Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How Humans made Words, and Words made us Human

The story of language from the earliest grunts to Twitter and beyond.  
By J.P. Davidson, Michael Joseph, 445pp.

As books become easier to write and easier to sell, each book becomes harder to sell. Publishers are finding one of the most reliable strategies is the tie-in between a book and another medium, especially TV.  Public broadcasters can't rely so much on the celebrity endorsement power of TV book clubs and the like, but they can anticipate that audience that watches public TV overlaps pretty strongly with habitual book-buyers.

It also overlaps pretty well with those people who enjoy language as an art, and may toy with questions about the philosophy and history of language.  

John Davidson, is an anthropologist and long-time BBC documentary producer of travel and exploration programs hosted by personalities like Michael Palin and Stephen Fry. This book is the “companion” to accompany a new BBC TV documentary series, presented by the over-eloquent Stephen Fry.

Like a TV show, the book sets out to be serious in an entertaining way. It tries not to be boring and doesn't demand too much extended concentration. It is packed with little gee-whizz facts and personal anecdotes that hold attention. As a book, this takes us back to the days before television or radio, when families used to read encyclopaedias and non-fiction miscellanies for entertainment and self-improvement.  Now we can get lost in a maze of hyperlinks on Wikipedia, launched from any conceivable Internet query.

Davidson and Fry fossick like gentlemen explorers across a vast terrain of human language,  beginning with the most primitive indications of language in animals, and the extent to which the human body and brain are shaped for language.

They examine how language is used to build our identities as individuals and as members of communities, and how language is harnessed for purposes of political nationalism. 

This book is itself a solid object you can hold in your hand and admire on a shelf, nicely designed and built to last, as a classy hardback on good quality paper, generously illustrated and with an attractive slip-cover.  An entertaining and handsome book about words not the last place you would expect to find the name of the printer Gutenberg misspelt as "Gutenburg", among other proofing errors.