A History of Language, Paperback Book
5 out of 5 (1 rating)


It is tempting to take the tremendous rate of contemporary linguistic change for granted.

What is required, in fact, is a radical reinterpretation of what language is.

Steven Roger Fischer begins his book with an examination of the modes of communication used by dolphins, birds and primates as the first contexts in which the concept of 'language' might be applied.

As he charts the history of language from the times of Homo erectus, Neanderthal humans and Homo sapiens through to the nineteenth century, when the science of linguistics was developed, Fischer analyses the emergence of language as a science and its development as a written form.

He considers the rise of pidgin, creole, jargon and slang, as well as the effects radio and television, propaganda, advertising and the media are having on language today.

Looking to the future, he shows how electronic media will continue to reshape and re-invent the ways in which we communicate.


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This is a fascinating introduction to the history of language that requires no previous knowledge of the subject. Starting with the simplest definition of language as medium of information exchange, Fischer briefly deals with what is known about animal communication before considering present – by now 20 year old – research into language capabilities of early hominids that can be deduced from bones and tools and associated social development. Whereas animal–human communication so far demonstrated is <i>indexial</i>, i.e. associative relationship between object and signed word, human vocal language is <i>symbolic</i> beginning with <i>homo erectus</i> perhaps already 900 000 years ago (44ff).Discussed then (46ff) are 4 basic <u><i>language universals</i></u> (one of these is a minimum of the 3 basic vowels [i], [a], [u] – (comparable to the primary colours); additional vowels will be positioned between these)About <u><i>syntax</i></u> (rules governing the connection of words in phrases) (51): <i>“Before syntax one cannot speak of articulate human language.”</i> This was commencing ca. 1 million years ago, approaching completion ca. 400,000 to 300,000 years ago, and evolving simultaneously with anatomical changes to process complex language and nerves that control breathing and larynx.By ca. 14,000 years ago <i>Homo sapiens</i> had differentiated thousands of languages grouped into hundreds of language families (Ch. III).<u>Written language</u> (Ch. IV) can be grouped into <u>three classes</u>: <i>logographic</i> (e.g. Chinese), <i>syllabic</i> and <i>alphabetic</i>; these are not stages in a model of evolution but each one adapted to the needs of a particular language. It seems at present that scripts (graphic art) reproducing speech have emerged only once, more than 5000 years ago among an Afro-Asiatic people (105).Writing began with <i>pictograms</i> (the name of the object prompts a pronunciation). From this ‘pre-writing’ a first class of actual writing a <i>logographic</i> script (glyphs stand for objects, ideas or sounds) emerged to reproduce speech more faithfully and efficiently. If in time new needs arise, then <i>syllabic</i> solutions are found. (108) (<i>syllabic:</i> glyphs that have only <i>syllabophonetic</i> value (86); such needs can emerge language-internally (Egypt) or externally when the logographic script is borrowed by an unrelated language (Japanese <i>kana</i>). (108) <i>“Scripts do not ‘evolve’: they are purposefully changed by human agents to improve the quality of speech reproduction (sound) and semantic transmission (sense).”</i> (108)Greatest changes seem to occur when an ill-fitting system is adapted by speakers of another language: West Semitic speakers of the Levant modified syllabic glyphs into consonantal symbols to reproduce better the consonantal Semitic languages. (108) The Greeks found the need to introduced vowels into the Phoenician consonantal alphabet and developed a full <i>alphabetic</i> script where the glyphs stand for individual vowels and consonants (letters), this, it seems, the only time in history. In all classes, script remains inextricably linked to speech: <i>‘there is no writing that can convey the full range of human thought that is not phonetic’</i> (109)There is no ‘primitive language’ and no ‘primitive script’: each script is adequate for a particular language and a given period of time (110). Writing affects speech as much as speech affects writing (110).All writing systems are imperfect, English particularly so, as it uses an inadequate alphabetic script; e.g. it fails to reproduce pitch, stress, length, …; a single letter like <u><i>a</i></u> can stand for 6 different sounds or no sound at all (110).There follow chapters on <u>Lineages</u>, <u>Linguistics</u>, <u>Society and Language</u> and possible <u>future developments</u> which I only glanced at and to which I may come back. Like all science, this account of the history of language will be modified and refined in future studies; the author mentions when views are not generally accepted. The writing is clear and concise, going into just enough detail but not overloaded by it, a pleasure to read. (VI-15)

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