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Janson, Tore (2002) Speak: A Short History of Languages. Oxford University Press, viii+290pp, hardback ISBN 0-19-829978-8, $19.95.
Miguel Rodriguez-Mondonedo, Department of Linguistics, University of Connecticut
This book is an overview of the historical development of the languages from the point of view of the social and political evolution of their speakers. Given the author's amazing capability to synthesize, thirteen small chapters are enough for such enterprise. In a very illuminating way, the author explains the connections between the birth, the expansion and the extinction of a language and the fate of the community of its speakers. Janson wants to solve the question ''What is a language?'' by looking into the History; as we will see, he ends up with a very limited answer. The book is addressed to a broad audience, but it presents a final section with detailed suggestions for further reading.
Firstly, I will summarize each chapter, then I will comment on some key aspect of the book.
The first chapter is dedicated to the question of the language origin. Janson presents the main assumptions about that, with no further speculation. We suppose that he assumes that a historical method cannot illuminate a pre-historical fact (after all, the chapter name is ''Languages before History''). By comparing the pre-historical situation with the present Khoisan languages, the author concludes that 40,000 years ago there were more languages than now, with few speakers living in small groups. This poses the question about how only a few languages grew, displacing the others.
The second chapter deals with the large language groups. The author focuses in Indo-European and Bantu languages. The main conclusion (following a Colin Renfrew's hypothesis) is that the introduction of farming and livestock is key for the expansion of this languages; that means that it is not the war or the conquests what helps to expand Indo-European or Bantu (in the beginning, they did not have strong states or administrative apparatus), but the fact that these peoples developed farming and livestock and this cultural achievement allowed them to expand, taking lands and farms from hunters and gatherers. This caused that some languages had much more speakers that others; at some point, these large languages were fragmented becoming many smaller ones.
The third chapter is about the birth of writing. According to Janson, writing is a key element for the standardization of a language and for its ability to survive. A writing system is possible when a strong state takes care of the political and cultural life. Janson entertains the hypothesis that the necessity to collect taxes is a main motivation for the apparition of a writing system. He analyses the emergence of hieroglyphic and cuneiform writing; he also talks about logographic and syllabic writing systems, predicting that they will not be abandoned in favor of the alphabet.
The fourth chapter studies the formidable impact of Greek culture in Western tradition. The explosion of new ideas in Greece leaves a perdurable trace in the vocabulary of many Western languages. Janson states: ''The Greeks partly created our way of understanding the world, and what they created lives on our language'' (p. 74). What is remarkable about this language is that it maintained its prestige even after the political falling of the Greek state, mainly because of its cultural importance. This raises the question about the equality of languages; the author accepts that ''all languages can fulfill all functions'' (p.74) but he warns us: ''Languages are like men in that not all can do everything'' (p. 75).
The next chapter is about Latin and the Roman Empire. The expansion of Rome was also the expansion of Latin, displacing aboriginal languages, especially because Romans established an efficient administration in the occupied territories; in addition, Latin was closely linked to the new Christian religion, acting as international language during several centuries. This poses the question about if it is a good or bad thing that a language disappears; as Janson says: ''The answer is not obvious'' (p. 98), because the preference for a new language, although it is an irretrievable loss, is often the preference for a more powerful tool to communicate and to progress.
The sixth chapter explains the fragmentation of Latin in Romance languages. This is key chapter to understand Janson's conception of language, because he starts with this question: ''When is something a language, and at which point does it become another language?'' (p. 108) His answer is: ''the decisive factor is what people think about their language'' (p. 109). To illustrate his point, the author use the case of Dante, who thought that he was writing in popular Latin (''Latium vulgare''), not in Italian; according to Janson, since it was what Dante believed, it is true: there is not Italian until a clear conscience of its use arises, normally, under the pressure of the political power. The history of French language also illustrates this point, according with the author.
The seventh chapter shows the expansion of Germanic and the emergence of Modern English. As in the case of Italian or French, there is not English until a strong state claims that and it has the capability to enforce such claim, often using a well-established name and a writing system. At this point, I must point out that Janson does not ignore that there are several languages without state, name or writing system, but it seems that he has the feeling that these languages are, somehow, ''weak languages'', with less possibilities to survive. As in the previous cases, a prestigious Literature in English was crucial for the process of becoming conscious of being speaking a new language.
The following chapter explains the role played by the languages in the formation of Nation-States in Europe. As Janson says: ''The new national languages did not just spring up spontaneously, they were deliberately created'' (p. 167). Gradually, Latin is replaced as a language for science and culture in favor of the new national languages: French, English, Spanish, or German. Given the political preponderance of France, French becomes an international language for a while, competing with the others languages, however, just as the correspondent Nation-States were competing with each other. The question of what is a language becomes a political one, to the extreme that ''the new languages were the creation of the masters, not of the people'' (p.183)
The ninth chapter deals with the expansion of some European languages all over the world. This produced an enormous transformation in the languages spoken in the territories occupied by Europeans. The most dramatic change was the invasion of Spanish: in the 16th century, 50 million people spoke several hundred languages, now 300 million speak only Spanish in such territories. In addition to Spanish, English and Portuguese replaced native languages in America and other continents, causing the disappearing or the retreating of almost 1000 languages.
The tenth chapter is called ''How languages are born -- or made''. Janson analyses the birth of Pidgins and Creoles; according to him, only ''a few Creoles are unquestionably languages of their own'' (p. 210) because in other cases the speakers do not recognize their Creole as a new language but as ''English'' or ''French''. Janson is loyal to his criterion: ''the speakers have the last word'' (p. 210). As it is well known, Creoles share some grammatical properties, despite of the fact that they have very different origin; some researchers have proposed that it reflects a common Universal Grammar. Janson does not accept this idea, mainly because ''those grammatical devices are not particularly frequent in other languages'' (p. 213); however, he does not provide a final solution. He also discuss the case of Afrikaans, the Boers' language (asking if it is a Dutch dialect or a Creole), and the case of Norway, with two different written languages, both recognized as Norwegian by its speakers---therefore, ''one language with two written norms'' (p. 224), following the author's criterion. According to Janson, a language has to have: (i) a name, (ii) a political base (not an absolute requirement, however), and (iii) recognition by its speakers, disregarding the fact that it has similarities with other languages.
The next chapter studies how languages disappear. The author analyses the cases of Gaelic in Scotland, some languages in Papua New Guinea (retreating because of Tok Pisin), in Botswana (where Setswana displaces other languages), etc. The expansion of school education and other services, the growth of business and communication, all of them in the dominant language, are among the reasons why languages disappear. According to the author, given the many advantages to shift from a small language to a larger one, such process will not end in the future; on the contrary, he predicts a massive extinction of languages in the next centuries.
The twelfth chapter is called ''The Heyday of English''. Here, the author raises the question about why English has become the second language for a vast majority of non-English speakers. It has to do with the privileged position of the United States after the Second World War (which diminished the possibilities of other European languages) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (which eliminated Russian as an option for international language). English was already widely extended by the British Empire during centuries; in the last twenty years, however, it has become the exclusive language of science, technology, and finances. It is not easy to know if such position will continue in the future.
The final chapter is dedicated to speculate about the future of languages. Under the assumption that no great calamity will happen, Janson predicts for the next 200 years that two or three thousand languages will disappears, and that English will diminished its importance, although it will be necessary to learn English since most of current English cultural production is not translated to another language. In 2000 years, he predicts that no language will be very close to its current form, because they will undergo strong changes, although they will include many elements from the present languages; if the number of contacts among people increased in the right proportion, it is not impossible that all human beings will speak the same language. In two millions years, it is very likely that the human language will disappear; it can happen because the human specie becomes extinct or because it evolves to another specie with some more advanced capability or just silent.
Now I will make some comments. This is a book written to popularize some keys ideas about the history of languages. I must say that it accomplishes its task in a very elegant and living way. To read Janson's book was an enjoyable activity, mainly because his amazing ability to put together historical data and illuminating comments about languages. However it has some severe limitations I want to point out now.
Firstly, I want to stress its most important achievement: the book poses a very convincing argument in favor of the idea that historical languages are not linguistic notions but political ones. Languages, in a historic perspective, are not determined by some structural features, but by a political decision made by its speakers to call ''the language X'' to their speech, disregarding any similarity or difference with other ways of talking. In such process, writing systems and State actions are fundamental. This conception has some painful consequences -- and, to my understanding, only a way to avoid them.
We all know, and Janson acknowledges, that there are languages without States or writing systems. Following Janson's criterion (although he did not state it in this way), we can consider these languages non-historical ones, or, more accurately, pre-historical ones. If this is true, it is an odd consequence, because such languages are contemporary to the others and we will be in the strange position of qualifying some of our contemporaries as out of the History -- what is, or should be, a contradiction. This can serve as a criterion to establish an undesirable hierarchy of languages. However, Janson seems to think something like that: ''When it comes to the Khoisan Languages [without native name, state or writing system?] this whole line of reasoning is without meaning for them until the Westernized way of thinking about languages has been taken over into their culture'' (p.24). That clearly means that there is even not possible to define a language outside the Western world. This is a conclusion that we cannot accept.
In addition, there are some full languages whose users never will form a State (and maybe never will pursuit the creation of a writing system): the Sign Languages of deaf people. The only time Janson speaks about them, he says: ''All humans (excepting deaf people and some with other serious handicaps) speak at least one language'' (p. 109). Although it is very clear that the author is talking about spoken languages, the exclusion of Sign Languages deserves a detailed explanation, given the overwhelming evidence that they function as any other natural language. It is unfortunate that the author had decided to stay silent in this case. It seems that, for Janson, Sign Languages are not historical languages also.
I believed that what confuses Janson is his narrow (but very classic) conception of History. It is traditional to assume that History begins with writing systems (that is, right after the formation of States). However, this exclude from History not only 40 000 years of human development but millions of people that are, in the present days, outside the benefits of a writing system (or even a State). A new conception of History is necessary.
Janson's conception of languages, however, has the advantage to disclose the artificiality of the standard beliefs about languages: English, German or Spanish are not linguistic products, but political ones -- a historic product, in Janson's terms. Therefore, they cannot be proper objects of study for Linguistics. What is a linguistic object is the language as a cognitive product; only from this perspective we cannot exclude anybody from being a language user. Of course, Janson is really far from this conclusion.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Miguel Rodriguez-Mondonedo is a doctoral student in the Department of Linguistics, at the University of Connecticut. He is considering the origin of language as a topic of research, but he also has strong interest in syntax,phonetics, and philosophy of language.