- Speak: A short history of languages by Tore Janson
This is a small-sized (5 × 7 in.) bound book by a Swedish scholar specializing in Latin and African languages who has published a number of books and articles in the field of linguistics. ‘History is affected by languages, and languages are a part of history’, says the author in the preface to the book, the subject of which is ‘the role of languages in history’ (vii).
The book’s coverage is heavily Eurocentric. Seven of the thirteen chapters deal predominantly with Indo-European languages—Indo-European languages in general (Ch. 2), Greek (Ch. 4), Latin (Ch. 5), the Italic (or Romance) branch (Ch. 6), the Germanic branch (Ch. 7), the era of national languages in Europe (Ch. 8), European languages spread by emigrants into the rest of the world (Ch. 9), and the global success of the English language since World War II (Ch. 12).
The remaining five chapters take up topics concerning languages in general. In Ch. 1, ‘Languages before history’, Janson speculates about the nature of language origin. The literature on this subject has reached such proportions that J’s account can be only a very brief summary at best. As a result, some of his statements turn out to be insufficiently qualified, for example, ‘the ability to use words may have developed gradually around the time when stone tools came into use, between one and two million years ago’ (10), or somewhat misleading, for example, ‘most of these [Australian aboriginal languages] are very simple as far as the sound systems are concerned . . . but their systems for inflecting words are very advanced’ (14)—surely by ‘very advanced’ J does not mean more highly developed; from the example given, he appears to refer to a morphologically complex word of a language of the polysynthetic type.
Two chapters (10 and 11) take up the questions of language birth and death. In Ch. 10, which focuses on the formation of creoles, J also makes the point that for political or historical reasons even mutually intelligible languages can come to be considered separate (and therefore ‘new’) languages. How and why some languages are replaced by other languages and die is the subject of Ch. 11. Here J uses examples such as Scottish Gaelic and the small tribal or village languages of New Guinea or Africa. He concludes that the increasingly rapid demise of hundreds of such languages is inevitable.
The last chapter, ‘And then?’ (267–82) is interesting if unusual. J ventures to predict what may happen to languages, and to English in particular, two hundred, two thousand, and two million years into the future. Even the nearest date poses a problem if one considers how difficult it would have been two centuries ago to predict the contemporary language situation. And as for the situation two million years from now? Predicting that far into the future defies even the most resourceful imagination.
This book is easy to read and makes use of technical linguistic terms sparingly. It would serve particularly well readers who lack knowledge of linguistics. It is well produced although an occasional error has slipped through, for example, the reference to ‘-s in the third person plural [of English]’ (218). To conclude the book, J offers suggestions for further reading on a chapter-by-chapter basis.