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.

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