Monday, 28 April 2003

Finished the List!

Listening to:

Mozart, mass in C major, K. 167 “In Honorem SS:mae Trinitatis”.

Just read:

Philip Lieberman, Eve spoke: human language and human evolution.

This is an interesting popular science work about the evolution of humanity's linguistic skills. I enjoyed reading it, and think it's probably pretty accurate. On the other hand, I was a little disconcerted by Lieberman's readiness to be very critical of opposing theories. He conscientiously identifies the proponents of these theories too, which makes his tone sound even more personal. He particularly targets three groups: those that claim that homo sapiens arose separately in different regions around the world, those that claim that Neanderthals were able to speak as well as homo sapiens, and Noam Chomsky and his followers (among whom he identifies Steven Pinker and Jerry Fodor).

The second argument is argued best. Neanderthal skulls make it clear that Neanderthal vocal tracts can't have been anything like human ones, and that they wouldn't have been able to produce the same important vowel sounds as humans (core vowel sounds that occur in every human language). Humans are unique in the arrangement of their larynxes, giving homo sapiens unique levels of control over vocalisations. This same unique factor makes humans the only species liable to choke on their food, suggesting there was significant selection pressure for the evolution of language skills regardless.

Lieberman is also clear that it's reasonable to suppose that other ancestral species would have had some level of language skills, just as they probably had tool-making skills. He cites the modern experiments with chimpanzees and other apes in support of this. Chimpanzees can be imparted with the language skills of human two year olds, which is a lot more than most people wanting to believe in human uniqueness might like to hear, but which is still very limited. (How many meaningful conversations have you ever had with a two year old?) Chimpanzees aren't an ancestral species of course, but our common ancestor probably did have common capabilities.

It's a reflection of this book's occasionally bitty nature, that it also fits in discussion of brain structure and the effects of brain damage on language ability, including that wrought by Parkinson's disease. This is also very interesting, though not as new to me as the material on Neanderthals.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of maladies.

This is an impressive collection of nine beautifully written short stories (it apparently won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000). Lahiri grew up in America, but is the child of immigrant Indian parents, and her stories all have an Indian “aspect” to them. Some stories are set in India, others feature Indian emigrants to the US. I think the first story in the collection is relatively weak because it finishes with what I thought was a stereotypical “short story twist”. The twist wasn't unbelievable, and it made for a very effective denouement, but I still felt tricked.

Most of the stories have fairly downbeat endings, but their elegant narratives present moving vignettes of life. I particularly liked the two stories featuring child narrators, the story about the (non-Indian) woman having an affair with a married Indian man, the last story about a young, newly married man emigrating to Boston, the story about the stair-sweeper, and the story about the Hindi couple who keep discovering naff Christian “stuff” (posters, statuettes, knick-knacks) in their new home, left there by previous owners. That's six out of nine, and none of the other three (despite what I wrote about #1 above) is bad. So, definitely a strong recommendation.

To read next:

Well, good question, because I'm pleased to announce that I have now finished the List! Is that amazing or what? I can now freely buy books again. But, never one to miss an opportunity to devise silly regulations for the conduct of my life, I have devised two new rules:

  1. Never allow a back-log of greater than five books.
  2. For every every five books that I read, I have to add a book that I have already read to the list of things to be read.

The reason for the second rule is that it's foolish to buy books if you only ever read them once, which is pretty likely if you're buying books too quickly.