LINGUIST List 11.205

Tue Feb 1 2000

Disc: Fischer Book on Language History

Editor for this issue: Helen Dry <>


  1. Richard Sproat, Fischer book

Message 1: Fischer book

Date: Tue, 1 Feb 2000 23:36:22 -0500
From: Richard Sproat <>
Subject: Fischer book

I thought this review of Fischer's "A History of Language", 
which is in the current issue of the Economist, might be
of general interest.

If anyone has read this book, I'd be interested in 
hearing what they think of it.

- --------------------------------------------------------


And the word is God

 By Steven Roger Fischer.
 Reaktion Books; 240 pages; $29.95 and

"LANGUAGE defines our lives," declares
Steven Roger Fischer at the end of this
delightful and unexpectedly accessible
book. "It heralds our existence, it
formulates our thoughts, it enables all we
are and have." No doubt a linguist is
bound to talk up his subject a bit. But,
after such a virtuoso tour of the
linguistic world, it is hard not to agree.

Mr Fischer's book begins with animal
language: can animals "talk" in any
meaningful sense? Fans of Dr Doolittle
will be heartened to hear of Koko, a
gorilla whose knowledge of more than 500
signs allows her a fair line in jokes. Her
trainer told her that a new baby-a young
male gorilla-was arriving. When Koko saw
Michael, who weighed 50 pounds, she
signed, "Wrong. Old". She can describe a
past incident and tell a lie, skills once
thought to be exclusively human.

Only humans, though, develop the physical
capability to make the complex sounds of
speech. Indeed, in a pair of chapters on
the early development of language, Mr
Fischer describes the two clues that
linguists look for: physical attributes,
such as the development of the larynx
which takes place in children at around a
year old; and evidence of intricate social
organisation, which surely needed some
shared grammar rather than brief sounds.

For millennia, such clues are almost all
that the linguistic historian has to go
on. The sort of "time travel" that other
disciplines can enjoy is impossible until
the birth of writing. But it is still
possible to try to reconstruct "language
families", to see how early groups of
languages evolved.

The main direction of research recently
has been to emphasise the multiplicity of
early languages. There was no "Ur"
language: no day when, as the Book of
Genesis puts it, "the whole earth was of
one language and of one speech." Instead,
languages either bred new "daughter"
languages-Indo-European, earth's
"linguistic super-family" has more than
100 of them-or died out as more robust
tongues advanced. Historically, observes
Mr Fischer, it is languages that are
replaced, not people: the human genetic
profile in Europe has not altered
significantly in over 50,000 years.

It was their study of the origins of the
written word that provided linguists with
their surest view of the way that language
has evolved. Mr Fischer's own expertise
lies in this area: he deciphered the
rongorongo script of Easter Island,
something that looks more like a design
for children's wallpaper than a way to
convey information. He explains how,
despite the amazing durability of the
Egyptians' "logographic" script (it
survived almost unchanged for more than 36
centuries), alphabetic script has emerged
as the only one used to write previously
scriptless languages. It, in turn, became
a success only when the Greeks had the
clever idea of devising vowels to fill in
the gaps between the consonants that had
until then been adequate for recording
Semitic tongues.

Writing, Mr Fischer points out, has
extraordinary power, greatest of all in
modern literate societies. A written
language influences its spoken version
just as much as the other way around. But
writing is also an imperfect way of
capturing speech: not only may one letter
stand for many sounds (the English a
represents half a dozen) but it fails to
capture stress (think of "attribute" or
"desert"), pitch ("Yes?" or "Yes!") and
tone. Certainly it does not capture the
endless inflections of "cool", possibly
imported into America by African slaves
using the West African word kul to mean
"excellent" and now, says Mr Fischer, the
most widely borrowed adjective on earth.

Looking to the future, Mr Fischer assumes
that the pace of language extinction will
accelerate, driven by electronic
technology. Within a generation, he says,
the influence of Spanish (distributed
through Chilean television) has begun to
wipe out the local tongue of the Easter

Only Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and
English-the world's most widely spoken
second language-have the sheer numbers of
speakers to make it probable that they
will survive for at least the next 300
years. "Smaller, rich societies (such as
Japan, the German-speaking nations,
France, Italy and others) might be able to
retain their tongues as local vestiges for
several hundred years more, for cultural
reasons." Certainly a single language for
all humanity would bring huge economic
benefits-and perhaps do more than anything
else to unite the world's quarrelling
peoples. But the world will be a poorer
place if Mr Fischer is proved right and
the old Genesis myth of a single language
for all finally comes true.
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