions involved in the subject.

One reason was the multiplication of more or less cranky theories from amateur linguists and philosophers, which gave the whole question 'a bad repute among sober-minded philologists', as Whitney declared. A further reason was the recognition—due largely to discoveries made by geologists—that the world was a great deal older than everyone had supposed and that human history and prehistory stretched back not thousands of years but millions. The prospect of reconstructing humanity's original language therefore receded into the unattainable distance.

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