LINGUIST List 15.2039

Fri Jul 9 2004

Review: Historical Ling/Socioling: Janson (2003)

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  1. Michael Moss, Speak: A Short History of Languages

Message 1: Speak: A Short History of Languages

Date: Fri, 9 Jul 2004 14:32:55 +0200
From: Michael Moss <>
Subject: Speak: A Short History of Languages


AUTHOR: Janson, Tore
TITLE: Speak
SUBTITLE: A Short History of Languages
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2003
Announced at

Michael Moss, University of Gdansk


The blurbs on the back cover and the information on the internet about
this book say that it is about the history of language. The
implication is that this will be a book about where language came from
and how it has 'developed' over the centuries. But this is not
entirely true. I think the book has a slightly narrower scope, but
actually one that is more interesting. The book, for the most part,
investigates the history of modern languages and looks into the
question of the development of and interplay between single and
multi-state languages. In connection with the rise of one language and
the fall of another, Janson also discusses pidgins and creoles as well
as language 'birth' an 'death', but this is not the central topic of
the book. Overall the book provides an interesting discussion of a
very large topic in a way that should be readily accessible to

The book is broken up into 13 chapters followed by suggestions for
further reading on each chapter and an index. The chapters are: 1.
Languages Before History; 2. The Large Language Groups; 3. Writing and
the Egyptians; 4. Greek and the Greeks; 5. Latin and the Romans;
6. Did Dante Write in Italian?; 7. From Germanic to Modern English;
8. The Era of National Languages; 9. Languages of the World; 10. How
Languages are Born - or Made; 11. How Languages Disappear; 12. The
Heyday of English; 13. And then?; Suggestions for Further Reading;


It seems to me that one of the central questions being analyzed in
this book is ''How are modern languages different from the languages
of pre-history?''. This is then followed by several supporting
questions like: What can we know about pre-historical languages?; Why
do some languages become powerful and others not?; When does a way of
speaking or a dialect become a language, and further, what is really
the difference between a language and a dialect? In trying to answer
these questions, Janson looks at a wide range of data, including
information about the Khoisan languages spoken by the San people, the
Bantu languages, Chinese and Egyptian. He also investigates the
influence of size (number of speakers) on language development as well
as writing and different forms of writing.

The first chapter introduces the problem of how to research the
pre-history of language. Various questions are discussed such as: When
do we think that humans started to use language?, Why did language
evolve?; What were ancient languages like? These questions lead Janson
into a discussion of what language looks like when it is spoken by a
relatively small group of people and there is no written tradition. As
a modern day example of an approximately similar model, he chooses the
Khoisan languages of Southern and Eastern Africa. One interesting
aspect of 'small' languages that Janson picks up on is that very often
in small language communities that have no written tradition, the
speakers have no clearly defined name for the language. This is an
important contrast with the 'large' languages that Janson discusses in
further chapters.

Next we move to the issue of what Janson calls 'large'
languages. These are languages that are spoken by populations of
people larger than several thousand and cover larger, established
geographical regions (non-migrant societies). The first part of this
chapter is a very brief introduction to Indo-European studies. So
short, however, that for anyone past an introductory level linguistics
course, it will be too short to be of any real interest. And
unfortunately, an error has crept into table 2.3 where several Slavic
words for 'sun' are compared and Russian is cited as 'solnche', which
seems to indicate that the final consonant is an English 'ch' and not
the actual pronunciation which is 'ts'. The discussion of
Indo-European languages and cultures leads to the question of why it
is that Indo-European langauges spread as far as they did, despite the
fact that the people who spoke them were not 'warriors' and also did
not have a written tradition. Although never directly, Janson seems to
be in favor of Renfrew's (1987) hypothesis that agriculture and the
changes it brought to social structure are the answer.

In this chapter, Janson makes another point, although it is never
truly brought to the fore. When describing small language communities,
Janson points out that such languages tend to change rapidly. The lack
of writing and migrant life-style mean that many words change from
generation to generation. Janson points out, however, that while it
initially looks as though large language communities are 'immune' to
this kind of change, in fact they simply slow the process down. When
talking about historical linguistics that try and reach into the
distant past of up to and beyond ten thousand years ago, he says:
''For earlier periods very little is certain, and those who make
statements about relationships between languages stretching further
back than ten thousand years (some people do) should not be taken very
seriously, for there is no way to know about such matters. This is
because after such a long time almost all words in a language have
either been replaced or have changed literally beyond recognition''
(p. 54). This is an important theme that returns throughout the book.

This chapter also contains a short introduction to the Bantu
languages, providing a brief description of the nominal
morphology. The purpose is to illustrate that languages vary in many
different ways. And, since many who read the book will be familiar
with Indo-European structures, Janson wants to show how this variety
can be expressed.

The next three chapters (3-5) concern themselves with the question of
how writing and language power are connected. Chapter 3 relates the
development of writing with the development of more complex societies.
Janson supports the idea that writing was invented in order to keep
track of taxes and receipts. Regardless, the development of writing
seems to have come at the same time as the development of the State,
which Janson also feels is a very important relation. This is followed
by a short discussion of the development of the Egyptian writing
system and its complexities. Chapter 5 is dedicated to two ideas:
1. the success of Greek due to the alphabet; 2. Greek culture was
based on Greek writing not the other way around. Greek had an alphabet
that also reflected vowel sounds this meant that it was easier to
learn (than hieroglyphics) and easier to use (the use of vowels meant
that there was no guessing as to how a word should be pronounced). As
a result, Janson points out, the Greek alphabet made literature,
philosophy and science was accessible to a much wider audience than it
had ever been before. Janson points out that the success of Greek is
illustrated in its continued use in the countries of Alexander's
empire even after the empire collapsed. Chapter 5 investigates the
relation between the importance of language in a society and its
success as a conquering state. Janson focuses on the fact that Roman
society placed great emphasis on one's ability to use language
eloquently. Thus, when they invaded a new territory, those who were
able to learn to speak Latin well were the first to come into
favor. Since the empire had a vast state structure that needed people
to keep it running, those who could speak Latin were also able to get
work and social status. In these three chapters, Janson presents
information about the influence of language in the development of
three very important cultures. In each case the role of language was
different, but central to the success of the State.

Chapters 6 and 7 look at the relationship between language and State
and whether we can define one concept in terms of the other. In
chapter 6, Janson states that , to a great extent, language is a
social agreement: ''It is not possible to decide when a language
changes to another one just by studying the sounds or the words or any
other aspect of the linguistic system. It is a matter that is decided
by the speakers themselves, not settled in any objective way''
(p. 110). This really addresses the question when is a language a
language and not just a dialect. And Janson's answer is: when the
speakers decide it is. He puts forward the idea that, in fact, the
new languages (such as French, Italian, Spanish) arose because they
were written and used for artistic and political goals: ''Thus the new
languages were primarily vehicles for literature, but they were also
in some measure expressions of political power'' (p. 123).

Chapter 7 looks at a different situation, that of English. The
interesting difference is that English did not have to define itself
from its neighbors because it was contained on an island. In
describing the development of English, Janson goes through a brief
history of English. Again, it seems that this is actually only vaguely
related to the real point to the chapter which is stated
above. English is slightly different from other languages because its
geographical borders are so well defined. On the other hand, Janson
glosses over the fact that while an island, half of England was also
occupied by the Danes which influenced English in many
ways. Nonetheless, Janson's proposal that language is a social
agreement still holds. From at least the tenth century the language of
the island has been recognized as English. Janson closes the chapter
with a discussion of the relation between language and state and its
importance in the development of Europe.

Chapters 8 and 9 continue this train of thought. Chapter 8
investigates the development of national identity in Europe and the
role of language in this process. 'Local' literature and education in
'regional' languages played key roles in the development of national
identities. As these developed the local languages became more and
more 'capable' of dealing with the problems that were traditionally
left to Latin. Janson concludes the chapter with the statement that
the languages of Europe, although powerful, are different in nature
from Latin. Where Latin was used as one of the tools to expand and
enforce the growth of the empire, in Europe ''Linguistic unities
gradually became more and more coterminous with political unities''
(p. 183).

Chapter 9 then looks at the particularly characteristic 'modern'
development of very large languages spoken by millions of people over
extended geographical areas. Janson essentially sees this as the
result of further development of national identity and the resulting
growth of empires. The 'exportation' of Spanish to South America,
English to North America, and Portuguese around the globe is seen by
Janson as a 'reversal' for the development of many of the world's
languages: ''Now, after five centuries, it can be seen clearly that
the voyages over the seas were the beginning of the end for al very
small languages, and the start of the era of big languages''
(p. 200). While this chapter explores the effects of the expansion
European languages into other cultures, it does not look at the rise
of large languages in 'local' or 'neighboring' regions. Russian has
grown to cover an enormous geographical region. Mandarine Chinese is
spoken by 874 million people (mentioned in passing later on page
260). Janson seems to argue that the growth of 'big' languages is
purely due to European colonization, but this not entirely the case.

Chapters 10 and 11 address the problem of how languages are 'made' and
then how they disappear. Chapter 10 is, thus, an introduction to
Pidgins and Creoles, using the Pidgins and further Creoles developed
among slaves as an illustration. The question posed rhetorically by
Janson then is ''are these languages?'' By his own definition, (a
language is a language when its speakers declare it to be), many of
them, thus, are not. This often occurs because the speakers themselves
feel that their way of speech is inferior. On the other hand, Janson
clearly states that, in 'linguistic terms', they are. He walks a fine
line in trying to support his own argument and 'common sense': ''In
sum, then, a few Creoles are unquestionably languages of their own,
but many others are regarded as separate languages mainly by
linguists, while the speakers see the matter differently. The view
proposed here is that in such situations the speakers have the last
word, as the language form belongs to them'' (p. 210).

Janson uses the example of Creoles and 'languagehood' to jump into a
discussion of other similar questions about the choice between dialect
and language. For instance, he proposes that if Norwegians were to
decide, due to the two written standards, that, in fact, there were
two different languages, then this would be true. Afrikaans is shown
to be an example of a language that has been debated to be both a
Creole and a dialect. Janson concludes the chapter with three
conclusions about what it means to 'be' a languge: 1.a language has to
have a name; 2. it is helpful to have a political base; and
3. similarity or dissimilarity to other languages seems to play a very
minor role in language 'creation'.

In answer to the question: why do languages disappear?, Janson
replies: Politics. ''If the speakers almost always think it is a bad
thing that their language dies, are there other people who want to
murder it? The answer is yes, in many cases at least. In all states
there are governments, and the great majority of governments believe
it is an advantage to the country if there are few ethnic groups and
few languages'' (p. 248).

And true to his word, every example he has given of a language
disappearing has been attributed to political clout. Perhaps it would
be astute to remember that not all social decisions are based on
political pressure from a nasty political power as implied in the
quote above. It seems that Janson wants to see too much political
power here. In further paragraphs he implies that political drive for
power will continue to drive small languages into oblivion: ''Probably
it does not matter very much what researchers do or do not do. Under
the social and economic conditions that prevail today languages will
continue to disappear'' (p. 250). The conclusion seems to be that
greedy governments are leading to the wholesale extermination of small
languages. However, while it may be more visible today, it seems
highly unlikely that these people gain no personal benefit by adopting
a different language. Janson does mention the fact that parents see a
vested interest in teaching their children a more esteemed language
and in adopting one themselves. But the implication of a political
greed and evil intent on the side of the esteemed language itself is
slightly exaggerated.

The final chapters 12 and 13 talk about English as an international
language and ask what will replace it? Janson's main point here is
that, although English is very popular and widely used today, its time
will come to an end. What language will then be used? Of course, this
question has no answer for we cannot know that until it actually
happens. Janson recognizes this and discusses various possibilities
for the short term (several hundred years). Then, for the two thousand
year threshold, Janson predicts that language will look very much like
it does today. Janson fianlly takes us to the distant future of two
million years and, after pessimistically predicting that a species
that has meddled so much with its biosystem has little chance of
survival, states that there is little likelihood that language will
exist anyway.


This book is appropriate for undergraduate work. It introduces many
concepts and synthesizes them into an interesting whole. The book is
targeted more towards the general reader, by which I mean that it is
not a 'technical' work. The claims made are general and need not be
backed up by large sets of data. Sometimes large topics such as
Indo-European studies, Pidgins and Creoles and others are covered in a
very short space. This may make it more challenging for a person with
no linguistic background. There seem to be hints of
'anti-globalization' in the background at points (specifically chapter
11), which are perhaps unnecessary. Finally, Janson makes many
observations about how languages develop and change, but no real
conclusions are drawn. Perhaps, however, this is due to the nature of
the topic itself.


Renfrew, Colin (1987) Archaeology and Language, London: Cape.


The reviewer is an assistant professor at the University of Gdansk.
Research and teaching interests include Syntax and Historical
Linguistics in the Chomskyan generative model (Government and Binding
and Minimalist Program).
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