Title: The Dawn of Language: How we came to talk

Author: Sverker Johansson; Translation by Frank Perry

Publisher: Mac Lehose Press Quercus/Hachette Australia, 2021; RRP: $24.99 (pbk)

Sverker Johansson, Doctor of Philosophy in Physics and Master of Philosophy in Linguistics, was born 1961 in Lund, southern Sweden. He is a senior advisor at Dalarna University, has conducted research at CERN in Switzerland and participated in EVOLANG, the leading international conference for research on the origins and evolution of language, since 2006.

Frank Perry’s translations have won the Swedish Academy Prize for the introduction of Swedish literature abroad and the prize of the Writers Guild of Sweden for drama translation.

Johansson is clearly an accomplished user of language: The Dawn of Language is a readable, fascinating, and informative book. Frank Perry has produced a very credible English edition, although I have no idea what the Swedish version is like as I have no Swedish language. And, according to Johansson, languages are best learnt in childhood.  

A key structural approach in the book is the presentation of a hypothesis and then a close examination of relevant material, looking at both sides of the theory, to support or debunk the claim. In the closing pages of the book, Johansson admits that this book is a less academic version of an earlier work, one with more detail and attention to explaining the references. At 400-plus pages, leaving out some esoteric detail of this subject probably has made the book more broadly appealing.

The Dawn of Language is not a rainy Sunday afternoon escape from bleakness and boredom. It is a dense book, full of information, and slippery arguments regarding the origin of language; I say slippery as there does not seem to be a lot of solid data. Johansson has, however, made the analysis of what there is into an engaging story. Apparently, humans love a story, love a good gossip, going over the whys and wherefores of living. Johansson even postulates that this aspect of humanness  contributed to the evolution and development of language.

Passing the ‘chimp test’: delving into the birth of language with Sverker Johansson

steven poole @ the guardian, 2021

Ironically, the lack of definitive evidence surrounding the question of how we come to talk, with language, makes this book possible. One might consider the lack of evidence as thoughtless by the first users of language not to have recorded the incident and for subsequent generations not to have preserved these facts. Linguistic researchers, such as Johansson, are left with speculation and second-level evidence to piece together the past. 

Significant parts of the book are devoted to the story of human evolution and to the research of language in other primates. These are like subplots and do much to make the book more fascinating.

Johansson’s writing is refreshingly honest, and he shares with the reader his own curiosity and intellectual journey in trying to find an answer to the question of the origin of language.

There is a lot of material in this book, and I would suggest it deserves more than one reading, and I look forward to re-reading this book in the fullness of time.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson

Ballarat Writers Inc Book Review Group

Review copy supplied by the publisher