Nancy Sherer reviews...
The Symbolic Species
" it makes no sense to ask what kind of a word a laugh is, whether a sob is expressed in past or present tense, or if a sequence of facial gestures is correctly stated."
The Symbolic Species, a scholarly philosophical and scientific discussion of linguistics, is an unlikely place to find poetry, yet Terrence Deacon deftly weaves it into his prosaic examination of language and symbolism. Deacon writes about a complex subject with methodical, sometimes tedious, attention to detail, but when he wants to clarify a point, his language becomes poignant.
Deacon scrutinizes many linguistic premises and carefully builds his case before he states his theory. This way of presenting information, while confusing, led to my making several startling conclusions of my own. One of my epiphanies was based on Deacon's acceptance as true the notion that language acquisition begins in a child's second year. Because of this, he is left with the same problem that always mystifies linguists- how can children build a vocabulary, then organize it into grammar?
However, Deacon's work is thorough enough that readers have the tools to discern the fascinating truth for themselves. While Deacon contends that symbolic language itself holds the key to how humans acquire language, readers who observes infant behavior can draw the final logical conclusion for themselves. However, his point that human language is inextricable from symbolic thought is well made.
This isn't a book you can read on a the beach during summer break. Often, it reads like a textbook, but it is worth treating like a textbook. In addition to his insights, you will add many of your own. You should read this book at least twice, with highlighter and notebook at hand. Sometimes tedious, often delightful, it offers the thrill that only comes from learning something you never thought about before.
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|The Symbolic Species
Terrence W. Deacon
W.W. Norton & Company
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