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Language in Prehistory
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For ninety per cent of our history, humans have lived as ‘hunters and gatherers’, and for most of this time as talking individuals. No direct evidence for
the origin and evolution of language exists; we do not even know if early
humans had language, either spoken or signed. Taking an anthropological
perspective, Alan Barnard acknowledges this diffi culty and argues that we
can nevertheless infer a great deal about our linguistic past from what is
around us in the present. Hunter-gatherers still inhabit much of the world, and
in suffi cient number to enable us to study the ways in which they speak, the
many languages they use and what they use them for. Far from ‘primitive’,
they are linguistically very sophisticated, possessing extraordinarily large
vocabularies and highly evolved languages of great grammatical complexity.
Barnard investigates the lives of hunter-gatherers by understanding them
in their own terms. How do they, as non-literate people, perceive language?
What do they use it for? Do they have no knowledge of grammar, or have they
got so much grammatical sense that they delight in playing games with it?
Exploring these and other fascinating questions, the book will be welcomed
by all those interested in the evolution of language.
Alan Barnard is Professor of the Anthropology of Southern Africa in the
University of Edinburgh, where he has taught since 1978. He has undertaken
ethnographic research with hunter-gatherers in Botswana, Namibia and South
Africa. He participated in the British Academy Centenary Research Project
‘From Lucy to Language: The Archaeology of the Social Brain’. In 2010 he
was elected a fellow of the British Academy, and he serves as an Honorary
Consul of the Republic of Namibia. His numerous publications include Social
Anthropology and Human Origins (2011) and Genesis of Symbolic Thought
(2012), and this volume completes his series on human origins.
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