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This review is taken from PN Review 69, Volume 16 Number 1, September - October 1989.

A HUMAN INVENTION G.A. Wells, The origin of language: aspects of the discussion from Condillac to Wundt (La Salle, Open Court)

The purpose of this book is to defend the view that language is a human invention. Invention in the sense between discovery and contrivance: a resource originally stumbled upon by accident but then perceived to answer a need previously unfilled. Not all of language at once, of course, but bit by bit. It would be better to speak of origins.

The history of the question is not edifying. Enlightenment philosophers were constrained to present the view in ways that would not conflict with notions derived from Genesis. Well into the nineteenth century the origin of human language was held to be recent and supernatural. Comparative philologists who thought language 'natural' supposed it to have developed in accordance with laws immutable as nature's. Its origin was embarrassing, a problem fortunately intractable since no evidence could be produced, and the question was dropped from academic debate. Human curiosity was not thereby extinguished but emergent sciences like psychology and anthropology had to devise new approaches. Only lately has the subject been readmitted to rational discussion. The absence of a chronological framework like Darwinism found in geology still hinders liaison with other historical studies.

How then can the question be approached? The habits of other animals, especially those closest to man, are inspected for clues to early and effective means of communication. Fossil finds establish evolutionary changes in cranial capacity and the shape of organs used for speech. Observations are made of the alternative methods adopted when people are ...


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