27.3557, Review: Anthro Ling; Hist Ling: Barnard (2016)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-27-3557. Fri Sep 09 2016. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 27.3557, Review: Anthro Ling; Hist Ling: Barnard (2016)

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Date: Fri, 09 Sep 2016 14:40:13
From: Matteo Tarsi [matteo.tarsi88 at gmail.com]
Subject: Language in Prehistory

Discuss this message:

Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/27/27-959.html

AUTHOR: Alan  Barnard
TITLE: Language in Prehistory
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Matteo Tarsi, University of Iceland

Reviews Editor: Robert A. Cote


“Language in Prehistory” by Alan Barnard is the third book of a trilogy
dedicated to different aspects of human anthropology in prehistory. Whereas
the first two books are dedicated to social anthropology (“Social anthropology
and human origins”) and symbolic thought (“Genesis of symbolic thought”), the
third book, “Language in Prehistory”, is specifically devoted to the questions
of when, how, and why language rose among homo sapiens. 

The book is divided into eight chapters plus a useful glossary in which more
difficult and technical terms are explained. One of the main features of the
book is its rich vocabulary, which draws upon different fields of scholarship,
including anthropology, linguistics, and genetics, which makes the detailed
glossary a welcome addiction. In the individual chapters, Barnard, whose
specialty is the study of hunter-gatherer populations of Southern Africa,
examines what pre-literate populations of today can tell us about our common
prehistory. In Chapter 1, “Introduction”, Barnard sets the main points of his
discussion. He advocates a polygenetic view of language origin (to be possibly
put in direct relation to the mutation of gene FOXP2) and sees prehistory as
dominated by hunter-gatherer populations speaking several languages, each with
its fully-developed grammar. In Chapter 2, “Population diversity and language
diversity”, Barnard addresses a number of issues, five in total, to each of
which a subchapter is specifically dedicated. These issues (hunter-gatherer
ethnography, signing vs. talking, what was before language and how did
language rise, dispersal of Africa and peopling of the Americas) are of
capital importance for the author’s argumentation, for they set the ground for
the subsequent discussion. Chapter 3, “What did prehistoric people do?”,
contains a rather lengthy excursus on ethnography of hunter-gatherers and
their diurnal and nocturnal activities, as well as theoretical discussion on
the concept of ‘hunter-gatherer’ and origins of language, leaving just the
last few pages to the actual question addressed in the chapter’s title. In
this chapter’s last subchapter, “Back to reality”, Barnard anticipates the
following discussion (cf. Chapters 5 and 6) about the importance of cognition
on the one side and mythological thinking, viz. the construction of a
meaningful metaphorical narrative, on the other among hunter-gatherers, and
therefore in the human species. In Chapter 4, “How did prehistoric people
think?”, Barnard tries to shed light on the nature of and problems related to
cognition, as well as the cultural responses and models related to it. In
Chapter 5, “Narratives of the every-day”, Barnard addresses the importance of
every-day narratives in the first half of the chapter, where he stresses the
importance of ritual in language evolution. In the second half of the chapter,
Barnard addresses then a somewhat different and larger issue, namely that of
multilingualism among pre-literate, i.e. hunter-gatherer, populations. This
chapter, alongside Chapter 6, constitutes the core of Barnard’s
anthropological view of the rise and subsequent evolution of language. Chapter
6, “Mythological narratives”, deals with the importance of myth in society, in
particular in relation to the book’s main question, i.e. how and for which
purpose(s) did language rise? Barnard’s advocates the view that myth has
always been a fundamental part of human narratives and that it testifies of
the fact that language has never been solely used for practical communicative
purposes. He suggests that, possibly, metaphorical thinking has always existed
since language began to be as we know it now, i.e. with its grammar,
vocabulary etc., a tenet which he then repeats in Chapter 8. While always
having the linguistic issue  in the background, Barnard’s analysis greatly
rests upon anthropology and genetics, fields on which he draws his conclusions
in Chapter 7, “Sexual selection and linguistic evolution” and Chapter 8,
“Conclusions and thoughts for the future”. To sum up, the book’s main
assumption is that language, more than being a useful mean of communication
for practical everyday purposes, was mainly aimed at telling stories, i.e. at
creating a mythological narrative. Barnard’s thesis is predicated on the fact
that pre-literate populations, i.e. hunter-gatherers, more often than not,
have a grammatically rich and complex language, whose function must therefore
be sought in competences only mankind has. One of these is surely symbolic
thought, to which Barnard had already dedicated the second book of the series,
“Genesis of symbolic thought”. Moreover, Barnard notices that, according to
his field-work experience, hunter-gatherers usually master more languages than
their mother tongue. This feature, he argues, must have also been one of our
prehistoric forefathers, for they, as hunter-gatherers, must have lived in
small groups, whose composition might as well have entailed dialect mixture
and levelling. In Barnard’s view, there must have been many more languages
during prehistoric times than today. Different languages have then evolved by
alternating creolization and pidginization processes, i.e. by becoming simpler
and grow complex again, being this a necessary prerequisite for speakers of
different language varieties to come together and understand each other.
Barnard briefly touches upon the mutation of gene FOXP2, as possibly one of
the elements involved in the evolution of language. In Chapter 8, “Conclusions
and thoughts for the future”, Barnard summarizes the main points which have
come up in his analysis. These are 1) linguistic universals show that language
must have evolved before the spreading of humankind across the globe, i.e.
prior to the settlement of Australia (between 60000 and 48000 BP); 2) since we
know that homo sapiens sapiens spread from eastern Africa or, possibly, from
southern Africa we can assume that language began there; 3) languages grow and
differentiate through creolization and pidginization processes. 4)
multilingualism was the norm in order for neighbouring groups to understand
each other; 5) symbolic culture, through the work of poets and the creation of
myths, is the linguistic counterpart of material culture, being linguistic
sophistication valued than to the same extent as today; 6) mythology and
symbolism are a very important part of human life and thought; and 7) language
has been used for mythological, symbolic and methaphorical purposes ever since
it arose in humankind.


At slightly more than one hundred pages, “Language in Prehistory” has surely a
very ambitious objective, namely surveying the probable causes and dynamics of
the rising and evolution of language. In addition, the book, whose author is
neither a linguist nor a geneticist, briefly touches upon a variety of fields
which are so broad and complex that no attempt is made to introduce the reader
to them. Being these maybe the main shortcomings of such a publication,
“Language in Prehistory” turns out to be a very enjoyable and stimulating
reading. Barnard, who is far from claiming any exhaustive knowledge nor
competence on every detail of the various scholarly fields he mentions, has
written a book, which is mainly aimed at a large audience of interested
readers, mainly anthropologists but, possibly, also linguists which resort to
anthropology and genetics for their research. The glossary at the end of the
book supplies the reader with brief and handy explanations of terms which
could be less readily understandable to him, making the book quite accessible
also to laymen.

Far from being a highly specialistic reading, “Language in Prehistory” could
however be useful not just to the interested reader, but also to those doing
research on emerging language varieties. In fact, the main merit of the book
is that of suggesting interesting points of reflection, in particular for what
concerns the rise of new language varieties through dialect contact among
non-literate populations.

Alan Barnard has written an interesting piece of literature, by drawing from
his own scholarly field and integrating it with insights from genetics and
linguistics. In a nutshell, Barnard  juxtaposes broad and diverse fields of
scholarship by suggesting that synergy between these would hopefully lead to
interesting and meaningful discoveries.


I am a Ph.D-student in Icelandic Linguistics at the University of Iceland,
Reykjavík. My research focuses on how loanwords and native words were used in
Old and Middle Icelandic. Among my other research interests are: history of
linguistics (especially in the 18th century, etymology, loanword studies and
language planning and policy studies.


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