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Speak, A Short History of Languages (Englisch) Gebundene Ausgabe – 14. März 2002

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Tore Janson is a Swedish linguistic scholar who has studied and worked much in the USA. To the surprise of the sceptical, he manages to make the history of language interesting in Speak, a well written and solidly researched little book. He begins with a study of the most basic communication skills, proceeds to theorise how language developed and then traces written language and the fascinating family tree of linguistic development down through history and around the world to the present day pre-eminence of English. The book is complete with six maps tracing world linguistic development as well as helpful tables and charts that compare languages. Anyone who has taken an interest in language or has seriously tried to learn a foreign language will be interested.

Maybe Oxford University Press have published Speak in an attempt to cash in on the ongoing enthusiasm for JRR Tolkien, philologist and Oxford don, by making linguistic history interesting and available to a wide audience. However, readers should not be deceived by the attractive cover, catchy title and small format. This is a serious, detailed study that will require some effort. That effort will be rewarded though with a greater appreciation and understanding for the unique human gift of language. --Dwight Longenecker


[Janson's] English style is neat and clear, and overall, this book can hardly be praised too highly. Roger Wright, University of Liverpool, Diachronica ... new ideas and insights are constantly emerging even in the narrative of well-estabished facts ... controversial topics are often presented from both sides, and when [Janson] makes a decision to come down on one side of an argument it is the result of careful thought. Roger Wright, University of Liverpool, Diachronica [Janson] is particularly good at seeing what the most important and relevant questions are, and then presenting them clearly. Roger Wright, University of Liverpool, Diachronica A synthesis of the whole of linguistic history is remarkable enough in itself, but to have made it generally accessible to an educated non-specialist public is a real achievement. Roger Wright, University of Liverpool, Diachronica I like Tore Janson's book very much, and can see why the original Swedish version has been a best-seller. He has translated it himself, and writes with authority and clarity on a topic which has rarely, if ever, been presented in such a wide and coherent perspective. Roger Wright, University of Liverpool, Diachronica This is a book written to popularize some key ideas about the history of languages ... it accomplishes its task in a very elegant and living way. To read Janson's book was an enjoyable activity, mainly because of his ability to put together historical data and illuminating comments about language. Linguist List Janson proves that the general reader can be informed, entertained and treated like an adult. Jonathan Patrick, The Scotsman Tore Janson certainly knows his stuff. Keith Waterhouse, Daily Mail Don't be deceived by the small format, the catchy title, or the attractive cover - this is a serious work, which will pay close attention.of the development and transformation of languages. Tore Janson manages to make the history of language interesting in Speak a well written and solidly researched little book. This is a serious, detailed study that will require some effort. That effort will be rewarded though with a greater appreciation and understanding for the unique human gift of language. Dwight Longenecker,

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From Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the reader may infer that Adam was able to speak as soon as he had been created, for he was given a task at once: "And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof." Lesen Sie die erste Seite
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11 von 11 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Good overview of the history of some languages 4. Februar 2006
Von A. Courie - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Taschenbuch
Tore Janson's "Speak" is a succinct, readable overview of the history of languages, focusing primarily on English and Western languages. This is a well-written, informative book.

Janson starts by giving a brief overview of the development of languages, including mentioning one of his major themes of the book - a language is only a language if its speakers recognize it as such. He then traces the history of the Mesopotamian languages, Greek, Latin, and then the modern European languages, finally devoting a chapter to English's current dominance in the world. Finally, Janson concludes with a short chapter on the possible future development of languages.

John McWhorter's "Power of Babel" is the only comparable book that I have read. McWhorter is a little more entertaining and explains the actual dynamics of language change better, but Janson's story is more structured, linear and complete.

This book is a good overview of the history of language for a layman.
19 von 22 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Not what I thought it would be 5. November 2004
Von C. Goss - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Taschenbuch
Don't get me wrong -- the book has merits (probably the biggest of which is limited competition) but on the whole I don't think this is a book I'll be rereading.

Janson gives a 200 page overview of the history of (selected!) languages. For an academ, the writing is pretty unimpressive and some of the generalizations vague and seemingly contradictory in places. Often times he will insert a philosohical discussion of language (what IS a language?) in the middle of a historical analysis, which strikes me as odd and ineffective.

That said, the book has a couple of interesting ideas in addition to a very generous section on suggestions for further reading.

If you are interested in an introductory overview of the history of languages this book, for the time being, seems to be the only opition out there. I just wish there were a better one.
6 von 7 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Suffers from bad writing 15. Mai 2006
Von Richard Webner - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
In "Speak," Tore Janson presents the history of some of the world's most influential languages, such as English, French, Greek and Latin. Contrasting these examples with other less successful languages, he explains what makes or breaks a language. Power, culture, and writing, Janson says, shape language development.

He also discusses how languages are created and destroyed. He devotes a particularly interesting chapter to the formation of pidgin and creole tongues, and another to "language death." He explains why English is replacing languages such as those of Native Americans, and what implications this has.

Janson has many interesting things to say about the relationship between languages and nations. His theories help explain the state of the world's languages today.

Unfortunately, this book suffers from bad writing, or perhaps a bad translation. Janson uses cliches like "at this point" and "in summary" too often, and sometimes generalizes by saying "everyone knows" or the like. It often seems as if his words were translated literally, with no regard to typical English sentence structure or diction. This makes for some awkward sentences and word choices. For example, the words "thirdly" and "fourthly" are used on the page before me.

Also, as another reviewer mentioned, he sometimes wanders and repeats himself.

This is unfortunate, because Janson is clearly very knowledgeable and has many fascinating things to say. If "Speak" were better written I would give it five stars. Still, it is good for getting some basic linguistic knowledge.
1 von 1 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
An important subject of human evolution and history 17. August 2007
Von Luis Mansilla - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Taschenbuch
Fantastic!. I have had the opportunity to deal with people from different nationalities, from India, China/Taiwan, Great Britain/USA, France and Brasil and by obvious reasons you learn a little bit about those languages, noticing the marked pronunciations and accents, that makes you wonder about the nature of any specific language. This entertaining book provide insights about how language is created, evolve into others forms and sometimes how they cease to exist. There are reference to mostly all languages and it was fascinating to know little aspects of Africa's languages, the evolution of latin into the romance languages and the story of English.

Spanish is my first language and when comparing it with portuguese there is no much difference in the writing -- portuguese is like castilian but badly written (with all due respect) -- the major difference is in the phonetic, so everytime I need to speak to someone portuguese, we ended up speaking english to better understand each other. English is my second language and I think this language have some advantages compared to other languages, for example, most of the books written by the best scholars and scientists come in English so in my case it was important to know this language in order to read this great book and other books that are only published in English.
1 von 1 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Dante's Dream 25. August 2007
Von David Ludden - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Taschenbuch
A Venezuelan and a Brazilian are seated next to each other on an airplane, and the two manage to make small talk for the duration of the flight, even though they claim to speak different languages. Likewise, a person from Shanghai and another from Hong Kong are seated next to each other but cannot make themselves understood, even though they both claim to speak Chinese. Common sense suggests that two people speak the same language if they can communicate with each other and different languages if they cannot. However, linguist Tore Janson, in his 2002 book "Speak: A Short History of Languages," maintains that mutually intelligibility is not the best test of whether two modes of speech are the same or different languages. Rather, the key is the speakers' own attitudes about the language they use.

For most of human history, people lived in small, isolated groups, and each group had its own identity and language. Some parts of the world, such as Amazonia, the Australian outback and Papua New Guinea, are still like this. However, with the introduction of agriculture between five and ten thousand years ago, we see the rise of nation-states unifying millions of people with a single language. Thus, although the human population has been expanding exponentially, the number of different languages spoken is actually decreasing.

This has been the general trend for at least the last three thousand years. However, there are exceptions. For example, during the height of the Roman Empire, Latin was the native language of millions of people across Europe and around the Mediterranean. A Roman citizen in Gallia could easily converse with a fellow citizen in Italia. However, when the empire fell apart, local speech patterns began to diverge from the Roman norm. At first, people in these regions considered themselves to be speaking Latin, even though they were finding it harder to understand those who came from some distance. They did not start thinking of themselves as speakers of French or Italian until the modern nation-states began to coalesce from the ruins of the Roman Empire a millennium later. Thus, although the evolution from Latin into the various Romance languages was gradual, we can point to a time when people stopped thinking of themselves as Latin speakers and starting thinking of themselves as speakers of French or Italian.

Janson points out two factors in particular that drive linguist unification. One source of linguistic unity is a strong central government. The Roman Empire was linguistically homogeneous, but when it fell, the language splintered into hundreds of local dialects. Later, these dialects regrouped around new political centers. Over the last few centuries, the dialects within the borders of each of the Europe nation-states have been gradually merging towards the central standard forms. Another source of linguistic unity is a single writing system. China provides the classic example of this. Although Chinese is composed of dozens of mutually unintelligible "dialects," all of them are written in the same graphic system. This fact contributes greatly to the general sense that Chinese is a single language rather than a language group.

In recent years, there has been much ado within linguistic circles about the plight of indigenous languages. Some linguists have gone so far as to equate the severity of "language death" with the loss of biodiversity. But to Janson, expressions like "language death" and "loss of linguistic diversity" are hyperbole. He points out that when languages die, it is not because their speakers die but rather because they choose not to pass on their native language to their children. This is the typical case when immigrants are allowed to integrate into the new society, and it is also the case when some other language is politically ascendant. Thus, Janson prefers to talk about "language shift" rather than "language death." In Janson's view, fretting about loss of linguistic diversity is pointless, and anyway there is little we can do about it. After all, linguistic unification has been the general trend for three millennia.

Today, there are perhaps a dozen languages with more than a hundred million speakers and that play a major role in international communication. Among these, Chinese (Mandarin dialect) has the most native speakers, but English has even more if we count those who speak it as a second language. The rise of English as a global language is due largely to the fact that, over the last two centuries, the two global superpowers (first Great Britain and then the United States) both spoke English. Something like a quarter of the world's population can communicate in English, which is an unprecedented event in world history.

In addition, the fact that English is the first language of a number of different countries makes it appealing as a common language for international communication. This is because English is no longer tied to the culture of a single country. Rather, the language has shown remarkable adaptability to local needs, so that nowadays we can talk about "world Englishes"--Indian English, Singaporean English, and so on.

Janson concurs with other linguists, such as David Crystal, that it is inevitable that English will eventually break up into mutually unintelligible dialects as speakers assert their local group identities. This may be true, but Janson may also be forgetting the two factors that drive linguistic unification, political centrality and a common medium of long-distance communication. If the general trend over the last three thousand years has been toward greater political and linguistic unity, why should we suppose that the current political layout will remain as it is over then next few centuries? For example, the development of the European Union after World War II is evidence of growing supra-national sentiment, at least in that region of the globe. Furthermore, the advent of instant worldwide communication is bound to have a linguistically unifying effect.

In the chapter "Did Dante Write in Italian?" Janson relates Dante's efforts to create a standardized Italian language as well as his aspirations for a unified Italian state. Linguist unity in Italy came first, largely built on Dante's model. It was not for another five centuries, though, that Dante's dream of political unification was realized. Here at the start of the twenty-first century, we live in a world divided both politically and linguistically. However, as in the Italian case, there is a trend toward linguistic unification. Is it just a pipe dream, then, to aspire to a time when all people, united linguistically, think of themselves as citizens of the world?
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