Review of SPEECH! How Language Made Us Human by Simon Prentis

SPEECH! is an extraordinary book. Not just because of its range — Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and Yuval Harari’s Sapiens have covered similar territory — but because of its unique perspective. Both of those books were written to show how and why human history has turned out the way it has, and to whose advantage. Yet in Speech!, Simon Prentis explores the origin and ongoing consequences of the very thing that made history possible — language itself — and succeeds magnificently.

He succeeds because, unlike Sapiens, the story he has to tell doesn’t rely on assumptions about the influence of some mysterious ‘Cognitive Revolution’ — or a ‘Scientific Revolution’ driven by some sudden awareness of our own ignorance. Instead, from the get-go the book sets out to show, in clear and engaging prose, how these things all stem from small yet significant changes to previously existing practices. And at the heart of this argument is his claim that our ability to speak arose naturally from animal communication thanks to a simple yet transformative trick — a trick that led to everything else that makes us human, including our big brains.

Prentis is not an academic. That said, he’s evidently no slouch in the schooling stakes: after being accepted to study chemistry at Oxford he pivoted 180 degrees to an arts degree, ultimately graduating with an MA in English Language and Literature before moving to Japan to pursue his interest in Aikido — a martial art in which he went on to earn a black belt. Once in Japan, he set about the task of mastering the language to the point that he ended up as a professional translator, and on his return to the UK was judged fluent enough to be recruited by NHK to present a regular Japanese-language satellite news programme from London.

His professional record is equally impressive: in addition to his work as an interpreter for prestigious national institutions like the British Museum and the Royal Academy, his starry list of celebrity clients boasts the famously fastidious Stanley Kubrick, the notoriously demanding Frank Zappa (who called Prentis the only translator he could completely trust) and Yoko Ono, a woman not known to suffer fools gladly. And lest his association with Paul McCartney be thought less illustrious, it turns out his main contribution to Macca’s act was — apart from teaching him Japanese — to devise a system of live subtitling for his concerts, something never before done in Japanese. This is clearly a man with a very practical understanding of language.

It’s this mix of a scientific background, practiced literary skills and an endearingly down-to-earth approach that he brings to the book, which is the fruit of some 30 years’ meditation about language. Perhaps precisely because he is not an academic, his take on the secret of what he calls ‘the trick of speech’ is refreshingly different, eschewing the standard Chomsky model in favour of a more pragmatic look at the core nature of language, which he identifies as being digital. He is not alone in this view; big beasts in the linguistic jungle such as Ray Jackendoff, Robbins Burling and Michael Studdert-Kennedy have also spoken about language in this way. But he is the first to put this understanding at the heart of the explanation.

It’s a bold move: but given the utter inability of the current paradigm to explain the emergence of language in our species — a failure acknowledged by Noam Chomsky himself — a new idea is not only welcome, but positively overdue. Prentis’ case is quite disarming in its simplicity, and yet so convincingly argued that it’s hard to find fault with it. Ultimately there may be no more proof that he’s right (though the circumstantial evidence he cites is intriguing) but it makes a lot more sense than the idea that we just woke up one day with the ability to parse grammar, or to think symbolically — which is the essence of the accepted academic position.

The book is worth the price of entry for this alone, but there’s more. A lot more. For Prentis is not just interested in solving the puzzle of the origin of language: he has bigger fish to fry. As implied by the book’s subtitle, “How Language Made Us Human”, he is just as interested in the effects of language — particularly the ways it has shaped history by driving us into what he describes as the ‘traps’ of culture, religion and identity. What shines through is a heartfelt desire to skewer the all-too-human tendency to assume that your language, your culture and your religion must be the best there is — an inbuilt sense of exceptionalism that he painstakingly shows is inevitably triggered once it becomes possible to talk to one another. Indeed the first half of the book is devoted to demonstrating just how absurd — and yet how natural — is our tendency to identify with whatever culture we’ve been brought up in.

At the half-way point he permits himself an apparent diversion, talking up the merits of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll as antidotes to the damaging illusions fostered by language. And yet here too, his intent is serious, and the reader finds themselves swept along by his mellifluous prose as he deftly analyses what so draws us to each of these potential pleasures — all the while plying us with a constant stream of informative tidbits that keep the writing fresh and fascinating. Who knew, for example, that the vibrator was invented by a Victorian doctor to save himself the strain of applying the manual pressure required to bring his female patients to ‘hysterical paroxysm’ as a cure for anxiety, irritability and insomnia. Prentis did.

But it’s the final three chapters that are the main grist to his mill. He takes us on a whistle-stop review of exactly how language helped us to climb out from the pit of superstition and ignorance that passed for knowledge in the pre-scientific era — and how, with the assistance of information technology (beginning with writing, but ratcheting up in turn through printing, broadcast media and the internet) knowledge has an inbuilt centripetal tendency that drives us to deliver ever greater access. It is this internal logic that ultimately makes his argument more persuasive than the fact-focussed, historical perspective of Sapiens: rather than slicing up history into grand staging points whose origins are never properly explained, Prentis convincingly shows not only how language contributed to these, but even made them inevitable.

We humans cannot live by information and knowledge alone, however; without wisdom to temper it, we run the risk of becoming too clever for our own good. The final chapter is devoted to where language has yet to take us — how we might properly apply the lessons and the logic of democracy on the world stage to address and resolve the issues that now confront us all (principally climate change, resource management and economic disparity). Raising the spirit of Martin Luther King to the global level, he is scathing of the international community’s failure to live up to its obligations under the UN Charter, exposing in calm and measured tones not only why we have no alternative but to learn to work together, but precisely how we might use our existing agreements to bring about the changes required.

It is no doubt this that has attracted the endorsement of Yoko Ono, but despite any sense that his vision is simply ‘Imagine’ writ large, Prentis is no Pollyanna. The same clear eye that dissects the mechanism of speech is fully aware that there is every chance we will not choose the rational path to international cooperation, but simply descend into political bickering that will prevent us taking the steps we need to save ourselves. Indeed, as he wryly observes, that is the most likely solution to the Fermi paradox: the reason we haven’t found any other civilisations in the universe may simply be that all civilisations end up destroying themselves once they have the secrets of the atom and the gene— if only through pollution and greed. But insofar as it offers as a path to follow and a mechanism for doing so, his logic is impeccable.

Lastly, and by no means least of all, another winning aspect of the book is its bright, lucid and conversational style. Although Prentis takes on a vast array of topics, sometimes in quite stunning detail, he wears his learning lightly — his writing is never dull or forbidding. On the contrary, he eagerly and enthusiastically takes you with him on a whimsical yet compelling journey of discovery, so much so that at times it almost feels like an intellectual thriller. James Lovelock, an early reader of the book, said that he so enjoyed reading it he couldn’t put it down until he’d finished it — praising its attractive style, and saying that it should be widely read. That’s just one man’s opinion. But I’m not going to disagree with him. Read it and see for yourself.

SPEECH! How Language Made Us Human is published by Hogsaloft and available on Amazon




Born and brought up in the UK, Jee Mandayo has a long-standing interest in language, evolutionary psychology and anthropology. He is a keen amateur illusionist.

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Jee Mandayo

Jee Mandayo

Born and brought up in the UK, Jee Mandayo has a long-standing interest in language, evolutionary psychology and anthropology. He is a keen amateur illusionist.

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