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Review of  Speak

Reviewer: Miguel Rodríguez-Mondoñedo
Book Title: Speak
Book Author: Tore Janson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 13.3357

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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

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

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

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

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

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.
Miguel Rodriguez-Mondonedo is a doctoral student in the Department
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.