The Heretics of De’Ath

By Howard of Warwick.

During a debate in the monastery of De’Ath’s Dingle, Brother Ambrosius drops dead. Moments later, Brother Athan enters the room, accusing Brother Hermitage of murdering Ambrosius simply because he was the only monk present at the time. The Abbot, who is a scary bastard, sends Hermitage off to Lincoln, who meets Wat the Weaver on the way, who takes an interest in the confused monk’s business. Hermitage is sent back to the monastery with Brother Simon, who has been appointed the King’s Investigator by the bishop’s man, Nicodemus, mainly because Simon an imperceptive, pointless busybody. When the trio return to De’Ath’s Dingle, they find the builders about which no one seems to know anything have arrived, and the overweight Earl of Northumbria is up to something on behalf of one of his younger sons. King Harold turns up just in time to sort things out before he pops off to Hastings to smack William of Normandy – and we all know how that went.

The writing is not the best. It’s a little like writing down a sketch for an idea for a story, but the notes have become the story. There seem to be too many people shouting at odd moments, which makes no sense. There are other occasions where the narrative jumps from one part to another as if Howard of Warwick put his pen down for a few days, but forgot that he needed to finish of the previous scene or write some transitional section. He also has characters saying, “What?” noticeably often even though this is only occasionally a pun on Wat’s name.

I’ll try the next volume or two in the series to see whether the quality of the writing improves, but can’t overly recommend the book.


The Truth about Language

By Michael C. Corballis.

I don’t like the title. It’s a click-bait title implying that we’ve all been being misled about language. It should’ve been something like The Origins of Language according to Modern Theories. There’s no truth here because we don’t really know the truth about the origins of language. Chomsky’s idea that it suddenly sprang into existence without being subject to evolutionary processes seems deeply improbable. I think it highly unlikely that about 50,000 years ago, some bloke went from “Ugh, ugh, um, ugh” one day to “I think I’ll go down the garden centre this afternoon and buy some geraniums” the next; but perhaps it did.

Corballis’s proposal, which is not exactly original, is that language has its origins in gesture. Well, I’m giving that one a two-fingered salute myself. The main issue of his hypothesis remains the gap between expressing ideas through gestures and expressing them verbally. At best, the jaw, being another movable component of the body, is just as likely to be controlled by the same part of the brain that controls the arms, legs and head. In fact, in many people, it flaps quite independently of the brain.

Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar comes in for some flak (no, not “flack”; the word is German; actually, it’s an abbreviation for Fliegerabwehrkanone in which there’s not a single “c” to be seen), but this seems to stem from a certain amount of misunderstanding of the idea as if someone discovered some of the odder American Indian languages and wondered how on Earth their grammars could stem from a set of universal principles on which all languages are allegedly based. Any proper linguist will also look for cross-linguistic evidence that a particular aspect of the grammar of the language is not a one-off.

Although I may have dealt in historical linguistics myself, which can often progress no further than idle speculation, the origin of language is not something which to me has any real value. It may be of interest to evolutionary biologists or psychologists such as Corballis, but it contributes nothing to the understanding of language as it was and is, and is likely to remain till the next iteration of our species evolves.

The Truth about Language also has a repetitive feel to it as if it’s a series of lectures for undergraduates with short attention spans written up as a book. It does manage to hold the reader’s interest without outstaying its welcome (waggish asides about students are appreciated), but ultimately, it isn’t convincing because the gap between gestures and language generated by grammatical principles is never spanned beyond some reasonable suppositions.