REVIEW OF Aitchison The Seeds of Speech

The Seeds of Speech
by Jean Aitchison,
Cambridge University Press, 1996.

James R Hurford,
Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit,
Linguistics Department, University of Edinburgh

(This review appeared in Quarterly Review of Biology.)

Jean Aitchison is best known as an excellent writer of books popularizing various aspects of linguistics, especially psycholinguistics and historical linguistics. Here, in 220 pages of main text, she excels even her own previous best in terms of lively, imaginative, well crafted expository prose aimed at the `educated layperson', or, more likely, the beginning college undergraduate interested in (or taking a course on!) the broad topic of the origins and evolution of human language. With her own background of scholarly research into language development in children, pidgin languages, and historical linguistics, she is well placed to write such a book. And, fittingly for someone the title of whose chair includes `communication', she writes at a brilliantly sustained chatty level about matters of considerable mystery and abstraction.

The flavour, including many quotations from nursery rhymes and children's books, may not be to everybody's liking, but in my view this book ranks with champion popularizations such as Pinker's The Language Instinct and Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. Where Aitchison differs from these authors is that they both had an axe to grind, a view to which they wished to convert their readers. The Seeds of Speech is not a proselytizing book in the same sense, except that it attempts, as any popular book must, to convince the reader of the interestingness of its topic. Jean Aitchison tends to present both sides of popular dichotomies (with characteristic snappy labels like ``Rabbit-out-of-a-hat'') and conclude that the truth is somewhere in between them.

The book covers a lot of the crucial ground for any course in the origins and evolution of language, drawn from anthropology. psycholinguistics, structural linguistics, primatology, evolutionary theory and ethology. I would not use it as the main text in any university course, as it inevitably stays at a rather superficial level. But I will recommend it to students as pre-course, or bedtime informal, reading, as it has a way of introducing central theoretical and empirical issues simply and clearly, from which one can hope to build by more advanced study.