A Nonfiction Dud in Review: How Language Began

April 5, 2021 Uncategorized 8

A Nonfiction Dud in Review: How Language BeganTitle: How Language Began: The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention
Author: Daniel L. Everett
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads
Rating:one-star

Summary: This book was a mess of inaccuracies, poorly supported arguments, and logical leaps.

I was excited to read this book about the biological and grammatical origins of language, so it’s with great disappointment that I say it’s only redeeming quality was that complaining about it with my science nonfiction book club was delightful. The author lost a bunch of book club members very early with some basic genomics errors. He describes the genome as including DNA and RNA, credits histones with gene activation, and acts as though the debate about whether DNA or RNA came first is undecided. Worse, he never even uses the info presented in his genomics primer. This was an entirely unforced error. He didn’t need to talk about this field he clearly doesn’t understand to make his argument! That gave a lot of us in my book club pause, because it made us question his credibility in areas where we don’t have the knowledge to factcheck. There were some complaints about the accuracy of his description of the fossil record as well, but that’s one of the topics outside my knowledge base.

Out of the 10ish people at my book club, three of us made it through this. By the end, I was only still reading because I wanted a complete picture on which to base this review. The whole book made no sense. Neither the paragraphs nor the chapters felt logically organized. Sometimes the sentences didn’t even flow logically. The arguments the author was making were sometimes clearly illogical. At other times, they were merely unconvincing. Sometimes I felt like his main rhetorical device for convincing the reader was to wear us out through repetition.

Although the author found it necessary to give a genomics primer, there were times that he introduced linguistics concepts without enough explanation. It often seemed that the author was arguing with someone who wasn’t present, rather than trying to convince the reader. The way he presented the position he was arguing against made it seem inconceivable anyone could possibly hold the ridiculous positions he was attributing to them. For example, he claims some people think a single mutation was responsible for human speech. I can’t imagine that anyone truly thinks such a complex trait can be explained so simply. It made me doubt that he was representing the positions he was arguing against fairly. He also sometimes repeats ideas or large sections verbatim within a few pages.

Obviously, I think you should pass on this one. I considered DNFing it and after having slogged through it for over a week, I have only regrets. On the bright side, I can pass along to you this delightfully gossipy Chronicle of Higher Ed article about the author’s feud with Noam Chomsky and the reasons he was banned from visiting the Pirahã to continue studying their language. It was far more enjoyable than the book.

8 Responses to “A Nonfiction Dud in Review: How Language Began”

  1. Katherine

    >Out of the 10ish people at my book club, three of us made it through this.

    Yikes, but also, I think this would generally be a great metric for how good a book is; better than star ratings!

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