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The Seeds of Speech by Jean Aitchison
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The Seeds of Speech

by Jean Aitchison

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A pleasurable and elementary primer on etymology. Aitchison reviews the most recent thinking on the evolutionary changes that allowed man the physiognomy to form a language, how language probably began, and how language itself has evolved and adapted.

A primer written for the general public, the book does a nice job of identifying what should be obvious but often isn’t (there is no language so difficult that a non-native speaker can’t learn it, language is good for establishing social roles but often inadequate at providing information (emotions, spatial information, some others.)

Although there are many languages and they differ widely, Aitchison also does a nice job of drawing on linguists, archeologist and psychologists to show how the fundamental, underlying developmental patterns are often similar or follow recognizable courses.
1 vote SomeGuyInVirginia | Jan 19, 2011 |
According to its author, The Seeds of Speech was written as a basic introduction summarising modern research into the origins of human language. Unfortunately, while it is at times an interesting read, I find myself unable to wholeheartedly recommend it for the following reasons.

First is the prose. Aitchinson certainly has a tin ear for someone writing about language. She favors a single sentence pattern, involving the use of short clauses, never varying in length, linked together with commas, which she constantly employs, over and over, paragraph after paragraph, page after page.

Now, imagine reading a whole book of sentences like the one in the paragraph above. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting.

Then there is the quality of the research. Aitchinson essentially set out to write a book-length literature review, but good literature reviews actually summarise the literature instead of merely stating, “Author A wrote B about Subject C. Author D disagrees with him,” which is what Aitchinson does all too frequently, without really explaining what Subject C, let alone Topic B, are about. In other words, simply knowing that Chomsky has written about sentence structure does readers no good unless they also know what he wrote about it. And as a corollary, if I pick up an introductory text on linguistics, I want quotations from actual linguists on the points in question, not passages from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or other popular fiction.

Finally, there are the chapter “summaries,” which, judging from the disjointed wording and disjunction between the actual content of the chapter and the content of the summary, appear to have been compiled with the eponymous MS Word function. I don’t necessarily regret reading The Sounds of Speech, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’d have learned more about basic linguistics by reading relevant Wikipedia articles instead.
  Trismegistus | Sep 5, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0521785715, Paperback)

Human language is a weird communication system: it has more in common with birdsong than with the calls of other primates. Jean Aitchison explores the origins of human language and how it has evolved. She likens the search to a vast prehistoric jigsaw puzzle, in which numerous fragments of evidence must be assembled. Such evidence is pieced together from a mixture of linguistic and nonlinguistic sources such as evolution theory, archaeology, psychology, and anthropology. This is an accessible and wide-ranging introduction to the origins and evolution of human language.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:27:29 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Human language is a weird communication system: it has more in common with birdsong than with the calls of other primates. In this clear and non-technical overview, Jean Aitchison explores why it evolved and how it developed. She likens the search to a vast prehistoric jigsaw puzzle, in which numerous fragments of evidence must be assembled, some external to language, such as evolution theory and animal communication; others internal, including child language, pidgins and creoles, and language change. She explains why language is so strange, outlines recent theories about its origin, and discusses possible paths of evolution. Finally, she considers what holds all languages together, and prevents them from becoming unlearnably different from one another.… (more)

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