Why We Talk: The evolutionary origins of language

by Jean-Louis Dessalles, translated by James Grieve (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007): 380pp, £44.49, ISBN 978 0 19 927623 3.

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

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I have a keen interest in the development of language, so I was eagerly looking forward to reading this book. I found its appearance inviting, and the blurb further whetted my appetite:

Jean-Louis Dessalles explores the co-evolutionary paths of biology, culture, and the great human edifice of language … He provides searchingly original answers to such fundamental paradoxes as whether we acquired our great gift in order to talk or so as to be able to think. This challenging and original account will appeal to all those interested in the origins of language and the evolution of human behaviour.

That's me, all right!


But I was to be swiftly disillusioned, because I simply couldn't make head or tail of the text. I don't have either the existing knowledge or the will to acquire it in order to understand what is meant by information along the lines of: 'The means we have at our disposal for conceptualizing statements are not limited to mapping the segmenting of theme and reference point.'

I gloomily realised I was tackling something way, way beyond my ability.


But I persisted, and when I came across an explanation of the mirror paradox – the one that goes 'Why do mirrors invert left-right but not top-bottom?' my spirits rose afresh. After all, this had been elegantly explained back in the early 1960s by Martin Gardner in a couple of sentences in The Ambidextrous Universe.

So I embarked on the explanation of it in this book, in the hope that I'd be able to cope with something I already had a fair working knowledge of … but by the time I had read one-and-a-half pages of in-depth analysis, my head was spinning.

So I gave up. For all I know, this book is brilliantly written, translated and edited, and may well be of considerable value in the right hands. But those hands are not mine.

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