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How Language Began: The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention
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How Language Began: The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention

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How Language Began: The Story Of Humanity's Greatest Invention

Mankind has a distinct advantage over other terrestrial species: we talk to one another. But how did we acquire the most advanced form of communication on Earth? Daniel L. Everett, a “bombshell” linguist and “instant folk hero” (Tom Wolfe, Harper’s), provides in this sweeping history a comprehensive examination of the evolutionary story of language, from the earliest speaking attempts by hominids to the more than seven thousand languages that exist today. Although fossil hunters and linguists have brought us closer to unearthing the true origins of language, Daniel Everett’s discoveries have upended the contemporary linguistic world, reverberating far beyond academic circles. While conducting field research in the Amazonian rainforest, Everett came across an age-old language nestled amongst a tribe of hunter-gatherers. Challenging long-standing principles in the field, Everett now builds on the theory that language was not intrinsic to our species. In order to truly understand its origins, a more interdisciplinary approach is needed—one that accounts as much for our propensity for culture as it does our biological makeup. Language began, Everett theorizes, with Homo Erectus, who catalyzed words through culturally invented symbols. Early humans, as their brains grew larger, incorporated gestures and voice intonations to communicate, all of which built on each other for 60,000 generations. Tracing crucial shifts and developments across the ages, Everett breaks down every component of speech, from harnessing control of more than a hundred respiratory muscles in the larynx and diaphragm, to mastering the use of the tongue. Moving on from biology to execution, Everett explores why elements such as grammar and storytelling are not nearly as critical to language as one might suspect. In the book’s final section, Cultural Evolution of Language, Everett takes the ever-debated “language gap” to task, delving into the chasm that separates “us” from “the animals.” He approaches the subject from various disciplines, including anthropology, neuroscience, and archaeology, to reveal that it was social complexity, as well as cultural, physiological, and neurological superiority, that allowed humans—with our clawless hands, breakable bones, and soft skin—to become the apex predator. How Language Began ultimately explains what we know, what we’d like to know, and what we likely never will know about how humans went from mere communication to language. Based on nearly forty years of fieldwork, Everett debunks long-held theories by some of history’s greatest thinkers, from Plato to Chomsky. The result is an invaluable study of what makes us human.

Liveright

Liveright

Daniel L. Everett

Daniel L. Everett

No of Pages
352
Publisher
Liveright
ISBN-13
9780871407955
Awards
None
Book Format
Hardcover
Published Date
Nov 7, 2017

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Author InterviewInterview with Daniel L. Everett 

Interview Date : Feb 15, 2018

Please sign up to listen to the full interview of at least 40 min.

Interview Summary

All animals communicate, yet only humans have language. With this sophisticated verbal instrument, we convey our inventions, progress and accumulate knowledge, an innate human faculty.

In How Language Began, Daniel L Everett, a linguistics professor with decades of field research experience, argues that, while there are no speech fossils, artefacts of sufficient complexity reveal that language is not such a recent development in human history. Shaped by evolution and invention over hundreds of thousands of years, language materializes communication by incorporating symbols that have culturally agreed meaning and culturally accepted form.

In this engrossing book, Everett suggests that “language began with Homo erectus more than one million years ago, and has existed for 60,000 generations,” unlike other scholars who maintain that it emerged with Homo sapiens about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. Additionally, Everett dissents from traditional views and argues that what is perceived as a “language instinct” is, in fact, a culturally acquired invention.

Everett has spent more than 30 years in the Amazon rainforest studying a remote tribe called the Pirahã, a hunter-gatherer community of only several hundred people living in the tradition of their ancestors. Using this invaluable research to develop his broader theory of language, Everett emphasizes that early symbols of language were developed by common experience, which provided the necessary impetus for accumulating knowledge and advancing culture. In other words, culture and language are inseparable. 

Key Topics

  • Why do animals communicate but only humans have language?
  • What are the origins and nature of language?
  • How does the brain make language possible?
  • +

Table of Contents

List of Figures xi
Acknowledgments xiii
Preface xiv
Introduction 1
Part One: The First Hominins
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About Daniel L. Everett

Daniel L. (Dan) Everett holds a ScD and a Masters of Linguistics from the Universidade Estadual in Campinas (UNICAMP), both based upon years of field research among the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon jungle. He taught as an instructor and later Assistant Professor at UNICAMP, 1981-1986, until leaving Brazil to return to the USA. He next was appointed full professor of linguistics and anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, where he also chaired the Department of Linguistics until 1999. At that time, Dan moved to the Amazon to live the majority of the next three years in the jungle among the Pirahãs. He left the jungle when the University of Manchester, England, offered him the position of Professor of Phonetics and Phonology. Following several years in England, Dr. Everett spent the 2005-2006 academic year as a visiting scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He went on to chair the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Illinois State University from 2006 - 2010. Since 2010 he has been the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University. Everett has lived in the Amazonian jungle for nearly eight out of the last thirty years, studying more than a dozen little or never previously studied Amazonian languages. He has published more than 100 scientific articles as sole author and eleven books. In 2008 his book, Don't Sleep There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, was published in eight languages, becoming a best-seller in English, Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, and German. That book was selected by National Public Radio in the US as one of the best books of 2009. It was also selected by Blackwells booksellers in the UK as one of the best books in the UK for 2009. Everett's newest book, Language: The Cultural Tool, was published in 2012. It has been reviewed in various publications, published in three languages, and was a NY Times Editor's Choice. Dan has appeared numerous times on the BBC and NPR, and has been profiled in newspapers around the world. A documentary about his life and work, The Grammar of Happiness, was released in 2012. Essential Media of Australia has signed an option to produce a large budget dramatic movie based on Don't Sleep There are Snakes. Dr. Everett is currently writing a book titled Dark Matter of the Mind: How Unseen Forces Shape our Words and World, for the University of Chicago Press and has begun work on How Language Began, a book on language evolution for the general public.

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Testimonials

“When I first became interested in cultural evolution, cognitive revolutionaries would say that Noam Chomsky had proved that an innate language acquisition device was the key to linguistics. Daniel Everett is a leader of the counterrevolution that is putting culture and cultural evolution back at the center of linguistics, and cognition more generally, where I think it belongs. How Language Began is an accessible account of the case for a culture-centered theory of language.”

Peter RichersonDistinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis

“Very few books on the biological and cultural origin of humanity can be ranked as classics. I believe that Daniel L. Everett’s How Language Began will be one of them.”

Edward O. WilsonUniversity Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

“Provocative and ambitious. . . . Applying semantics, linguistic theory, cultural history, and popular culture, [Everett] makes a convincing case for the multimodal nature of language--a phenomenon that engages 'the whole person--intellectual emotions, hands, mouth, tongue, brain.' . . . This volume will be of interest to linguists, cultural critics, and anthropologists as well as informed readers interested in the evolution of language.”

Herbert E. ShapiroLibrary Journal

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