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The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue Paperback – August 15, 1996

ISBN-13: 978-0471159636 ISBN-10: 0471159638

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley (August 15, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471159638
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471159636
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #687,785 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

As a sophomore in college, I desperately wanted to major in theoretical linguistics, but I knew only three languages, and I was advised that this was insufficient for the major. Things might have been different if this book were available then: unlike most books about language evolution, Ruhlen's Origin of Language actually gets you involved in applying standard linguistic techniques to carefully chosen examples--by the end of the book, you will have constructed a family tree of the world's languages. And you needn't know any other than your mother tongue when you start, but you'll probably want to go out and learn several more languages by time you are done. Recommended.

From Library Journal

The study of linguistics has always been a good guidepost to research and studies in the other social sciences and humanities. Ruhlen (A Guide to the World's Languages, Stanford Univ. Pr., 1987) is a leader in the new attempt to write a unified theory of language development and diffusion. Starting with a do-it-yourself classification of language, he makes the case for one early language, using Joseph Greenberg's study of Native American languages as the key methodology in the reevaluation. He also cites the evidence in many fields pointing to an African development and then diffusion of Homo sapiens. An argumentative, controversial book but strongly reasoned and presented. Ruhlen explains the relationship among genetics, archaeology, and linguistic classification as an important new development in the study of prehistory and discusses the questions of the dating of early settlements in the Americas and Europe and the Banty Expansion. For informed lay readers.
Gene Shaw, NYPL
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

This book begins helping one crack open the mysteries of our past.
loohoo
Ruhlen's position is not wholly untenable, but beware of regarding it as the best currently available; the consensus is that it is dubious.
Mark Newbrook
All in all, it is a good book to read to get a different take on the story of language.
Michael Kumpf

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

95 of 111 people found the following review helpful By Brian Tung on March 17, 1998
Format: Paperback
When the Tower of Babel was being constructed, so the story goes, God was so incensed at the presumption of humans that he condemned them to speak a multitude of tongues. Ever since then, we've often needed translators to speak to each other, and imperfectly at that. Many are the battles fought because of misunderstandings caused by language differences.
Merritt Ruhlen has a different take on the language schism. In his book, called *The Origin of Language*, appropriately enough, he explains the theory that all of today's languages had a common origin, many thousands of years ago, and that linguistic drift accounts for all the differences we see today.
The way that he arrives at this point is fascinating. He allows the reader to play along in the linguistics game, providing sample words that work nicely to group languages together in ever larger categories, until they all tie together in one world glotknot. It's all so obvious that you can't believe that anyone could think differently.
Of course people think differently. In fact, a lot of linguists (Eric Hamp at the University of Chicago, for one) think differently. Many of them think that Ruhlen and his sometime mentor, Joseph Greenberg, are kind of nuts. For one thing, picking ten words at a time to group languages together is a risky endeavor. Even if Ruhlen believes he picked the ten words at random, you can't get around the fact that Ruhlen *knows* what conclusion he wants to reach, and that could taint the whole process. Anecdotal evidence is a notoriously bad way to come up with general theories.
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74 of 89 people found the following review helpful By Robert L. Trask on September 18, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is not a book about comparative linguistics. Instead, it is a book devoted to Ruhlen's personal fantasies.
Comparative linguistics, like all linguistics, and indeed like all serious scholarly work, is done by applying rigorous and scrupulous methods to carefully obtained data. The right way of doing comparative linguistics was worked out only at the end of the 18th century, and it has been developed and refined ever since.
Before that time, people had no idea how to compare languages, and they worked wholly in the dark. Their favored "method" was nothing more than the assembly of miscellaneous resemblances among miscellaneous languages, in the hope that this might shed light on language origins. But it didn't, and it doesn't: miscellaneous resemblances are meaningless and worthless, as has been amply demonstrated countless times. See any decent textbook of historical linguistics.
But this Dark Age procedure is exactly what Ruhlen wants his readers to accept, believe in, and follow. Ruhlen shows no understanding of the numerous and serious obstacles to the comparison of languages, and no understanding of the formidable pitfalls that must be avoided if useful work is to be done.
In place of rigor, Ruhlen offers us only lists of miscellaneous resemblances, which, like the forlorn scholars of the past, he wants us to take seriously, and to use as the sole basis for spectacular conclusions.
Worse, Ruhlen wants his eager readers to believe that they too can do serious work in linguistics: "Don't believe the blinkered professionals when they tell you that good work requires years of training and experience, or that it requires a comprehensive knowledge of the languages you want to compare.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By John Duncan on January 31, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book, not be confused with the same author's "On the origin of languages", which is a far more technical work on a similar theme directed towards professionals, is intended for the general reader, and is easy to read. Far too easy, some may think, as it is a book that enrages many (nearly all, in fact) professional linguists, who consider his methods to be worthless and his conclusions nonsense.

Merritt Ruhlen not only believes that all human languages have a common origin, a reasonable enough hypothesis as long as one takes it no further, but he also goes much further, arguing that the common origin can be demonstrated and that it is obvious enough to be recognized in similarities that exist in modern languages. He presents various examples, but one is enough to illustrate the basic point: he reports that the words for water, in five of twelve language families that are normally considered to have no discernable relationship with one another, are (omitting diacritics and some other complications) "ka", "akwa", "okhwa", "akwa" and, again, "akwa". By restricting himself to words like "water", "two", "finger" etc., that have been part of human experience since the earliest times, and are not very likely to be borrowed from other languages, Ruhlen tries to avoid the danger that the similarities result from borrowing. It would hardly do to use words like "telephone" that are similar in many languages simply because the thing itself is something that has been transferred from one culture to another in recent times.
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