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“A model of popular-science writing” STEVEN POOLE

“Magisterial . . . [A] detective story of the deep past” Telegraph

Who was “the first speaker” and what was their first message?

An erudite, tightly woven and beautifully written account of one of humanity’s greatest mysteries – the origins of language.

Drawing on evidence from many fields, including archaeology, anthropology, neurology and linguistics, Sverker Johansson weaves these disparate threads together to show how our human ancestors evolved into language users. The Dawn of Language provides a fascinating survey of how grammar came into being and the differences or similarities between languages spoken around the world, before exploring how language eventually emerged in the very remote human past.

Our intellectual and physiological changes through the process of evolution both have a bearing on our ability to acquire language. But to what extent is the evolution of language dependent on genes, or on environment? How has language evolved further, and how is it changing now, in the process of globalisation? And which aspects of language ensure that robots are not yet intelligent enough to reconstruct how language has evolved?

Johansson’s far-reaching, authoritative and research-based approach to language is brought to life through dozens of astonishing examples, both human and animal, in a fascinatingly erudite and entertaining volume for anyone who has ever contemplated not just why we speak the way we do, but why we speak at all.

Translated from the Swedish by Frank Perry


Popular science of the highest order. All the necessary ingredients are there: a well-read author, an educational mindset and good, fluent prose.
Svenska Dagbladet
A formidable educational journey . . . This is the book the linguists have needed for so long.
Johansson writes with enthusiasm and a desire to impart his knowledge . . . The delight is contagious.
A fascinating overview of human language
An elegant intellectual thriller . . . A model of popular-science writing in its imperturbable, reasonable weighing of competing ideas . . . [A] fascinating story in its own right
Steven Poole, Guardian
Women are central to the story of how humans began to use language, at least according to the fascinating hypothesis advanced by Swedish scientist Sverker Johansson in his magisterial The Dawn of Language . . . but there are many other twists and turns in this detective story of the deep past.