Sverker Johansson’s The Dawn of Language, adroitly translated by Frank Perry, weighs in at over 400 pages. We’re in the age of Great Simplifiers: each month produces a new crop of hefty volumes.
The Great Simplifiers
Each new volume aims to survey and simplify complex, important scientific arguments for a fairly well-educated reading public. These tomes resemble each other in their ambitions: they review tons of recent research; they give their readers an impression of the intensity and importance of debates; they’re stuffed with colourful examples to hold their reader’s attention; and – usually – they conclude on a vaguely re-assuring, half-optimistic note. As you look closer, differences become apparent.
Mark Source of Consciousness Solms sounds like a genuinely odd, monk-like figure, standing somewhere between life, death and consciousness. (I only understood about 40% of his book, but – wow! – what a 40% that was.) Steven Better Angels Pinker is your dodgy American cousin, who’ll begin sentences with phrases like ‘While I never voted Trump, it has to be acknowledged that . . .’ Yuval Homo Deus Harari is your sassy nephew who keeps wanting to show you really cool apps on his phone. And finally – Sverker Johansson is your favourite uncle, who’ll sit you down on the hand-crafted bench outside his shed, serve you some homemade lemon drizzle cake and a really nice cup of tea, and start talking about the origins of language.
Round the Houses
You’d better enjoy the tea and cake, because you’re going to be there for quite a while. The Dawn of Language has a relaxed, round-the-houses feel to it. Johansson isn’t afraid to take his time. The axes referred to in the title don’t turn up until page 107, the midwives not until page 235. But along the way we learn many things, for Johannsson is endlessly informative. Did you know that the entire English language is composed of only forty-four basic sounds? And Swedish only thirty-five basic sounds? The songs of a nightingale contain something like 250 sounds, but this doesn’t mean that its songs constitute a language. Johannsson explains why. We’ve heard people endlessly worrying about the death of minority languages and the relentless rise of some McWorld monoculture? Johannsson reminds us that new languages are being created all the time, such as Nicaraguan sign language. (Sign languages are referred to quite frequently in The Dawn of Language, as they’re a useful riposte to an over-concentration on the sounds of human language.)
Bees can signal locations to each other through this intricate dance. But is this a type of language? Probably not: ask that bee to say, ‘I keep thinking it’s Thursday’.
In The Dawn of Language, there are frequent comparisons between humans and chimps, our nearest animal relation. After considering the evidence in some depth, Johannsson is emphatically negative on chimps’ capacity to use language. Firstly, chimps don’t possess the right type of tongues and throats to make the forty-four or thirty-five sounds we need. So what about sign language? While chimps can be taught to use some elements of sign language, they don’t seem to use it in as sophisticated a manner as humans. And one damning point: if a female chimp has been taught to use some sign language, and then has a baby, she doesn’t bother to teach her child the language – it just doesn’t seem that important to chimps.
A film set among Stone Age tribes, The Quest for Fire is sometimes advertised as the only non-English language film where you don’t need sub-titles. Anthony Burgess assisted in trying to re-create a proto-language for use in the film.
We Are What We Are
In discussing language, Johannsson is actually discussing what it is to be human. A big topic, perhaps The Big Topic which fascinates all the Great Simplifiers. Some of the evidence and arguments Johannsson surveys aren’t so new. He stresses one key point: an important feature that makes human babies very different from most babies in the animal world is that human babies are helpless: they can’t survive without adults taking care of them. And it’s in those years of helplessness that languages are taught and learned, transmitted from one generation to another.
This cross-generational dimension of human culture is the reason for the ‘axes’ in the title. About two million years ago our more-or-less human ancestors started using ‘hand-axes’: basically large-ish stones with bits knocked off to form a sharp edge that could be used for cutting things. These survive, and allow scientists to trace some elements of prehistoric culture. What is clear is that our ancestors had some sort of standard model for a hand-axe which remained constant for millennia: this suggests that hand-axe manufacture was taught, from generation to generation, which implies – you guessed it – the use of some sort of language.
How to make a handaxe (it’s not as easy as you might think).
Johannsson pinpoints some likely aspects of the origins of this proto-language. It could well have started as a sign language: signing, in a sense, is more natural to all primates. The signs were then accompanied by sounds to emphasise or qualify the signal. Or: this proto-language might have started as singing, rather like birds’ songs, as part of sexual competition or as lullabies. Or: Johannsson runs through a series of quasi-fictional scenarios when a proto-language might have given early humans an evolutionary advantage: gathering food, hunting . . . Or: on a more original note, Johannsson considers childbirth in the same light. While female chimps are able to give birth alone, for many reasons, female humans are not. Midwives (of some sort) are an essential part of human evolution and – once again – the ability to communicate information would have been an essential aid to their activities.
Give a Neanderthal a haircut and a suit, and they’d be able to pass among us fairly easily. They weren’t knuckle-dragging, club-wielding savages; they probably spoke some form of proto-language.
Throughout The Dawn of Language, Johannsson stresses the general helpfulness of humankind: we help each other on a micro-level as members or pseudo-members of particular families, but also on a macro-level, allowing the formation of institutions and large organisations. (At times, when discussing this topic, Johannsson sounds like Kropotkin, who pointed out the importance of mutual aid in his consideration of Darwin’s thinking.) Once again, Johannsson is meticulous in presenting the evidence: he notes the relatively common incidents of infanticide and murder among chimps, and their relative infrequency in human society. In the best sense of the word, language is the result of our humanity.
Ultimately, all this is speculation. After all, there’s very little in prehistory that can be definitively proven. But Johannsson’s speculation is consistently well-informed and interesting. The Dawn of Language also functions as a good exercislinge in mental gymnastics: he makes you think about things that you’ve probably never thought about. (Which is kind of odd. After all, each of us can claim to be an expert in languages: we use them every day.) Certainly, of all the Great Simplifiers, he’s probably the most likeable.
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The Dawn of Language: The story of how we came to talk by Sverker Johansson Translated from the Swedish by Frank Perry | MacLehose Press, Quercus Publishing | 2 September 2021 | £25.00 HB ISBN 9781529411393
Frank Perry‘s translations have won the Swedish Academy Prize for the introduction of Swedish literature abroad and the prize of the Writer’s Guild of Sweden for drama translation. His translation of Lina Wolff’s Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs was the 2017 winner of the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize, and was awarded the triennial Bernard Shaw Prize for best literary translation from Swedish.
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