Leafing through book catalogues lately, I was struck by the clotting up of titles about language origins. There is, for example, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language by Christine Kenneally. Then there is The Origin of Meaning: Language in the Light of Evolution by James Hurford. And then we have Language, Consciousness, Culture: Essays on Mental Structure by Ray Jackendoff, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body by Steven Mithen, and Why We Talk: The Evolutionary Origins of Language by Jean-Louis Dessalles and James Grieve.
Of course, people have been writing about the mysterious origins of language for centuries. But the more we think we know, the more we seem to act as if sheer quantity alone will solve the puzzle. Studies on the topic are now multiplying faster than most mortals could possibly read them. The five books just mentioned were all published in 2007, and the list would grow even longer were I to include Australian Aboriginal Words in English: Their Origin and Meaning and other such monographs. But you get the point: We seem unable to stop gabbing on about why we have the gift of gab.
Personally, I blame Rousseau for this. He wasn’t the first writer on the subject, but such was his prestige that no sooner had he penned his “Essay on the Origin of Languages” in 1781 than—voilà!—yet another vexatious intellectual craze was born. As you would expect, the esteemed Citizen of Geneva believed that speech originated not in concepts but in emotions, a claim swiftly contested by philosophes of a more rational cast of mind.
Mercifully, the mania to investigate the origins of language proved much more benign than that other pesky Rousseauian enthusiasm, the one for equality. So far as I know, not a single linguist earned an appointment with Madame Guillotine as a result of his lucubrations. And yet by 1866, the number of tendentious papers had gotten so out of hand that the Circle of Linguistics in Paris decided it would be in the public interest to ban submissions on the topic. In our free-wheeling First Amendment times, it is hard to imagine a philological body of note issuing a similar injunction. Fiat loquacitas, ruat coelum. But The Singing Neanderthals? Australian Aboriginal Words in English? Isn’t it past time for a new moratorium?
Not according to that contemporary measure of all things: the market. If publishers put forth so many books on language...