English edition of ‘Dawn’, by Rik Smits

“Morgan Kavanagh was a man on a mission to whom nobody would listen. Yet he had solved one of the greatest mysteries in human history, or so he thought. Buried deep down in ancient myths, he had discovered the divine origins of human language and thought.”


This is the start of the book Dawn: How language made man. The book sets out to uncover what lies at the origins of human language. How did it come about in our brains in the first place?

Good question. Can’t wait to find out.

(If you’re wondering, shouldn’t I already know the answer to that, being a linguist and all? Nou … it’s not really a topic that comes up much in corpus studies.)

Anyway: the book is by the linguist and journalist Rik Smits. It was published in Dutch under the name Dageraad: Hoe taal de mens maakte, and I’m currently editing the English version. It’s rare that I’m dying to get to the end of an editing job just to find out what happens. Chapter 7 and counting …

The English edition will be out next year, then you can all find out too. In the meantime, here’s a teaser by the Dutch Foundation for Literature [spoiler alert]:

How did the human ability to communicate through language arise? Unlike insects and animals we all command one or more unique tongues, each with its own variants, adding up to billions of words worldwide. In Dawn Rik Smits presents a challenging vision of a subject that has not yet been fully researched.

Smits’ view is that language cannot initially have arisen as a system of communication. Indeed, from an evolutionary perspective, everything suggests otherwise. Language, he claims, is a product of the integration of capacities each of which evolved for its own reasons. Man is one of nature’s most vulnerable creatures, and the only substitute for strength is wisdom. We are unique in being able to aim and throw accurately. Our skills at calculation and estimation developed until they were sufficient to accommodate a system as complex as grammar.

Only after our linguistic ability emerged could we think logically and share our reasoning with others, at which point almost everything we now call culture took off at a great rate. Smits concludes that language cannot have long predated the invention of agriculture in the Middle East, some 14,000 years ago. This huge advance in civilization made abstract powers of reasoning indispensable for the first time, along with highly developed concepts of identity, past, present and future, all of which rely upon language.

Smits’ explanation of the origins of language throws new light on cave paintings by Cro-Magnon man, whose masterpieces of 40,000 to 15,000 years ago have been found at Altamira, Lascaux and elsewhere. Anatomically Cro-Magnons were modern humans, but they had no language in the modern sense. Their minds were so fundamentally different from ours that we would have had difficulty making ourselves understood to them. They certainly could not have conversed with us; they had no gods or religion comparable to ours and probably no real sense of eroticism. These things dawned later, as a result of the wonderful, accidental by-product of evolution known as language.


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