Panel of the Unicorn (Panel of the Black Bear) at Lascaux, created 17,000 years ago

The beginning and end of conversation

A catholic sift through humankind’s advent and our eventual, formative babbling and beyond.


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the beginning was a word. What was it and what others followed? Steven Mithen’s Language Puzzle seeks to solve this conundrum by rolling out the long-range guns: pre-historic archaeology, anthropology, primatology and human evolution. The search for his linguistic quarry proves to be a catholic sift through humankind’s advent and our eventual, formative babbling and beyond.

From the outset, “taxonomic uncertainty” clouds the emergence and extinction of early hominin species. Some things we know: humans and chimpanzees last shared an ancestor 6 million years ago; in common with us, they use tools (e.g. sticks to bring termites out of mounds), walk on two legs and have strong social ties, as shown in co-operating, playing, making friends and foes. Like other apes and monkeys, they grunt, bark and screech, but lack a syntax beyond “imperative” alarm calls. 

Because the spoken word leaves no physical traces, archaeologists examine proxy indicators — Stone Age tools, carvings and cave paintings — to consider whether language played a part in their creation. The earliest artefacts and debitage date from 2.8 million years ago: these hand-axes, stones and flakes were fashioned by the earliest human species, Homo habilis. 

Such tools made the killing and quick butchery of an antelope possible, with the lucky hunter feeding on still-warm meat and marrow. In the fullness of time, a protein-rich and varied diet would advance an expansion in human brain size. 

The Language Puzzle: How We Talked Our Way Out of the Stone Age, Steven Mithen (Profile Books, £25)

How did our early ancestors steal a march on the anthropoids around them? To begin with, by coming down from the trees and venturing onto the savannah. In doing so, they freed their arms, which made them shorter, the pelvis narrowed and childbirth became more difficult. Nevertheless, bipedalism smoothed the path for Homo erectus. An evolutionary footnote: with noses no longer close to the ground, they knew fewer odours. 

There is no consensus about when language began. Estimates vary from two million to less than a hundred thousand years ago. Mithen plants his flag on the axis at the more recent end, around 150 millennia ago, whilst being more agnostic about the origins of “iconic” words. More advanced than grunts, these are onomatopoeic or sense-influenced utterances for objects and phenomena: man, woman, bird, food, sleep. 

Co-operation between two hungry hunters, and their likelihood of success, could be enhanced by language. Knowledge of a prey’s iconic name was quite likely to be known to both; but what if a number of species gathered at the waterhole (deer, giraffe, warthog)? How about communicating the idea of stealth? Praxis took place at the limits of language. That night, near a fire, the human hunters, fed and satiated, talk of the quick and the dead; later, a story may ensue. 

Homo sapiens were preceded by Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis, both of whom used language at a level where the link between object-in-the-world and word (i.e. referent and symbol) is arbitrary: a word’s sound is simply a brute fact. Its origin lies beyond the etymologist’s reach. Once a word is coined, used and established, it will give rise to semantically and phonologically-related coinages: flicker→ flame, flash, flare. Words of a feather … 

We also inherited the beginnings of grammaticalisation, the process by which a word of one category is co-opted to do a job for another. An example from Old English: lic, meaning shape or body, fell out of use but re-emerged in a new role as a suffix to create adverbs from adjectives, as in “boldly”. 

With a legacy of onomatopoeia, icons, arbitrary words and the tool-kit syntax, to which abstract ideas and metaphor were added, our upright, by now large-brained cereal-cultivators became speakers of developing languages that are the foundations of what we speak (and write) today. 

Mithen writes knowledgeably, drawing on an array of classical, modern and contemporary viewpoints and field research (ranging from Scotland to Jordan). All in all, The Language Puzzle is a notable piece of scholarship that deserves to take a prominent place in the literature of the origins and evolution of language. Returning to the ur-word, in humankind’s “blooming, buzzing confusion”, it is “ma” or “mama”. Naturally.

Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York, Ross Perlin (Grove Press, £12.99)

For a pastoral, nomadic tribe in Siberia the word dongur means “a domestic, male reindeer in its third year and first mating season, but not ready to mate”. But Tofa, a moribund Turkic language, is spoken by fewer than 100 people: when its remaining, elderly speakers die, so will the language. The spoken repository of knowledge yoked to the herders’ way of life, their culture and nomenclature will be lost.

In Nepal, a Tibeto-Burman language called Seke is spoken. There glaciers are melting, landslides are frequent and farmers are looking to distant horizons. The Seke people are leaving their high-altitude villages for New York City. Of its total 700 speakers, 50 live in a single housing block in Brooklyn. Before migration, the nearest village took two days to reach by horse; now it is two stops on the subway. 

The Himalayan diaspora watches Bollywood films and ends up speaking a Tibetan-Nepali-Hindi-English pidgin, nicknamed Ramaluk, “half goat, half sheep”. Ross Perlin, the author of Language City, works as co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance to compile dictionaries, analyse grammar and transcribe recorded conversations. Will Seke survive as a living language? If its young speakers remain in Nepal, perhaps. Those in the USA may move on and, without a diasporic critical mass, it will perish within a lifetime.

Yiddish is quietly bullish by comparison. At its peak in 1920s America, a million-plus immigrants spoke the fusion of Hebrew, German and Slavic languages, but in Europe the number of speakers plummeted following pogroms and the Holocaust. Boris came to Manhattan via Bessarabia, Moscow and Israel. He revived Forverts, a newspaper with a loyal readership, akin to a fanzine in which Yiddish is the subject of adoration. Enthusiasts attend its social events. Supporters it has, but practitioners are really what it needs. 

This account, filled with “shlepped”, “hustler” and “badasses”, made me feel as if I had been force-migrated into an episode of Seinfeld. Perlin can do the native New Yorker routine as well as the serious stuff but, strangely, there is not a single Jewish joke. That warm, wise humour would have been a shot of arak to this reader. 

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