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Review of  Speak

Reviewer: Michael D Moss
Book Title: Speak
Book Author: Tore Janson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 15.2039

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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

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 non-specialists.

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; Index.


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

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

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

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).